The meager historical sources on Saint Mark’s life have given rise to conflicting accounts about his personality and even about his Gospel. Whereas liberal Protestant scholars have woven legendary conjectures about Mark, the Roman Catholic scholarly community tends to portray him as a mere satellite to Saint Peter, as his secretary and his interpreter, and regards his Gospel only as a dictation from the older saint. Attempts at an objective outlook, however, are not lacking. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge is a moderate example. In a Coptic encyclopedia, however, the reader is entitled to learn the traditional view from within the Coptic church of its founder. Consequently, we have tried in these pages to summarize the work written ex cathedra by Anba SHENOUDA III, pope of Alexandria and 117th patriarch of the See of Saint Mark.
Mark, also known in scripture as John Mark, was born in Cyrene, capital of Cyrenaica, in North Africa, some time after the dawn of the first century into a comfortable Jewish family engaged in agriculture. The country was predominantly Greek, partly Jewish, and partly Roman with a hostile Berber community on its periphery. Owing to Berber inroads, the family decided to emigrate to Palestine, where they settled at a new home in Jerusalem just about the time when Jesus began to emerge into prominence. Mark’s father died shortly afterward, and his mother, Mary, devoted her fortune to obtaining a thorough education for her son. Mark ultimately became very proficient not only in Hebrew but also in Greek and Latin, then the languages of civilization, which he fully utilized later in his mission. As a young man, he became captivated by the teaching of Jesus and was baptized by Peter, to whom he was related through Peter’s wife.
Mark’s mother received Jesus, who feasted in her house, and later she opened her residence to his faithful followers, who congregated there for daily prayers. In this way, Mark’s house became the first Christian church in history, and it was there that the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples after the Ascension of Jesus. Thus young Mark occupied a place among the disciples, and the Coptic church recognizes him as one of the seventy appointed by Jesus during his life on earth to go and spread the news of the Kingdom of God (Lk. 10:1-12).
Because of his youth, Mark chose to start his mission in Asia in the company of the older missionaries Saint PAUL and Saint Barnabas. With them he went to Antioch, then to Seleucia, sailing afterward to Cyprus, where they proclaimed God’s message in the Jewish synagogue at Salamis. They crossed the island to Paphos, where Paul struck a Jewish magician named Bar-Jesus with blindness, in the presence of the governor, Sergius Paulus, who “believed . . . for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:1-12). From Paphos, the missionaries sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, Asia Minor, where Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem. At a later date, possibly after laboring in what is now Lebanon, Mark joined Paul in Rome, where he assisted him in the inauguration of its church.
Writing to the Colossians, Paul sent his greetings, and added, “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, receive him)” (Col. 4:10). It is possible that at this juncture John Mark extended his preaching in Italy to Aquileia and the area of Venice, the future republic of Saint Mark, and from there proceeded to his birthplace in Cyrenaica.
Mark’s Journeys to Alexandria
Mark returned at an unknown date to the country of his birth. Despite the scarcity of materials on his mission there, Mark is known to have planted the seeds of Christianity among his former countrymen (Acts 2:10). Coptic tradition teaches that Mark, after performing miracles of healing in Cyrenaica, followed the road to Alexandria, through inspiration by the Holy Spirit and not by instruction from Peter, whom he had not yet joined in Rome.
There is a divergence of opinion on the route followed by Mark to the great city of Alexandria. According to one view, he walked from Cyrene to the oases in the Western Desert, then crossed the immense sandy wastes until he descended into the valley of the Nile somewhere in Upper Egypt, and moved north along the river until he entered Alexandria. This appears to be a fantasy to those familiar with the geography of this forbidding terrain. The other route, which seems humanly possible and direct, was walking along the Mediterranean littoral. It is almost certain that Mark followed this route, known from antiquity, to reach Alexandria, which contained a medley of pagan religions, both ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman, with a sprinkling of Judaic beliefs and Neoplatonist philosophy. Apparently, in the midst of this confusion, there was an occasional Jew, such as Apollos, who had known the Way of God according to Jesus (Acts 18:24).
