The Mother’s House
Our first clue is found in Acts 12:1-17
‘And when he realised this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.’ (v.12)
This is the story of Peter’s miraculous escape from Herod’s prison and the house where he heads for upon realising what God has done for him. He heads to a house where Christians are gathered praying for him. The house of Mary, whose son is called John (also Mark). We don’t know who this Mary is but she has allowed her house to become a centre of a Christian community in a time of great persecution. So this person John/Mark has an amazingly committed mother and meets/knows Peter.
It is useful at this point to clarify that Luke (the author of Acts) is either specifying people’s names to provide detail and colour to his story, or because these people are important players in the early Christian church.
The third clue is found in Acts 15:36-39
‘After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.”
Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another,
and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.’
Here we have a few pertinent details. Firstly, in verse 38 we note that John/Mark had travelled with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts chapters 13 and 14). This is exciting to imagine him listening to Paul and Barnabas in their prime, proclaiming the Gospel far and wide and growing closer to them as you do when on a ‘road trip’ together and discussing life and theology.
Looking more closely we notice that John/Mark did not complete the first journey, but left at Pamphylia. We see also that when Paul wants to set off on his second missionary journey he falls out with Barnabas who wants to bring John/Mark again. This hints at a stronger relationship between Barnabas and John/Mark (we’ll see that later) and in fact these two head off to Cyprus, presumably to stay with the Christian community there, founded after the persecution of Christians recorded in Acts 11:19.
So, we have this character John/Mark experiencing the lived reality of the Christian faith and the conflict that can arise within it. Also now spending time with another Christian community on an island community of Cyprus. We hear no more of John/Mark in Acts but that’s not the end of our clues. In Paul’s letters we hear mention of Mark, who may or may not be the same person.
We find another reference in 1 Peter 5:13 where we read
‘She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark.’
A couple of notes here: firstly, this is a letter from Peter, so this Mark, if it’s the same person, is now working with Peter, who he knew from the early days back at Mary’s house in Jerusalem.
Secondly, the phrase ‘my son’ is sometimes translated ‘my son in Christ’, so may mean a spiritual son or disciple rather than actual son.
If it’s the same character we now see him working very closely alongside Peter, hearing his stories and sharing his understanding of the Good News.
A Naked Man
We have one more, slightly enigmatic, clue to consider. This one is found in Mark’s Gospel itself. In Chapter 14:51,52 we read
‘A young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him.
But he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked.’
We have no idea who this young man was, but Mark mentions him for a reason. Maybe he is just painting more details in the story, but this seems at odds with his ‘immediacy’ style. Maybe the young man was known to his intended audience and Mark includes it for their enjoyment.
Equally speculatively, some suggest that Mark himself is this young man, and he is highlighting the fact that some of his Gospel is in fact from first-hand knowledge.
Who is Mark?
Mark’s Gospel is widely acknowledged as the first Gospel to be written. It is the shortest of the four Gospels and most scholars believe it was used as a source text by Matthew and Luke.
Mark’s direct writing style, focusing on the response people make to Jesus most especially, and his conviction about the identity and purpose of Christ make this a fast paced and dramatic read.
But who was the author? This is a mystery to unravel. We don’t know who the author of Mark’s Gospel was, but we can follow some tantalising clues in the Scriptures and see where they take us.
On a Journey
Our second clue is a few lines later in Acts 12:25;
‘And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark.’
Here we have Barnabas and Saul heading back to Antioch after delivering financial support from the community there and taking John/Mark with them (See Acts 11:19-30).
So we now have this person John/Mark travelling with Barnabas (see Acts 4:36-37) and Saul who, of course, becomes Paul. They spend time in the vibrant ‘Christian’ community of Antioch.
In Philemon 1:23-24 we read
‘ Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers.’
Here we have Paul, probably writing from his imprisonment in Rome identifying Mark and Luke being with him.
This is an interesting clue for a couple of reasons; if it’s the same person as John/Mark who accompanied Paul on his first journey, then Paul’s opinion of him has grown which may be due to what Mark has been doing in the meantime.
It is also interesting to note that he is there with Luke, who may be the author of the Gospel and Acts. Could they have shared stories and thoughts about writing Gospels together?
Pick up Mark
There is also a reference in 2 Timothy 4:11 where we read
'Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you,
for he is useful to me for service.’
If this is written by Paul, then we think, he is writing from captivity in Rome, maybe around 68AD. We must note though, that a large proportion of scholars don’t think that this letter was actually written by Paul.
We have a number of clues from our reading, which if we take them all together and assume that they are all the same person, and that this person was the author of the Gospel, then they paint quite a picture.
A young man, who travelled at times with Jesus and his disciples, lived in one of the early Christian communities in Jerusalem visited by Peter, travelling with Paul and Barnabas, preaching and teaching Jews and Gentiles, spending time with Paul and Peter nearer the end of their lives and also spending time with Luke.
If this is the author of the Gospel we would expect to see elements of Paul’s preaching and Peter’s stories and also overlaps with the Gospel of Luke.
The tradition of the early church certainly has elements of this opinion as to who wrote the Gospel and so there may be truth to it as an idea, however, it is mainly based on speculation and joining together dots which may have no connections with one another. Even if this is the case, the clues remind us of the dynamic nature of the early church in which the author would have lived, gathered the stories and written his text, and they bring to life the writing and the characters found within.