February 2019   
Who was St. Mark? by Ann Carlson

St. Mark's Feast Day: April 25

St. Mark is best known as patron saint of notaries and lawyers. According to religious scholar Whitney Hopler, he is also patron of lions, opticians, pharmacists, painters, secretaries, interpreters, prisoners, and those dealing with insect bites.[1]

Very few details about the life of St. Mark the Evangelist are known for certain, but early church historians (esp. Papias and Eusebius) credited Mark with being 1) the author of the gospel of Mark; 2) interpreter of the disciple Peter; 3) founder of Christianity in Africa; and 4) first Bishop of Alexandria. He is also usually identified (although there is some dissention; notably by Hippolytus) with the John Mark who was companion of Paul in Acts; and with Mark, the cousin of Barnabas.[2] The absence of historical detail, however, has done little to curb the development of a rich faith tradition surrounding the life of this saint, our patron.  

Mark’s story begins, according to Hippolytus, as one of the 70 disciples of Jesus who were sent out by Jesus to preach the gospel (Luke chapter 10). Eusebius picks up the tale years later, at a point after Herod Agrippa I killed James and arrested Peter. Peter was rescued by an angel (Acts 12), escaped Judea, and sometime during subsequent preaching tours in Asia Minor picked up Mark as his traveling companion and interpreter. Mark wrote down Peter’s sermons and used them as the basis for developing his later gospel. In AD 48 or 49, Mark traveled to Alexandria, bringing Christianity for the first time to Africa. He later became the first bishop of Alexandria.

The Coptic Church holds the tradition[3] that Mark was originally from what is now Libya, but emigrated to Palestine with his family at a young age. Mark’s mother was an early follower of Jesus. A story is told that he once saved himself and his father from an angry lion and lioness. When the lions approached to attack, he rebuked them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. The lion and lioness burst apart and their young were destroyed. This is one reason Mark is often depicted with a submissive lion.[4] The tradition asserts that Mark’s first convert in Alexandria was the cobbler Annianus, whom he engaged when the strap of his sandal broke upon first entering the city gates. The cobbler skewered his hand with an awl while repairing the sandal, and Mark healed him in the name of our Lord. Annianus, his household, and many of his neighbors believed. Eventually, Mark named Annianus as his successor Bishop of Alexandria. Mark’s fame and influence continued to grow, and the powerful traditional religious leaders of the city began to plot against him. For a time, he retreated to preach in other North African cities, but upon his return to Alexandria the pagan religious leaders arrested and imprisoned him. He was eventually martyred (about 68 AD) by being dragged through the city with a rope around his neck until dead. After death, his enemies attempted to burn his body, but it came out of the fire inviolate[5] and was interred in the church that became Alexandria’s cathedral.

Even after death, St. Mark was neither idle nor immobile. As a saint noted for miracles and a desirable patron for an up-and-coming merchant city, the upstart Venetians stole his relics in the ninth century, providing themselves a more renowned patron than their St. Theodore of Amasea. Merchants from Venice came to Alexandria and stole the body, hiding it in a wagon covered with a load of pork and cabbage leaves. This prevented too close inspection by the Muslim guards responsible for overseeing the city’s commerce, since Muslims avoid handling pork. Mark arrived in Venice with great fanfare, and was re-interred in his own new basilica adjacent to the Doge’s palace. In Venice, his body once survived fire by being hidden in a hollow pillar of the basilica. When, decades later, no one survived who knew where he had been secreted, he extended his arm from inside the pillar to miraculously reveal his hiding place.[6]  Yet despite Venice’s claim to have stolen Mark’s entire body, Coptic Christians believe that the head of St. Mark never left Alexandria, and that it remains in their cathedral. Additionally, some of Mark’s relics were taken from Venice in 1968 and installed in the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, on the authority of Pope Paul VI. The long-suffering saint is apparently undisturbed by the distant separation of his body parts, and continues to heal and perform miracles at the three the major shrines of St. Mark: the cathedrals of Alexandria and Cairo, and the Basilica of San Marco in Venice.

Many people believe that the writer of the Gospel of Mark put himself (or possibly herself[7]) anonymously into his gospel in a variety of places; as the young man who carried water to the house where the Last Supper took place (Mark 14:13), the man who ran away naked from the arrest of Jesus (Mark 14: 51-52), or even the woman who anointed Jesus’ head with oil (Mark 14: 3-9). Coptic tradition also asserts that he was one of the servants at the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine.

A distinguishing characteristic of Mark’s gospel is the frequency with which ordinary people – not the religions elite, not even Jesus’ own disciples – reveal the true meaning of the gospel. As such, Mark is an excellent guide to those of us dedicated to bringing the good news of our faith, one to one, in our own community.


[1] Whitney Hopler. http://angels.about.com/od/Famous_Saints/p/Who-Was-Saint-Mark-The-Evangelist.htm

[2] Mark the Evangelist (2 Tim 4:11), John Mark (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15:37), and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10; Phlm 1:24). (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_the_Evangelist)

[3] Severus, Bishop of Al-Ushmunain (fl. ca. AD 955 - 987). Life of the Apostle and Evangelist Mark. http://voskrese.info/spl/patmark.html

[4] Mark is separately identified with the winged lion, one of the four “living creatures” depicted in Revelation 4:7 that tradition associates with the authors of the four gospels. Also, Mark has been associated with a lion because his gospel describes John the Baptist “crying in the wilderness” with what witnesses reportedly described as the voice of a lion, and because Mark delivered the message of God to the people with boldness, like a lion.

[5] According to Severus. An alternate tradition is that God sent a storm to douse the flames.

[6] See John Julius Norwich’s fascinating A History of Venice. Vintage Books (1989)

[7] See Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. (p. 192).

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