John Mark is a minor biblical figure who lived during the first century. He’s traditionally believed to also be Mark the Evangelist, the author of the Gospel of Mark. In the Book of Acts, John Mark was a companion of Paul and Barnabas. While the Bible doesn’t confirm or deny this, many believe he developed a close relationship with Peter, and that his gospel records Peter’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry.
If he was, in fact, Mark the Evangelist, then according to the early church, John Mark was also the first bishop of Alexandria and the first person to establish a Christian church in Africa.
His name first appears in Acts 12:12, when Peter escapes from prison and retreats to a house of Christians—which happens to be the house of John Mark’s mother, Mary. Many scholars speculate that this was the start of a long-standing relationship between them, and that John Mark eventually recorded Peter’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry in the Gospel of Mark.
The next time we see John Mark in the Bible, he’s a traveling companion of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 12:25). John Mark eventually created a conflict between Paul and Barnabas, and as a result, they parted ways on Paul’s second missionary journey.
The New Testament only mentions John Mark by name a handful of times—though some scholars speculate he’s an unnamed character in the Gospel of Mark as well (Mark 14:51–52).
So who was this obscure biblical figure? And why does the church believe he wrote the Gospel of Mark—which is widely believed to have been the first gospel ever written? We’re going to examine everything the Bible says about John Mark, and what we can gather from ancient Christian writers.
First, some quick facts.
Who was John Mark?
When it comes to the details of John Mark’s life, the Bible doesn’t give us much to go on. For millennia, scholars have picked apart the passages that mention him, straining them for clues about this obscure, yet important biblical figure. Beyond a smattering of facts we can glean from Scripture and some conflicting accounts from the early church, we’re left to speculate who he was and what he did.
Here’s what we know.
John, also called Mark
The Bible never actually refers to someone named John Mark. But several passages in Acts refer to a man as “John, also called Mark.” This is the person we know as John Mark—perhaps he would be more accurately remembered as “John/Mark.” In the first century, John was the most common Hebrew name. Mark was the most common Roman name. It wasn’t unusual for someone to go by both a Hebrew and Roman name, as we see with Saul, also called Paul.
Since this person had two of the most common names of his time, it could be a mistake to assume every reference to a person named Mark is referring to the man we know as John Mark. However, some scholars argue that the fact that this name was so common is precisely why we should assume if the Bible says “Mark,” it means this Mark.
There are plenty of other common names in the Bible, and in many cases, when there are two or more people with the same name, the biblical author attempts to distinguish them. We can always tell when the Bible is referring to John the Baptist or John the apostle. While there were two apostles with the name Judas, one is referred to as Judas Iscariot, and the other is Judas son of James (Luke 6:16). Not to mention the numerous Marys and Jameses who are all distinct in narrative accounts.
So when Peter mentions “my son Mark” in 1 Peter 5:13, he clearly assumes the churches he wrote to would know exactly which Mark this was. In some of Paul’s letters, he mentions a man named Mark with even less effort to distinguish whom he’s referring to (2 Timothy 4:11, Philemon 24).
If, as church tradition attests, there was a well-known Mark in the first-century church, it’s not unreasonable to assume that unless a biblical author says otherwise, a reference to a Mark was a reference to this Mark.
The son of Mary
John Mark is first mentioned in Acts 12:12, where Luke uses him to distinguish which Mary he’s referring to:
“When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.”
Since Mary was a homeowner with at least one servant (Acts 12:13) and Christians gathered in her home, she was most likely a wealthy, reputable woman. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary suggests she likely played an essential role in the early Christian church, and that this status has led to numerous speculations about John Mark and his family:
“Both the house itself and the household of Mary probably were significant for the early Christian community in Jerusalem, since Peter seems to have known that Christians would be gathered there for prayer. Thus the role of John Mark in early Church tradition often is associated with the presumed wealth and prestige of Mary, who was a homeowner with a maidservant (Rhoda) and who could support gatherings of early Christians for worship. The common, though most likely errant, belief that John Mark was the “young man” who escaped capture by the Romans at the arrest of Jesus (Mark 14:51–52) rests upon the assumption that the Garden of Gethsemane was owned and tended by the family of Mary. According to this view, John Mark perhaps would have been stationed at the garden as a guard during the night watch. Another tradition, which maintains that the Last Supper (Mark 14) was held in the home of Mary, assumes that the household was familiar with the work of Jesus and was receptive to his activity. Papias of Hierapolis argues against a close relationship between Jesus and the family, however, since he notes specifically that Mark “had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him” (Eusebius, Church History 3.39.15).”
