Acts 13:7 mentions “the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear the word of God” (NRSV here and hereafter). In other words, an elite Gentile, the highest civilian official of Cyprus, is interested in (proto-)Christianity. The character “John whose other name was Mark” of Jerusalem has accompanied Barnabas and Saul, and is present when Sergius Paulus asks for education in the religion. Then John Mark leaves and returns to Jerusalem. I suggest that the author of Acts has created the relationship “John Mark–Sergius Paulus” to parallel the relationship of the Roman author “Mark” to Titus Flavius Clemens, a consul and (in Acts’s time) understood to be a representative of (proto-)Christianity. Both John Mark and Mark are present at the religious education of a sympathetic, high-ranking Gentile Roman, but are not themselves teachers or preachers.
Mark and John Mark
Mark was not a congregational leader
In my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I propose that the author known to history as “Mark” wrote and directed a play, and the play had been commissioned and produced by Flavia Domitilla. Flavia Domitilla is a historically attested person, a niece of the Emperor Domitian. She donated the use of catacombs on her property in Rome to a congregation that later became Christian. I argue that this congregation—Mark’s congregation—became the home of orthodoxy and the Popes.
Flavia was married to her cousin, Titus Flavius Clemens. He was one of two consuls in 95 CE—the highest appointed post in the imperial bureaucracy, just under the emperor.
Mark’s play was not didactic. For any play to succeed in entertaining and involving the audience, the religious doctrine presented in the play must have been already accepted by the audience. The play could not have introduced new doctrine.
Who taught the congregation their doctrine and Scripture? Possibly Mark was involved, but it seems to me that playwriting involves a different skill set than preaching and teaching. And there is no record in orthodox texts of any churchmen named “Mark” at the time. So the real-life Mark was peripheral to the congregation leadership in his real life, as was John Mark.
John Mark was just an assistant
The character “John whose other name was Mark” first appears in Acts 12:12, “As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying.” This offhand introduction, in the middle of a sentence, tells the reader that John Mark is not an important person. He has no history. More importantly, he is from Jerusalem and therefore has no constituency, in contrast to the “local hero” apostles in Acts such as Stephen and Philip whose names must have come from congregations that already claimed them as founders.
In Acts, Barnabas and Saul go on a journey. They take along John Mark (Acts 12:25). In Salamis (major city of Cyprus), John Mark “assists” them when they preach in the synagogues. The group meets “the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear the word of God” (Acts 13:7). The magician Elymas was opposing them. Saul says, “the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun” (Acts 13:11). The curse worked, “Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he went about groping for someone to lead him by the hand.” That miracle converts Sergius Paulus: “When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was astonished at the teaching about the Lord” (Acts 13:12). Barnabas, Saul (now “Paul”), and John Mark then sail to Perga, where John Mark leaves them and returns to Jerusalem.
John Mark in Acts represents the real-life Mark in Rome
Why did the author of Acts put John Mark in this story? John Mark has no personality and does not contribute to the action. So his presence and his name must be meaningful in relation to what happens on this trip: the Gentile Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus is converted. The author of Acts (whom I will call for convenience “Luke”) has arranged to make John Mark present at the conversion of Sergius Paulus.
Let us assume that Luke knew about the real origin of the Gospel of Mark, as I present it in The Two Gospels of Mark. I see the following parallels between Mark’s life-situation and the episode that involves John Mark:
- Mark was not a teacher or preacher. Neither was John Mark.
- Both Titus Flavius Clemens and Sergius Paulus were real historical people who had held very high posts. Clemens was a consul, and Sergius Paulus was a proconsul.
- Both Clemens and Paulus were interested in the “word of God” without making an exclusive commitment to it.
- Clemens played the role of the Blind Man of Bethsaida in Mark’s play. In that role, Clemens faked blindness. In the Sergius Paulus scene in Acts, the author repeats the theme of temporary blindness but assigns it to the magician Elymas: Saul/Paul successfully calls on God to temporarily blind Elymas. Both scenes have a temporarily blind person. An extraordinary coincidence.
- In Acts, John Mark is not a local-hero apostle or a church administrator. Neither was Mark. (The name “Mark” does not appear in any early Christian histories except as the author of a Gospel (Irenaeus). I think the reference to “Mark” by Papias is not original, as I will detail in another post.)
- Both Mark and John Mark have brief and specific roles in early Christian history (as it was understood at the time). Mark was, embarrassingly for his congregation, associated with Flavia and Clemens, who were eliminated by Domitian. This is why, I think, that his text was stored until Luke discovered it and found it useful for his creation of Jesus of Nazareth. In Acts, John Mark is peripheral to the burgeoning movement. He takes only the one trip to Cyprus, where he does nothing. He is also a bit of an embarrassment to the church, as he provokes the separation of Paul and Barnabas: “37 Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work.” (Acts 15:37-38). Barnabas takes John Mark, who now disappears from Acts. In the same way that Mark disappeared from early Christian history.
I suggest that we see the short career of John Mark in Acts as Luke’s acknowledgment of the accomplishment of the real Mark: the conversion of a prominent Gentile. Luke places the name the author of the earliest gospel in (what he hoped would be) the official history of orthodoxy, but Mark’s biography was otherwise irrelevant to Luke’s purposes. Luke used Mark (disguised as “John Mark”) in the Acts story as briefly as possible.
Why Luke changed “Saul” to “Paul” in Cyprus
There is a point of interest in John Mark’s brief trip to Cyprus. It is during Saul’s dressing down of the Judean magician Elymas that the author of Acts changes his name “But Saul, also known as Paul…” (Acts 13:9). Henceforth in Acts, the character is called “Paul.”
Why did Luke decide to change the character’s name in this scene? Does John Mark’s presence have anything to do with it?
The following is entirely speculative, but I present it because I haven’t read it elsewhere. Luke has John Mark present at the conversion of a high-ranking Gentile. The Gentile that Luke provides is surnamed “Paulus.” Luke could have staged this episode in another place, using a different high-ranking Gentile: the parallels between John Mark and Mark would remain the same.
So Luke’s choice of the name “Sergius Paulus” for the converted Gentile seems significant. The logical explanation is “so that Luke could rename Saul as ‘Paul.'” I suggest that “Paul(us)” parallels the honorific names given to Roman commanders who had been victorious in war: Africanus, Britannicus, Germanicus, etc. For Luke, because Saul has defeated the Judean magician Elymas and won the allegiance of Sergius Paulus, Saul now has the right to call himself by the honorific “Paulus.” And now Luke can claim that a born Judean wrote the letters that the Marcionites claim were authored by “Paul.” The Marcionite Paul was really the Judean Saul. And now the letters really belong to the orthodox.
Slightly revised January 25, 2021. Updated with bullet point #4 and link to Blind Man of Bethsaida post April 18, 2021. Minor revisions October 31, 2021.