Arriving at Alexandria totally exhausted, Mark found a cobbler named ANIANUS and asked him to mend a broken strap of his tattered sandal. When the cobbler took an awl to work on it, he accidentally pierced his finger and cried aloud in Greek, “Heis ho Theos,” that is, “God is One.” Mark’s heart fluttered with joy at this utterance, which betrayed the possibility of his companion’s monotheism, thus opening the door for the preaching of the New Kingdom. After miraculously healing the man’s wound, Mark took courage and delivered the good tidings to the hungry ears of his first convert. In this manner, the initial spark was struck, and the first stone in the foundation of the Coptic church was laid. The cobbler invited the apostle to his home, and he and his family were baptized. There followed other baptisms, and the faithful multiplied. So successful was the movement that the word spread around that a Galilean was in the city preparing to overthrow the idols. Popular feelings began to rise, and people sought out the stranger. Scenting danger in the air, Mark ordained Anianus bishop, with three presbyters (Mylios, Sabinos, and Sardinos) and seven deacons to watch over the growing congregation in case anything befell him. Afterward, he seems to have undertaken a journey to Rome in response to a call for assistance from Paul. Writing to Timothy, Paul said, “Get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me” (2 Tm. 4:11).
Here we face a problem of chronology. The oldest chronicle on record dealing with the story of events in this period is the highly reputed Historia ecclesiastica written by EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA in the fourth century. He devotes chapters to the introduction of Christianity in Alexandria and to the composition and emergence of the Gospel according to Mark. He cites no specific date for either event, but he definitely places them during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius, who died in 54, and we must therefore place these events prior to that date.
To pinpoint a more definite date, we do not have to look very far in the work of Eusebius, who wrote two more chapters on the works of PHILO OF ALEXANDRIA, a well-known philosopher and a contemporary of Claudius. Philo’s dates can be easily coordinated with those of the reign of Claudius, whom he visited in Rome together with a Jewish delegation from Alexandria in the year 42 to solicit permission for his Jewish community, and ostensibly the Judaic Christian communities, to be excused from the obligation of adoration of the imperial statue (Philo of Alexandria De vita contemplativa).
According to Eusebius, Philo also wrote an account of the religious character of the Christian hermits and ascetics in Egypt as well as of the doctrines of an already established Christian church in that country during the reign of Claudius. This appears to be one of Eusebius’ most elaborate chapters, thus indicating the considerable spread of Christianity and the development of the church in the metropolis. A shorter, but nonetheless interesting chapter treats Philo’s further writings on biblical books. From a study of Philo’s works, it is easy to place Mark’s journey to Alexandria as occurring around the same date as that of Philo’s embassy to Rome. At any rate, Mark’s preaching in Alexandria must have struck roots deep enough in the city years before Philo’s death, around the year 50, that we may well be justified in putting the foundation of the Coptic church by Mark in the forties of the first century.
Doubts about the veracity of that date are raised by the argument that Mark was still too young and that he could not have embarked on his Egyptian venture before the Jerusalem synod of 50, but this is too flimsy an argument to outweigh the respected authority of Eusebius, the master historian of Christian antiquity. Mark returned to Alexandria after visiting Rome, possibly several years after the synod and in all probability after the martyrdom of both Peter and Paul possibly in the year 64, which was also the year of the burning of Rome. Whether Mark made this second trip before or immediately after Peter’s and Paul’s martyrdom is hard to define with certainty. At any rate, he returned via Cyrene to visit and strengthen the faithful there. In Alexandria, he rejoiced at finding that the Christian community was multiplying and had built their first church at Bucalis, an area where cattle grazed by the seashore.
The Gospel According to Mark
The term “Gospel” is an interesting derivative from the Old English word godspel, meaning “good news,” which is equivalent to the Greek euangelion. Most probably he wrote his Gospel some time during his absence from Alexandria, between his two sojourns there. It is sometimes suggested that Peter dictated it to him. It is true that Mark, the enlightened and able scholar, interpreted for Peter, the simple fisherman, in Rome. But this does not imply that Mark only recorded for Peter, his senior in years, though it is quite conceivable that all the disciples pooled details of oral information about the Lord’s sayings and acts, which Mark may have legitimately incorporated into his work. Consequently, this Gospel, like the other Gospels, must have contained eyewitness source material of Petrine origin.
The idea has been advanced that the Gospel was written in Latin at the time of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul or shortly thereafter, but this is a very questionable hypothesis, because the Gospel is said to have been known some twelve years after the Crucifixion, which fixes its composition around the year 45, whereas the martyrdom of the two saints occurred in 64. Apparently Mark must have written his Gospel in the popular koine Greek without relying on literary brilliance.
All he wanted to produce was a forceful text marked by simple directness, vivid scenes, and a depth of feeling to captivate public attention with its unique fascination. According to Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, who wrote before the middle of the second century, there had existed an early Aramaic collection of the sayings of Christ known as the Logia, which must have furnished the evangelists and the apostles with a common source. The third-century papyri discovered at Oxyrhynchus in Middle Egypt (see OXYRHYNCHUS PAPYRI) have been found to contain fragments from the Logia that are identical with passages from the Gospels.
