Catholic Planet
[ Home | Theology | Articles | Poetry | Music | Resources | Links | Contact ]
Roman Catholic Theology and Biblical Studies

Home > Theology > Insights into Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium >

The Writing of the Gospels - Mark

“When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.” (Acts 12:12).

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

James' Martyrdom and Peter's Arrest

In Acts of the Apostles, chapter 12, king Herod Agrippa I (grandson of Herod the great) has the Apostle James the Greater beheaded. Herod had just returned from Rome, where Claudius, in his second year as emperor, had given Herod authority over Jerusalem and the surrounding area, Judea. Herod left Rome for Jerusalem by boat as soon as possible. He could not have left sooner than early to mid February, because sailing the Mediterranean was considered too dangerous during the winter. He arrived in Jerusalem just before Passover and discovered that there were conflicts between the Jews and the Christians. Earlier that year, Claudius had given the Jewish faith a protected status within the Roman empire. Herod wanted to please Claudius, so he responded to the conflict between Jews and Christians by having James the Apostle beheaded.

James the Greater was beheaded just prior to the days of Unleavened Bread. Herod would not have put anyone to death during the Passover, for fear of offending the huge crowds. The Scripture passage: “This was during the days of Unleavened Bread,” (Acts 12:3) refers to Peter's arrest. Peter was not put to death right away because the Passover had now begun. Herod probably intended to kill Peter after the Passover, but he escaped and went to the house of Mary, mother of John Mark.

James was martyred just before Passover and Peter was arrested during Passover. At Passover, the Jews would travel to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. The earliest Christians did not realize that Christianity would become a separate religion from Judaism. Most of the earliest Christians were Jewish and they continued to go to the synagogue (cf. Acts 2:46). Peter and Paul each traveled about preaching in synagogues about Christ. The earliest Christians still kept the Jewish holy days; for example, the day of Pentecost, referred to in Acts 2:1, was the Jewish feast called Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks. The beheading of James and the arrest of Peter most likely occurred in Jerusalem, because that is where everyone was gathered, including Christians, during the Passover. The house of Mary, mother of John Mark, must have been in Judea, near Jerusalem, because Peter was able to flee there after his arrest and because the community of believers would not have gathered far from Jerusalem during Passover.

How Old Was Mark?

The community of believers was gathered at this house for worship and prayer. The house is called the house of Mary, mother of John Mark. Ordinarily, a house would be called after the head of the household, which is the husband and father. Yet he is not mentioned and the house is called after his wife. Therefore, Mary, the mother of John Mark, was a widow. By the time Luke wrote Acts of the Apostles, John Mark was a well-known disciple of Peter and an apostle in his own right. If John Mark had been an adult, the house would be called the house of John Mark. The house is called the house of Mary, mother of John Mark, because Mark was still a young man, perhaps in his teens or early twenties. He was still seen as the son of Mary, his mother, and not yet as a disciple, apostle, and evangelist.

The Apostle Peter refers to Mark as his son, because John Mark was a disciple who learned the Faith from Peter. It was common practice among the early Christians to refer to someone who learned the Faith from them, and who was of the appropriate age, as “son.” Though Peter was leader of even the Twelve Apostles, and teacher of the Church as a whole, he still did not refer to persons of about his own age as “sons.” Mark the Evangelist must have been about a generation younger than Peter, young enough to be called his son.

Peter fled to Rome to avoid being arrested again and put to death by Herod Agrippa I. Since this was not a persecution by the emperor of Rome, Peter could safely flee to Rome, where a small and growing Christian community already existed. By all accounts, Mark soon ended up at Rome with Peter. He may well have fled there at the same time as Peter. His mother would have been anxious for his safety, because one of the Twelve Apostles had been executed and the leader of the Apostles had been arrested. Her house would have been a potential target of persecution because the community of believers met there for prayer and because Peter fled there after his escape from jail. As a reasonable and devout Christian woman, she would have had to consider her son's safety. She also would have trusted Peter and been happy to have him act as a surrogate father and teacher of the faith to Mark. In any case, Mark did end up at Rome and, with Peter's guidance, he became a devout disciple of Christ.

Peter's arrest and escape occurred during the reign of Claudius, about 8 years after Christ's Crucifixion, which occurred during the reign of Tiberius. Since Mark was in his teens or early twenties at the time of Peter's arrest and escape, Mark was most likely a child during the time of Christ's Ministry-old enough to understand some of what was being taught, but not yet even a teenager. His mother must have been one of Christ's many disciples, since Acts tells us that the community of believers met in her house for prayer. As a child, Mark may have heard and saw Christ, along with his mother, when Christ was teaching and healing. When Mark finally wrote his Gospel, he based it partly on first-hand knowledge from his younger years, partly on what he learn his mother and other members of that early community of believers, and largely on his many years learning from the Apostle Peter.

