Apr 252014


Today is the feast day of St Mark the Evangelist, author of the Gospel of Mark. He is one of the Seventy Disciples, and the supposed founder of the Church of Alexandria, one of the original three main episcopal sees of Christianity. No one can be sure of the actual identity of Mark but there are certain conjectures of long standing that have been accepted, for no really good reason, for centuries. The conventional belief is that Mark the Evangelist is the same person as John Mark who is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15:37). Sometimes he is also conflated with Mark, the cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10; Philm 1:24), but most modern scholars consider this unwarranted. Nowadays the identification of Mark the Evangelist with John Mark is the scholarly consensus, but there are skeptics (myself included). A great many debates in theological circles hinge on who exactly Mark was. Was he an eyewitness to events in the life of Jesus? Was he a follower of Paul and/or Peter without direct experience of Jesus? Was he a scribe who collated oral and written traditions into a continuous narrative? The first is highly unlikely, the second is a possibility, the third seems to me most likely.

Scholars have favored the identification of Mark the Evangelist with John Mark of the Acts because he seems to be a significant figure in the early church. Here’s what we know about him from Acts:

    When [Peter] 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]

   And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, bringing with them John whose other name was Mark.[Acts 12:25]

   When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.[Acts 13:5]

   Now Paul and his company set sail from Paphos, and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem; but they passed on from Perga and came to Antioch of Pisidia.[Acts 13:13–14]

   And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.[Acts 15:37–40]

My first essay for my Greek Bible tutor at Oxford was “Does it matter whether Mark the Evangelist was John Mark?” (He believed he was). Well, yes it does, but at 19 I had no clue how to answer this question; I have pondered it a great deal in the intervening years. The reason it does is that if the gospel writer is John Mark we can speculate on his motives for writing the gospel. For starters, John Mark vehemently disagreed with Paul, so chances are the gospel is some kind of riposte to Paul’s teachings. It is known that Paul disagreed with the apostles in Jerusalem on several occasions, and the solution was for the apostles to continue working in Jerusalem, and for Paul to go on missionary expeditions throughout the Mediterranean. Probably the chief issue was whether “the way” – the earliest name for Christianity – was for Jews only (the apostles), or whether it should be spread to the gentile world (Paul).

If the gospel writer is John Mark then he was a friend of Peter’s, which would explain Peter’s prominence in the gospel. It would also explain why the gospel was written in Greek, yet the author is very familiar with Aramaic (Jesus’ native language). He frequently translates Aramaic sayings into Greek. But we also have to accept the fact that John and Mark (Marcus) were very common names in the 1st century, and, therefore, the gospel writer could have been any one of them.


There are a great many traditions surrounding Mark the Evangelist, chief of which is that in 49 CE he traveled to Alexandria where he founded the Church of Alexandria, which today is part of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Aspects of the Coptic liturgy are supposed to be attributable to Mark himself, although this is pure conjecture. Because of these traditions, Mark is celebrated as the first bishop of Alexandria and honored as the founder of Christianity in Africa.

In 828, relics believed to be the body of St. Mark were stolen from Alexandria by Venetian merchants and taken to Venice. A mosaic in St Mark’s Basilica depicts sailors covering the relics with a layer of pork and cabbage leaves. Since Muslims are not permitted to touch pork, this was done to prevent the guards from inspecting the ship’s cargo too closely. The possession of a truly important relic could have serious political consequences. When the body of St Mark came to Venice, the previous patron saint of the city, St Theodore, was demoted. The Doge of the day began to build a splendid church to contain the relics next to his palace, the original San Marco. With an evangelist on its territory, Venice acquired a status almost equal to that of Rome itself. To this day St Mark’s Day is a major festival in Venice.


In 1063, during the construction of a new basilica in Venice, St. Mark’s relics could not be found. However, according to tradition, in 1094 the saint himself revealed the location of his remains by extending an arm from a pillar. The newfound remains were placed in a sarcophagus in the basilica.


In art, Mark is represented sometimes as a young man sometimes as an old one, sometimes dressed in a bishop’s habit, with a lion at his feet and a scroll with words “Peace be to thee, O Mark, My Evangelist.” He holds a pen in his right hand and the Gospel in his left. He can also be represented seated on a throne decorated with lions, or else helping Venetian sailors.


For the sake of variety I will celebrate Mark with a modern recipe from Alexandria rather than an ancient one. Alexandrian liver is a popular dish throughout Egypt. It is commonly found in major cities sold by street vendors with fresh chiles, lime wedges, and warm pita. It is easily made at home. Just be sure not to overcook the liver.


Alexandrian Liver


? cup cooking oil
1 lb/500 gm calf’s liver, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
1 hot red pepper, seeded and chopped (more if desired)
1 ½ tbsps powdered cumin
½ tsp powdered cinnamon
¼ tsp powdered ginger
¼ tsp powdered cloves
¼ tsp powdered cardamom
Juice of one lime or lemon
1 tsp salt


Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over high heat until it reaches the smoking point. Make sure the liver is dry by patting with paper towels.  Add the liver to the hot oil and sauté quickly until it lightly browns.

Add all the other ingredients and continue to cook on high heat from 1-2 minutes. Then cover the pan and cook over medium heat for another 10-15 minutes until the liver is cooked through but not dry.

Serve with warm pita or crusty bread.

Serves 4