Wednesday, 12 January 2022

Who was Mark?

The NT portrait of Mark is that of an Aramaic-speaking Palestinian Jewish Christian, proficient in the Greek language.1 He was related to and likely a cousin2 of Joseph Barnabas (Col. 4:10), a Levite-Jewish Christian from the island of Cyprus who appears to have been a man of some means (Acts 4:36-37).

Mark’s Early Years

Mark is first introduced in the biblical record in Acts 12:12. His Jewish name was John, the Greek form Iōánnēs of the Hebrew Yohananmeaning “Yahweh has favored,” a fairly common name among the Jews.3 He was also called Mark, the Greek form Márkos of the Latin Marcus, derived from the name “Mars” – the Roman god of war and guardian of agriculture. Having more than one name was not uncommon during this period, making it easier to function in the Jewish, Roman, and Hellenistic worlds. Only one person in the biblical record is called Mark, even though it was a very popular name among the Romans.4

His mother Mary (probably a widow) owned a house in Jerusalem large enough to host a sizeable gathering of people (Acts 12:12-13), suggestive of a reasonably affluent family.5 It is plausible that this was the same house that provided the furnished “large upper room” for Jesus and the apostles during and after their final Passover meal (Mark 14:14-16; Luke 22:10-13).6 The apostles continued to reside in “the upper room” (Acts 1:13) in “the house” (Acts 2:2), presumably the site of previous reference.7 When Peter is later imprisoned and then released, he went straight to the house of Mark’s mother (Acts 12:11-17). Peter and John first located this house by following a man carrying a pitcher of water (Mark 14:13-16; Luke 22:10). Since women rather than men typically carried water jars,8 if Mark had no sisters and his mother was busy preparing the Passover meal, he could have been the one doing this chore.9

The report of the young man in a linen cloth fleeing naked from Gethsemane occurs only in Mark’s Gospel (14:51-52) and adds nothing of substance to the storyline. If the young man was Mark himself, he could be providing his own eyewitness account of a curious young man in his bed clothes late at night following Jesus and the eleven from the house where they were residing. The term sindōn (“fine linen”) is also indicative of an upper level of prosperity (cf. 15:46).

Mark’s Initial Attempts at Missionary Work

From Jerusalem around the year 44,10 John Mark accompanied Barnabas and Saul to Syrian Antioch (Acts 12:25), then on to the mission field of Barnabas’ homeland of Cyprus as their hupērétēs, “attendant” or “helper.” When the mission team arrived on the southern coast of Asia Minor, for some unexplained reason John (Mark) returned home to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). Paul did not accept the premature departure as justified and later refused to allow John Mark to join the second missionary campaign, resulting in the dissolution of the original mission team (Acts 15:36-38). Instead Mark accompanied Barnabas back to Cyprus early in the year 50 (v. 39),11 potentially having relatives there and likely to do follow-up work and further evangelism.

Mark’s Later Ministries

About twelve years later Mark was in Rome, where Paul was confined to house arrest. In two of Paul’s letters written during this time, Mark sends greetings and is counted among the apostle’s “coworkers” (Col. 4:10-11; Philem. 24). Obviously the earlier dispute was resolved, not only between Paul and Mark but Barnabas as well (1 Cor. 9:6). In Paul’s last letter before his death, he specifically requested the presence of just two of his colleagues. One was Timothy, who was like his own son,12 and the other was Mark, as Paul explains, “for he is useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11).

Having, then, been summoned to Rome by Paul, Mark was in Rome when Peter’s first epistle was drafted, and Peter regarded Mark as “my son” (1 Pet. 5:13).13 Descriptive of their close relationship in the Lord, this may also indicate that Mark was among Peter’s early converts in Jerusalem.14

Mark’s Writing Ministry

Papias of Hierapolis (contemporary of the apostle John) reported that Mark was “Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not indeed, in order, of the things said or done by the Lord…. [he] followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single points as he remembered them” (as quoted by Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.15). Later Jerome affirmed that Peter’s interpreter was Mark, “whose gospel was composed with Peter narrating and him writing” (Ad Hedibiam 120). Mark’s authorship of the Second Gospel is attested very early and consistently in the history of the post-apostolic church.15

Additional Information from Tradition

Recurrent tradition also places Mark in Egypt, particularly in Alexandria.16 In view of his documented itineracy, an Egyptian mission is not improbable, even if chronologically displaced. The so-called Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Mark claims that Mark was nicknamed kolobodáktulos (“stumpy fingers”),17 “because he had fingers that were too small for the height of the rest of his body …”18

The late 4th- or 5th-century apocryphal Acts of Mark alleges that Mark was dragged through the streets of Alexandria and died as a martyr. But this and other late traditions cannot be verified. Jerome (De Vir. Ill. 8) claimed that Mark died at Alexandria in the 8th year of Nero’s reign, ca. 62. This appears to be, however, a misdirected inference from Eusebius’ claim (anachronisms notwithstanding) that Mark simply resigned from the work in Alexandria that very year (Eccl. Hist. 2.24.21). According to the biblical record, around the years 64-65 Mark was assumed to be alive when Paul penned the words of 2 Timothy 4:11 and certainly not dead when Peter wrote 1 Peter 5:13. The date and circumstances of Mark’s death are unknown.