When Mark was living in Judea, he was too young to have written a Gospel. Even the Christ did not begin His teaching Ministry until He was about thirty. Only after Mark had studied the Faith under Peter's guidance for many years at Rome, was he ready to write the Gospel. Mark could not have written the Gospel of Mark before Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew, because Mark was much younger than Matthew. He was not ready to write about Christ until many years had passed.

Which Language?

Which language did Mark use to write the Gospel? Mark and his mother Mary lived in Judea, near Jerusalem. The community of believers, one of the earliest groups of Christians, met in their house for worship and prayer. Most of the first Christians, especially those from Judea, were Jews who became Christians. If Mark was educated in Judea, when he was a child or teenager, he would have been taught by Jewish teachers. Among the Jews, the priests were the teachers. What limited schools they had were led and taught by Jewish priests, who read and wrote Hebrew themselves and who taught mainly Hebrew reading and writing. If Mark learned to read and write as a child or teen in Judea, then he learned Hebrew.

However, Mark did move to Rome as a young man. He studied and learned there for many years. Rome was the center of Roman culture and learning; and the Roman language was Latin. As someone learning and studying at Rome, Mark must have learned Latin. Most of the books he would study, other than the Hebrew Scriptures, would have been in Latin. Among the Romans, the Latin language was first; the Greek language was second. Most Roman scholars had no knowledge of, nor use for, Hebrew.

When Mark wrote the Gospel, he was writing for the Christians of Rome and so he must have written the Gospel of Mark in Latin. Mark wrote the Gospel in Latin because the Christians of Rome most often used Latin as their written language. For similar reasons, Matthew wrote in Hebrew because he was writing for a group of Christians who most often used Hebrew as their written language.

Saint Mark was most likely of Hebraic descent and raised as a Jew for most of his early years. Even though he wrote the Gospel in Latin, he could probably read and write Hebrew fairly well. Since Matthew's Gospel was written years before Mark wrote his Gospel, Matthew's Gospel was probably in fairly wide circulation and liturgical use by the time that Mark began to write. Mark had access to Matthew's Gospel. This explains the similarities between those two Gospels. Mark understood Hebrew and had access to Matthew's Gospel in the original Hebrew. Some of the minor differences in parallel passages may come from differences between Matthew's Gospel as it is phrased in the original Hebrew and Matthew's Gospel as we have it today (in the earliest surviving Greek manuscripts). Mark's Gospel gives us a look at what Matthew's Gospel was like in its original language, Hebrew, in one of the earliest copies.

Mark Wrote in Latin

The idea that Mark wrote his Gospel in Latin was once a well-known idea. It is even stated in the brief introductory footnote to Mark's Gospel in the Challoner-Douay-Rheims version of the Bible: “Baronius and others say, that the original was written in Latin….” This idea has fallen out of remembrance in modern times, as it is antithetical to many of the ideas of modernist scholars, who do not believe that Mark wrote the Gospel himself, do not believe that it was written within the same generation as Christ, and do not believe that the Scriptures are infallible. Having lost belief in so many more important aspects of the Gospels, it is not surprising that they doubt or ignore the idea that Mark wrote in Latin.

The Codex Bobbiensis is an ancient copy of (part of) the Gospel of Mark in Latin. It contains the abbreviated ending to Mark:
But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. (
This ending is probably the original ending written by Mark, who took his newly written Gospel with him when he left Rome to found the Church in Alexandria. The oldest copies of Mark from the Alexandrian tradition omit verses 16:9-20. Mark did not write that particular ending himself. He may have ended his Gospel with verse 16:8, so that the Codex Bobbiensis ending was added by another author.

Codex Bobbiensis is one of the earliest extant versions of Mark's Gospel, dated to the early third century (the 200's) A.D. The fact that it is in Latin lends support to the idea that Mark was originally written in Latin. Also, that Codex is from Africa, where Mark journeyed after writing his Gospel, so one would expect copies of Mark from that part of the world to be more likely to represent the earliest state of this Gospel.

When Did Mark Write?

