May 15, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: St. Mark founded the Church in Africa

John F. Fink(Sixth in a series of columns)

We know that Christianity began in Jerusalem, spread to Antioch in modern Turkey, where “the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26), from there west to Macedonia and Greece and then to Rome. As I wrote in my column about the missions of the Apostles, it also spread eastward as far as India.

However, it also spread south to Africa, where it thrived for centuries and where some of our greatest saints lived, including Athanasius, Cyprian, Cyril of Alexandria, Anthony and Augustine.

St. Mark the Evangelist is credited with being the founder of the Church in Africa. At least, that’s what the Coptic Church in Egypt and the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria firmly believe. With all that Mark is credited with, though, it seems that there must have been two, perhaps three, men named Mark. Certainly Hippolytus in the third century thought so.

We first meet Mark in the Acts of the Apostles, where he is referred to as “John who is called Mark” (Acts12:12; Acts 12:25). However, it’s widely believed that he was also the young man wearing nothing but a linen cloth in Mark’s Gospel, who was seized when Jesus was arrested and who left the cloth behind and ran off naked (Mk 14:51-52). Only Mark reported that episode, and we can understand why Matthew and Luke, who based their Gospels on Mark’s, didn’t think it necessary to include it.

In Acts, the house of John Mark’s mother was the gathering place of the Christians. As I wrote in the second column in this series, it was where Peter went after his miraculous escape from prison. Then Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas (his cousin) on their first mission, but left them while they were in Pamphylia and returned to Jerusalem.

Because of that, Paul refused to take Mark with him on his second mission, so “Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus” (Acts 15:39). But Paul and Mark made up, and Mark was with Paul in Rome during Paul’s first imprisonment (Col 4:10).

Before that, though, Peter picked up Mark and used him as his interpreter during their travels. It’s believed that he learned about Jesus directly from Peter and, therefore, his Gospel is based on the teaching of St. Peter. He likely wrote the Gospel between 60 and 70.

So when did he have time to found the Church in Egypt? The Coptic Church says that it was in the year 49, when he traveled to Alexandria. There he became the first bishop of Alexandria. It would have been relatively easy for him to travel between Alexandria and Rome by ship if, indeed, he did so.

He was martyred in Alexandria in 68, where the pagans there placed a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets until he died.

In 828, Mark’s body was stolen from Alexandria by Venetian merchants, and it is now in the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice. However, the Copts believe that his head is in St. Mark’s Church in Alexandria, and other relics are in St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. †

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