In Thomas C. Oden’s The African Memory of Mark (a book sent to me by IVP Academic some time ago) he surveys how John Mark is remembered in the African Christian tradition. It is a fascinating book. In many ways it challenges what Oden calls “Euro-American historicist criteria” by allowing for memory and tradition to have a voice in the discussion. How African Christianity has remembered John Mark is quite amazing and I intend on writing a short book review when I’m done. In the meantime, I thought I’d post a short note here pondering the likelihood of John Mark as an eyewitness of Jesus.
The African memory of Mark is that it was his mother’s home where Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Many believe it is the same room where the Spirit was given at Pentecost and where the disciples are depicted as gathering in the Book of Acts, especially in the scene where Peter is freed from prison by an angel. This tradition has deep roots that go back at least as far as the third and fourth centuries.
If this is true then Mark may have been familiar with Jesus as a young man. He would have known Jesus and his followers as they ate in his home. He was a relative of Barnabus and tradition has his family in close relation with that of Peter.
What is most interesting to me (always has been) of this data is the young man in in Mark 14.51-52 who is following Jesus and his disciples. He is wearing an outer garment only. He witnesses Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane. While there people try to seize him, but he escapes, though he loses his garment. He flees naked. It is an odd story.
I’ve heard some literary reasons for this (I think someone compared it to something written by Homer), but that fails to explain in my mind why it appears in this Gospel. I’ve thought that it could be one way of the author hinting at his own presence in the third person. This is how many African exegetes have understood it according to Oden.
If (and it is a big “if”) this character is John Mark who was related to Barnabus, traveled with Paul, and knew Peter quite well, then he’d be more than an anonymous author who wrote down received traditions, or merely someone who recorded the story as Peter told it, but someone who knew at least the end of the Jesus story first hand.
I don’t think there is any way to prove this, so it must be interesting for its own sake, but neither do I think there is any way to absolutely disprove it.
On a final note this does have interesting implications for the study of the Synoptic Problem. Some who think that the Gospel of Matthew was written by Matthew struggle with a disciple using the work of someone who was not an eyewitness as the basis for his testimony. If John Mark was present for the latter half of Jesus’ life, and if Peter filled in the gaps, and Matthew had access to what Mark wrote before Peter’s death, then it is not as odd to think that Matthew may have decided to organize his work around Mark’s. This would explain some changes where Matthew thinks he should clarify or remove some of the things Mark recorded. It would give reason for an eyewitness like Matthew to use Mark’s Gospel. That being said, again, at best, this is something fun to ponder, but likely impossible to prove.