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Searching for the Apostles

John Mark



by William Steuart McBirnie Ph.D.


     Professor JOSE O'CALLAGHAN, a Spanish scholar at the
Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, has identified 19 tiny
scraps of papyrus, found in 1947 among the Dead Sea Scrolls as
fragments of a copy of St.Mark's gospel written around 50 A.D.
"The date is what matters. Biblical scholars have long assumed
that Mark's gospel, based on recollections of the Apostle Peter,
was set down in writing shortly before Peter's death in Rome,
which would date it around 68 A.D.
"Since Jesus was crucified about 33 A.D., (actually can be proven
to be 30 A.D. - Keith Hunt) the previous dating of Mark's gospel
- generally regarded to have been the first one written - left a
hiatus of 35 years in which the historical details of the life of
Jesus either were transmitted by word of mouth or by now lost
records (such as the famous "Q" document which scholars have long
postulated but never found).
"O'Callaghan's papyrus fragments, established by scientific
methods as having been in a Palestinian library in 50 A.D.,
indicates that Mark's gospel may well have been in circulation
within about a dozen years of the time of Jesus' death.
This is very important because it means Mark's record had to
survive the acid test of any journalistic or historical writing -
being published at a time when it could be read, criticized, and
if unauthentic, denounced, by thousands of Jews, Christians,
Romans and Greeks who were living in Palestine at the time of
Jesus ministry. (Glendale News Press, Saturday, April i5, 1972)
United Press International, Louis Cassels)

     The writer of the second Gospel, as it appears in the order
of our Bible, was a figure of great importance in postolic age.
     He was given a Roman name (Mark, Marcus) and a Jewish name
(John, Jonah). Mark's home was in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12) and as
his father is not mentioned, it is possible that at the time he
was living in comfortable surroundings in a large house with his
mother, Mary, and his cousin, Barnabas, (Col.4:10) who was also a
man of means (Acts 4:36).
     It is believed that his family, perhaps upon his father's
death, had moved to Jerusalem from Cyrenaica, a Roman colony in
North Africa. This would perhaps imply that Mark had a Roman
father and certainly a Jewish mother.
     In 44 A.D., at the first mention of John Mark in Acts, he,
as well as his mother Mary are already believers. Probably he was
led to Christ by Simon Peter who affectionately referred to him
as his "spiritual son". (I Peter 5:13)
     After a notable experience in company with many of the
leaders of the Jerusalem church, which probably made its
headquarters in his mother's house, he was chosen to accompany
Paul and Barnabas to Antioch. It is possible that while yet in
Jerusalem he learned the incident he later recorded in Mark 3:21
from James the brother of the Lord.
     He went with Paul and Barrnabas on their first missionary
journey from Antioch to Cyprus, the original home of Barnabas.
When they went on to Turkey, John Mark suddenly decided to return
to Antioch. Sir William Ramsey speculates that the possible
contagion of Paul's fever, which occurred at Perga before the
missionary team was scheduled to go inland to Antioch, plus the
dire tales of bandits in the desolate mountains which lay ahead
of them, might have dissuaded Mark from going to that wild
central area of Turkey.
     Others have suggested that Mark did not then fully accept
the Pauline doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone.
This idea is alluded to in Acts 13:5,13. It is tbought that Mark
was of the Jewish party and St.Luke there emphasized that by
using only his Hebrew name. This might imply a serious doctrinal
difference with St.Paul based upon the fact that he (Mark) was
still a devout Jew, and at that time unable to accept the
doctrine of faith for salvation. No failure at this doctrinal
point was apparently acceptable to St.Paul. Even later than this
event, Barnabas himself is said by Paul to have had misgivings
about the doctrine of salvation by faith. (Gal.2:13) Barnabas
obviously, influenced Mark, at least at first.
     Two years after the departure of John Mark from Perga, Paul
and Barnabas decided to go on another missionary journey from
Antioch. Barnabas wanted again to take Mark but Paul would not
agree. So Paul chose Silas and went overland in Turkey to visit
the churches he and Barnabas had organized on their first journey
there. Barnabas took Mark and went to retrace the steps he and
Paul had taken in Cyprus. Barnabas was eventually to die on
Cyprus probably in 58 A.D. (I Cor.9:5).

