The gospel known as “According to Mark” has come to be recognized as the oldest surviving, though before the end of the second Christian century the “fourfold” tradition had been headed by that “According to Matthew.” As a consequence, even an author as profound as Augustine of Hippo (354-430), made the mistaken judgment that Mark was a mere abridger of Matthew, rather than perceiving that Matthew was one who abbreviated Mark’s stories while adding material, especially “teachings of Jesus,” not found in Mark [De consensu evangelistarum ii; PL 34; NPNF 1 VI (1888); Salmon 1889: 154; McNeile 1953: 27]. While there has never been valid reason to question the association of the named person with the gospel that goes by his name, who that person was remains a most difficult question.
All of the figures of the New Testament remain ambiguously enigmatic. Modern study shows how little was ever known of any except Paul and Peter, James and John, and James the brother of Jesus. The early church resumed interest too late to recover the original persons, even the most important, or to have certainty concerning their individual fate. As put already in the fourth century by John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) in his Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews, “But, at least for most of them, we do not know where the bones of the Apostles lie. For the graves of Peter and Paul and John and Thomas are famous, but concerning the rest, where they are, no one is at all cognizant” [Homily 26; PG 63 col. 179 apud Peterson 1963: 10]. Instead there were spawned some legendizing accounts in the “Apocryphal New Testament,” but more significantly a developing Christian Tradition.
Within the canonical New Testament, the name, itself Roman Latin (Marcus), though easily adapted into Hellenistic Greek (Markos), occurs but eight times, and none within the “fourfold” Gospel. Some modern scholars have considered the possibility that the unparalleled statement in the gospel “According to Mark” (14: 51-52) is a cryptic reference to Mark the Evangelist himself as the one who fled naked at the arrest of Jesus leaving behind his linen cloth, but nothing from antiquity documents that speculation (Branscomb 1937: 270-271; McNeile 1953: 26-27; Mally 1968: II.55).
We meet this name chronologically first in the Epistle of Paul to Philemon, where, among five compatriots, Paul includes both Mark and Luke (vv. 23-24). To this, one could add the indications from Paul in the Second Epistle to Timothy, that being alone with but Luke, he would wish Mark to be brought to him (2 Tim 4: 11), and from Peter in the First Epistle to the Exiles in the Provinces of Asia, that greetings presumably originating at Rome are extended also from Mark, now designated “son” of the correspondent. In very much later tradition Mark becomes even more literally “Peter’s son and companion of the keeper of heavenly keys” as indicated in the ninth century Encomium in S. Marcum, by Procopius Diaconus (PG 100 col. 1189a apud ODByz II 1299).
On the other hand, Luke, in the second volume of his accounts of earliest Christianity, which came to be called “The Acts of the Apostles,” provides the first designated biographical information, when we are introduced to “John whose other name was Mark,” in the company of Barnabas and Saul (12: 25), whom we also learn to be a son of one Mary, whose house was asylum to Peter (12: 12). Subsequently, in the “sharp contention” which separated the work of Barnabas from that of Saul, now called Paul, “John called Mark” remained in the company of Barnabas, in spite of having previously left Paul and Barnabas in Perga to return to Jerusalem (13: 5, 13, where he is simply called “John”), while Silas went off with Paul (15: 37-40). Chronologically these events belong to the era when Sergius Paulus was “proconsul” (13: 7 <technically “propraetor of Cyprus” ca. A.D. 48>).
Within the epistolary narratives, Mark is remembered as “the cousin of Barnabas” (Col 4: 10), who is to be received with welcome should he come to Colossae, though that context remains difficult to date and place, and its fulfillment unknown. When and how Mark arrived in Rome and became transferred from connections with Paul to those with Peter is equally uncertain. Whatever way, Mark belongs to a younger generation, since exclusively within his gospel, “he identifies the actors in the Passion narrative by the names of their children” (15: 21, 40; Carrington 1957: II. 206). And that is the extent of the original source material.
Neither in the first century Jewish historian, Josephus (c. 37-100), even though he wrote from Rome and knew of John the Baptist, Jesus, and James the brother of Jesus; nor in the second century Greek critic of Christianity, Celsus, who knew of John the Baptist, Jesus, and some New Testament like material; nor in the Roman historians of the period, Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55-120) and Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69-130), who knew of Christians and the Christian movement – does either Peter or Paul appear, let alone Mark. Celsus does know that Jesus “collected around him ten or eleven unsavory characters – tax collectors, sailors, and the like” (Origin, Contra Celsum I.62, quoted by Hoffmann 1987: 59), but he names none of them.
