Analysis & Research

New Insights into Acts 12 and 13: John Mark

Elsewhere, I have argued that Matthew was published for the benefit of the Jews, coincident with the events of Acts 10–11, as Peter and Paul began preaching in Rome, the empire. And further, that Mark was published shortly thereafter, leveraging both Matthew’s Gospel and the sermons of Peter, at the request of the Latin believers in Caesarea Maritima.†

How does this change our understanding of the New Testament?

In this post, I want to focus on John Mark, who is not formally introduced until Acts 12.1 First, we’ll revisit what the church father’s say about the authoring of Mark’s Gospel, then we’ll review what is commonly recognized concerning John Mark per the NT, then we’ll speculate concerning John Mark’s participation in Peter’s ministry before authoring the Gospel, and finally, we’ll reassess John Mark’s intended role on Paul’s first journey.

What do the church fathers say about Mark’s authoring of his Gospel?

Eusebius reports the following per Papias:

Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15; Eusebius, Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, vol. 1, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2 (New York, NY: Christian Literature, 1890), 172.

Eusebius reports the following per Clement:

The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it. But, last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel. This is the account of Clement.

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.6–7; Eusebius, Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, vol. 1, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2 (New York, NY: Christian Literature, 1890), 261.

To recap, (1) Mark never heard Jesus preach, (2) but he wrote down what he remembered of Peter’s sermons, though not in order, (2) he did this at the request of those in Rome [which I understand to refer to those in Caesarea Maritima, the local roman stronghold] who heard Peter preach, (3) he did this after Peter had departed, and (4) Peter later neither forbade nor encouraged this.

What does the NT say about John Mark?

Mark’s Socioeconomic Background

From Acts 12, we learn that John Mark’s family was somewhat prosperous, owning a house which could host a gathering of disciples, with an outer gate, and having a servant girl. Further, Peter’s voice was known to the servant girl, which suggests that the disciples frequented the home. Also, John Mark had both Jewish and Greco-Roman names, suggesting that he operated in both spheres. Since the house is identified as his mother’s, this suggests that his father was no longer alive, and therefore John Mark may have had a more significant role in the family and family business.

1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. … 6 Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. 7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. … 12 When he [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. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. (Acts 12:1–14 ESV)

Mark’s History with Paul

At the end of Acts 12, we learn that John Mark accompanied Barnabas and Saul to Antioch (12:25). And that he (“John”) subsequently accompanied them on their mission to Cyprus, as their assistant (ὑπηρέτην) (13:4–5). Subsequently, “John” left and returned to Jerusalem, while Paul and his companions continued (13:13). Note that “companions” suggests that Paul was traveling with more than just Barnabas and John. John’s bail-out at Cyprus then leads to conflict at the beginning of the second missionary journey, such that Paul went one way with Silas, while Barnabas and “Mark” returned to Cyprus (15:36–41). Refer to the footnotes for an excellent paper by Erbey Valdez which looks to how John Mark’s name changes in the narrative, which Valdez understands as subtly conveying the reason behind Mark’s abandonment of the first missionary journey and his later change of heart, which led to his readiness to participate in the second journey.2 Elsewhere, Mark is identified as a cousin of Barnabas, and Barnabas is identified as a Levite, a native of Cyprus (Col. 4:10; Acts 4:36).

Despite the earlier conflict, Paul speaks favorably of Mark in his prison epistles (Col. 4:10; Philem 24). And further, in what is perhaps Paul’s final letter, Paul requests that Timothy bring Mark with him, commenting that Mark “is very useful to me for ministry (διακονίαν)” (2 Tim. 4:11). This is then followed by Paul’s request that Timothy also bring the books and parchments (4:13). Similarly, Peter affectionately calls Mark, “my son” (1 Pet. 5:13). Hence, we know something of John Mark’s story, both that he abandoned Paul and Barnabas, and that he regained their trust and respect, as being “useful for ministry.”

What can we speculate concerning John Mark’s participation in Peter’s ministry before authoring the Gospel?

First, we don’t know when John Mark and his mother became believers, as Papias reports that Mark “neither heard the Lord nor followed him.” Nonetheless, given that Peter frequented Mark’s house in the early chapters of Acts, we can assume that Mark was a believer by this time and that he accompanied Peter during at least a portion of the preaching circuit which ultimately took him to Caesarea Maritima.3 Accordingly, Mark likely observed Peter healing Aeneas, the paralytic in Lydda, and then witnessed the many from Lydda and Sharon “who turned to the Lord” (9:32–35). He was presumably there when Dorcas was raised in Joppa (9:40), and was likely among “the brethren from Joppa [who] accompanied” Peter in bringing the gospel to Cornelius (Acts 10:23; 11:12). In accordance with the testimony of the church fathers, I speculate that Mark then stayed behind in Caesarea Maritima, with Philip, as Peter return to Jerusalem, and it was during this time that he wrote his Gospel. Ultimately though, he was back in Jerusalem, in time to depart for Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, per Acts 12.

What was John Mark’s intended role on Paul’s first missionary journey?

