A Brief Introduction to Saint Mark the Evangelist

Yesterday was the feast of Saint Mark the Evangelist. I think books tend to be more interesting--and make more sense--when I know a little about the author, so here's a (brief) introduction to Saint Mark, author of the second gospel.

Mark's gospel is represented by a lion because it starts out with John the Baptist preaching in the desert like a roaring lion. Mark's gospel is the shortest and conveys a strong sense of the urgency of faith in the gospel. Mark was a disciple of St. Peter, and so his gospel is based heavily on Peter's apostolic preaching.
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Who was Saint Mark, and why did he write a gospel?

Mark was also known as John Mark (a combination of his Jewish and Roman names). His mother was Mary of Jerusalem (Acts 12:12), and he was a cousin of Paul's companion Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). Mark traveled with Paul for part of Paul's first missionary journey (see Acts 13:4-13).

It's quite possible that Mark was the young man carrying the water jar who led Peter and John to the house where they would prepare the Last Supper Passover meal (Mark 14:13-14, Luke 22:10-11) and the young man who ran away naked when Jesus was arrested in garden (Mark 14:51-52). 


At least one tradition identifies the location of the Last Supper with the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. So it was likely Mark who was carrying water and led Peter and John to the house. This is a striking detail, because it would have been unusual to find a man carrying water--that was primarily a woman's task. This is why Jesus can give this description to Peter and John as an indication of who it is they should follow; they were unlikely to encounter more than one man carrying water.  Also, we know from Acts that Mark's mother lived in Jerusalem and was known to Peter and the early Christians community, because Peter goes to this house after he is miraculously rescued from prison in Acts 12. So Mark's mother's house would have been a likely location for the Last Supper.

And many scholars identify the young man running away naked in the garden as John Mark. What a bizarre detail to encounter in the gospels, right? We only find it in Mark's gospel. So if it is an autobiographical detail it validates Mark as an eyewitness to some of the events he records. And it comes as no surprise that he doesn't name himself in the gospel--would you want to admit that you abandoned Jesus, let alone doing it naked?

But Mark wasn't one of the Apostles, so where does he get the rest of the material for his gospel?

John Mark, a disciple of St. Peter

For me, the most fascinating detail about Mark is that he was a disciple of St. Peter. We know from 1 Peter 5:13 that Mark was with Peter in Rome: when Peter passes along greetings from the other Christians in Rome at the end of his letter, he includes greetings from "my son Mark." So Mark was very dear to Peter. 

Also, multiple 2nd century Church Fathers tell us that Mark served as an interpreter for Peter and recorded Peter's own apostolic teaching in the gospel that bears Mark's name (Papias, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian). 

This means that the Gospel According to St. Mark is also very much the gospel as remembered and taught by St. Peter (not to be confused with the work bearing the title "The Gospel of Peter," which is a non-canonical work written at least a century later, obviously not be by Peter, contradicting the actual gospels, and condemned by the Church). In fact, the Gospel of Mark seems to follow the same general outline as Peter's summary of the gospel to the household of Cornelius in Acts 10:36-43.

If Mark is writing his gospel in Rome, based on the apostolic teaching of Peter, then this context helps explain the sense of urgency in Mark's gospel. Mark is the shortest gospel, with only 16 chapters compared to 28 in Matthew, 24 in Luke, and 21 in John. And nearly everything in Mark happens "immediately": 
  • "And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened...." -Mark 1:10
  • "The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness..." -Mark 1:12
  • "And immediately [Simon and Andrew] left their nets and followed him..." -Mark 1:18
  • "And immediately he called [James and John]; and they left their father..." -Mark 1:20
  • "And they went in Capernaum; and immediate on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught..." -Mark 1:21
  • "And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit..." -Mark 1:23
  • "And at once his fame spread everywhere..." -Mark 1:28 (it's the same phrase in Greek, although the RSV changes it up here for some variety)
  • "And immediately he left..." -Mark 1:29
  • "And immediately the leprosy left him..." -Mark 1:42
And that's just the first chapter. You get the idea.

Writing his gospel in the face of growing hostility toward and persecution of Christians in Rome, Mark communicates the urgency of faith in the gospel and encourages faithfulness, no matter what.

According to Eusebius, the 4th century Christian historian, Mark went to Alexandria after the martyrdom of St. Peter and became the first bishop of the church there. Tradition says that he was martyred by being dragged through the streets of Alexandria.

What does a lion have to do with the Gospel of Mark?

The four gospels have long been associated with the four living creatures who continually sing praises around the throne of God in Revelation 4:6-7: "And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind; the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle."

The Gospel of Mark is the roaring lion because it begins with John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness to repent and prepare the way of the Lord.

Saint Mark the Evangelist, pray for us!

The gospel message is no less immediate and urgent today than it was 2000 years ago. May we respond to it with ever greater faith and love and proclaim it boldly--and may we never run away from Christ, with or without our linen cloths!

And here's a great introduction to the Gospel of Mark from my friend and colleague, Dr. Mark Giszczek.


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