St. Mark the Evangelist (April 25)

SINCE THE SECOND CENTURY Christians have been accustomed to identify the second of our four Gospels by the name of its author, Mark the Evangelist. The Gospel itself, however, never identifies its author by name or gives us any clue to the author’s identity. What, then, is the source of this identification with Mark and what do we know about him?

It is the early second-century bishop of Hieropolis in Asia Minor, Papias, who identified the Gospel writers in his work, Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord. St Irenaeus of Lyons (+ c.202) tell us that Papias had ties to earlier Christian leaders going back to the first century. Papias was a companion of Irenaeus’ own mentor, St Polycarp of Smyrna, and in his youth had been a disciple of St John the Presbyter of Ephesus, who was himself a disciple of Christ. No copy of Papias’ own work has survived but he is quoted by the fourth-century Church historian, Eusebius.

According to Papias, Mark “neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him,” but relied on the testimony of St. Peter which he recorded. Papias tells us that John the Presbyter used to say that Mark would write down accurately as many of Peter’s anecdotes as he recalled from memory and set them out in an orderly form. According to tradition this happened at the request of Christians in Rome who had heard Peter’s preaching. Later authors point to the place which St. Peter has in Mark as evidence that this Gospel records the ministry of Christ as seen by Peter.

Who Was St Mark?

It is difficult to determine the story of St Mark. One thread connects him with St Paul in Asia Minor; a second thread finds him accompanying St Peter in Rome; a third thread places him in Alexandria, bringing the Gospel there.

In his Epistle to the Colossians, written from prison probably in Rome, St Paul mentions one of his Jewish fellow-workers, “Mark, the cousin of Barnabas.” (Colossians 4:10). Barnabas was a Cypriot Jew, one of the first converts to Christ in Jerusalem, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles: “And Joses who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement), a Levite of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36-37). Barnabas became a trusted leader in the Jerusalem Church and it was he whom the apostles sent to Antioch to investigate the rumor that Gentiles there had accepted Christ. Barnabas spent an entire year there in Antioch in the company of St. Paul (cf. Acts 11:19-26).

When the Christians at Antioch learned of an impending famine in Judea, they “…determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea.  This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11: 29-30). And this is when Mark becomes a companion of his cousin Barnabas. When their mission in Jerusalem ended, Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch; “… they also took with them John, whose surname was Mark” (Acts 12:25).

Barnabas and Paul travelled together, preaching Christ in Cyprus and Asia Minor. For a time Mark went with them, but left them at one point. This became such a sore point for St Paul that it caused a rupture between him and Barnabas as they were preparing for another missionary journey. “Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark.  But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work.
 Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus but Paul chose Silas and departed…”
(Acts 15:37-40).

We don’t know why Mark left the others in Pamphylia – perhaps he was still a little young for the kind of commitment that Paul and Barnabas were ready to make. In any event Mark was once more in Paul’s good graces when his Second Epistle to Timothy was written. There he says, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).

Rome and Alexandria

It is thought that St Paul wrote this epistle while a prisoner in Rome. If Mark joined him there, he may have heard Peter’s preaching at that time. He became so attached to that apostle that Peter ends his First Epistle with this farewell, “She who is in Babylon [i.e. Rome], elect together with you, greets you; and so does Mark my son” (1 Peter 5:13). 

At some point people asked Mark to record Peter’s reminiscences and he began to do so while St Peter was still alive. According to Eusebius, Mark “distributed the Gospel among those that asked him,” suggesting that he had completed the Gospel while in Rome.

A recently rediscovered letter from St Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) to a certain Theodore gives a slightly different picture, attesting that the Gospel was completed in Alexandria. “As for Mark, then, during Peter’s stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord’s doings, not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the private ones, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed. But when Peter died a martyr, Mark came over to Alexandria, bringing both his own notes and those of Peter, from which he transferred to his former book the things suitable to whatever makes for progress toward knowledge. Thus he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected.”

This letter gives new weight to the tradition held by the Copts and the Greeks of Alexandria that St Mark founded the Church in that city. He is said to have died there on Pascha in AD 68 when devotees of the Egyptian god Serapis rioted against the Christians.

The Relics of St Mark

In the year 828 the body of St Mark, long kept in Alexandria, was smuggled out of the city by Venetian merchants and taken to their city, ostensibly to save it from destruction by Muslims. As Venetians tell it, the body of Saint Mark was taken out of its sarcophagus and unwrapped from its silk shroud and replaced by another.  It was then placed in a chest and taken on board the Venetian ship, the merchants first ensuring that the saint’s remains were covered by a layer of pork and cabbage.  When the Muslim officials opened the chest to inspect it, they cried out ‘Kanzir, kanzir’ (Pigs! Pigs!) at the sight and smell of the pork and left it untouched. St Mark’s body remains in Venice’s Basilica of St Mark, to this day.

On June 22, 1968 Pope Paul VI returned a portion of these relics to a delegation of Coptic Orthodox bishops. Two days later they flew to Egypt where the relics were met by Pope Kyrillos VI and thousands of faithful. They were enshrined beneath the holy table in the new Cathedral of St Mark in Cairo, the largest church in Africa.

From your childhood the light of truth enlightened you, O Mark, and you loved the labor of Christ the Savior. Therefore, you followed Peter with zeal and served Paul well as a fellow laborer, and you enlighten the world with your holy Gospel.