This post presents my thoughts about the pre-Markan history of his 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 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 divine intermediary, an anointed heavenly high priest (Christ). Or they brought a similar idea, and acquired the text of Hebrews later. Undoubtedly over the years they continued to import both Alexandrian scholarship and Alexandrian emigrés and visitors. This Roman congregation probably used a solar calendar from the start. (This would have made the congregation more appealing to Gentile members, as Rome also used a solar calendar.) The use of a solar calendar implies that the source Alexandrian congregation had Essene roots, as alone among Judeans, the Essenes used a solar calendar.
I do not know the origin of the name “Jesus” for Mark’s heavenly high priest. I suspect it was originated by Samaritans, then borrowed from Samaritans (Jesus/Joshua as the new Moses), probably in Rome. Why? Perhaps—perhaps—Mark’s congregation recognized the utility of a concept that allowed them to retain the Law but in a symbolic manner (as authorized by Jesus/Joshua). They were comfortable appropriating Jesus/Joshua because he belonged to both Judeans and Samaritans. Mark’s congregation may well have been the first to combine the concepts of Jesus/Joshua and Christ “anointed one in heaven.” These two concepts, of course, were used in various ways by other people over the next hundred years or so, generating various efforts to standardize them.
What the Gospel of Mark tells us
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. This concept of their identity is important because, “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/cult/worship.
Their god is YHWH. Their belief system includes Jesus, a heavenly intermediary. Their religious practices include a Eucharist, hymn-singing, prayer, and baptism. They celebrate Judean holidays. Probably they observed the Sabbath/Lord’s Day (with a meeting?). They had a wisdom collection (used in the Gospel of Mark) and exegetical works on Scripture. We can assume that their concept of “Scripture” included the Pentateuch and some of the Prophets, and also other texts that are not currently canonical (e.g., Enoch literature).
What we can infer from the above
Are there extant any texts or historical information that can shed light on the origin of such a congregation in Rome?
1. The only extant text that contains the heavenly high priest concept is the Letter to the Hebrews. I note that Hebrews was preserved within orthodoxy. It was even assigned to the orthodox apostle Paul. 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.
2. 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 do not believe that the author would have failed to mention that event if it had occurred. He would have stressed how fortunate his sect was to have already understood that the heavenly Temple was the true Temple.) The author 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. It is at least possible that they have been discouraged by the riots and the desecration of Alexandrian synagogues in 38 CE. (And Hebrews was written shortly afterwards.) However, I note that 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. Still an inferred date of 40 CE has no religious significance and therefore is unlikely to have been changed by an editor.
3. 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. Given what we know, I think it likely that the congregation of Hebrews was a sort of lay branch of the Essenes. (see #4).
4. I suggest that some Alexandrian Judeans 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 lowering the barrier to entry by Gentile sympathizers). (The Quartodeciman controversy in the mid-second-century involved the Roman congregation defending their long use of a solar calendar.) As the Essenes and the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls people 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.
5. 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, all of whom might have not been Judean or Alexandrian.)
6. By this time, the Roman congregation of Alexandrians had given the name “Jesus” to the heavenly high priest/divine intermediary. They (or their exegetical affiliates) had produced scholarship that placed this heavenly figure (whether under the name “Jesus” or “Christ”) in scenarios such as being mocked and being pierced. Mark dramatized these scenarios when he wrote a play in which the hero, Jesus, comes to earth on a mission to die and rise.
7. 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 any sense 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 discordant with the congregation’s normal attitude, but was acceptable in the context of flattering the benefactor.
8. The second-century history of Christianity offers no evidence that the play had any lasting religious effect in Rome. Until, in response to the challenge from Marcion in the East, the Roman congregation agreed to (initiated?) the promotion of a human Jesus of Nazareth, as authorizer of the orthodox apostles. The authorization direct from a human founder trumped the Marcionite authorization of Marcionite apostles by revelation. Personally I think that the promotion of a human Jesus of Nazareth was a cynical move by the Roman congregation’s leaders, who knew perfectly well that the congregation’s Jesus was and had been since before Mark’s time a heavenly figure, a divine intermediary. But politically, it was a move that succeeded.