25 April, 2010

Feast of Saint Mark the Evangelist, 2010

On this day in 68 AD, Mark the Evangelist met his martyrdom on a street in Alexandria
(pictured at right by Fra Angelico).

I first became interested in Mark because of the story of how his body left Alexandria 760 years later and ended up in Venice. The more I learned about the living Saint Mark, the more I liked him.

Mark is unique among the Gospel writers in several ways. First off, it's entirely possible that he was actually there. Tradition puts him at the Last Supper, as a server. (Hey, boy, can you get us a new salt shaker? And wrap the rest of this bread up to go-- might be important later. Thanks.) He may also appear in a cameo in his own Gospel, as the young man in Gethsemane who the Romans try to arrest but manages to get away by ditching his clothes. Mark's mother was one of the early Christians who sheltered the Apostles in the days after the Crucifixion, and so Mark became an early disciple of Peter. In fact, Mark's gospel might really be Saint Peter's lecture notes.

What I love about Mark's Gospel is its immediacy and its directness. Mark doesn't tell a nativity story. Mark doesn't bring in a lot of imagery and symbolism. The message is strong enough that Mark feels he can tell it without first establishing his main character's divine credentials. So, one can approach Mark's Gospel as a philosopher. And why not? Whether or not it gets anyone to Heaven, a philosophy of putting love of others first, if universally adopted, would make Earth a pretty nice place to live.

Besides the mystery of what happened to Saint Mark's body in 827-828 and what that meant for Venice, the other thing that intrigues me about him is the fact that a good portion of his orginal Gospel draft is not known to us.

Say what?

Well, Mark writes his "just the facts" story and at a pretty good clip takes us straight to the moment where the women go into the tomb and find Jesus's body missing. Mark 16:8 has the frightened women running out of the tomb... and then, in the earliest known manuscripts, it just ends. The rest of the traditional text, Mark 16:9-20, wraps the story up with news of a Resurrection, but it reads like another author's work. Maybe Mark's agent or editor added the extra verses to make his Gospel more saleable... (A cliffhanger? No, seriously, Mark baby, that ain't gonna work for your debut. We're already taking a chance on you printing on papyrus and not going straight to trade paperback.) but slightly more likely is the possibility that part of a codex got lost along the way and a helpful scribe added a religiously appropriate ending.

And so today we celebrate the author on whose text Matthew's and Luke's gospels were based: an eyewitness to the last days of Christ and the first days of the Apostles: the man who founded the Coptic Church, the first community of Christians outside Israel: and the man who, if the legends are to be believed, continued to affect history and politics for more than a thousand years hence.

I was talking to the rector of St. George's in Schenectady on Friday (George's feast day, as it turns out) and he asked me where Mark's body is now. Well, he's in at least three places! Most of him is still believed to be in Venice, although in recent years the Venetians have not really let anyone look at him. The head might still be in Alexandria, though it has not been seen since the early 19th century and Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. And certain relics were returned to the Coptic Church (some or possibly all of the Venetian treasure) in 1968.


  1. Great post, Richard!
    I've always been fascinated by the process by which our modern Bible evolved from the 'first draft'. This was a very interesting (and today, timely) piece of the puzzle.

  2. Glad you liked it! You never know, the true and unaltered text of Mark 16:9 could always turn up. Might be good fodder for a Venice sequel.