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Who was John Mark?

"She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does my son Mark."  (1 Peter 5:13)

Over the years, a number of scholars have commented on this verse and the relationship of Mark to Peter.

"But certain people, nevertheless, have dared to declare that this Mark was indeed the flesh-and-blood son of St. Peter." (Oecumenius, Tenth Century)

"Thus he appears to speak of his wife...and the mention of his son Mark agrees with this." (J. A. Bengel, 1742)

"...perhaps the actual son of St. Peter, bearing this name..."  (Henry Alford, 1857)

"Yet ho huios mou does not involve spiritual relationship of this kind which is elsewhere expressed by teknon..."  (H. B. Swete, 1898)

"Further, the intimate reference in 1 Peter... would be more natural if the relationship was physical as well as spiritual." (Frederick C. Grant, 1956)

"Mark might quite well be literally Peter's son."  (William Barclay, 1976)

It is surprising that no one else has looked at the Gospels and their origins on the premise that Mark was Peter's son.  In particular, this puts the hypothesis that Mark was the Beloved Disciple in an entirely new light.  I submitted a thesis on this subject to New York University in 1970, and have since delivered five papers at annual meetings of the Society for Biblical Literature.  The following is the most recent. 



George F. Melick, Jr

The search for the identity of the Beloved Disciple (BD) goes on. According to James H. Charlesworth, "the present is a propitious time to once again seek to discern who might be the Beloved Disciple." He reviewed the long list of scholarsí suggestions of the identity of the BD and put forth arguments for Thomas.

Periodically, and often independently, someone suggests John Mark. The primary reasons given are that he was a Jerusalemite with priestly connections. It is not surprising that this suggestion has made little headway. What was the son of a wealthy matron of Jerusalem doing in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee? Perhaps the tradition going back to Papias that Mark was Peterís follower and amanuensis is wrong. A claim that has cropped up periodically for a thousand years is that Mark was the flesh-and-blood son of Simon Peter. Absent any tradition to the contrary, this is the obvious meaning of 1 Peter 5:13.

In three of his four appearances the BD is subserviant to Peter. With the superior eyesight of youth, he recognizes Jesus on the shore, but instead of acting he tells Peter (21:7). He outruns Peter to the tomb, but does not go in alone (20:4-7). Even when seated next to Jesus, he asks nothing on his own, but does as Peter bids him (13:23-25). In each of these instances the actions of the BD are consistent with his identification as Peterís young son.

As Charlesworth has noted, it is remarkable that the Beloved Disciple is the only male from among Jesusí numerous male disciples depicted as present at the crucifixion (19:25-27). As a youth, Mark would have been immune to the danger that kept the adult male disciples away. Another difficulty disappears with the identification of Mark as the BD. Why would Jesus entrust his mother to the care of an adult disciple when his brothers were capable of this? With Mark it was the other way around. He was entrusted to the care of the mother of Jesus. This is understandable if we suppose, with Jerome, that Peter was a widower at the time. In doing this, Jesus forged a bond between his family and Peter as attested to in Acts 1:12-14. Years later we find Mark in a mother-son relationship with a woman named Mary who is obviously not Peterís wife (Acts 12:12).

There is a tradition that Peter married a cousin of Barnabas. This would make Mark a cousin also (Col 4:10), and would explain the sudden appearance of Barnabas as a benefactor of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 4:36f). Barnabas was instrumental in launching Markís missionary career. He and Paul took him to Antioch (Acts 12:25) and they had him along on the first missionary journey as huperetes, the same Greek word used for ministers of the word in Luke 1:2 (Acts 13:5). R. O. P. Taylor called attention to this word and suggested that Markís function was to teach the Jews this addition to their religious history, and to teach it verbatim.

The identification of Mark as Peterís son and the BD opens the way for a new theory of Gospel origins. One of the puzzles of the Gospels is that we have at one and the same time so many and yet so few stories about Jesus. The appearance of doublets attests to the paucity of narrative material available to the authors. Either the Apostles got together and decided to tell just these few stories, or the narratives go back to someone who was present at only a limited number of events. This is exactly what the Muratorian Canon implies about Mark; "at some nevertheless he was present and so put down."

The tradition handed down by the Elder quoted by Papias is that Mark wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatever he remembered of the things said and done by the Lord. This is hardly a description of the Gospel of Mark, which has a perfectly good order. My hypothesis is that Mark wrote a set of notes that he used in his preaching. In a thesis I submitted to New York University in 1970 and published in 1979 I designated this document by the first letter of Grundschrift, German for foundation document.

Versions of Markís stories of things that Jesus did circulated in every center of early Christianity he visited. Any literate Christian in one of those centers could have written a Gospel from memory. The first Evangelist combined Markís stories with sayings ascribed to Matthew, and the whole Gospel became known by his name. The second Evangelist concentrated on Markís stories, and the Gospel was erroneously credited to him. The third Evangelist combined the material available to the other two with special material going back to Luke, who was Markís coworker. This led to the ascription of the Gospel to Luke.

The intractability of the Synoptic Problem comes from the fact that the authors were not dependent on another Evangelist. The ones who wrote second and third may have copied from another Gospel, but they knew the stories they were writing, and could alter them as they chose.

The existence of Markís notes is attested to in the letter of Clement of Alexandria to Theodore discovered by Morton Smith. According to this, when Peter died as a martyr in Rome, Mark came over to Alexandria bring his notes (mnemata) with him. Clement distinguished these from the Gospel of Mark, which he called his former book. Clement thought that Mark used his notes to expand his former work, thus creating the Secret Gospel of Mark, which he left to the church when he died. Since Mark did not write the Gospel credited to him, what he left to the church in Alexandria must have been his notes.

Clement states that Carpocrates got from an elder in the church at Alexandria a copy of the secret Gospel. Thus the elders had access to Markís notes. One of them wrote the Fourth Gospel. He may have started it before Markís notes came into his hands, but he or a redactor had the actual document before him when he wrote the final version. In places he followed it carefully, in others he took liberties. The Fourth Gospel is thus independent of the other three. Verbal agreements are due to the fact that all the narrative in the Gospel accounts go back to Markís testimony.

Charlesworth listed eight requisites for the identification of the Beloved Disciple. One of these is anonymity. Any proposed identification should be able to explain why the Beloved Disciple is not explicitly given a name in the Fourth Gospel. Markís notes were written when he was still known by his Hebrew name, John. He would have used that name in his notes, or he wrote in the first person. In Egypt he was known as Mark. A name change was thus necessary. The phrase "the disciple whom Jesus loved" indicated the esteem in which he was held and did not hide his identity from the Johannine Community. The anonymity of the mother of Jesus was another concern of Charlesworth. In writing about his mother by adoption, Mark would not have used her personal name and this was carried over into the Fourth Gospel.

Another question, which needs to be answered, is why there are two endings to the Fourth Gospel. The Evangelistís ending is John 20:30f. Mark must have been painfully aware of how limited his testimony was. It is easy to imagine him writing the following when he had completed his notes "But there are also many other things, which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." The Evangelist or redactor appended this to the final version of the Gospel (John 21:25).

The Muratorian Canon assigns the Fourth Gospel to John, one of the disciples. When he was urged to write he said, "Fast with me for three days, and whatever will be revealed to each of us, let us tell to one another." That night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the Apostles, that all should certify what John wrote in his own name. At this stage in the development of tradition the Fourth Gospel was ascribed to a disciple. Ultimately tradition identified this John as an Apostle. Markís role as witness was conveniently forgotten, and the Gospel ascribed to him was claimed to record Peterís preaching.