By Jimmy Akin
The Gospel of Mark is often overlooked. Too often it falls into the shadow of the longer, better-known Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John.
Despite this, Mark is worthy of our attention:
- There are some things about Jesus that you can learn only from Mark!
- Mark is also useful because it provides a straightforward, brief account of the life and teachings of Jesus.
- If, as most scholars today think, Mark was the first Gospel to be written, then he was the trailblazer who laid the foundation on which the other Evangelists (particularly Matthew and Luke) were able to build, and he would deserve a great deal of credit for that.
So before we begin our study of Mark, let’s look at a few of the facts about Mark and the work that has, for nearly two millennia, made his name known around the world.
Who was Mark?
None of the four Gospels name their authors, but very early tradition attributes this Gospel to an individual named Mark. This attribution was made in the first century (Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, 70, 81-84).
This Mark, according to our earliest sources, was a companion of St. Peter and served as one of his aides.
It is commonly understood that he functioned as a translator for Peter, who in addition to his native Aramaic could probably speak Greek but perhaps not as well as he would have liked.
It is also common to identify this Mark as the one mentioned in the book of Acts. If this identification is correct (and I don’t see any reason to doubt it) then we learn several other facts about Mark.
We know, for example, that his mother’s name was Mary and that she owned a house in Jerusalem where the early Christian community met to pray.
Mark’s father was probably dead at that time, since the house is described as his mother’s and not as his father’s.
We know that Mark’s original (Jewish) name was John but that he also went by the Latin name Mark (Marcus; Greek, Markos).
And we know that their household had a servant girl named Rhoda who was there when St. Peter came to their house after being miraculously freed from jail.
This indicates that Mark knew Peter from an early date (see Acts 12:12-17).
Mark the Missionary
Later, when Paul and Barnabas returned to Syrian Antioch from Jerusalem, they brought Mark with them (Acts 12:25).
When Paul and Barnabas left Antioch and set out on the First Missionary Journey, Mark went as their assistant, but he did not make it far. He traveled with them through the island of Cyprus, but when they made landfall at Perga in Pamphylia (on the southern coast of modern Turkey), Mark decided to return to Jerusalem—apparently because he found missionary travel too difficult (Acts 13:5, 13).
The fact that Mark had “set his hand to the plow” and turned back (Luke 9:62) led to a major dispute between Paul and Barnabas.
Paul Refuses to Take Mark
When the two were planning the Second Missionary Journey, Barnabas wanted to give Mark another chance, and Paul vehemently disagreed.
Luke tells us that “there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed.”
Barnabas thus did not accompany Paul on his Second Missionary Journey but went on an otherwise unrecorded missionary journey of his own (Acts 15:39-40).
One reason that Barnabas may have wanted to give Mark another chance is that he was his cousin (Col. 4:10).
Paul Reconciles with Mark
Paul later reconciled with Mark, and Mark proved himself to Paul, who twice conveys Mark’s greetings to the readers of his letters, indicating that Mark was with him (Col. 4:10, Philem. 24).
In Paul’s last letter, written when he was awaiting execution in Rome and had only Luke with him, he pays special tribute to Mark, asking Timothy to bring Mark to him “for he is very useful in serving me” (2 Tim. 4:11).
Peter was also at Rome, and so we find Mark mentioned in one of Peter’s letters: “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark” (1 Pet. 5:13).
The reference to Mark as Peter’s spiritual son indicates a close relationship between the two.
Mark in the Church’s Tradition
A tradition recorded by various Church Fathers indicates that, at some point, Mark became the first bishop of the Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt.
One early document, known as the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Mark, states that Mark “was called Colobodactylus [Greek, “Stumpy Fingered”], because he had fingers that were too small for the height of the rest of his body.”
It is not certain if this claim is correct, but if it is, it is an interesting personal detail.