Who was St. Mark?
Today we remember a man we know as Mark, the author of the gospel that bears his name. However, the person who wrote the Gospel According to Mark did NOT sign his work! None of the gospel writers did; they each found it sufficient that their work point to Jesus, the person they served.
So who was Mark? First, he clearly was a disciple of Jesus, but one who was much younger than the original apostles. Second, he was an important figure in both the early days of Christianity and in the turnover of the first generation of Christians to those believers who had not personally seen Jesus. If we gather up all the references to Mark in the New Testament and assume that they are the same person—pretty much as all of Christianity has done—then Mark was the son of a woman who owned the house in Jerusalem where the Last Supper took place, the son and grandson of devout members of the early Christian church.
Paul calls Mark the “cousin of Barnabas” who was with him (Paul) in Rome during his last imprisonment there. This is pretty amazing, because there had been a strong disagreement between Paul and Mark years before. Mark had accompanied his cousin and Paul on Paul’s first missionary journey, but has left Barnabas and Paul in the lurch on the way. Paul had been so upset with Mark that he refused to take Mark on his next missionary journey. So Mark had gone with Barnabas and evangelized the gentiles in Cyprus, and then had become a companion of Peter as they evangelized the Jews, before returning to Rome to be with Paul there.
Mark was everywhere important, and knew everyone who was important, in the early days of the church. The early second-century historian, Bishop Papias, said that Mark wrote his gospel using the teaching of Peter , which is how the gospel came to have Mark’s name.
For millennia, though, Mark was not very highly thought of as an author. First, his Greek was atrocious, as Father Gary can tell you, because he had to translate the entire gospel while he was in seminary—while walking barefoot in the snow to his unheated classroom, no doubt. The gospels of Matthew and Luke are much better written, so why (the thinking went) do we need Mark’s gospel? Second, Mark’s gospel is not linearly developed, as we are not accustomed to understanding narrative. The mid-nineteenth-century pioneering form critic, Rudolf Bultmann summarized this criticism of Mark this way: “Mark is not sufficiently master of his material to be able to venture on a systematic construction himself.”
Fully appreciating Mark’s narrative has come only very recently after someone noticed that Mark’s gospel was created to be told, not read, and that it is a masterpiece of rhetoric. As I shared recently during the sermon at this year’s Easter Vigil, the whole point of Mark’s gospel is to urge new believers, “Take courage, get up, [Jesus] is calling you.”
So why does Mark’s identity and competence as a gospel writer matter to us today? I don’t think his identity does, actually. It’s not Mark who is being proclaimed, but Jesus. Mark didn’t ask for us to remember who he was, but was very interested in bearing witness to this truth: that Jesus was Son of God, who came to be one with us, and whose death and resurrection show US the way to our own salvation, if we but have the courage to follow Jesus.
So, too Mark’s competence as a gospel doesn’t matter, either. In the end, it’s the truth of what Mark shared, of what Mark bore witness to, that is enduring. Theories may come and go, but the truth endures. Mark played his part in the work of salvation. And as our epistle reading today suggests, each of us has our own part to play.
The gifts [that Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.
It’s amazing what we can accomplish, if we witness to the truth, act with courage, use the gifts that God has given us, and not care at all who gets the “credit” or if people think we are competent.