Monday, October 13, 2014

Marcus the Evangelist

I've had my attention drawn to an online piece by W. Robert Connor, arguing that the name of the author of the second Gospel, "Mark", or "Marcus" in Latin, suggests that he was from a pro-Roman and pro-Herodian family. The name, Connor suggests, may be a nod towards the Roman general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who spent two periods in the East in charge of, among other areas, Judaea - as an example of pro-Roman naming he mentions the Tetrarch known to us as Herod Agrippa, but who was born Marcus Julius Agrippa. The author of the Gospel, the argument goes, may have been named at a time when the name "Marcus" was in vogue, which Connor suggests may have been the late teens BCE, making the Evangelist born rather earlier than he is generally thought to have been.

My immediate thought was this: Surely the use of Marcus shows that Mark was a Roman citizen?

To elaborate: "Marcus" is a praenomen, the first part of the tria nomina, the three-part Roman citizen name. In the first century CE praenomina were, as far as I know, the exclusive preserve of Roman citizens - hence the inscriptional formula [praenomen] + filius (e.g. M(arci) f(ilius)) could be used to demonstrate that one's father was a Roman citizen, and therefore one must oneself be a freeborn Roman citizen. If praenomina were in more general use, this formula could not carry the intended message. Connor (who seems throughout unfamiliar with Roman naming conventions) implies that any Jewish family could choose to name their child Marcus; I think that's only the case if the family were already Roman citizens.

Why Marcus? Let's first get rid of the red herring of Marcus Julius Agrippa. The Agrippa part of this name (the cognomen)* is certainly in honour of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. But the standard practice (which doesn't mean it was universal - naming practices regularly broke any "rules" that may have existed) was for first-born sons of Roman citizens, such as Herod Agrippa, to inherit their praenomen and nomen from their father. So Agrippa's father, who we know as Aristobulus, was probably Marcus Julius Aristobulus (we don't actually have Aristobulus' full citizen name recorded, but he must have had one). The Julius comes from when Herod Agrippa's great-grandfather Antipater was made a Roman citizen by Julius Caesar. Standard practice was to take the praenomen and nomen of the person who raised one to Roman citizenship, and use one's own name as one's cognomen. So Antipater would have become Gaius Julius Antipater.

Why the change to Marcus? I think this is because Aristobulus was the third son, rather than the first, of his father Herod the Great. Now, usual practice amongst Greeks who had achieved Roman citizenship was to distinguish between brothers through the use of a different cognomen, whilst retaining praenomen and nomen. In Italy, however, brothers were distinguished by different praenomina, whilst the nomen and cognomen remained unchanged; so the brother of Marcus Tullius Cicero was Quintus Tullius Cicero, I wonder if Herod was using both systems; so instead of distinguishing between Gaius Julius Antipater and Gaius Julius Aristobulus, he distinguished them as Gaius Julius Antipater and Marcus Julius Aristobulus. If that's correct, then given that Aristobulus was born in 31 BCE, if a Roman Marcus was being honoured here, it was not Agrippa, who would not come out to the east until eight years later, but the ruler of the Roman East at the time (and Herod's close ally), Mark Antony.

So why Marcus for the Evangelist? One might speculate (and this is very much speculation) that if his family received Roman citizenship from Agrippa when he was in charge in the east, they may have taken the names "Marcus Vipsanius" as the family praenomen and nomen. But one might alternatively have expected them to have taken the names of the emperor at the time, Gaius Julius (Caesar Augustus); certainly this was later practice, ensuring that such honours were monopolized by the imperial family. And even if "Marcus" does come from Agrippa, this merely indicates when Mark's family were enfranchised - it says nothing about when Mark himself was born.

In the end, I don't think we can say with any certainty why Mark was called "Mark" rather than any other name. But this does not mean that Connor's broader point about the pro-Roman nature of Mark is invalid. Indeed, given that I think it can be 100% asserted that Mark was a Roman citizen (which leads me to wonder why it never is), his pro-Roman stance is implicit and to be expected. I also think Connor is right about where Mark grew up, in the heavily Hellenized city of Caesarea, which would have had a strong community of Roman citizens, rather than the more traditional Jewish environment of Jerusalem.

I now invite comments from better Romanists than me.

[Edit: Emma England rightly points out that the above is based on the a priori assumption that "Mark" was the Evangelist's birth-name. I don't think that's an unreasonable assumption, but it is an assumption, and I should have flagged it as such.]

*Actually I suspect "Agrippa" is an agnomen, an additional name, and the cognomen here was the family name Herodes, so he was Marcus Julius Herodes Agrippa.

1 comment:

Richard Davies said...

You may be interested in a speculation about the Roman name of St. Paul.