A companion of Paul and Barnabas
Later in Acts 12, Luke mentions John Mark again. This time, he’s hitting the road with Paul and Barnabas:
“When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.” —Acts 12:25
John Mark doesn’t play a prominent role in any of the events on this missionary journey, but Luke does mention that he was their “helper” (Acts 13:5). The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary speculates he may have been something like “a recorder, catechist, and travel attendant.”
When Paul and Barnabas reached Perga in Pamphylia (an ancient city in modern-day Turkey), John Mark leaves them and returns to Jerusalem.
The Bible doesn’t tell us why he left, but when Paul and Barnabas were discussing their second missionary journey, they were divided about bringing John Mark along, and ultimately parted ways because of him. (More on that later.) Whatever the conflict was, if we assume Paul’s letters refer to this Mark, it would seem that they repaired the relationship:
“Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” —2 Timothy 4:11
Was John Mark Barnabas’ cousin?
In his letter to the church in Colossae, Paul refers to a person named Mark with an interesting detail:
“My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)” —Colossians 4:10
This adds a bit of a twist to the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. Paul didn’t want to bring John Mark with them on their second journey, because he abandoned them in the middle of the first one, but Barnabas wanted John Mark to come with them so badly that he was willing to go without Paul.
On the Seventy Apostles (a list of the seventy apostles from Luke 10), possibly written in the late second or early third century, makes a distinction between this Mark and the man we know as John Mark:
“Mark, cousin to Barnabas, bishop of Apollonia. . . . Mark, who is also John, bishop of Bibloupolis.”
However, given his association with Paul and Barnabas and the lack of support for this distinction elsewhere, many scholars trust that Mark, the cousin of Barnabas is the same person as John Mark.
Not an eyewitness to the gospel
On the Seventy Apostles lists Mark the Evangelist among the 70 (or 72) disciples Jesus sent out in Luke 10. This is likely intended to present him as an eyewitness to the life and ministry, but an earlier claim by Papias of Hierapolis (who lived from around 60–163 AD) says the Mark who wrote the gospel was not an eyewitness:
“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not 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.” —Church History
This is the earliest claim that Mark’s gospel was based on Peter’s account, and it’s possible that Papias is actually quoting the Apostle John here, though he calls him John the Elder.
Some scholars have speculated that Mark included himself as an unnamed character in the gospel. His gospel is the only one that makes note of a mysterious young man who escapes naked after Jesus’ arrest in Mark 14:
“A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.” —Mark 14:51–52
While occurrences like that were fairly common in ancient writings, this is pure speculation, and it’s not consistent with the earliest traditions.
Additionally, there are signs within the gospel itself that the author was not an eyewitness to the events recorded in Mark. There are several instances where it’s clear the author wasn’t familiar with the geography of the places they wrote about.
Bible critic Randel McCraw Helms puts it bluntly:
“Mark knew so little about the area that he described Jesus going from Tyrian territory ‘by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee through the territory of the Ten Towns’ (Mark 7:31); this is similar to saying that one goes from London to Paris by way of Edinburgh and Rome.”
Was John Mark the same person as Mark the Evangelist?
John Mark is traditionally considered the same person as Mark the Evangelist—the author of the Gospel of Mark.
Again, On the Seventy Apostles makes a distinction between these two people:
“Mark the evangelist, bishop of Alexandria. . . . Mark, who is also John, bishop of Bibloupolis.”
However, an earlier claim by Papias of Hierapolis, preserved in Eusebius’ Church History, states that the Mark who wrote the Gospel of Mark was not an eyewitness, making him the man known as Mark the Evangelist. Take another look at what he said:
“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not 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 . . .”
This contradicts the later record in On the Seventy Apostles, and leaves the possibility open that John Mark is the Mark who wrote the gospel that bears his name. While no church father explicitly says John Mark wrote the gospel, they unanimously state that a man named Mark did, and none of them distinguish this person from the man named John, who was also called Mark—or any of the other Marks mentioned in the epistles.
And as we said before, many scholars argue that since Mark was such a common name, it would’ve been important to distinguish which Mark they were referring to unless there was one Mark this was obviously referring to, such as the Mark mentioned throughout Acts and the epistles, who was closely associated with Peter, Paul, and Barnabas.
