A British television channel ran a series called "Jesus: the Evidence." Viewers were left with uncertainty. How much of what Jesus said and did is fact? How much legend? Was a so-called secret gospel of Mark more important than the known gospel accounts? Here we take a behind-the-scenes look at the man who wrote the real gospel of Mark.
WHAT KIND of people would you have chosen to preserve in writing the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? A despised tax collector? A close personal friend of Jesus? A physician who would pass for a historian? Or perhaps Mark, a young aide who associated with Jesus' disciples? Few have ever understood why such diverse personalities were chosen to write the four gospel accounts, or what the forces were that shaped their lives and perceptions. Who was this Mark? What was he like? The evidence, though sketchy, is revealing. The New Testament itself supplies surprising information.
First, a few points about Mark's name. His full name was John Mark. In first-century Palestine it was not uncommon for a man to have two names. John was his Jewish name, Mark his Greek name (Marcus in Latin). Mark came from a fairly wealthy family that was influential in the early Jerusalem church. When Peter escaped from jail, it was to the home of Mary, Mark's mother, that he came to contact a large assemblage of church members. The house was large enough to have at least one spacious room plus a courtyard with an outer door. Servants were obviously employed. (See Luke's documentation in Acts 12:12-13.) What an opportune place to hear stories about the life of Jesus! Mark certainly moved in the right circles. He must have known Peter from the earliest days of his ministry. It would be unthinkable to suppose that he was not acquainted with all the original apostles. Few were in a better position to learn the facts about Jesus' life and teaching. The book of Mark records a mysterious statement about an incident that took place in a garden outside Jerusalem. "And a young man followed him [Jesus], with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked" (Mark 14:51, 52, Revised Standard Version, except where otherwise noted). This was a moment of high tragedy. Jesus is about to be crucified. On the surface these two verses seem irrelevant to the essential story. So why this brief interruption in the main story? It has been suggested that the Garden of Gethsemane may have been owned by Mark's family. If so (with a nose for news and feeling a big story about to break), Mark may have been near the events surrounding Jesus' final hours. Here was a young man who liked to be in on things. Following the last supper, Mark shadowed Jesus and his disciples to see what was going on. (He got a little too close.) Few writers can resist painting a small portrait of themselves somewhere in a major work. Here Mark inserts himself into the crucifixion record. Under pressure John Mark flees the scene. Later he will run away again.
An Assistant to Apostles
Mark emerges again 15 years later at the time of a famine. The Church of God in Antioch, Syria, was not slack to help the Jewish brethren in the Holy City. Gifts were sent there by Paul and Barnabas. Later the two returned to Antioch and John Mark was with them. There Paul and Barnabas were formally ordained and sent to the Greek world. (This was Paul's first tour.) Luke's historical account mentions that John Mark was their assistant or helper (Acts 13:5). The RSV has it: "And they had John to assist them." The Translators New Testament: "And they had John as their helper." The New Testament was written in the Greek language. The Greek in Acts 13:5 is, "They had John huperetes." The consensus of New Testament scholarship takes this word to mean a helper or assistant in the sense of looking after material needs as a kind of secretary. In the 15 years that had passed since the crucifixion, Mark had had time to mature. But could he cope with the rigors of the journey and the interplay between two powerful personalities? Events proved he could not. The book called the Acts of the Apostles simply states: "Now Paul and his company [including Barnabas] set sail from Paphos, and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem" (Acts 13:13). No reason is given in the account. But Paul clearly was distressed. After that first tour was concluded, an important ministerial conference took place in A.D. 49 in Jerusalem. Paul then returned to Antioch. It was now time to embark on a second extensive evangelistic tour. Barnabas sought to persuade Paul to take Mark along again. But the leading apostle to the Greek world was firm. "But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work" (Acts 15:38). A sharp contention followed between Paul and Barnabas. Here their paths diverged. Paul took Silas with him and Barnabas took his younger cousin, John Mark, to Cyprus. It is not our purpose to try to sort out all the rights and wrongs. We will view the scenario from Mark's point of view. First and foremost Mark showed himself clearly deficient in character to have abandoned the two apostles in midtour. They needed his services. He had all the qualifications for a fine assistant. Probably the two apostles now had to busy themselves with organizational details and other duties Mark normally would have handled. The tour was hurt. Perhaps we can also recognize some extenuating circumstances. A change of leadership had taken place. When the tour began Barnabas' name is mentioned first three separate times (Acts 13:1-2, 7). But by the time they are ready to set sail from Cyprus, Paul is clearly the leader (Acts 13:13). Realistically, such things do not happen without possible hurt feelings. Even Jesus' apostles were human. John Mark may have been the man in the middle. Only one who has been an assistant to several fairly powerful personalities can fully empathize with the difficulties inherent in this situation. Misunderstandings inevitably occur at such close quarters. People with different upbringings are often required by circumstances to be together day after day, week after week. Humanly it is not easy even with conversion. Luke does not chronicle Mark's activities between the time of his return to Jerusalem and his sailing to Cyprus with Barnabas. Perhaps he had assisted Peter in the meantime. Jerusalem was the center of the early church. And there are indications that the family home was a regular meeting place for leading church personalities. Mark now vanishes from the record — to reemerge toward the end of Paul's life.