Christian authors demonstrate how quickly real biographical information, even on Peter and Paul, disappeared before the end of the first Christian century even within the developing Tradition, the result of “attitudes” related to “Petrine controversies” (Smith 1985). Clement of Rome (traditionally “bishop,” 88-97) in a letter to the church at Corinth speaks vaguely of the opposition to, yet ultimate reward of, both. Ignatius of Antioch (martyred c. 112) knows their combination as having apostolic authority which he lacked. But among the “Apostolic Fathers” only Papias of Hierapolis (flourished c. 130) mentions Mark by name, as one, who, though “interpreter of Peter,” “wrote accurately, though not in order, all that he recalled of what was either said or done by the Lord,” since it was affirmed that Mark had “neither heard the Lord, nor was he a follower of His” but rather had become “at a later date” a follower of Peter (Grant 1946: 68-69; Aland 1978: 531). But it is due to Papias that Mark’s is identified as the oldest gospel, since subsequently “Matthew then compiled the oracles in the Hebrew language, but everyone interpreted them as he was able” (Grant 1946: 69; Aland 1978: 531; Salmon 1889: 92).
Irenaeus of Lyons in Gaul (c. 115-202) asserts the uniqueness and exclusivity of the “fourfold” Gospel, and specifies that after the death of Peter and Paul, “Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself delivered to us in writing what had been announced by Peter” (III.1.1; Aland 1978: 533-534; Grant 1997: 124) – and with that statement is set in motion not only the ultimate Tradition relative to Mark and his dependence upon a Petrine Gospel, but also the conflict over the terminal lifespan of Mark. Clement of Alexandria (160-215) writes, in his book Hypotyposeis (no longer preserved, but as paraphrased by Eusebius), of the manner in which Mark had come to write “his” gospel:
When Peter had publicly preached the word at Rome, and by the Spirit had proclaimed the Gospel, those present, who were many, exhorted Mark, as one who had followed him for a long time and remembered what had been spoken, to make a record of what was said; and he did this, and distributed the gospel among those that asked him. When the matter came to Peter’s knowledge he neither strongly forbade it nor urged it forward. (H.E. VI.14.6-7; cf. H.E. II.15.1-2; both passages in Aland 1978: 539; translation by Oulton 1927: 189)
On the other hand, the somewhat peculiarly rediscovered epistle of Clement of Alexandria “To Theodore” (Cameron 1982: 67-71), provides a level of detail not previously known, which gives evidence both for the arrival of Mark in Alexandria, and for some special considerations related to the composition of his gospel:
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 secret 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. (Cameron 1982: 69-70)
Much has been made of this assumed “Secret Gospel of Mark” and that Clement was not only aware of it but accepted it approvingly. But within the context of the letter “To Theodore,” it is clear that Clement’s main concern lies with the fact that the gospel of Mark has been misinterpreted by that Gnostic teacher of the early second century in Alexandria, Carpocrates by name, who “so enslaved a certain presbyter of the church in Alexandria that he got from him a copy of the secret Gospel, which he both interpreted according to his blasphemous and carnal doctrine and, moreover, polluted, mixing with the spotless and holy words utterly shameless lies” (Cameron 1982: 70). Thus the real issue is one of developing exegetical method, within especially the church at Alexandria by the time of Clement, so as to differentiate the “hierophantic teaching of the Lord” or “things not to be uttered” among those not yet catechumens, from the “more spiritual gospel” with its “secret teachings” reserved for the truly knowledgeable faithful (Grant 1993: 95-96).
The most ancient prologue to the gospel “According to Mark,” the so-called “Anti-Marcionite,” preserved only in Latin, unfortunately begins within a lacuna but resuming just where the first preserved word is “Mark,” of whom it is then stated that he had related whatever is now missing from this text, but of whom a most peculiar description is found indicating he “was called ‘Stumpfinger’ (Latin “colobodactylus” from the Greek “kolobodaktulos”) because for the size of the rest of his body he had fingers that were too short”; this prologue also knows Mark as “interpreter for Peter” who after Peter’s death “wrote this gospel in the regions of Italy,” a notion reaffirmed in the completely preserved comparable prologue for the gospel “According to Luke” known in both Greek and Latin texts (Grant 1946: 92-93; Aland 1978: 532-533).
The descriptive comment on Mark’s handicap, “he of the ‘maimed finger’” or “a man whose fingers were thumbs” (Goodspeed 1937: 145; McNeile 1953: 26-27, with other suggested interpretations), though uncertain whether to be taken literally or metaphorically, is reiterated rather exclusively only in one later Greek context by Hippolytus (c. 155-235) [Refutation VII. xviii; cf. ANF V (1885) 112; Aland 1978: 541]. That this ancient prologue associates Mark exclusively with memories of Peter is peculiar enough, yet nothing within those apocryphal acts coming down under the name of Peter or of Paul recall any place for, or role with, one named Mark by either of them.
