The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing Early Church Tradition

  • C. Thomas Oden
  • Oct 5, 2011
  • Series: Volume 14 - 2011
Bookcover-AfricanMemory

Oden, C. Thomas, The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing Early Church Tradition. Downers Grove, IL; Intervarsity Press, 2011. Pp.7-279, including bibliography and index. Paper back, $ 22.00. ISBN: 978-0-8308-3933-9.

By deliberately stepping out of the Western academic view of the historical accounts of Mark, Thomas C. Oden has made a significant contribution to African Christianity and also the world. This book about Mark and his foundational contributions to church planting, discipleship, writing the first gospel, his martyrdom, all of which inspired so many African Christians throughout the generations, even to this day, was launched from African memory of Mark. By doing so, Oden confirms that if one has roots in Africa and has done significant contribution to the society, the memory of the person will last centuries.

What does Oden mean by the term African memory? As Oden rightly defines it, “The African memory is the characteristic way of looking at history from within the special experience and outlook of the continent of Africa” (Pg.27). Memory, according to Oden’s definition, encompasses two thousand-year-long history, long-shared tradition of intellectual vitality, extensive literary fruits over many centuries and astonishing history of textual output. African memory is not mere oral tradition that cannot be tested within the bar of reason. “It takes into account the full weight of cumulative evidences coming out of African continent over the length of centuries, including evidences from archaeology, epigraphic and literary sources, as well as oral traditions and stories of the saints” (Pg. 29). Hence, African memory is not totally divorced from academic rigor; it is just a different approach.

Despite differences in theological persuasions between the Coptic, Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal churches in Africa, the memory of Mark is a linchpin that brings unity among African believers. All of them are in basic agreement that Mark was the first apostle to Africa. His birth place was in Cyrene; Pentapolis, in Libya. And he was born somewhere between 5-15 AD.  This gives Africans a great sense of identity. The fact that Jesus had the last supper and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit happened at the house of Mary, the mother of Mark, extends the root of African Christianity way beyond the nineteenth century Western missionary endeavor in Africa. If this is the case, why has Western scholarship failed to recognize the historical, missiological, cultural facts that connect Mark as African and link him to the African church right from its inception? 

Oden provides the answer by showing the prejudice and bias of Western scholarship that has failed to recognize not only Mark, but also Augustine who grew up in Numidia, Athanasius who was born and bred in Egypt, Tertullian, and Cyprian. The valuable contribution of these scholars of the early Christian centuries is widely recognized in world Christian history. However, their status as genuine Africans is shrouded and still debated in some circles for odd reasons. For Africans, who are concrete relational in their thinking, who learn as much from examples/models of Christian icons as from theory/theology, the bias of the West has significant implications. The bias means that Africans cannot claim and embrace “their own great heroes and minds and saints, such as Paschomius who contributed so much to the history of prayer and the life of holy living, and Perpetua, the mother with child who set the standard for Christian witness unto death not only in Africa but in the ecumenical community of faith. This bias was wrongly dishonored the Africans of the Libyan-born Synesius and the Numidian-born Monica” (Pg.31).

For Africans, the Mediterranean world of the first century culture, the dyadic personality of the people, the honor-shame values, collective mentality, and peasant and preindustrial societies are more relevant than the modern and post-modern West. The theology that was built in the first century Africa and Mediterranean cultural context is more appealing to them than the theology of Bultmann or Karl Barth. By viewing Mark as the first apostle to Africa and recognizing his contribution to African Christianity from an African point of view; and by identifying all prominent African theologians, church historians, pietists, and church leaders; Oden is uncovering the African intellectual Christian tradition that began in Africa and connects to Jerusalem. Mark and the prominent first-century African intellectuals stated above are the bedrock of African Christianity. For the African church and scholars, reaffirming these theological and historical roots, and reinforcing cultural identification, will be one of the best effective medicines that Oden contributes to the “Theological Identity Crisis” of Africans that the late Kwame Bediako addressed in his magnum opus.

Oden is not a lone voice in this daring venture. Early Christian scholars like Clement, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, Eusebius, Jerome, and John Chrysostom have asserted the succession of Apostolic Christianity, the transmission of biblical truth, the planting of the New Testament church in Africa, and its direction by the Holy Spirit, without any political manipulation of the facts.

In his book, Oden describes that Mark was the most traveled apostle, who covered all the three well- known continents in the first century. Since Mark had spent most of his youth in Cyrenaic Africa, he would have known the local Punic-Berber dialect as well as Greek. As a son of a displaced Jew from the tribe of Levi, who spent some of his younger life in Jerusalem, he would certainly have learned Aramaic and the Hebrew language to expose him to Torah. If he was well educated, he would also have some Latin. Traditions suggest that Mark is related to the apostle Peter and that he received the gospel truth from the apostle and became an instrument to the conversion of his father Aristopolus and his mother Mary. When Peter was rescued from prison by the angel, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of Mark.

As Oden states, “Mary the mother of Mark was known to be a close relative of Barnabas—depending upon the translation, either his sister or cousin or sister in-law. Thus Mark and Barnabas were bounded by: sharing deep bonds of kinship, sharing their family resources together with the disciples, sharing in their faith that Jesus Christ is Lord, and sharing a special calling from God as called and empowered by the Spirit; taking the good news of Jesus to the gentiles (Acts 15:37-39)” (p. 86). The African narrative captured an apparent convergence of biblical texts (Mark 14:14-15; Acts 1:13; 12:12):  that Mark’s mother lived in the very house where Jesus had a Passover dinner with the disciples, where the out pouring of the Holy Spirit occurred on the day of Pentecost, and where the first Christian church was born. The Messiah who claimed to have no home in this world, called his disciples for the last supper, in the house of a Jewish family who were in diaspora and whose root goes back to Africa. This has a powerful symbolic or typological significance to the African mind: “Just as Africa had given the family of Jesus a home in his childhood in flight from Herod, so now a family in flight from Africa is giving Jesus a home in the last hours before his death” (p. 92). During his infancy and in the last hours of Jesus’ life, Africa was a historical staging ground for Jesus Christ. As much as African Christianity wanted to connect to this root and develop its history and theology, the opportunities were not there. Oden has opened a path that will challenge most of us to further explore the historical, theological, and archaeological situation of early African Christianity for the enrichment of the global church.

To this end, a group of contemporary scholars are taking a new look on the scholarship and exegesis from the Nile Valley, Libya, Ethiopia and the Maghreb, to investigate why the “African memory” remembered Mark as the native founder of African Christianity, as a son of Libya, as the first Christian martyr in Africa, and as the apostolic father of every believing Christian then and now. “The evidence is stronger than is generally accredited by the older school of Euro-American historical interpreters and is ripe for a careful review. Many current scholars are now looking at this evidence in a different way from that of Harnack, Bauer and company” (p. 230). Even though the conclusive historical datum that would categorically validate the historic truth of birth and death of Mark is not forthcoming, the contemporary scholars of Mark have definitely raised questions on the previous Euro-American interpretation of history on Mark, just like Oden does here. Oden believes that the historical truth will be revealed when Alexandria is properly excavated. He thinks that the truth lies in some positions between the Western and African views.

 

Alemayehu Mekonnen, Ph.D
Associate Professor of Missions
Denver Seminary
October, 2011

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