It is possible that the Gospels, in turn, were copies of more ancient originals. According to modern scholars, however, dating the Gospel of Mark from the sixties of the first century is given priority; it must have been circulated while some apostles were still living, and it could not have differed from their own recollection of Jesus. The consensus among New Testament commentators is that the Gospel of Mark must be regarded as authentic history. Whatever the truth may be, it is certain that Mark brought his Gospel with him to Alexandria, and though his Greek version must have fulfilled its purpose in a city that was preponderantly Greek, the suggestion is made that another version in the Egyptian language could have been prepared outside the metropolis for the benefit of native converts who may not have been conversant with the Greek tongue.
At any rate, the Christian population of Alexandria was multiplying at a considerable rate, and rumors ran through the city, as on Mark’s first visit, that under the leadership of Mark the Christians were threatening to overthrow the ancient pagan deities. This possibility inflamed the fury of the idolatrous populace. A hostile mob unremittingly hunted the evangelist. In 68, Easter fell on the same day as the festival of the popular pagan god Serapis. A large group congregated in the temple to Serapis on the occasion and decided to move against the Christians, who, with Mark leading their prayers, were celebrating Easter at their Bucalis church. The mob forced its way into the church and seized the saint, put a rope around his neck, and dragged him about the streets.
With the connivance of the authorities, Mark was incarcerated for the night. It is said that the angel of the Lord appeared to him during the night and fortified him to bear the approaching martyr’s crown. On the following day, he was again dragged over the cobbled roads of Alexandria, his body becoming lacerated and his blood covering the ground, until he finally died. But the mob would not stop at that; they wanted to cremate his mutilated body so that there would be no remains for his followers to honor. Though the sources are silent on the matter, it appears that Mark was decapitated after his martyrdom.
At this point, however, a violent wind began to blow, and torrential rains poured down on the populace, which dispersed. The Christians stealthily removed the body of the saint and secretly buried him in a grave that they speedily carved in the rock under the altar of the Bucalis church, which has carried his name ever since.
The body of the saint remained intact in the Bucalis church under the jurisdiction of the united Coptic church until 451, when the Melchite Chalcedonians seized that church, which they held until the Arab invasion in 641. In 644, before the withdrawal of the Greek fleet from Alexandria, a sailor entered the church and took the head of the saint to his ship. Tradition says that all other seacraft set sail, save the one containing the head, which remained stationary. As soon as the head was removed, however, the ship began to move. It is said that ‘Amr ibn al-‘As summoned the Coptic patriarch BENJAMIN I, who was a fugitive in a Nitrian monastery, returned the head to him, and gave him ten thousand dinars to build a special church for housing it. Benjamin started the construction of Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria to house the head. The building was completed by his successor, AGATHON, and there the head remained until the persecution by the tenth-century Fatamid caliph al-HAKIM, when it was carried temporarily for security and safekeeping to DAYR ANBA MAQAR in the Nitrian valley.
The body of Saint Mark had been left at Bucalis, but it was stolen by Venetian pirates in 828 and carried to their city. There it was honored, and henceforth the Venetian commune was named the Republic of Saint Mark. The Venetians built a great cathedral, where they deposited the newly acquired sacred relics.
In 1077, during the patriarchate of CHRISTODOULUS, the head was returned to the Alexandria cathedral. From the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, the head, which was coveted by Muslim governors in order to use for extorting ransom from the Coptic community, was removed from its sanctuary and kept moving from one Coptic family to another in order to delude the authorities. With the return of calm, the head was placed back in its original sanctuary. But in the eighteenth century, new rumors began to circulate that the Venetians were determined to steal the head. It was decided to collect the heads of other saints and place them in a casket together with that of Saint Mark to be kept in the shrine of Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, where the sacred relics could not be distinguished by thieves and pirates. This is supposed to have taken place in the patriarchate of PETER VI (1718-1726).
In 1968, with the progress of rapprochement between the churches of Rome and Alexandria, the Catholic papacy decided to return the relics of Saint Mark in Venice to the Coptic church. These were ceded to CYRIL VI, who deposited them in a formidable granite casket inside the crypt of the new Cathedral of Saint Mark on the grounds of DAYR ANBA RUWAYS, where they now form the object of pilgrimage for pious Copts.
The Iconography of Saint Mark
Saint Mark has been a favorite subject for iconographers of many countries since the Middle Ages. He has usually been depicted with his emblem, the winged lion. This emblem was probably inspired by the opening verses of his Gospel, where John the Baptist roared like a lion in the wilderness saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mk. 1:3). His image appears in numerous old manuscripts preserved in the Coptic Museum and monastic libraries. Two thirteenth-century paintings may be traced in a couple of codices, one dated 1220 at DAYR AL-SURYAN in Wadi al-Natrun (MS no. 21), and another dated A.D. 1291 in the Patriarchal Library in Alexandria (MS no. 5/196).