Hippolytus of Rome, following his listing of the “twelve” apostles with its supposed itinerary of their preaching and its developing traditional statement on the mode, place, and relative time of death for each – first for Peter, and last (13th!) for Paul, gives also the supposed names of those “seventy” (Luke 10: 1) who succeeded to the apostles, with Mark listed in fourteenth position. Here we only learn, besides that of his role as “evangelist”, yet for the first time that he was first “bishop of Alexandria” in Egypt [cf. ANF V (1885) 254-256]. Though Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340) subsequently knew of no list of those “seventy” (H.E. I.12.1), he nevertheless follows this associating of Mark with the establishment of the church in Alexandria. This listing by Hippolytus is made complicated and becomes difficult to appreciate for its applauded intent, when it is observed that at the fifty-sixth position, we meet “Mark, cousin of Barnabas, bishop of Apollonia,” and at the sixty-fifth position, “Mark, who is also John, bishop of Bibloupolis,” for both of these are the same “Mark” of the New Testament.
The basic information is reiterated by Eusebius of Caesarea, since he preserved much of the fragmented lore associated with the names of those who belonged “beyond the New Testament,” including such as Papias and Irenaeus. Eusebius affirms the Petrine origin for Mark’s gospel, quotes several otherwise lost sources including Papias and Clement of Alexandria, knows New Testament references, and places Mark ultimately in Egypt as “first to preach there the gospel, which also he had written”, so that Mark was known to Eusebius as “the first to form churches at Alexandria itself” (H.E. II.15-16.1). While Eusebius does not specify of Mark the conceptual title “bishop,” he does note that “when Nero was in the eighth year of his reign (i.e., A.D. 62), Annianus succeeded, first after Mark the Evangelist, to the ministry of the community at Alexandria” (H.E. II.24). Eusebius is however somewhat ambiguous, since the reference at this point would imply that Mark had died before the martyrdoms of the great Apostles, Paul and Peter, whereas when citing Irenaeus subsequently, Eusebius concurs that Mark has only done his gospel composition after their death (H.E. V.8.3).
At a later date, Jerome (c. 347-419/20) in his “Lives of Illustrious Men” develops mini-biographies for 135 to himself, including Peter (first) and Paul (fifth), dependent as much upon sources outside as inside the New Testament; but for Mark, who is named in eighth position, we have solidified the association with the church at Alexandria, so that the gospel “which he himself composed” was taken with him from Italy to Egypt. We now learn specifically, from this recalled bit of chronological data, that Mark “died in the eighth year of Nero <i.e., A.D. 62, opting thereby for one of the two possibilities derived from Eusebius> and was buried at Alexandria, Annianus succeeding him” [ J 8; NPNF 2 III (1892) 364; Aland 1978: 546]. The association is thus confirmed and the Tradition of the Church has fixed Mark by an exact locus in space and time, with the feast date of Mark becoming 25 April. According to the much later tradition found in Marcus, apostolos et evangelista, by Symeon Metaphrastes of the tenth century, Mark died at Alexandria as “martyr at an Easter festival” (PG 115 col. 168c apud ODByz II 1299).
With the creation of the “fourfold gospel” symbolic representation of each, based on figures derived originally from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (1:5-10) as reconceived in the Apocalypse of John (4:6-8), became commonplace; that for “According to Mark” was initially associated with the “flying eagle” (Irenaeus III.11.8 apud Grant 1997: 131-132), but subsequently could vary: “for Augustine, the man (De consensu I.6,9); for Ambrose (De Virginibus 114; De Abraham II,54) and in Jerome’s preferred distribution, the lion” (Trevijano, OECC 306; Prologus quattuor evangeliorum, Aland 1978: 546-547). On the other hand, with the achievement of the Constantinian Revolution for the Church, Mark himself, along with other Apostles (cf. Eusebius H.E. VII.8), came to be portrayed in the imperial art, of which the earliest example known is that found in “a mid 4th-c. fresco in the catacomb of SS. Marco e Marcelliano, Rome,” while “the symbolic representation of the four E<vangelists> in the form of a tetramorph does not start to appear in Christian art until the 5th c.” (Carletti, OECC 306).
Mark as founder of the church at Alexandria may be difficult to ground historically, but it is of vast importance to the Coptic Church which remembers it emphatically, as evidenced in the Liturgy of St Mark, an authentic text of which is found in the Strassburg papyrus from the fourth/fifth century (Dix 1952: 217-222). The much later tradition of St Mark at Venice stems from the translation of his relics in 827 by Venetian merchants, in a mode reflecting the kind of persistent zeal and theft which has brought away from Egypt and elsewhere relics and monuments of once-Christian lands, now passed into Muslim hands.
Clyde Curry Smith
Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):
J8 TLG 0031.002; OEEC 526-527 (RTrevijano); DECL 401-402 (GRöwekamp); FOTC 100 17-19; ODCC 858-860; PDS 231-232; NIDCC 632 (RENixon); GEEC 719-720 (DPSenior)
ODByz 1299-1300 (JIrmscher,AKazhdan,AWCarr)
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This article, received in 2001, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.