     Eleven years later in Rome the breach between Paul and Mark
was healed. Mark was one of the faithful few among the Jewish
Christians there who stood by Paul. He is described by Paul in
Colossians as an honored fellow worker and a "great comfort" to
him. In the Colossian epistle there is a hint that Mark might
visit Colossae. It may be that this indeed happened. With St.
Peter he went with that Apostle to Babylon. In I Peter 5:13 Peter
sends Mark's greetings from Babylon.
     Later Mark returned to Turkey. At the time of his second
Roman imprisonment St.Paul requested of Timothy that he bring
Mark to him in Rome. In his last letter St.Paul paid tribute to
Mark as being "useful for minister". (2 Tim.4:11)
     While in Rome Mark must have written his gospel at the
request of St.Peter. "The Post-Nicene Fathers" records the

"Mark the disciple and interpreter of Peter wrote a short gospel
at the request of the brethren at Rome, embodying what he had
heard Peter tell. When Peter had heard this, he approved it and
published it to the churches to be read by his authority as
Clemens, in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes and Papias, bishop
of Hierapolis, record. Peter also mentions this Mark in his first
epistle, figuratively indicating Rome under the name of Babylon,
'She who is in Babylon elect together with you saluteth you and
so doth Mark my son.'" (Jerome, p.364)
     We must, of course, differ from the idea that the epistle of
First Peter was written in Rome. The traditions of the
eastern-most churches are unanimous that it was instead written
in Babylon which is exactly what it says in the epistle. The idea
that Rome was meant instead of Babylon is the only interpretation
possible in the figurative and symbolic way that St.John used
later in the Revelation. But there was no need to use "Babylon"
if Rome was meant in St.Peter's first epistle.

     After the deaths of St.Peter and St.Paul in Rome there is a
clear tradition that John Mark went to Alexandria, a Greco-Roman
city in Egypt with a large Jewish population. For a time he
labored there. It is possible that during the years before he
joined St.Paul and St.Peter in Rome at the end of their lives, he
might have visited Alexandria and helped to organize a church
there. The chronology is not certain, but two visits to
Alexandria do not seem unreasonable.

     Eusebius marks the tradition that Anianus, a convert of St.
Mark, succeeded him as the pastor of the church at Alexandria "in
the eighth year of Nero's reign." Since Nero outlived St.Paul by
less than two years this fact does not agree with the idea that
Mark was in Rome at or near the time of the deaths of Peter and
Paul. Yet from 2 Timothy it is clear that a short while before
St.Paul's death Mark was in Turkey, not Egypt.
     In the chapter "Origins of Coptic Christianity", Aziz S.
Atiya (A History of Eastern Christianity, pp.25-28) tells of the
very detailed and firm traditions in Egypt among the Coptic
churches regarding St.Mark:

"St.Mark brought his Gospel with him to Alexandria; and though
the Greek version could have fulfilled his purpose in that city,
the suggestion is made that another version in the Egyptian
language was prepared for the benefit of native converts who were
not conversant with Greek.
"Mark's real labour lay in Africa. First, he crossed the
Mediterranean to Cyrenaica--the Pentapolis which had been his
parents' residence in bygone days. This country was colonized by
Greeks and many Jews who offered his zeal a ripe and hopeful
harvest. After performing many miracles and sowing the seeds of
his faith, he went to Alexandria by a circuitous route through
the oases and Babylon, or Old Cairo. Alexandria was the Eastern
counterpart of Rome, both in importance and in being a stronghold
of paganism, and it was imperative that Christianity should win
the two. The task was as worthy as it was hazardous.
Here we face the important problem of dates. The History of the
Patriarchs mentions, explicitly that the revelation to Peter and
Mark, that they should advance on Rome and Alexandria, came in
the fifteenth year after the Ascension of Christ, that is, 48
A.D. Other sources put his entry into Alexandria in 55, 58 and 61
A.D. Whatever the right date of Mark's appearance in the city,
the consensus is that he was martyred in 68 A.D. Between those
two dates he was able to fulfill his mission and to win many
"The story runs that on entering the city by the eastern gate, he
broke the strap of his shoe. So he went to a cobbler to mend it.
When the cobbler took an awl to work on it, he accidentally
pierced his hand and cried aloud: 'Heis ho Theos' (God is one).
Mark rejoiced at this utterance and, after miraculously healing
the man's wound, took courage and gave the lesson to the hungry
ears of his first convert. This happened to be Anianus, Mark's
successor as the second patriarch of Alexandria. The spark was
fired, and the cobbler took the Apostle home with him. He and his
family were baptized, and many others followed. So successful was
the movement that the word spread that a Galilean was in the city
preparing to overthrow the idols. Popular feeling began to rise,
and men sought him everywhere. Scenting danger, the Apostle
ordained Anianus bishop, with three priests and seven deacons to
watch over the congregation in case anything befell him.
Afterwards, he seems to have undertaken two voyages. First he
sallied into Rome where he met Peter and Paul, and he left the
capital only after their martyrdom in 64 A.D. He then stayed at
Aquiiea, near Venice, before his return to Alexandria. On finding
his flock firm in the faith, he decided to visit the Pentapolis,
where he spent two years performing miracles, ordaining bishops
and priests, and winning more converts. When at last he reached
Alexandria, he was overjoyed to find that the brethren had so
multiplied that they were able to build a considerable church in
the suburban district of Baucalis, where cattle grazed by the
"Spreading rumours that the Christians threatened to overthrow
the pagan deities infuriated the idolatrous populace. The end was
approaching, and the saint was unremittingly hunted by the enemy.
In the year 68 A.D., Easter fell on the same day as the Serapis
festival. The furious mob had gathered in the Serapion and then
descended on the Christians while they were celebrating Easter at
Baucalis. St.Mark was seized, dragged with a rope around his neck
in the streets, and then incarcerated for the night. In the
following morning the same ordeal was repeated until he gave up
the ghost. His flesh was torn and bloody, and it was their intent
to cremate his remains. But the wind blew and the rain fell in
torrents, and the populace dispersed. Thus the Christians
stealthily carried off his body and secretly buried it in a grave
which they had carved in the rock under the altar of the church."
(A History of Eastern Christianity, Aziz S. Atiya, pp.25-28)

