Who Was Mark in the Bible?
- Ed Jarrett Contributing Writer
- 2022 6 Jan
Mark is a somewhat unique character in the Bible. The New Testament doesn't say much about him, but what little we have shows a young man growing up in the new church. His home and family are at the center of the new movement formed around the resurrected Jesus.
The little details that the Bible gives us include some failures in Mark’s life. But we also see him rising above that failure. We also see the confidence those like Paul eventually come to have in him. You might think of Mark as a kid growing up in the youth group who eventually becomes a leader with the church. He even grew up to write one of the most famous books ever written.
When Is Mark First Mentioned in the Bible?
The first mention of Mark is in Acts 12:12. After Peter’s deliverance from prison by an angel, he went to the home of Mary, who was the mother of John, also called Mark. Many people had gathered in this home to pray for Peter’s deliverance. No mention is made of Mark’s father. It could be that he had died or that he was not a believer but allowed his wife to use the home as a place for the early church to gather.
Was this the same house that Jesus and his disciples used to celebrate the Passover just before his arrest and crucifixion? There is no way to know that with any certainty. But it is certainly within the realm of possibility. At the very least, it was a home large enough for many people to gather in, indicating that Mary and her family were likely well off.
A second reference to Mark’s family is found in Colossians 4:10, where he is identified as a cousin of Barnabas. Some translations identify him as a nephew of Barnabas rather than a cousin. But regardless, he was a close relative of Barnabas. And that helps to explain the interest that Barnabas had in Mark.
One other family reference to Mark is made in 1 Peter 5:13. In this passage, Peter identifies Mark as his son. But I believe it is most likely that Peter was referring to Mark as a spiritual son rather than a biological son. This would be like 1 Corinthians 4:17, where Paul calls Timothy his son, although he is clearly not Paul’s biological son.
Did Mark Know Jesus?
Mark is never mentioned by name before identifying Mary – whose house Peter went to after his prison break – as his mother. But there is a curious reference in Mark 14:51-52 that may point to him. When Jesus was arrested in the garden, a young man was there who had been following Jesus, wrapped only in a sheet. When Jesus was arrested, all his disciples fled, but this young man hung around too long, and the arresting crowd seized him. But he managed to escape, leaving his sheet behind and fleeing naked.
I understand this to likely be a reference by the author of the gospel of Mark to himself. It’s a way of saying, "I was there!" While it is speculation, I can see Jesus and his disciples celebrating the Passover at Mary’s home. After they left for the garden, it is possible that Judas first led the authorities to Mary’s home looking for Jesus before going out to the garden. Mark saw the crowd looking for Jesus, threw a sheet around himself, and ran for the garden to warn Jesus. But he arrived too late to provide the warning.
Whether the above was true or not, it is clear that Mark’s family is a part of the early church. As a young man, Mark grew up in the early days of the church. There is no way to know what kind of role he might have played. But he would have been familiar with all that was going on there. And, speculation again, it could have been Mary’s home the believers were gathered in at Pentecost. That would have been an exciting time for a young man and follower of Jesus.
What Does the Bible Say about Mark’s Ministry?
Shortly after Peter’s deliverance from prison, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch. And when they did, Mark went with them (Acts 12:25). Barnabas apparently saw some potential in the young man and took him under his wing. In Antioch, Mark would have been exposed to Gentile believers for the first time. And that may have been as challenging for him as it was for many other Jewish believers.
Some time after their return to Antioch, Paul and Barnabas were commissioned by the church there to take the gospel out to the surrounding country. As they went, they took Mark with them as a helper (Acts 13:5). Mark traveled with them through the island of Cyprus. But when they left the island to continue their journey, Mark left them and went home to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). No explanation is given as to why he left. It could be he was homesick. It could be that he was not happy that Paul seemed to have risen to prominence over his cousin during the trip. Maybe the experience was more than he was prepared for. But, for whatever reason, he left them.
Mark’s next appearance came when Paul and Barnabas were preparing to go out on their second missionary journey. Barnabas wanted to take Mark, but Paul refused. This led to such a sharp disagreement that they separated into two teams. Barnabas took Mark and returned to Cyprus while Paul took a new companion and headed north and then west (Acts 15:36-41). And that’s the last we hear of Mark in the book of Acts.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Prisci
But while Mark may have disappeared from the story in the book of Acts, it wasn’t the end of his story. In two of Paul’s prison epistles, he sends greetings from Mark (Col. 4:10, Philem. 1:24). And in 2 Timothy 4:11, he instructed Timothy to get Mark and bring him along on a visit to Paul. And, to Timothy, Paul said that Mark had become useful to him in his ministry.
We do not know what Mark’s reason was for leaving Paul and Barnabas on their first trip. But clearly, it did not sit well with Paul. And, for a time, Paul clearly felt that Mark was not a trustworthy companion to take on a trip. But over the years, things changed. We do not know when or how the reconciliation occurred, but clearly, it did. And, in the later years of Paul’s ministry, Mark became a coworker, especially during some of Paul’s time in prison.
Did Mark Write the Gospel of Mark?
The gospel of Mark is anonymous. But early tradition connects it with the Mark of this story. Papias of Hierapolis (A.D. 60-130) and Irenaeus (A.D. 130-200) both identified this gospel as having been written by Mark, a disciple of Peter. According to both sources, Mark essentially took what he learned from Peter and used it to compose what many consider the earliest of the gospels.
Many modern scholars dispute that this gospel was written by the Mark we find in the pages of the New Testament. But I have seen no compelling arguments to counter the witness of these early church fathers. This work of Mark is also widely believed to be a source used by the authors of both Matthew and Luke.
Peter’s reference to Mark (1 Pet. 5:13), while not confirming that Mark wrote this gospel, does add support for the view. Peter says that Mark was with him in Babylon. This reference to Babylon is widely considered to be a cryptic reference to Rome. What is significant here is that Peter affirms that he spent time with Mark, making it reasonable that he could have passed on to Mark the accounts that he later recorded in his gospel.
What Can We Learn From the Life of Mark?
While Mark likely never traveled with Jesus, he clearly was familiar with him. Jesus likely visited his home while in Jerusalem. And it is certain that the early church used his home as a meeting place. In addition to his early involvement with the church in Jerusalem, Mark was able to experience the early days of the church in Antioch and spend time with Paul, Barnabas, and Peter. That was a privilege that few could claim even in the early church.
But Mark’s life had a dark chapter. His abandonment of Paul and Barnabas on their first trip, whatever the reason was, led to a falling out between Paul and Barnabas. And it expressed a lack of maturity in his own life. But he did not let that experience define him. He later traveled with Barnabas and was reconciled to Paul. And he went on to perhaps write the first gospel account that we have a record of.
Eusebius, in his Church History, places Mark (also identified as Mark the Evangelist) as the founder of the church in Alexandria. Tradition says that Mark was martyred in Alexandria in A.D. 68. Many modern scholars dispute much of the early tradition surrounding Mark as well as the witness of the early Fathers. But even based on what little we know in Scripture, we find a man who did not let his failures define him. Mark shook off those early failures and found himself used greatly by God in the early church.
A Prayer for Young People Who Are Wandering
God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Prayer excerpted from The Book of Common Prayer).
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Artem Peretiatko
Ed Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.