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Who was St. Mark, the Evangelist?

By Sr. Elizabeth, SSJD.

Mark’s Gospel is by far the shortest gospel and is generally recognized by scholars as the earliest attempt to record the apostolic tradition concerning Jesus the Messiah. Dean Robert Willis of Canterbury Cathedral has said several times that each of the Gospels is an attempt to record what that writer believes is most essential for the reader to know in order to understand who Jesus was. This Gospel moves very quickly. The Greek word meaning immediately or at once or then occurs about 40 times in only 16 chapters.

Mark leaves you in no doubt about who Jesus is; he begins with the words “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There is no genealogy and no stories about his birth or parentage. Instead he goes back to the prophets. In verse 2 he quotes the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:   “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” and suddenly we’re right into the story of John the baptizer, Jesus’ baptism by John, and the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days (with no details about his experience in the wilderness). In verse 14 we learn that after John had been arrested Jesus “came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’ These words say to me that the kingdom of God is now; it’s here—not somewhere far away; it is found in the person of Jesus Christ; it is found in our relationship with Christ through whom we learn about the unconditional love of God.

In Mark’s Gospel the first thing Jesus does after returning to Galilee is to call the first four disciples, and together they walk to Capernaum, where Mark says he teaches with authority in the synagogue and heals a man with an unclean spirit who had called out , “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  And at once Jesus’ fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. All of this happens in the first 28 verses of Ch. 1. It almost leaves one breathless.

What follows are more healings and encounters with demons. One of the earliest healings, found in chapter 2, is the healing of the paralyzed man who is let down through the roof of a house where Jesus was speaking. In this one he not only heals the paralyzed man but also proclaims the forgiveness of his sins which shocks some scribes who were present. They accuse him of blasphemy. Jesus responds by saying: “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And the paralytic stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’ This is the second time that Mark mentions Jesus’ authority: Jesus taught with authority and had the authority to forgive sins.

This theme of authority continues throughout the gospel: Jesus is able to control the forces of nature; to cast out not one, but a “legion” of demons; to heal a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years whom no one had been able to help; and to raise a young girl from the dead. Twice he feeds thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and fish; and he walks on water.

In the centre of Mark’s Gospel is Peter’s declaration, “You are the Messiah!”. This was followed by Jesus saying “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” When Peter rebuked Jesus, Jesus replied, “‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’  Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that the Jewish people were looking for. He was not going to drive out the Romans; he was going to suffer at their hands.

Scholars believe that Mark was close to Peter and that much of what he wrote was taken from Peter’s preaching. I can somehow imagine Peter sharing this incident with his good friend Mark, when he was rebuked by Jesus. Peter is humble enough to admit that although Jesus renamed him “the rock”, Peter made many mistakes and this was one of them.

From this episode onward the focus is on the passion of Jesus which is to come. Three times in the next three chapters Jesus predicts his suffering and death; in Chapter 10, Jesus said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

But what about Mark, the person: what do we know of this man who wrote the Gospel of Mark? John whose other name was Mark is first mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter had been imprisoned by King Herod Antipas and bound with chains. “Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell.” The angel tells Peter to leave. At first he thinks he is dreaming but comes to himself when he realizes he is walking down a lane in the city. He then goes to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. It appears that both the home and household of John Mark’s mother Mary were important in the early Christian community of Jerusalem. I’m sure you remember the incident with Peter. The maid who heard Peter’s voice outside the gate was so overjoyed that she rushed inside to tell the others that Peter was free, but leaving Peter still standing outside the gate! Peter stayed with the people gathered there for only a brief time and then left for Caesarea where he stayed till it was safe to return. After Herod was struck down,  Paul and Barnabas returned to Jerusalem bringing Mark with them.

When Paul and Barnabas were sent by the Holy Spirit to Seleucia and from there to Cyprus “they had John (i.e. John Mark, cousin to Barnabas (Col 4:10) to help them”. From there they went to Paphos and Perga in Pamphylia. We later learn that John Mark “deserted” them in Pamphylia and returned to Jerusalem. No one knows why John Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem although there has been much speculation, but we do know that Paul felt he was unreliable. So when he and Barnabas were preparing to take another journey to visit the believers in every city where they had proclaimed the word of the Lord, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark, but Paul refused because John Mark had “deserted them in Pamphylia and not accompanied them in the work. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out”.

What we do know is that much later Paul forgave John Mark for deserting them in Pamphylia, for in the 2nd Letter to Timothy, Paul requests that John Mark come to him. The last mention of Mark occurs in 1 Peter 5:13, where Peter calls Mark his “son,” no doubt a sentimental reference because Mark had been so helpful to him.

One other incident that could refer to Mark and is found only in the Gospel of Mark occurs when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane:  “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” Tradition suggests that this was John Mark, so it is possible that although he was not one of the 12 disciples, he may have been one of the younger followers of Jesus.

According to Coptic tradition, John Mark is the founder of the Coptic Church in Egypt and was martyred on Easter Day, in the year 68 CE, in Alexandria. Copts count him as the first of their chain of 118 patriarchs (popes). Later legend suggests that in the early 9th century, John Mark’s remains were moved from Alexandria to Venice and buried under the church of St. Mark.