Mark the Evangelist, the author of the second Gospel, was an African native of Jewish parents from the Levites' tribe. According to the Christian Coptic tradition, Mark was born in Cyrenaica, the eastern coastal region of today Libya, then known as the Pentapolis of North Africa (a collective name for grouping of five cities in antiquity). The year of Mark's birthday is unknown, but shortly after, his parents, Aristopolos and Mary, were forced to leave due to attacks by the Berber people. They moved to the Holy Land, settling in Cana of Galilee or in Jerusalem, where Mark received a thorough education and became fluently conversant in Greek and Latin. Mark's family was held in high esteem within the early Christian circles, being his mother a fervent Christian in close relationship with Jesus Christ. Mark himself is mentioned in the Holy Scriptures in several events related to Jesus, such as the wedding at Cana, and the preparing for the Passover celebrations. Mark's family house was a special meeting place for the Christians, as well as a real shelter: when Saint Peter was freed from prison he went directly there. And it was also there that the disciples were safely housed after Jesus' death, then the resurrected Jesus came to visit them, and finally the Holy Spirit descended on them at Pentecost.
Image: "St Mark", a 17th century painting by unknown artist in the choir of Sankta Maria kyrka in Åhus, Sweden. Photo by David Castor.
Mark met St Paul in Jerusalem in year 44 AD, when Paul and Barnabas, a prominent early Christian disciple and cousin of Mark himself (Colossians 4:10), brought there a collection of money donated from the Christian community of Antioch. Mark then followed Barnabas to Antioch, and later Paul to Rome, where he finally met also St Peter, getting closely tied to his teaching. Mark, whose real name was John, as from his Jewish origin, got the Latin surname Marcus right when he was living in Rome among the followers of St. Peter. Later Peter took Mark with him as travel companion, disciple and interpreter during his missionary journeys over the Mediterranean. Peter always referred to Mark as "my son" when introducing him to the Christian communities. Mark wrote down Peter's sermons, which became a great source of inspiration, and together with Mark's own writing talent, produced the "Gospel according to Mark", the second book of the New Testament, and one of the four canonical gospels. The Gospel of Mark represent a concise record of St Peter’s preaching about the Lord, vividly portraying the emotions and feelings of Jesus and His followers, while providing a chronological presentation of Jesus' life as seen through the eyes of Peter. The Gospel was written in Rome before 60 AD in Greek language for the non-Jewish people converted to Christianity, as confirmed by author's special care in explaining Jewish customs, rites and terms.
Image: "St. Mark writes his Evangelium at the dictation of St. Peter", attributed to Pasquale Ottino (1578-1630), an Italian painter from Verona.
Source: Attributed to Pasquale Ottino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Little is known of Mark's later life, but for sure his real destiny was bound to Northern Africa and Alexandria of Egypt, the second city of the ancient world after Rome. Being ordained bishop by St Peter himself, Mark definitely left Rome to promote the Christian faith in his native territory of the Pentapolis, landing first in Cyrene (today Libya), where he started his evangelical mission. Mark successfully carried the gospel into other provinces, brought many new converts over to the faith, and performed also many miracles. After about twelve years in Pentapolis, Mark then travelled to Egypt through the desert of Libya, and in year 61 or 63 AD entered Alexandria of Egypt, where he founded the Church of Alexandria, the first in Africa and one of the original three episcopal sees of Christianity, as well as one of the oldest Christian churches.
Image: 13th century mosaic depicting St Mark arriving in the city of Alexandria.
Source: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
According to the Coptic tradition as Mark was entering the gate of Alexandria, the strap of his sandal broke. Mark went then to a cobbler to mend it. When the cobbler, Anianus or Anianas, took an awl to work on it, he accidentally pierced his hand and cried aloud in Greek language "Oh One God". At this utterance, Mark rejoiced and miraculously healed the cobbler’s hand in the name of Jesus. He took courage and began to tell Anianus about the One God. The spark was ignited. To show his gratitude Anianus invited Mark to his home and brought to him his children. There Mark began to preach the gospel of Jesus, telling the man of the prophecies related to Christ. Anianus showed a great fervour and progress in virtue and learning, and he got soon baptized, like also his family and many other people from the same district of the city. Mark managed to assemble a quite numerous and active community, and ordained Anianus bishop of Alexandria in his absence along with three presbyters.
Image: "Saint Anian of Alexandria repairing Mark's shoes" by Arnau Bassa, a 14th century Catalan painter.
Fragment of St Mark's altarpiece at Santa Maria de Manresa, Spain. Source: Arnau Bassa [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In Alexandria Mark started also a theological school, which became the center of Christian learning and culture for several centuries, producing many famous "Church Fathers", Christian theologians, some of whom were also eminent teachers and great bishops, like Clement of Alexandria, St Dionysius of Alexandria, and St Gregory Thaumatourgos. From his teaching also the Coptic Orthodox Church originated. Soon the Christians there multiplied very quickly. This definitely roused the hostility of the local pagans, who got angered by these conversions and sought to kill Mark. So the Evangelist decided to leave Alexandria for a while and went back to Pentapolis. Finally, after two years absence, Mark returned to Alexandria and found that the Christian community there had flourished very much and even managed to build a considerable church in the district of Baucalis, east of Alexandria on the sea shore. The pagans of the city were still very angry at Mark...
Source: Gentile Bellini [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mark's death occurred in Alexandria of Egypt between 65 and 68 AD. According to the tradition, Mark was martyred on April 25 by the worshippers of Serapis, a Graeco-Egyptian god whose cult was introduced by Ptolemy I (c. 367-283 BC), a Macedonian general under Alexander the Great, then ruler of Egypt (323-283 BC) and founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. That year, Easter celebration fell on the same day as the festival for Serapis. The pagan mob, which had gathered in the Serapis temple, descended on the Christians, who were celebrating Jesus' Resurrection at their church in Baucalis. The pagans attacked the church and forced their way in. Mark, who was just serving the Liturgy, was seized, beaten, bound and dragged with a rope around his neck through the main streets and then thrown in jail at the nightfall. On the following day the furious pagan crowd dragged again Mark through the streets to the courtroom during the triumphal procession of Serapis, but along the way Mark died. Not satisfied yet the pagans wanted to burn his body, but when they lit the fire, everything grew dark, a severe storm blew with crash of thunders, furious wind and heavy rainfalls. There was also an earthquake. The pagans dispersed in terror, while the Christians managed to take up Mark's body and bury it in a secret crypt under the altar of their church, which became soon a place of intense worship.
Image: "The Martyrdom of Saint Mark" from "Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry", a fine book of hours commissioned in the 15th century by the French noblemen and art collector, Jean Duc de Berry, and richly decorated by the Limbourg brothers, famous miniature painters from Nijmegen (the Netherlands).