Summary: 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 also a believer or fellow-traveler in (proto-)Christianity. Both John Mark and Mark are present at the religious education of a sympathetic, high-ranking Roman, but are not themselves teachers or preachers.
Now, I will explain Mark’s relationship to Titus Flavius Clements. But first a bit of background is necessary. 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 was a known sympathizer of Judean religion, and donated catacombs in Rome to her congregation that later became Christian catacombs. 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 evangelistic group in his real life, as was John Mark.
I will return to Rome after I discuss the Acts of the Apostles.
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.
Barnabas and Saul go on a journey along with John Mark—no reason given for his participation (Acts 12:25). The three go to Cyprus. In Salamis, 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). Saul confutes the magician Elymas; this 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.
Why did the author of Acts put John Mark in this story? He has no personality and does not contribute to the action. He is just a hanger-on. So his presence and his name must be meaningful in relation to what happens on this trip: 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:
- John Mark is not a teacher or preacher. Neither was Mark.
- Each was associated with a very high-ranking Gentile administrator who supposedly converted to (proto-)Christianity. (However, while Titus Flavius Clemens’s association with Judean religion was reported by Cassius Dio, Sergius Paulus’s “conversion” is not independently attested and may be Lukan fiction.)
- Both Titus Flavius Clemens and Sergius Paulus were real historical people who had held high posts in Rome.
- John Mark is not a local-hero apostle or a church administrator. Neither was Mark: his name 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 are part of Christian history only briefly, initially. Mark was, embarrassingly, associated with Flavia and Clemens, who were eliminated by Domitian. I think this is why the Roman congregation ignored his text for decades. In Acts, John Mark is presented as 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. Author’s mission accomplished?
I think that we should see the short career of John Mark as a transvalued acknowledgment of the accomplishment of the real Mark. From Luke’s point of view the name of the author of the earliest gospel had to be acknowledged, but his biography had no value for Luke’s purposes in the Acts of the Apostles. Luke got Mark (disguised as “John Mark”) in and out of Luke’s story as quickly as possible.
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 heard or read it elsewhere. Perhaps Luke is doing two things at once. He 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 why did Luke choose the name “Sergius Paulus”? The logical explanation is “so that Saul could be renamed ‘Paul.'” But why can Saul be renamed “Paul”? I suggest that here, “Paul(us)” parallels the honorific names given to Roman commanders who had been victorious in war: Africanus, Britannicus, Germanicus, etc. 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.” Luke has managed to create a character who is a Judean and persecutes Christians, and then transforms into the character “Paul” whose name was already attached to some texts of use to the orthodox.
Some readers will ask, “If Luke is acknowledging real history in this way, could Luke also mean that Mark knew Paul or his letters? Would that parallel also hold?” The answer isn’t simple, because “Paul’s letters” is a construct built on speculation built on unreliable history. I am still working on a theory about the origin of Paul’s letters. At this time I will only give my own speculation: I think it is possible that some forms of some of Paul’s letters did exist in Mark’s time, and I think it’s possible, though not likely, that Mark knew of those letters. It’s also possible that Mark knew texts that were later used by Marcion and/or catholicizing editors to amend the originals of Paul’s letters. However, I think that Mark’s friendliness to Gentiles had nothing to do with Paul and his doctrine. Mark had a very good reason to write a text that appears friendly to Gentiles: it preserves a play that he wrote for a Gentile benefactress! As I mention in the book, we should not read the Gospel of Mark as representative of the mainstream doctrine of the congregation. Instead, we should see it as out on the far end of the curve, expressing doctrine that was acceptable, in an entertainment, that publicly honored a Gentile benefactor, for a private audience and in a single performance. No Paul needed to explain it.