     Eusebius and other early church writers were not always
accurate as to dates. But the tradition of St.Mark's ministry and
martyrdom in Alexandria has much historical justification as
Atiya shows:

"In subsequent centuries the body of St.Mark did not remain
intact. During the later times of schism between the Copts and
the Melkites, who were in authority, the church where the body
was kept remained in the hands of the latter. At the time of the
Arab storming of Alexandria in 642, the church was pillaged and
the vestments and the head of the Apostle were stolen. With the
establishment of peace in the city, that church, together with
the body, remained in Melkite hands. But the head somehow was
returned to the Arab governor, who ceded it to the Coptic
Patriarch Benjamin, the only ecclesiastical leader left after the
departure of the Greeks. According to their own story, Venetian
merchants stole the headless body of St.Mark in 828. They
smuggled it [to Venice, ED.] in a tub of pickled pork to evade
Muslim inspection. In this wise, Venice earned its other title of
the 'Republic of St.Mark,'" (op. cit., Ibid. p.28)

     Mary Sharp confirms the story of what befell St.Mark's

"His remains were buried in Alexandria, but in 828 Venetian
merchants took the remains to Venice, where the church of St.
Mark was built to receive them. Beneath the church of St.
Pudentiana in Rome are the ruins of a first-century house where
it is said that Mark may have written his Gospel." (A Traveller's
Guide to Saints in Europe, Mary Sharp, pp.148,149)
     There is a final note. Recently Pope Paul VI restored parts
of the body of St.Mark which had been in Venice at St.Mark's
Cathedral, to the Coptic church in Alexandria. Like his similar
gesture to the Greek Orthodox Church in Patras, when he restored
the head of their patron St.Andrew to that place, so this act too
was an act of reconciliation between two very old branches of
organized Christianity.

     Mark was perhaps younger than the Apostles whom he served.
He seems to have lived a life of great usefulness, remarkable
travel, and to have accompanied or known many of the giants of
the early years of Christianity. Among them were Peter, Paul and
Barnabas, not to mention others such as Timothy.
     It is believed that the discovery of the actual foundations
of the house of Mary, the mother of Mark, has recently been made
in the basement of the church of St.Mark in Jerusalem. An ancient
inscription discovered and displayed there tells that the
original church was built on the site of the house of Mary and
Mark, and that it was the place of the "upper room" which was the
gathering place of the first Christians and was also the site of
the Pentecostal baptism of the Holy Spirit. If this all be true,
then the experience of St.Mark is one of the richest of all the
New Testament characters. Of course, his authorship of the Gospel
of Mark immortalizes him for all Christians.


To be continued with "Barnabas."

Entered on this Website May 2008

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