Oden, Thomas C. The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing Early Church Tradition. Deerfield: IVP, 2011. (Amazon.com; IVPress.com)
I want to say thank you to the folk at IVP Academic for sending me a review copy of Thomas C. Oden’s The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing Early Church Tradition. This book is part of Oden’s project as the director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University. Oden has sought to give a voice to African Christian tradition. I will provide a short overview of the books before telling you what I felt were its strengths and weaknesses.
Oden begins his book by discussing what makes “African memory” distinctive. This includes things like (1) something remembered on the continent of Africa; (2) it is similar across groups; (3) the details emerge uncoerced; (4) it is remembered by many generations; and (5) it spreads across many languages (pp. 27-28). Mark is remembered as the apostle to Africa (p. 29). He was the first archbishop of Alexandria (p. 34-35). Oden juxtaposes African memory with western historicism throughout this book.
In Chapter Three “African Roots” Oden introduces us to the lives of Diaspora Jews in Africa. He reconstructs what life may have been like to Mark and his family, why they may have left Africa, and what it would have been like for them when they returned to Judea. In Chapter Four we are introduces to the literary sources from which this African memory emerges such as Coptic liturgy and other prominent writings. This ends part one of the book.
In part two we are introduced to Oden’s portrait of Mark as he has reconstructed it through African sources. We learn about Mark from the Gospel of St. Mark, traditions about his family’s relationship to Barnabas and St. Peter, his possible connection to the Levitical priesthood, and more. In Chapter Six we learn where tradition places the home of Mark’s mother. This home was believed to be the location of the Last Supper, Pentecost, and may even be where Peter came after being freed from prison by angels. Mark’s mother becomes a prominent figure for Oden at this point. Part two comes to an end with Oden discussing Mark’s relationship to Peter and Paul, their travels, and Mark’s own travels following.
In the third part of the book Oden focuses on Mark’s time in Africa. This is wear Mark’s role in Alexandria becomes important (see p. 141-143). In Chapter Six Mark’s life begins to sound a lot like that of Athanasius, a later Bishop of Alexandria, as he leaves Alexandria, returns, faces mobs, and so forth. Chapter Seven discusses the memory of Mark’s martyrdom and the evidence to support it.
In the fourth part of the book Oden examines the historical Mark. Sources include Clement of Alexandria, Papias, Justin Martyr, Eusebius, and others. There is even a discussion on Morton Smith’s “Secret Mark”. In my view Oden gives far too much attention to this document that many consider to be fake. Even if it is not fake, Oden’s use of it seems to make him look a tad to willing to use sources that are suspect for his reconstruction (pp. 198-208).
In part five Oden attempts to tidy up his reconstruction. He attacks “Euro-American historical interpreters” in Chapter Twelve. He frames this as the power of the guild v. honest inquiry. The guild is on the side of maintaining the status quo. In his Conclusion he makes some bold claims that ignoring the African memory of Mark could (1) harm African self-esteem just like if European Christian forgot Paul or if Jews forgot Jacob; (2) it would ignore Africa’s gift to us; (3) it would work negatively against the health of global Christianity; and (4) “For world peace, the cost of the intensification of the estrangement of Africa from the rest of the world.” could be a consequence (pp. 253-254).
It is good to read books that give us insight into global Christianity. I am for contextualized theology. I think it is worth listening to the views of those who are outside the Eurocentric approach to our religion.
Likewise, Oden does argue his points well. He has done much research. If you are interested in the Gospel of Mark or global Christianity this book is worth reading.
I had a short conversation with Michael Halcomb from Asbury Theological Seminary about this book and I am glad I did. He pointed out some things that I’d like to note here:
(1) Some of the traditions Oden notes are broader than African memory. To frame them as “well, this is how Africans see it” does play into Oden’s overall scheme, but it could confuse the reader into believing that no European or American Christians believe these things.
(2) It can seem as if Oden is trying to prove the truth of something by saying those who don’t affirm his view are stuck in a European approach to historiography while he has found something else in African memory. This does not prove something to be historical simply because it is not Eurocentric.
(3) Oden seem to want to vindicate African theology when African theology may not need him to do it. It has it’s own voice. It may not need an American to give it worth.
Again, this stood out to me when he gave ten pages to Secret Mark. I’m a bit bias against that source, so I understand if others think it may tell us more about the Mark of history, but I think it was grasping at straws.
Overall it is not bad read. I found some parts very interesting and others not so much. I felt challenged to think broadly at times, but I felt Oden was trying too hard at other times. As a reader I lost momentum about half way through the book because I felt like I got Oden’s basic point early so the rest was stacking the deck. Again, if you want to know more about the historical Mark, the Gospel of Mark, or global Christianity this book may be worth reading.
Oden’s reference to the Letter to Theodore (not ‘Secret Mark’) is important because it recognizes the proper context for the letter. The discussion of Mark’s other gospel is really only a sideshow. The focus of the letter is actually Mark’s authority over the Alexandrian church which gets lost in a lot of nutty conspiracy theories associated with the discovery. The person who wrote the letter had a vested interest in the Alexandrian apostolic succession from Mark as Clement surely did. Oden recognizes that interest and rightly includes the letter in his discussion of African sources for Mark.
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