John Mark went along “to assist (ὑπηρέτην)” Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:5). This term is used elsewhere in the NT to refer to prison guards (Matt. 5:25); temple guards (Matt. 26:58; Mark 14:54; John 7:32; etc.); ministers of the word (Luke 1:2); the one who handles the scrolls in the synagogue (Luke 4:20); servants of the kingdom in general (John 18:36); and of Paul and others as servants of Christ (Acts 26:16; 1 Cor. 4:1). On the premise that Mark had just recently published a Gospel, his role was most likely in the literary department—caring for scrolls as they traveled from town to town, etc.4 Yet, if the scope of his ministry was limited to caring for the scrolls, then why was Paul so upset to have had Mark abandon the mission?

I surmise that Paul had the following expectations of John Mark, when he was chosen to assist the mission in Acts 12:25:

Handler of the Scriptures. On the premise that both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark were published prior to Paul’s first missionary journey, I presume that Mark was expected to manage these Scriptures in the synagogues for Paul, akin to how the attendant (ὑπηρέτῃ) in the synagogue in Nazareth was responsible for managing the scrolls there. Paul, as was “his custom,” reasoned with the the Jews in the synagogue each Sabbath —”from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2). In each synagogue, I envision Paul as encouraging the audience to compare the claims of the Lord’s Gospel with what was written in the Law, Prophets, and Writings. Previously, I have shown how Galatians 3:1 also alludes to an instance where Paul preached from a Gospel.5 Furthermore, Mark would have been expected to assist those Jews who wanted to continue examining these Gospels, similar to the activity of the Bereans (Acts 17:11).

Copyist. In so far as Paul and team planned to take up residence in any given town for more than a couple days, it would have been Mark who was responsible for overseeing the reproduction of the Gospels for the benefit of new churches. By my estimation, the Gospel of Mark could easily be copied within a week by a single scribe, while Matthew might stretch into two weeks. We can envision Silas and Luke as overseeing some of that work on Paul’s subsequent journeys.

Chronicler. Even as the Gospel of Matthew shows evidence of an intentional chronicling of the things which Jesus said and did, I suggest that Paul had a similar expectation regarding his mission. This is not unlike the chronicling which is found in contemporary Jewish and Greco-Roman literature—consider the history of the Maccabees, and the writings of Josephus and his Jewish War. Since Mark bailed on this role during the first missionary journey, Paul presumably tapped Silas for this role on the second journey, and later Luke (Acts 16:10). Note that Silas had earlier been part of the delegation from the Jerusalem council to Antioch, bearing the council’s letter, with the expectation that he would read and explain the letter to his audience (Acts 15:27). And sometime later, Silas (Silvanus) would serve as a scribe (amanuensis) for the letter of First Peter (1 Peter 5:12). Hence, Silas had the necessary scribal skills to serve as Paul’s chronicler.

Amanuensis. Paul is well known for his letter writing. Accordingly, he may have anticipated dictating and dispatching letters back to Antioch, penned by John Mark, during the course of his first missionary journey. In Galatians 6:11, Paul speaks of the “large letters I am writing to you with my own hand,” as he adds a closing warning and benediction to the letter, suggesting to some scholars (and myself) that Paul may have had a problem with his eyesight (ref. Gal. 4:13–15), which limited his ability to write his own letters; although, more recent scholars are dismissive of the poor eyesight theory.6

Given all of these expectations on John Mark, one can easily understand Paul’s frustration with Mark’s early abandonment of the first mission, and Paul’s reluctance to depend on Mark on the second journey. Mark was not just expected to carry baggage and run errands, but to directly assist in the spread of the “word of the Lord” (Acts 13:44) by means of his literary skills.7

  1. Not discussed herein is the theory that the naked lad of Mark 14:51 might have been John Mark. Mark L Strauss, Mark, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 645–46. ↩︎
  2. Erbey Galvan Valdez, “A Narratological Re-Examination of John Mark’s Departure from the First Missionary Journey in Light of Lukan Name-Structures,” The Expository Times 134, no. 7 (April 2023): 289–98. ↩︎
  3. He may also have accompanied Peter during the circuit described in Acts 8:14–25. ↩︎
  4. Commentaries generally treat Mark’s role as that of being a general helper and ignore the potential literary roles. For example, Marshall designates John as “merely a helper,” with an emphasis on helping “the missionaries on a practical level.” I. Howard Marshall, Acts: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980), 232. Peterson states “that he may simply have been looking after the material needs of the leaders … however, the more specialized use of the same term in Luke 1:2 (‘servants of the word’) and Acts 26:16 (a ‘servant’ of the gospel) allows for the possibility that John was involved in preaching and teaching. David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 379. ↩︎
  5. ↩︎
  6. Some of those in favor of the poor eyesight theory include: Scott E. McClelland, “Galatians,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 998–1019, 1019; John MacArthur, Galatians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1987); Charles Spurgeon, Galatians, ed. Elliot Ritzema (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013). Opponents of the poor eyesight theory include Longenecker and Schreiner, who contend that Paul is merely using the expression to draw attention to the importance of his postscript. Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, 1990), 290; Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 376. ↩︎
  7. We might also speculate on what scribal task Paul had in mind when later summoning Mark and Timothy to Rome, along with the “books, and … the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:11). ↩︎

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