Restored to Paul's Favor
Paul's letter to the church members in Colossae in Asia Minor was written in the early sixties during his first imprisonment. By this time Mark is back in Paul's good graces. Paul is moved to write of Mark: "... and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions — if he comes to you, receive him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These [Mark and Jesus] are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they [these two] have been a comfort to me" (Col. 4:10-11). This statement is not without significance. Every church has its headquarters. Those who were privileged to have lived and worked at the center of church activities in Jerusalem had special insight in the way things were to be done. Of all Paul's companions, only two, including Mark, could help the aged apostle in this special way. Paul also wrote a personal letter to Philemon while he was under house arrest at Rome during his first imprisonment. Again he mentions Mark. "Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers" (Philem. 23-24). Obviously Mark, the gospel writer, knew Luke, the gospel writer. Both had traveled with Paul from time to time. There was ample opportunity to exchange accounts, traditions, happenings, even preliminary writings. It would be unimaginable that these two never discussed the all-important events of Jesus' ministry. A few years later, in A.D. 68, Paul knows he is soon to be executed by decree of Emperor Nero. He must make provision for matters that would follow upon his death. During his second and final Roman imprisonment, Paul writes his second letter to the young evangelist Timothy. In relaying his concluding instructions, Paul writes: "Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.... Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me" (II Tim. 4:9-11). Since Paul's writing to Philemon, Demas has left the work of God. He is no longer a fellow worker. But Mark, by contrast, has grown in usefulness and service.
Peter and Mark
There is both biblical and later literary evidence for Peter's special relationship with John Mark. We already know that Peter immediately went to Mark's family home following his miraculous escape from prison during the early years of the church. He knew that the leading members of the Jerusalem church would be there. Much later Peter writes his first general letter to those converts living in the northern part of Asia Minor. He ends the letter by passing on various individual greetings to church members. Simon Peter writes, "She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark" — the Authorized Version uses the Latin Marcus (I Pet. 5:13). This reference indicates that Mark was so close to Peter that the older man refers to him as his son in the faith. Perhaps Peter's preaching brought about Mark's conversion. Remember Paul referred to both Timothy and Titus as his sons in the faith.. Additionally, if Mark's real father were dead, Peter may have increasingly stepped into his shoes as a sympathetic adviser and counselor to the young man. Exactly when John Mark served Peter as helper is not clear. It may have been at various points in Peter's ministry when Mark was not serving either Paul or Barnabas. The Acts of the Apostles and the New Testament letters show that these men (apostles and assistants) moved about a great deal.
The Evidence of Tradition
Extrabiblical tradition unanimously links up the gospel of Mark with the preaching of Peter. Details tend to vary, but there is no disagreement on this central point. Papias of Hierapolis in Asia Minor spent much time in collecting traditions of the early church. He lived from about A.D. 70 to 130. He is said to have been a friend of Polycarp of the city of Smyrna in Asia Minor. Papias wrote an extensive work in five volumes. It was called The Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord. The work itself either was lost or perished in a pagan, book-burning exercise. Fortunately some interesting fragments survive in the form of quotations in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History. Succeeding church writers referred to Papias in their own statements about Peter's relationship to Mark's gospel. Their declarations are thus less valuable. But hear just one. Irenaeus wrote: "After their death [Paul and Peter's] Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing the things preached by Peter" (Against Heresies, 3.1.1,2; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.8.2). Back now to the Bible.
Further Biblical Evidence
Certain points about Mark's gospel account tend to bear out its intimate connection with the apostle Peter. Mark, of course, begins his book with the onset of Christ's public ministry. Early events in this gospel account occur at Peter's house (Mark 1:16-18, 29, 36). N ear the end there is a private message to Peter found in no other gospel account (Mark 16:7). Further, Mark's gospel account is harder on Peter, in a concentrated form, than the other three gospels. A.E.J. Rawlinson remarks that Peter is hardly ever mentioned except in terms of Jesus' rebuke and disgrace (see The Gospel According to Mark, 1925, page 28). A faithful helper and assistant is highly unlikely to picture Peter in such unfavorable terms — either before or after his death — unless he had his explicit direction.
About Mark's Gospel
Mark had unique qualifications for authorship. His family home' was a center of the early church. What Jesus said and did was repeated over and over again in his presence as the years sped by. Many people were still alive who knew exactly what had happened. Mark has many parallel accounts with Matthew and Luke. That's why these three are often called the synoptic gospels. Of course, both Matthew and Luke contain much material that Mark omits altogether. But where they are all parallel or very similar in content, Mark nearly always remembers in more vivid detail. Perhaps this is Peter's as well as Mark's memory. Mark, in any case, must have been an observant person. Apart from his importance as a writer of the gospel account, there would be no real reason to write an article about Mark's life. His life is only significant to a wider public because of his gospel. He was a very human person. He made some serious mistakes. When young he tended to flee a crisis. Yet Mark was used of God to write a portion of the gospel of the kingdom of God. Maybe you are a person who would like to get started reading about Jesus. Maybe you want to know more about the kingdom of God. Why not take, free of charge, the Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course? It will take you through a study, in your own home, of the big questions in life.