Of his older icons, two may be found on the iconostases of the cathedral church of Dayr al-Suryan, dated 912 and 928. A third from the tenth century exists in the Mu‘allaqah Church of the Virgin in Cairo. A thirteenth-century icon was discovered by the American Byzantine Institute Expedition in 1931 at the chapel of Saint Antony in DAYR ANBA ANTUNIYUS in the Eastern Desert. This is dated 1233. Modern representations are innumerable in Coptic churches throughout the country.
Paintings of high quality by famous Renaissance artists can be found in numerous churches in Europe. One, dated 1507, by Fra Bartolomeo is in the Dominican Monastery of Saint Mark in Florence. An attractive painting of the saint with the apostles Peter, Paul, and John by Albrecht Dürer, dated 1526, is in Munich. A whole range of paintings, including one of Mark’s martyrdom, are preserved in the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Venice. It is impossible to present a complete record of the paintings of Saint Mark in the art museums of Europe and America.
Saint Mark and the Coptic Church
Throughout Egypt there is hardly a church in which the name of Saint Mark is not mentioned with the utmost reverence. In the SYNAXARION, his memory is celebrated annually on 30 Baramudah, the date of his martyrdom. In Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches his feast day is 25 April.
Churches dedicated to Saint Mark appeared in many countries. In Egypt alone, the Copts had thirty-one such churches in 1975. The thirteenth-century Coptic historian Abu al-Makarim and the fifteenth-century Muslim historian of the Copts, al-Maqrizi, cite seven other churches, which have disappeared. It would be difficult to cite in detail the impact of Saint Mark on Coptic civilization and culture. However, two items stand out.
First, according to tradition, it is said that Saint Mark composed the first Sunday mass to be recited by the faithful in church, and that he delivered its text to his successor, Anianus. This mass must have constituted the church offices until the days of CYRIL I the Great in the fifth century, when this patriarch took that inherited text and edited it in the form that has reached us as the Cyrillian mass. Because it is several hours long, it is celebrated today almost solely in monastic chapels.
Portions of this mass have been discovered on papyrus fragments from the fifth century, scattered in world libraries, identified and unidentified. Sections of the document have been preserved by the Ethiopians in their old Ge‘ez liturgy. The Vatican Library contains copies of it in three thirteenth-century codices: the Codex Rossanensis (Vatican Gr. 1970), the Rotulus Vaticanus (Vatican Gr. 2281), and the Rotulus Messanensis (Codex Messanensis Graeca 177).
Saint Mark’s second monumental contribution to the church is said to be the foundation of the CATECHETICAL SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA, which developed from humble origins to become the most authoritative theological institution of the ancient Christian world. It is conceivable that Mark started a catechetical system for the edification of the newly converted catechumens, who hungered for acquaintance with the scriptures as well as church doctrines. It would, of course, be a mistake to see the highly elaborate institution of Christian learning of the third through fifth centuries as deriving directly from the nucleus established by Mark.
Among the 116 successors to Saint Mark, 8 took his name at their enthronement, in addition to 19 who were called John after his given name. In fact, both John and Mark proved to be popular names, not only with the church hierarchy but also with the Coptic community in general, which indicates the esteem in which the saint is held among all classes of all ages in Egypt.
- Anba Shenouda III. Murqus al-Rasul (Mark the Apostle), 2nd ed. Cairo, 1975.
- Atiya, A. S. History of Eastern Christianity. London, 1968.
- Butcher, E. L. The Story of the Church of Egypt, 2 vols. London, 1897.
- Cabrol, F., and H. Leclerq, eds. Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, 15 vols. Paris, 1912-1962.
- Cheneau, P. Les Saints d’Egypte. Jerusalem, 1923.
- Jackson, S. M., ed. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 12 vols. New York, 1963.
- Kamil Salih Nakhlah. Silsilat Tarikh Babawat al-Kursi al-Iskandari. Dayr al-Suryan, 1951.
- Lightfoot, R. H. The Gospel Message of St. Mark. Oxford, 1950. Lockyer, W. All Men of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1964. Robinson, J. M. The Problems of History in Mark. Naperville, Ill., 1957.
- Smith, M. The Secret Gospel [of Mark]. New York, 1973. Swete, H. B. New Testament Commentary. London, 1902. Weeden, T. J. Mark-Traditions in Conflict. Philadelphia, 1971.
AZIZ S. ATIYA