Saint Jerome wrote that the Gospel of Mark was sometimes ascribed to the Apostle Peter. (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, chapter 1.) Jerome is not claiming that Peter wrote the Gospel of Mark. In fact, Peter only found out that Mark had written the Gospel after it was completed. Rather, Peter is given some credit for the content of Mark's Gospel because Mark learned much about Christ from Peter.

Saint Jerome tells us how Mark came to write his Gospel:
“Mark the disciple and interpreter of Peter wrote a short gospel at the request of the brethren at Rome embodying what he had heard Peter tell. When Peter had heard this, he approved it and published it to the churches to be read by his authority as Clemens in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes and Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, record.” (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, chapter 8.)
Eusebius adds that the faithful in Rome had to pester Mark quite a bit to convince him to write the Gospel:
“So brightly shone the light of true religion on the minds of Peter's hearers that, not satisfied with a single hearing or with the oral teaching of the divine message, they resorted to appeals of every kind to induce Mark (whose gospel we have), as he was a follower of Peter, to leave them in writing a summary of the instruction they had received by word of mouth, nor did they let him go till they had persuaded him, and thus became responsible for the writing of what is known as the Gospel according to Mark. It is said that, on learning by divine revelation of the spirit what had happened, the apostle was delighted at their enthusiasm and authorized the reading of the book in the churches.” (Eusebius, The History of the Church, 2.15.1-2)
Notice, in both Jerome and Eusebius, Peter was initially unaware that Mark was writing his Gospel. Eusebius even says that Peter had to be informed by divine revelation. Therefore, Peter was not in Rome at the time that Mark wrote his Gospel. If Peter had been in Rome, he would surely have known of the repeated appeals by the faithful to Mark and would have known how his follower, Mark, had responded. Instead, Peter had to be informed as to what had occurred. Also, Peter must have been away from Rome for some length of time, long enough for the faithful to spend some time trying to convince Mark to write, then also long enough for Mark to write the whole of his Gospel before Peter even knew anything about it. Peter was most likely on a missionary journey to spread the Gospel, while Mark stayed behind and wrote the Gospel. And why would Peter's missionary journey take so long? Peter was probably spending the winter somewhere, because traveling the Mediterranean in winter was dangerous (Acts 27:10-12). It was quite common for the Apostles to spend the winter in one place, preferring to travel in the other seasons (see Acts 28:11; 2 Tim 4:21; 1 Cor 16:5-6; Titus 3:12).

Eusebius also tells us that the faithful of Rome not only “resorted to appeals of every kind,” but also did not “let him go till they had persuaded him.” (Eusebius, The History of the Church, 2.15.1-2) Where was Mark going that the faithful of Rome should detain him until he agreed to write the Gospel? Clearly Mark intended to go on a long journey, for if it were a short journey, the faithful of Rome would not have been so anxious to have the Gospel in writing. Could this journey have been one of Peter's missionary journeys to those places mentioned in 1 Peter 1:1 (modern-day Turkey)? No, if Mark did not accompany Peter, because the faithful had already persuaded him before Peter departed, then Peter would have known that Mark was writing the Gospel, which was not the case. Furthermore, Peter certainly returned to Rome after journeying to various places to preach Christ. If Mark had journeyed with Peter, he also would have returned, so that the faithful would not have been so anxious to have his teaching in writing.

Where did Mark intend to go after he wrote the Gospel? Mark likely intended to go on a long journey without Peter, a journey from which he might not return. For this reason, the faithful of Rome were anxious to persuade him to write the Gospel. Eusebius wrote that they sought to convince Mark “to leave them in writing a summary of the instruction they had received by word of mouth.” (Eusebius, History of the Church, 2.15.1-2) This phrasing indicates that Mark intended to go somewhere distant and perhaps never return, so that the faithful would no longer have access to Mark's teaching by his spoken words. Since Peter was away on a long journey of his own, and Mark was about to depart also, the faithful of Rome wanted Peter and Mark's teaching in writing. In this way, the Gospel of Mark came to be written.

Mark did make a long journey from which he did not return; he traveled to Egypt to preach the Gospel. “So, taking the gospel which he himself composed, he went to Egypt and first preaching Christ at Alexandria he formed a church so admirable in doctrine and continence of living that he constrained all followers of Christ to his example.” (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, chapter 8.) Mark completed his Gospel before going to Egypt, and, after preaching there for many years, he suffered a martyr's death. Mark's Gospel was written sometime before Mark traveled to Egypt. Therefore, the faithful of Rome delayed Mark's missionary journey to Egypt by convincing him to first write the Gospel of Mark.

