Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Reflections on St. Mark's Day

Detail from facade of Witherspoon Building, Juniper and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia (1897),
portraying Mark traditionally as the winged lion of Revelation 4:5-7
(photo taken by author, 14 March 2012)

Today is St. Mark's Day, commemorating the life and ministry of John Mark, companion of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and—according to the most ancient tradition—the author of the "Gospel" that bears his name.  Mark's significance was detailed by the ancient church father Papias of Hierapolis, companion of Polycarp and hearer of John the Elder (John, son of Zebedee?):
And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.14-15)
What Papias learned from the mouth of John the Elder is confirmed independently by Justin Martyr (ca. 150 CE):
And when it is said that He changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and when it is written in the memoirs of Him that this so happened, as well as that He changed the names of other two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means sons of thunder; this was an announcement of the fact that it was He by whom Jacob was called Israel…. (Dialogue with Trypho, 106.3)
Mark, according to the oldest tradition, wrote his book not simply to produce a rip-roaring story cleverly disguising fictitious projections of community experiences.  Rather, he aimed to leave out nothing of importance of what Peter had recalled Jesus to have done and said.  And if, as I find incontrovertible, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are related literarily, and Mark's was almost certainly the earliest to have been written, then Mark's Gospel, somewhat ignored until the last couple of centuries in favor of its longer neighbors, is the literary fountainhead of the Gospel tradition that forms the core of the Christian canon.  Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, Mark was the first to have designated the entire story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection as "gospel" in the sense that they constitute God's definitive saving event in fulfillment of the Old Testament covenantal promises.

I leave you with the Collect for St. Mark's Day from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
O ALMIGHTY God, who hast instructed thy holy Church with the heavenly doctrine of thy Evangelist Saint Mark; Give us grace that. being not like children carried away with every blast of vain doctrine, we may be established in the truth of thy holy Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

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