Who is Mark? What does the rest of the New Testament have to say about the author of Mark’s Gospel?

By Julie M. Smith

“Mark” was one of the most common male names in the Roman empire, so we cannot be sure that every reference to Mark in the New Testament is a reference to the same person. (Some scholars think it is likely—but still not certain—that all of references are to one person.[1]) With those caveats, here is what the New Testament references to Mark might suggest about the author of the Gospel:

1. Acts 12:12 records that Peter “came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying” and Acts 12:25 describes John Mark serving as a missionary with Barnabas and Paul. This Mark was called “John Mark;” it was fairly common at this time for Jews to have a Hebrew name (John, as it comes into English, or Yohanan in Hebrew) and a Roman name (Mark).[2] It is possible that the reference to his surname served to distinguish him from other “Mark”s who were known to the audience. He lived in Jerusalem and his mother was Mary. A home used for Church gatherings would have been large, indicating their wealth, which makes it more likely that John Mark would have been literate, a characteristic he would have shared with only a tiny fraction of the population.[3] There is evidence here of an association between Peter and John Mark. Since not that many Romans would have known Aramaic, the presence of Aramaic in Mark lends support to the idea of the author being John Mark, since he had a home in Jerusalem. On the other hand, John Mark is a Jew, but several passages in the Gospel of Mark suggest a lack of familiarity with Jewish customs (see above), so that might indicate that this is not a reference to the author of the second Gospel.[4] Overall, the evidence from this passage is mixed, but much of it is congruent with our picture of the author of Mark’s Gospel.

2. 2 Timothy 4:11 reads: “Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.” The author of the letter (traditionally presumed to be Paul, but most modern interpreters question this view) felt that Mark would be “profitable.” This passage does not call Mark “John Mark,” which may imply that this is not the same Mark who is mentioned in Acts.

3. Acts 15:36-39 describes a falling out between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark. Paul did not want to take John Mark on the missionary tour that he is proposing because John Mark had abandoned him in the middle of a previous missionary tour (see Acts 13:13). While this is certainly not a flattering portrait of John Mark, its inclusion in the record ironically serves as support for Mark’s authorship of the Gospel since it is unlikely that an early Christian writer would have forged a connection between an absconding missionary and a Gospel.[5] On the other hand, if Mark’s personal history included the abandonment of missionary service, then the theme of discipleship (especially failures of discipleship), a theme generally recognized as one of the key concerns in Mark’s Gospel, becomes particularly personal and poignant.

4. In 1 Peter 5:13, Peter[6] refers to “Marcus my son.” Most scholars take the reference to “son” as an honorific,[7] but it certainly suggests the kind of close association that would have made Mark an excellent recorder of Peter’s memories. Note that “Marcus” is not called “John” here.

5. While it does not mention Mark, Romans 16:13 may be informative. If the “Rufus” of Romans 16:13 is the same Rufus mentioned in Mark 15:21—where the verse makes it sound as if he were known to the first audience of the Gospel—then it strengthens the connection that most scholars find between the Gospel and a Roman setting.

Again, there is no way to know if these references all refer to the same person or if that person is the author of the second Gospel and/or. Some scholars do not think that “Mark” and “John Mark” are the same person; rather, the entire point of calling one of them “John Mark” would have been to distinguish him from the other Mark(s).[8]

The evidence concerning (John) Mark from Acts and the epistles suggests an association between Mark and Peter. It implies that Mark had a besmirched reputation in the Church and did not hold any sort of high office, and therefore would not have been anyone’s first choice when fabricating a story about Gospel authorship. So while these passages do not prove that Peter was Mark’s source, they do not contradict that theory either, and to some extent they support the association of the Gospel with Mark and with Peter.

[1] See Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 18.

[2] See Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 18.

[3] Literacy rates were probably between 2% and 10%. See Richard A. Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 55.

[4] See Pierson Parker, “Authorship Of The Second Gospel,” Perspectives In Religious Studies 5.1 (1978): 4-9.

[5] Depending on how the materials are dated and whether they refer to the same person, it is possible that Philemon 24 and Colossians 4:10 indicate that the rift between Mark and Paul was later mended.

[6] This reference is complicated by the fact that many scholars do not think that Peter himself wrote 1 Peter. See Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 4.

[7] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 4.

[8] See Robert A. Guelich, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1-8:26 (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1989), page xxviii. He reviews the evidence but ultimately rejects this theory.