The 15th year after Christ's Ascension (A.D. 34) was the year of the Virgin Mary's Dormition, Resurrection, and Assumption, according to Saint Bridget and Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (See Conte, Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary, chap. 10, for the references in this section). According to Blessed Anne Catherine, Peter attended the Dormition of the Virgin Mary and John Mark accompanied him. An ancient source, The History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, states that Mark decided, because of a revelation from God, to make his missionary journey to Alexandria in the 15th year after the Ascension of Christ. But notice that this source does not say that Mark arrived that year, but only that he came to his decision that year. The 15th year after the Ascension of Christ was a likely time for Mark to be inspired to leave Peter and undertake a missionary journey of his own. It was by then the 9th year of Claudius' reign. Mark had been Peter's student and assistant for over seven years, since journeying with Peter from Jerusalem to Rome during the spring of Claudius' 2nd year. He had also followed Paul and Barnabas on some of their missionary journeys. And he had attended the Dormition of the Virgin Mary at Ephesus, along with the remaining Eleven of the Twelve Apostles. The Dormition of the Virgin Mary, as well as her Resurrection and Assumption, inspired Mark to take the next step in following Christ, to go on his own to a distant land and preach the Gospel.

Now it was the faithful of Rome who delayed Mark's missionary journey so that he would first write down the teachings of Christ for them. But the Gospel of Mark must have taken more than a few days or weeks to write. Peter and Mark probably went to Ephesus to attend the death of the Virgin Mary on relatively short notice. They had something of a deadline for beginning this journey. Therefore, this was not the journey that was delayed at the request of the faithful of Rome so that Mark could write his Gospel. Yet at least one ancient source places Mark's decision to go to Egypt in that same year, the 15th since the Ascension.

For the above reasons, I conclude the following. Mark returned to Rome after the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. He was greatly inspired by the Virgin Mary's Dormition, Resurrection, and Assumption, and he may have also received some kind of revelation concerning God's will for him. The result was that he then decided to undertake his mission to preach the Gospel in Egypt. His journey to Egypt became associated with the 15th year after the Ascension because that was the year of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the year of his decision. But the faithful of Rome, knowing that he might never return from this mission to Egypt, delayed his journey by convincing him to write the Gospel before departing. Mark then took the Gospel, which he himself had recently written, to Egypt and founded the first community of Christians there, at Alexandria. In fact, the phrasing used by both Eusebius and Saint Jerome seems to imply that Mark had written his Gospel not long before journeying to Egypt: “So, taking the gospel which he himself composed, he went to Egypt….” (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, chapter 8.) Eusebius also mentions the writing of the Gospel of Mark in the same sentence in which he tells us of Mark's journey to Egypt. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Loeb Classical Library, 2.16.1) The Gospel of Mark was written just prior to Mark's journey to Egypt, about the time of the 15th year after Christ's Ascension, during the winter of A.D. 34/35.

When did Mark actually arrive in Egypt? He could not have arrived in the same year as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (in A.D. 34), which was the 15th year since the Ascension of Christ and the 9th year of Claudius' reign. The Assumption occurred in mid August in Ephesus (Conte, Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary, chap. 10). But Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome, prior to leaving for Egypt. Mark must first have traveled back to Rome from Ephesus, a journey that may have taken a month or more, even in good weather. Mark could have arrived back in Rome in September or early October. He reached his decision to undertake a missionary journey to Egypt at the time of the Assumption, or soon after.

There is not enough time between late September and the end of the season for travel on the Mediterranean (Nov. 11, according to Pliny, Natural History, 2.47; see also Acts 27:9ff) to account for Mark writing the Gospel and then undertaking a safe journey to Egypt. First, the faithful of Rome made numerous appeals to Mark to convince him to write, then Mark spent some length of time writing the Gospel, and, when he finally departed, Mark's journey to Egypt from Rome must have taken at least a couple of months. Therefore, although Mark wanted to journey to Egypt soon after returning from the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, the faithful of Rome delayed his journey by convincing him to first write the Gospel. Because he was writing his Gospel, Mark missed the end of the good sailing weather and had to winter in Rome. And Peter was not present in Rome during the writing of the Gospel of Mark because Peter was wintering elsewhere. Thus the delay spoken of by Eusebius was not a matter of days or weeks, but of a whole season. During that time, in late fall and winter of A.D. 34/35, Mark wrote his Gospel. He then departed for Egypt at his next opportunity, sometime in the spring of A.D. 35.