Lessons from Mark

1. Wealth does not have to be a hindrance to faithfulness and can be used to generously support the Lord’s work.

2. Hospitality not only benefits guests. It has a positive impact on the hosts and their families.

3. Mentoring young people in the Lord’s service develops future leaders.

4. Quitting does not make one a quitter if one keeps trying.

5. Don’t give up on those who fail. Be willing to forgive and to allow second chances.

6. Missionary work is not limited to foreign lands. Neither is it limited to our home environment. It is a both-and responsibility.

7. Let us use our God-given talents to serve Him and further His kingdom.

Thank you Mark for your life and service and for helping us know more about “the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God (Mark 1:1).

--Kevin L. Moore


     1 See Acts 12:12; 13:13; Col. 4:10-11. The author of the Second Gospel was at ease in the Greek language and possibly knew some Latin, but his “primary language seems to have been Aramaic, as indicated by the thought patterns in his Gospel” (W. Dicharry, Human Authors of the NT 51; cf. C. R. Holladay, A Critical Introduction to the NT 107-108). More Aramaic expressions occur in Mark’s Gospel than anywhere else in the Greek NT.

     2 The noun anepsiós could also mean “nephew” (LSV, YLT); “sister’s son” (KJV). 

     3 In the OT, 2 Kings 25:23; 1 Chron. 3:15, 24; 6:9-10; Ezra 8:12; Neh. 12:22-23; Jer. 40:8, 13, 15-16; 41:11, 13-16; 42:1, 8; 43:2, 4, 5; during the Intertestamental Period, Johanan the brother of Judas Maccabeus and his nephew John Hyrcanus; in the NT, John the baptizer (Mark 1:4), John the apostle (Mark 1:19), the father of Simon and Andrew (John 1:42; 21:15, variant), an associate of the high priest (Acts 4:6).

     4 Most notably Markus Tullius Cicero, Marcus Junius Brutus, Marcus Antonius (or Mark Antony), Marcus Ulpius Traianus, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Marcus Aurelius, Marcus Licinius Crassus, Marcus Porcius Cato.

     5 Another potential indicator of affluence is the mention of Rhoda, the young lady who answered the door of the outer gateway at Mary’s house (Acts 12:13). She is referred to as paídiskē, a term used elsewhere by Luke for a maidservant or female slave (Luke 12:45; 22:56; Acts 16:16).  

     6 Even though oikodespótēs (“head of a household”) is a masculine noun (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11) and in the ancient Mediterranean world the head of a household was typically male, households without a male head were of necessity managed by women (e.g. Acts 12:12; 16:14-15; cf. Rom. 16:1-2; 1 Cor. 1:11) and by default the oldest son was regarded as head. See K. L. Moore, “Sociocultural Context of the NT (Part 5): Households,”Moore Perspective (24 July 2019), <Web>.

     7 See K. L. Moore, “The Pentecost-Day Miracle,” Moore Perspective (23 Jan. 2019), <Web>.

     8 Gen. 24:11, 15-16; Ex. 2:16; 1 Sam. 9:11; John 4:7.

     9 See W. Dicharry, Human Authors of the NT 56 n. 33; M. C. Tenney, NT Survey (Rev.) 162-63. Papias, however, claimed that Mark was not an eyewitness or personal disciple of the earthly Jesus (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39), also reiterated by later writers.

     10 The 12th chapter of Acts concludes with the death of Herod Agrippa I (v. 23), which we know from secular history occurred in early March 44 (Josephus, Ant. 19.8.2).

     11 Ironically, following the dispute over John Mark that ended Barnabas’ and Paul’s partnership and led to Paul joining forces with Silas (a.k.a. Silvanus) (Acts 15:36-40), years later Peter, who had also run afoul of Paul with Barnabas implicated as well (Gal. 2:11-14), was working in partnership with both Mark and Silvanus (1 Pet. 5:12-13). 

     12 1 Cor. 4:17; Phil. 2:22; 1 Tim. 1:1, 18; 2 Tim. 1:2; 2:1. Timothy is mentioned by name in the openings of more of Paul’s letters than any of the other coworkers, and on the receiving end of two.

     13 “Babylon” is understood here to be a metaphoric allusion to Rome (cf. Rev. 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21); see also Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 2.15.2.

     14 Cp. 1 Cor. 4:15-17; 1 Thess. 2:11; Tit. 1:4. On the conceivable pre-Pentecost connection, see “Mark’s Early Years” above (cf. also Acts 1:14-15).

     15 Comparable early testimonies include Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 106.3), the so-called Anti-Marcionite Prologue of Mark, Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1-2), Tertullian (Adv. Marc. 4.5), Clement of Alexandria (Hypotyposeis; cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 2.15.2; 6.14.5-7), Origen (cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.25.5), and Eusebius himself (Eccl. Hist. 2.15.1-2). 

     16 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 2.16.1; 2.24.1; Epiphanius, Panarion 6.10; John Chrysostom, Homily 1.7; plus ancient Coptic tradition.

     17 Also the 3rd-century Hippolytus, Philosophumena 7.30. 

     18 In the 4th–5th century Latin Monarchian prologues, as a Levitical priest Mark is said to have amputated his thumb after his conversion to Christ so he would be rendered unfit for the Jewish priesthood.

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Image credit: Matthias Stom’s The Evangelists Saint Mark and Saint Luke (1635), <>.

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