Mark and Serapis

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Secret Alias
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Mark and Serapis

Post by Secret Alias » Sun Nov 01, 2020 9:42 pm

Nathan J. Hardy, University of Chicago: “A Spirited Iconomachy: The Martyrdom of Mark and the Death of Serapis in Alexandria”

The Greek Martyrdom of Mark (BHG 1035/6, sometimes called the Acts of Mark) has been described by Stephen Davis as a “foundation legend,” which, in conjunction with hagiography like the Passion of Peter of Alexandria, helped establish the Coptic patriarch as the head of the Church of the Martyrs after the “Great Persecution” of 303-311/13. To a great extent, this makes sense. In this short narrative, the evangelist Mark founds churches in Pentapolis and Alexandria until he is captured during a festival of Serapis and dragged around the city and dies, at which point his body is rescued from a fire by a hailstorm and his relics are deposited as “the first treasure in Alexandria.” Clearly the narrative displays concern with portraying the apocryphal founder of Christianity in Egypt as a model for martyrdom and persecution. But, while the narrative is set in the first century, close analysis of Mark’s death also reveals striking correspondences to descriptions of the destruction of the Serapeum and the lively Serapis cult statue in Alexandria in 391/2. Both Mark and the cult statue are dragged around the city, for instance, but while the statue is pulled apart, Mark’s body remains whole; while the statue is successfully cremated, Mark’s body escapes the fire; while the demise of Serapis signals the end of paganism in Egypt, the death of Mark establishes his episcopal see and cements Christianity. In this paper, then, I argue that the Martyrdom of Mark rewrites the iconoclastic episode of 391/2, retrojecting it to the first century so that the destruction of the Serapeum became a vengeful imitation, even though the literary martyrdom may itself have been the mirror image. Furthermore, because the Martyrdom demonstrates a consistent occupation with the iconicity of Mark, playing on Greek and Egyptian discourses about the relations between images and bodies, I suggest that this ostensible showdown constituted a spirited iconomachy whereby one living image (Mark) can be elevated above another (Serapis). Since the cult of Mark seems to emerge about the same time, in the early fifth century, with Mark’s feast day replacing that of Serapis on April 25, this analysis ends by raising questions about how this apocryphon worked to reconfigure the religious landscape of Alexandria.

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