The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing Early Church Tradition by Thomas C. Oden. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011, 279 pp., softcover, $22. This review was originally published in the Spring 2012 (pp. 91-93) edition of the Criswell Theological Review.
The African Memory of Mark is the second in a series on books on early African Christianity from Thomas Oden (PhD, Yale), professor emeritus of theology at Drew University. The series publication (all from Intervarsity Press) began in 2008 with the release of How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, while in late 2011 the third work, Early Libyan Christianity, was published. In addition to serving as the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary of Scripture, Oden has been a prolific author, particularly in the area of theology, for nearly a half century.
The aim of the present work is to reevaluate the person and role of John Mark—the second Evangelist and missionary companion to Peter and Paul—in light of the memory of the African church. Continuing his practice from How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, Oden challenges late nineteenth and twentieth century Western historiography and theology that largely discounts the reliability of African accounts and regards Mark as a Palestinian born, Jerusalem based companion of Peter and Paul. In Oden’s methodology, he maintains respect for the Euro-American methodology, while asserting that a fair hearing of the African Coptic tradition of Mark will serve to fill the gaps of our understanding. Aside from Oden’s two other works in this series, there are very few recent works on early African Christianity from such a perspective. The most recent is probably Stephen Davis’ 2004 work The Early Coptic Papacy.
After a brief preface and introduction of Mark (chapter 1), the book is divided into five parts. In part one (chapters 2-4), Oden defines African memory—the manner in which African peoples remember and approach history. This includes the body of sources—Coptic liturgy, the martyrdom of St. Mark, and the Coptic histories of Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa and Anba Shenouda III—that weave together the African Christian narrative. In part two (chapters 5-7), Oden discusses how the biblical portrait of Mark is read within African tradition. In part three (chapters 8-9), the author examines Mark’s missionary work in Africa as well as some key Egyptian sites related to his martyrdom. In part four (chapter 10), Oden considers evidence for an African Mark from textual evidence from the church fathers—both African and non-African. Finally, in part five (chapters 11-13 and a brief conclusion), the author gathers the evidence from the first four sections and offers a closing argument for an African Mark:
• Who was born in Cyrene.
• Who was possibly a relative of Peter.
• Whose mother had a home in Jerusalem that was probably the location of the Last Supper, Pentecost, and, of course where Peter went after his miraculous release from jail (Acts 12).
• Whose mother’s house was probably the first New Testament house church.
• Who took refuge with Peter in Egypt where “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13) was actually part of Cairo.
• Who was a natural catechist who influenced the development of liturgy in the greater church, and inspired the Alexandrian catechetical school.
• Who was a missionary to many parts of the known world and was founder of the church in Africa, particularly Egypt.
• Who was martyred in Alexandria.
In terms of strengths, Oden has pursued his thesis with characteristic thoroughness but has also written in an accessible manner for the benefit of the broader church. Indeed, the African perspective on Mark is a fresh one and the narrative, summarized above, is quite stimulating and will surely invite reflection and study. Further, Oden’s methodology that acknowledges the place of modern historiography, while also appreciating the African memory approach is refreshing. It is helpful to hear the voices of African scholars and historians regarding Mark, even when they challenge the conclusions of the Western academy. Related, in chapter 4, the author’s summary of the key African literary sources serves as a welcome invitation to the reader to study these in more depth. Similarly, the martyrdom sites and churches described in chapter 9 will aid students doing further research on site in Egypt.
What are the book’s weaknesses? First, Oden states that the book is intended in part for “young African scholars and their teachers in the many cultures of the great African continent” (p. 12). While the author is, of course, active in encouraging the work of African scholars, I wonder how many African students will be touched by this book—published on Intervarsity Press and circulated largely in North America and Europe. Is there a special distribution plan for the continent of Africa or perhaps a plan to offer it in digital format? What about Africa’s non-English speakers?
Second, Oden chooses to define Africa as a single unified continent and seems to infer that the African memory of Mark is something shared by all Africans (pp. 30-31, 73-76, 81). In reality, what Oden calls an African memory is largely a Coptic memory of Mark and thus it is most meaningful for the churches of Egypt and Ethiopia. Though congregations in the predominantly Christian areas of sub-Saharan African may through study and reflection appreciate Mark’s role in the rise of Christianity in Africa, this narrative is still not their inherited tradition. Moreover, Africa has many Muslims, especially in the North African countries of Egypt and Libya where Mark probably ministered as well as in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia where there were Christian communities in the pre-Islamic period. While it is indeed useful to probe this early Christian history in order to enter into respectful dialogue with North African Muslims today, it would be incorrect to say that African Muslims have a Christian memory of Mark.
Despite these critiques, I continue to admire the work of Thomas Oden and the attention he is giving to early African Christianity. Though this work may not circulate as widely on the continent of Africa, students (including African students) studying in North America and Europe should read this work in courses related to Patristics and global Christianity, and I could see it serving as a primary text for a seminar on early African Christianity.