John Gayford considers St Mark in light of Western Biblical Scholarship and the Coptic Tradition


The place of St. Mark’s Gospel in the Canon of the New Testament has never been challenged, though his Gospel was considered as being of secondary importance. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) described it as an abridged version or synopsis of St. Matthew’s Gospel. This view was not seriously challenged until the late 18th century and continued well into the 20th century. Biblical criticism gradually realized the full potential of St. Mark’s Gospel. Now most biblical scholars accept that Mark was the first of the canonical gospels to be written, with both Matthew and Luke using it as a source. Thus source criticism gives us a hypothesis for the Synoptic Problem. Those seeking the Historical Jesus have seen the value of the Gospel that now bears Mark’s name. Redaction criticism leads us to see Mark as an editor not an inventor. Scholars have changed their view from seeing Mark as an artless script written in clumsy Greek to being a work that has an art and a direct descriptive style of its own with a theological agenda. It may be the shortest Gospel but it now has to be considered for the fullness of its own value in the light of modern thought. 

Most authorities date the writing of the Gospel between 65 and 75 AD.  Irenaeus claims that the Gospel was written after the death of St Peter in 64 AD.  Papias, bishop of Hieropolis, (c. 60 -130) claims that Mark was Peter’s interpreter. Clement of Alexandria (150 -215) agrees that the Gospel was written in Rome.  About the end of the fourth century St John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) claims that it was written in Egypt. Mark wrote his Gospel for a specific Christian community, addressing their own problems of persecution: the life situation of the Evangelist (also known as Sitz im Leben Evangelium) in about 65 AD. In the way Jesus was about to suffer in St. Mark’s Gospel so were Mark’s community. If the Gospel had been written in Rome, events described would fit in with the persecution by Claudius Nero (37-68) of the early Christians, contrived as retribution following the great fire of 64 AD. The three Passion predictions (8:27 to 10:32-45) are seen as significant for the community for whom the Gospel was written. Ingenious attempts have been made to weave Mark into the text of his own gospel, as the young man who fled naked at the arrest of Jesus and only reported in St. Mark 14:51, and possibly seen again at the tomb of Jesus (16:5) where the same Greek term for a young man (sindon) is used.  

    In 1968 some relics of St Mark were returned to a joyful Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt after eleven centuries of exile. There is a very proud association with St. Mark and the Coptic Church tracing their foundation and the apostolic succession of the Patriarchs of Alexandria back to him. St. Mark is seen in Coptic eyes as an apostle, evangelist and martyr who was also an eyewitness to the ministry of Our Lord Jesus Christ, being one of his chosen 70 to go out and preach. There is belief that he was of African Jewish parents who belonged to the tribe of Levi but lived in Cyrenaica until they moved to Jerusalem where their son John Mark was given a good education in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Mark is projected as the cousin of St. Barnabas. The claim continues that the family became followers of Jesus with Mary, Mark’s mother, providing hospitality for the Apostles. As such they provided the venue for the Last Supper and also for the Holy Spirit’s descent on the Apostles. Thus the claim is Mark was present at a number of events reported in the Gospels and that he was in attendance at the passion of Our Lord. This is reflected in the passion being the most detailed and graphic part of his Gospel. Coptic tradition takes Mark back to his native Africa, travelling through Egypt preaching the faith, arriving at Alexandria in 61AD with many legends and miracles of events happening on his travels. The claim continues that he went back to Rome and was there when Saints Peter and Paul were martyred and then returned to Alexandria in 65AD. There are more stories of how his ministry successfully continued until his reported martyrdom in 68 AD. As might be expected there is a dramatic account of his death. St. Mark’s body was eventually moved to Venice in 828 by a Venetian merchant while Alexandria was under Muslim control. A cult of St. Mark developed in Venice where he is the patron saint and has a magnificent basilica built in his honour. The winged lion (the symbol of St. Mark) became the symbol of Venice. April 25th is the feast of St. Mark and is associated with festivities in Venice.

St. Mark appeared frequently in ancient Christian art with the earliest being from the catacombs in Rome from the first part of the fourth century. Over the centuries St Mark has accumulated a body of imaginative legend, much of which is not acceptable by modern belief but still remains of interest. Where knowledge fails, human imagination takes over. Artists and poets have fed on this which in turn was fed back into devotion to the saint.  There are many pictures of St. Mark of historic interest such as in the Lindisfarne Gospels of the eighth century. Many places, causes and things claim the patronage of St. Mark.