So there’s no outright proof that John Mark is Mark the Evangelist, but there’s no proof that he isn’t either. And for centuries, the church has used these names interchangeably.
The first bishop of Alexandria
If we accept that John Mark is also Mark the Evangelist, then according to tradition, he also founded the church in Alexandria (one of the most important churches in early Christianity) around 49 AD. This also makes him the first person to bring Christianity to Africa.
In Church History, Eusebius records:
“And they say that this Mark was the first that was sent to Egypt, and that he proclaimed the Gospel which he had written, and first established churches in Alexandria.
And the multitude of believers, both men and women, that were collected there at the very outset, and lived lives of the most philosophical and excessive asceticism, was so great, that Philo thought it worthwhile to describe their pursuits, their meetings, their entertainments, and their whole manner of life.”
Conflict with Paul
The Bible doesn’t say why John Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas in the middle of their first missionary journey, which of course has led to all kinds of speculation. Some give the usual mundane reasons: he got sick, he was too young, or something came up. But what the Bible does tell us is that whatever John Mark’s reason was, when Paul and Barnabas were talking about bringing him along for the second journey, they “had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company” (Acts 15:39).
It’s hard to imagine Paul would be that upset if John Mark left because he was sick. Some scholars suggest that as a Jewish believer, perhaps John Mark left over a disagreement about circumcision.
The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible frames the disagreement this way:
“Quite possibly, Mark had reservations about the wisdom of evangelizing Gentiles (such as the Cypriot proconsul, 13:12) without requiring some attachment to Judaism, a problem of conscience over which the early Jewish church continuously agonized (note 11:1–3; 15:5; Gal 2:11–14). After the Jerusalem Council (c. AD 49) decreed that gentile Christians need not be circumcised (Acts 15:22–29), Mark may have reconsidered his previous action and decided to cast his lot with Paul. But at this point the apostle may well have doubted the clarity and firmness of the young man’s convictions.
Barnabas, who saw things differently, parted company with Paul and returned to Cyprus with Mark.”
John Mark’s relationship to Barnabas likely added to the tension here. If they were cousins, Barnabas may have been focusing on his loyalty to his family.
In any case, Paul and John Mark appear to have reconciled their relationship later on–assuming the Mark Paul refers to as a “fellow worker” (Philemon 24) and “very useful to my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11) is John Mark.
Did John Mark really write the Gospel of Mark?
Whether or not John Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark mostly depends on if you accept he was the same person as Mark the Evangelist. The early church unanimously claimed the Gospel of Mark was written by Mark the Evangelist, that he was closely associated with Peter, and that his gospel was based on Peter’s account.
Papias’ statement, preserved by Eusebius, is the earliest record that Mark wrote the gospel that bears his name.
In Against Heresies, Irenaeus of Lyons (who lived from about 115–202 AD) wrote about the origins of each gospel and said:
“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.”
In his commentary on 1 Peter, Clement of Alexandria (who lived from around 150–215 AD) mentioned:
“Mark, the follower of Peter, while Peter publicly preached the Gospel at Rome before some of Caesar’s equites, and adduced many testimonies to Christ, in order that thereby they might be able to commit to memory what was spoken, of what was spoken by Peter wrote entirely what is called the Gospel according to Mark.”
In Against Marcion, Tertullian (who lived around 160–225 AD) wrote about the authority of the gospels:
“The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage—I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew—whilst that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter’s whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke’s form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul. And it may well seem that the works which disciples publish belong to their masters.”
Origen, the second-third century Bible scholar, supported Mark’s authorship as well. In his commentary on Matthew he talks about the order the gospels were written in:
“The second written was that according to Mark, who wrote it according to the instruction of Peter, who, in his General Epistle, acknowledged him as a son, saying, ‘The church that is in Babylon, elect together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Mark my son.’”
The gospel itself is technically anonymous, but no other author has ever been suggested, and the earliest accounts all claim it was written by Mark.
So the real question is: is “John, also called Mark,” the same man the early church called Mark? Most modern scholars—and centuries of church tradition—say yes.
An obscure biblical figure, an important early Christian
The Bible doesn’t have much to say about John Mark. Or any person named Mark. But it does tell us that someone named Mark was close to Peter and Paul—two of the most important leaders of the early Christian church. And the earliest sources we have tell us that despite his minor role in Scripture, this person called Mark had a major role in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world.