The church remembers one of her most important figures on April 25th, St. Mark the Evangelist. We call him the evangelist, because he is the traditional author for the gospel of Mark, the shortest of the four gospels. Because he wrote such an important book in the New Testament, Mark’s contribution to Christianity cannot be overstated. His work is foundational for understanding our savior. But who is St. Mark the evangelist?
Tradition connects the author of the Gospel of Mark with Mark of the New Testament. Mark first appears in Acts 12. Peter had been imprisoned by King Herod, and an angel came to unlock the doors. After the angel guided Peter out of the prison, he went immediately to the home of Mary, the mother of Mark. The chapter also says that Mark travelled with Saul, or Paul, and Barnabas on the first of Paul’s missionary journeys.
When Barnabas and Paul were about to go on their second missionary journey, Mark was the cause of an argument. In Acts 15, we read that Barnabas wanted to take Mark along with them, but Paul did not. Paul did not think it wise to bring Mark, because Mark had left the group at Pamphyllia while Paul and Barnabas had continued. The argument was so severe that Paul and Barnabas split company and went on separate trips instead. Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus while Paul and Silas went to Syria and Cilicia.
New Testament letters also mention Mark. In Colossians 4, Paul sends Mark’s greetings to the church in Colossae. He also tells them to welcome Mark when Mark comes to instruct them. Apparently, the division between Mark and Paul had been healed by this time. In 2 Timothy 4, Paul again mentions Mark. He tells Timothy to bring Mark to him, because Mark had been helpful in Paul’s ministry. Paul makes a similar mention in Philemon, verse 24.
1 Peter, however, may be the best reference in the Bible to teach us about Mark’s life after the book of Acts. In the final greetings of the letter, 1 Peter 5:13, the apostle writes, “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.”
The reference to Babylon helps us see where Peter writes the letter. It refers to the city of Rome by referring to the Old Testament Babylonians who cause the exile. Peter sees the church’s sojourn in Rome as an exile in hostile territory. So, Peter greets the recipients of his letter for the Roman church.
He also greets them for Mark, whom he calls, “my son.” Tradition has it that this is the same Mark who wrote the gospel. Peter calls him, “my son,” because Mark has been a dutiful and beloved fellow servant of the gospel. He worked with Peter in Rome, and Peter loved him enough to call him a son.
The same traditions tell this same Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark. Eusebius quotes Papias , c AD 130, saying that Mark was Peter’s interpreter:
“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter.”
According to these historians, Mark followed Peter, and he helped Peter preach and teach in Rome. Instead of writing based on his own experience with Jesus, Mark wrote down what Peter preached, so his preaching would continue in the form of the gospel story.
After writing the gospel, we don’t know much about his life. Some suggest that Mark founded the church in Alexandria, but we have no real records to prove this one way or another. We also do not know much about his death, either the manner or the year. The Acts of Mark suggest that he died by being dragged through the city of Alexandria, but there is no evidence prior to the 4th century about this.
St. Mark's Basilica, in Venice, claims to hold Mark’s remains. It is said that two Venetian merchants and two Greek monks took Mark’s remains from Alexandria, which was under Muslim control at the time. A mosaic at St. Marks shows that the thieves covered his remains with pork to prevent the Muslim guards, who couldn’t touch pork, from inspecting their cargo. In 1094, the remains were installed at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Their claims are impossible to verify, however, so we will never know for sure.
Because Mark is the author of one of the four gospels, he has a special symbol, the winged lion. It comes from three references in the Bible, one from Ezekiel and one from Revelation. In Ezekiel 1 , the prophet sees a vision of four living creatures. Each of these creatures has four faces: A man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Revelation has a similar vision. The living creatures are around God’s throne, and they are like a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle.
Christians associate the four living beings with the four gospels, and they assign one of the living beings to each gospel. Mark’s is the lion with wings. His contribution to the New Testament preserves the story of Jesus for thousands of years of preaching.
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