Prior to the changes in the Lectionary made in 1969, the Catholic Church inherited through the Council of Trent a lectionary for Mass which only contained twenty-one verses from the Gospel of St. Mark per year. Now with the three year lectionary, Year B is designated as the year of St Mark’s Gospel, and where possible the Gospel readings are taken from this source. As the shortest Gospel and due to its lack of post resurrection material, it is heavily supplemented by St. John’s Gospel. 

The author does not identify himself in the gospel that has been labelled as St. Mark’s Gospel. He does not claim that it is his gospel (or his good news) but rather it is the good news of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1). Even so most early copies of the Gospel that survive have appended the title Kata Markon (according to Mark) or Evangelion kata Markon (Good News according to Mark). These appear either at the beginning, the end or both; occasionally in the margin beside the text. These were probably added later. 

There has been speculation about Mark’s sources as he was a collector more than an author, not slavishly copying nor extensively redacting material. The Form critics claimed that Mark’s Gospel was like a string of pearls selected and graded, then organized in chronological and theological order: all he had done was to collect the stories of Jesus, as told and preached by the early teachers and preachers of the Church. Probably Mark used both oral tradition and written material, divided into miracle stories, a selection of sayings and controversy stories, ending with the expansive description of the passion narrative (one third of his gospel). It can be said that Mark transferred the oral tradition into written text.

The word genre did not enter the English language until the 19th century and can be define as a category of artistic composition. Was Mark the inventor of the specific genre of “Gospel”? If so Mark makes it clear his account has as its purpose the beginning the good news of Jesus Christ (St. Mark I; 1) and is the first Gospel writer to use the term gospel. Mark sees Jesus as fully human but also divine.  There is a messianic secret held by Jesus not fully revealed until after the resurrection. Suggestions are made that this was Mark’s way of creating and holding narrative tension, yet there are places where the divinity of Jesus is revealed in the text. Examples are at the Baptism of Jesus (1:11), Peter’s confession (8:29), the Transfiguration (9:8) when Jesus is questioned by the High Priest at his trial (14:61), finally by the Roman centurion at the crucifixion (15:39). It would also seem that Jesus is recognized for what he is by the “unclean spirits” as they were being cast out as in Mark 1:34 and 3:11. Those who were healed in some cases were commanded to be silent as to what had happened, but the order was not always obeyed. 

Scholars suggest St. Mark’s Gospel went through a number of editions before the Canonical Mark, some stages have been given imaginative and speculative names. There may have been additions made later as seen in the text from the Revised Standard English version. This provides a shorter and longer ending that do not appear in some early manuscripts. A good case can be made for Mark’s shorter ending at 16:1, accepting the primacy of St. Peter (including his contribution to the text) and allows the readers or listeners to make their own response as the beginning of discipleship.

The Gospel is an anthology of short scenes which move speedily on to the next, but what unites them is the figure of Jesus. We may want to prompt the characters in the drama, forgetting that we have been privileged by reading or listening to the story beforehand, with centuries of interpretation.  If the disciples seem slow to understand and believe then we need to be patient, as this may at best be ourselves if placed in their situation. Alternatively we can see ourselves as part of the crowd with little understanding. 

A renewed interest in St Mark’s Gospel and Biblical criticism both started about the same time. It is no co-incidence that interest and status of St. Mark’s rose on the wings of Biblical criticism. Biblical study has nothing to fear from good biblical scholarship but we all need to be suspicious of idiosyncratic biblical interpretation. Let there be no mistake if we want to be a disciple of Jesus then Mark makes it quite clear we will need to follow in the shadow of the Cross.


Suggested Further Reading:-

DONAHUE, J.R. and HARRINGTON, D.J. The Gospel of Mark (In the Sacra Pagina Series) Edited by Harrington, D.J. A Michael Glazier Book The Liturgical Press. Collegeville. Minnesota. 2002.

DOYLE, P. Butler’s Lives of the Saints (New Full Edition, April) Burns & Oates. The Liturgical Press. Collegeville. Minnesota. 1999. 

MOLONEY, F.J. Mark: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist. Hendrickson Publishers Massachusetts 2006. 

TELFORD, W.B. The Gospel of Mark in A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation edited by Coggins, R.J. and Houlden, J.L. SCM Press London. 1990.


Fr John Gayford is a priest of the Society of the Holy Cross