When Mark wrote his Gospel, Peter was not present, nor did Peter even know that the faithful of Rome were pestering Mark to write the Gospel. Peter could have left on a missionary journey soon after returning to Rome from attending the Dormition of the Virgin Mary at Ephesus. But, more likely, Peter did not return to Rome from Ephesus. Instead, he may have visited the churches mentioned in 1 Peter 1:1, which are in the same general area as Ephesus, and decided to winter in that region. Peter's extended absence from Rome (when he did not return from Ephesus with Mark), combined with Mark's intention to soon depart on a long missionary journey of his own, made the faithful of Rome anxious to obtain the Gospel in writing.

In summary, Mark decided to go to Egypt to preach Christ soon after the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. But when the faithful of Rome insisted he write the Gospel before leaving them, he was not able to leave before the sailing season ended and had to pass the whole winter in Rome, writing the Gospel and all the while persevering in his intention to make a missionary journey to Egypt. Since Mark wrote the Gospel without Peter's prior knowledge, Peter must have passed that winter somewhere other than Rome. Then, sometime after the good sailing weather resumed in early February, Mark set out for Egypt. He probably arrived in Egypt in spring of A.D. 35, the 16th year since the Ascension and the same year as the third Council of the Church (Acts 15). The Gospel of Mark was written in the winter of A.D. 34/35, just over 15 years since the Ascension of Christ to Heaven. The Jewish civil calendar year of A.D. 34/35 was also a Sabbatical year (Conte, Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary, chap. 16).

The Acts of the Apostles records (Acts 15:36-41) that Mark made a missionary journey with Barnabas from Antioch, sometime after the Council of Acts 15 (A.D. 35). This journey probably occurred in early A.D. 36 (Conte, Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary, chap. 11). Mark's journey with Barnabas in A.D. 36 does not rule out Mark's earlier journey to Egypt in early A.D. 35. After spending about a year preaching the Gospel and establishing a new Christian community in Alexandria, Mark certainly could have returned to Antioch. In fact, it is both likely and reasonable that Mark would return to a city with a long-established Christian community after spending some time in a distant mission. Establishing a new church in a distant area is a difficult endeavor, which would benefit from periodic trips to cities with established Christian communities. There, Mark could seek advice and assistance, recruit additional workers in the faith, and perhaps also obtain financial or material support.

In addition, the Gospel of Mark had only recently been written and approved of by Peter. The distribution of this Gospel to Antioch and to other established Christian communities would have resulted in a desire by those communities to hear and meet with the Gospel writer, Mark. Thus, Mark's presence was in demand, giving him another reason to make occasional trips away from his mission in Egypt.

The Title

What was the Title of Mark's Gospel? It is almost certain that Mark did not call his work, “The Gospel According To Mark.” Such a title would be equivalent to saying, “The Gospel According To Me.” Saint Mark does not even mention himself by name within his Gospel, so then he would not put his own name in the title. Mark, and other authors of that time period, would not generally use their own name in the title of a work.

Yet it was the custom among authors of that time period, as is still true today, to give each work a title. For example, in Antiquities of the Jews, by Flavius Josephus, each book (similar to what we today would call a chapter) has a title. Each title is usually fairly lengthy, for example: “What Charge David Gave To His Son Solomon At The Approach Of His Death; And How Many Things He Left Him For The Building Of The Temple” (Antiquities of the Jews, book 7, chapter 15).

The title that Mark gave to his work could possibly have been lost. Sacred Scripture is a work written first and foremost by the Holy Spirit, who sometimes chooses to write a book through more than one human author. One author might write most of a book, but another might put some finishing touches on it (such as removing or adding a passage). Despite this sheer possibility, of all the words written within a book copied and handed down from one person to the next, the title is the least likely portion of the work to become lost.

On the other hand, the title could have remained with the work, even to this day. The Gospel of Mark begins with these words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mk 1:1). Among authors today, such a sentence does not seem like a title; authors today prefer short titles, sometimes consisting of only one or two words. But in ancient times, as seen for example the titles of the books of Flavius Josephus (who lived and wrote in the first century A.D.), titles were often sentences or nearly full sentences.

Mark did give his work a title: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. These words do not refer to the first chapter or first section of Mark's Gospel. They constitute the title of Mark's Gospel. Mark's entire written work (which we call “the Gospel of Mark”) is really only the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mark is telling us, with the title of this work, that he is presenting only the beginning of the good news brought by Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Christ cannot be contained within the words written by Mark; these words are only the beginning of the gospel.

(Portions of this article have been adapted from the author's book, Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary)

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
December 25, 2005

Home > Theology > Insights into Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium > Top