This post presents my thoughts about the origin of the Roman congregation. It’s entirely top-of-my-head speculation, but of interest—I hope—because I’ve spent several years immersed in the Gospel of Mark and its adjacent texts. My thoughts on the origin of Mark’s congregation are consistent with the picture I paint in The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text.
Mark’s congregation was probably founded by Alexandrian emigrés to Rome. They brought Hebrews (written c. 40 CE), with its idea of a heavenly high priest (Christ). Or they brought the idea, and acquired the text of Hebrews later. Over the next two centuries and perhaps beyond they continued to import both Alexandrian scholarship and Alexandrian emigrés and visitors. Their use of the solar calendar is consistent with the source Alexandrian congregation having Essene roots. In sum, the Roman congregation should be understood as both a religious and a social gathering place for Judeans from Alexandria.
What the Gospel of Mark tells us about the congregation
The concern for the purity of the Jerusalem Temple implies that Mark’s congregation is Judean-identified (not Samaritan-identified or Gentile-identified). That is, the members see themselves as practicing a form of Judean religion. In antiquity, “the ancients viewed the world not in terms of countries with borders, but of populations with distinctive physical traits, laws (often from a famed lawgiver), customs, diets, dress, Gods, and holidays. Each people’s distinctive laws and customs tended to be connected with its unique environment. In the simplest model, everyone belonged to an ethnos and this was their primary group allegiance.”- Steve Mason, A history of the Jewish War, pp. 88-89. Mark and his congregation saw themselves as ethnic Judeans, and as Gentile practitioners/sympathizers of (the congregation’s version of) Judean religion.
Their god is YHWH. Their belief system includes Jesus, a heavenly intermediary who they understand as both the heavenly high priest (the Son of Man) and the Son of God (which had multiple possible meanings).* Their religious practices include a Eucharist, hymn-singing, prayer, and baptism. They celebrate Judean holidays like Passover and Sukkoth. Probably they observed the Sabbath/Lord’s Day. They used the Septuagint, and also other texts that are not currently canonical (e.g., Enoch literature). They had a wisdom collection (used in the Gospel of Mark) and exegetical works on Scripture.
*These meanings include but are not limited to: the Judean national messiah, a universal messiah who ushers in the Kingdom of God on earth, a personal savior, a demi-god/angel. All of these concepts can be found in the received (edited) Gospel of Mark. It’s impossible to be more specific about the congregation’s dogma or the beliefs of any individual member.
The origin of the congregation: Alexandrian emigrés
Are there extant any texts or historical information that can shed light on the origin of such a congregation in Rome?
The only extant text that contains the heavenly high priest concept (found in the Gospel of Mark) is the Letter to the Hebrews. I note that Hebrews was preserved within orthodoxy. It was even assigned to the orthodox apostle Paul, whose ideas were quite different. The only orthodox-affiliated institution in the first and second centuries that would have treasured and preserved Hebrews is the Roman congregation, Mark’s congregation. It therefore seems likely to me that Mark knew Hebrews. And other texts from that author’s congregation.
What is the origin of Hebrews? There are some internal clues. It does not refer to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, so it was written before 70 CE. (I believe that the author would not have failed to mention that event if it had occurred. He would have stressed that the event was survivable, as his sect had already understood that the Temple was the heavenly Temple.) The author of Hebrews is a highly educated Hellenistic Judean. Given that all of our evidence for Judeans prior to Mark who had a divine intermediary comes from Egypt, I think it likely that this text was written in Egypt. The author is a patient pastor who encourages his flock to remain faithful. I suggest that the occasion of the letter is their discouragement by the riots and the desecration of Alexandrian synagogues in 38 CE. However, the received text of Hebrews is the product of the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore must have been extensively edited and supplemented. And therefore my inferences from the text are speculative.
What were the beliefs and origin of the congregation of Hebrews? They were Alexandrian believers in a divine intermediary, a heavenly high priest (anointed one/Christ). Whether he was named “Jesus” or not. (The name in the text of Hebrews could have been easily edited later in Rome to conform to the Roman congregation’s use of “Jesus” as the name of the divine intermediary.). Obviously the Alexandrians were not Pharisees. Their thought came out of an Alexandrian Judean tradition. The pastor’s tone, his expectation that his audience would be persuaded by Scriptural references, suggests that the congregation of Hebrews was a sort of lay branch of the Essenes.
I suggest that some Alexandrian Judeans influenced by that congregation or thought tradition emigrated to Rome in the early/mid first century. They needed a gathering place of their own. I suggest that they established a synagogue. This Roman congregation observed a solar calendar (like the Roman calendar, therefore incidentally lowering the barrier to entry by Gentile sympathizers). (The Roman congregation defended their long-used solar calendar in the Quartodeciman controversy in the mid-second-century.) As the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls sectarians were the only Judean sects we know of that had a solar calendar, it is likely that the Alexandrians who established Mark’s congregation had Essene roots.
Years later (50s? 60s? 70s? CE) Mark joined this congregation. Mark was well-educated in Scripture, which suggests that he had grown up in a more Judean environment than Rome. I suspect that he too was from Alexandria. As were most if not all of the Judean members. (Of course there were also clients, freedmen and freedwomen, and slaves, many of whom were not Judean or Alexandrian.)
By Mark’s time, the Roman congregation of mainly Alexandrians had given the name “Jesus” to the heavenly high priest/divine intermediary. They (or the texts they studied) had produced scholarship that placed this heavenly figure in scenarios such as being mocked and being pierced. Mark dramatized these scenarios when he wrote a play in which the heavenly protagonist, Jesus, comes to earth on a mission to die and rise.
We cannot know what the Roman congregation thought of the play. Were they comfortable having their Jesus figure in a play, explicitly modeled on other dying-and-rising gods/angels? Did they think the play was in bad taste, or inappropriate? How closely did the ritual elements in the play track their own performed rituals? I can only say that they accepted the play as a secular entertainment with a single performance. (They had to; the play was produced by the congregation’s Gentile benefactor, Flavia Domitilla.) The play’s ‘welcome to the Gentiles,’ in particular, may have been an exaggeration of their doctrine, but was acceptable in the context of flattering the benefactor.
I think that the congregation remained a gathering place for well-to-do Judeans from Alexandria for many decades. People join religious groups for social as well as religious reasons, and well-to-do Alexandrians would have wanted to meet Greek-speaking Judeans they could dine with, particularly those from the old country. (Note that well-to-do Judeans from Judea and Syria came from less-Hellenized environments, and spoke Aramaic.) In addition, the congregation had the attraction of its historical political connections to the Flavian family.
I believe Hebrews was preserved in the Roman congregation. In the New Testament, only Hebrews and the Gospel of Mark see Jesus as the heavenly high priest. Hebrews gave context to Mark’s concept of Jesus.
I think the stream of Alexandrian emigrés to Rome continued in the second and perhaps even third centuries. Their presence continued to infuse the congregation’s non-Jerusalem-focused Judean ethnic identity. That identity lasted much longer than the original Judean-ethnic basis of the Asian orthodox congregations that in the mid-second century provided the talent and energy that produced the New Testament. In fact, I see Mark’s congregation in the second century (and perhaps for centuries beyond) as a lonely (but rich and well-established) outlier in the orthodox world, asserting against the Paulinized Asian orthodox Christianity the continued relevance of the Judean Bible. The Roman congregation won–perhaps that was the price of their inclusion in the orthodox alliance–and that is why Catholic/Orthodox Christianity retained the Old Testament.
updated April 2, 2021