April 25 – Mark the Evangelist

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Mark the Evangelist, Witness to Jesus

(Evangelist, martyr, and first ‘Bishop of Alexandria’; Greek: Markos = polite, shining)

Almost all the early traditions assume that St Mark, author of the Gospel that bears his name, is also John Mark of Jerusalem and Mark the cousin of Barnabas — the occasional missionary companion of Barnabas and Paul (and perhaps also of Peter, according to Papias and Eusebius). Hippolytus of Rome’s list of the 70 disciples sent out by Jesus (Lk 10:1) includes these three Marks separately, but other early writers have them as the same person, who was perhaps born in Cyrene (in today’s Libya) before moving to Jerusalem (Acts 12:12).

The Gospel of Mark, thought by most scholars to be the earliest written account of Jesus still surviving, is a vivid, fast-moving account, often told in the present tense — although this is not reflected in our English translations. Mark is said to have compiled it out of the sermons and teaching of Peter, though he may also have been a participant in the Jerusalem events. Some have claimed that he wrote himself into the Gospel story as the young man who fled naked at Jesus’ arrest (Mk 14:51-2). If that is so, he may have performed another disappearing act when he left Barnabas and Paul in the lurch and headed back to Jerusalem instead (Acts 12:25; 13:5, 13), leading to a ‘sharp disagreement’ between the two Apostles when he wanted to join them again on a later journey (Acts 15:36–41).

The mysterious disappearances of ‘Mark’ don’t end there, but continue through history. The Gospel of Mark seems to have been used by both Matthew and Luke as a template for their longer and more popular accounts of Jesus, but then faded from view. The first known commentary on Mark dates from the 6th Century (very late compared with the other Gospels), and early manuscripts of the Gospel are rare — only three papyrus fragments survive. The earliest full copies of Mark end at chapter 16 verse 8, with excited women fleeing the empty tomb “for they were afraid” — and various longer endings were then added in later manuscripts to ‘correct’ what seemed to some to be the ‘disappearance’ of a proper conclusion to Mark’s account.

The body of Mark — and not just the text — also disappears! Strong early traditions suggest that Mark founded the church in Alexandria, Egypt, and was martyred there around 68CE, when he was dragged by the neck around the streets until he died. In 828 CE, Venetian merchants ‘body-snatched’ the remains of St Mark from Alexandria (some say they took Alexander the Great’s remains by mistake!), so they could be installed (eventually) in San Marco Cathedral in Venice. In the 11th Century they disappeared yet again when the Cathedral was rebuilt, and then mysteriously they were rediscovered some years later.

Traditionally, St Mark is Patron Saint of Alexandria, Venice, and barristers, and is seen as the founder of Christianity in Africa (and particularly, the Coptic Church of Egypt).

We might also suggest — given his remarkable history — that St Mark be seen as Patron Saint of ‘the second chance’, the young and impetuous, story-tellers and authors writing their first book, streakers (Mk 14:51-2), and the ANZACs (the Feast Day of St Mark is April 25).

By Dr Keith Dyer