Mark's Gospel unlocks the mystery of the first Vicar of Christ
April 25 is the traditional feast day of St. Mark, the Evangelist. Although Mark’s Gospel is today given precedence as the earliest of the four canonical gospels, it was little appreciated or cited in the early church, to the point that it briefly ran the risk of vanishing. That loss, though, would have been a terrible tragedy, as it would have deprived us of a startling first hand source for the church’s earliest days. In particular, Mark helps us resolve a true mystery about those early times.
The puzzle concerns the apostle Peter. Peter was, in effect, the founder of the church. Repeatedly in the New Testament, we hear that the risen Christ first appeared to Peter, that his was the first Resurrection appearance, and that his faith was the basis of all that followed. The church’s oldest creed was “The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” That saying is so old that it dates from the time when Simon had still not gained his later name, Peter. Peter, of course, means “the rock” on which the church is built. I like to call him “Rocky.”
That verse, preserved in Luke 24, probably dates from days or months after Jesus’s death, around A.D. 30. It is one of the very oldest texts in the Christian tradition.
But if Peter was so critical, why do we have so little preserved of his own writings or sayings? The early church knew both a Gospel and Revelation of Peter, but Church Fathers decided (rightly) that both were written far later than Peter’s time, maybe a century later.
Our New Testaments contain two epistles credited to Peter, but many scholars doubt whether they really could have been written by the apostle, by Rocky himself. Their language seems too late, and they appear to draw on sources written after the time of the historic Peter. Peter might just have had a hand in the First Epistle of that name, which is basically a sermon delivered during a baptismal ritual. 2 Peter is more unlikely to be connected to him, and many ancient churches do not regard it as part of the approved canon.
So did Peter leave no direct traces of himself, no kind of autobiography, no “My Life With Jesus”? Well, perhaps he did, but not under his own name.
And that takes us back to Mark’s Gospel, which was probably composed around A.D. 70, within just a few years of Peter’s death. Both Matthew and Luke rely heavily on Mark, so that is the basis of much of what we know about Jesus. The name “Mark” tells us little, and we can’t associate that name with any historical figure of that name. Nor does any worthwhile evidence support the tradition that he ever visited Alexandria, still less that he was the first bishop there.
Some things, though, we can say with confidence. In the early second century, in Asia Minor, there was a bishop called Papias, who was said to have been a pupil of the Apostle John himself. He should therefore have been in an excellent position to know about the earliest church, making him a very important source indeed. Papias was anxious to defend Mark’s Gospel, which he did by explaining its sources. Papias wrote that,
“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. … he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.”
Put another way, Peter in his last years was telling everyone about his life as an apostle, but he was telling his stories in his native language, of Aramaic. Presumably he could speak little or no Greek, which is why he needed a translator, (in Greek) a hermeneutes. That interpreter was Mark, so that Mark’s Gospel actually does bear the heavy imprint of Peter and his memories.
So go back to that gospel and read what it says about Peter. And think that just possibly, that might well be adapted from Peter’s very own words and memories. You can’t get much more first-hand than that.
Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.