The Acts of Mark: Introduction

By René Salm

This remarkable text challenges the orthodox understanding of the apostle Mark, and also of Christian origins. Among other curiosities, Mark is a disciple of John the Baptist, and he is a Levite. Though the Greek text has been in the public domain since publication in 1969 (Analecta Bollandiana 87, pp. 346-71), it has yet to be translated into any modern language and languishes in obscurity. Such is the ability of scholarship to shun that which it steadfastly refuses to acknowledge! Nevertheless, this text contains clues to a very different history of Christian origins…

What set me on the search for the text of the Acts of Mark, some years ago, was a note by A. De Santos Otero regarding the work in New Testament Apocrypha (1989) II:464–65. The text contained certain elements which I found quite amazing, including the above, also that Mark was baptized by Peter, and that he went “to the West, to the Gauls.” Each of these anomalies immediately set off red flags for me. The fact that they are all in the same work is most remarkable. That the text has been known for a long time yet is supremely obscure and still to be translated heaps curiosity upon curiosity.

Before proceeding, we should not confuse the Acts of Mark (AM) with the (only slightly better known) Martyrium of Mark, itself largely echoed in AM. A scholar who has prominently occupied himself with this obscure literature (A. D. Callahan) insists upon calling the innocuous Martyrium of Mark (which is concerned principally with the apostle’s miracles) the “Acts of Mark” (see Bibliography below). This has largely steered unwary scholarship away from the much more lengthy and provocative Acts of Mark to the rather tame Martyrium. The end result is a general misconception: many scholars have the impression that the Acts of Mark is a fairly straightforward account of Mark’s miracles, and that it has already both been translated and been adequately dealt with in the literature.

Far from it! The Acta Marci is a much longer work than the Martyrium Marci (35 chapters vs. 14 chapters) and contains provocative material not included in the Martyrium, including (as mentioned above) that Mark was a disciple of the Baptist, a Levite, and so on. Perhaps even more remarkable, however, are several general aspects of the text. Firstly, gnostic vocabulary pervades the Acts of Mark. The apostle brings “the light of the knowledge of god”, “hidden and obscure meanings”, “divine illumination”, and “perfection.” Mark is known as a “speaker of mysteries” (mystolektês). He is “clear-sighted,” and has reached “the highest degree” of excellence/perfection. In short, he appears to be a holy and “enlightened” herald of gnosis.

Secondly, the apostle Mark has aspects that have been ascribed to John the Baptist by the tradition. On the one hand he is a disciple of the Baptist, but on the other hand he is himself the “forerunner” and “holy herald” of the “word.” Mark is an ascetic given to fasting, is a Levite (as is John the Baptist, Lk 1:5), and also comes from Judea. Of course, the tradition has always known the apostle under two names: John and Mark—i.e. “John Mark” (Acts 12:12, 25). Explicitly by name, at least, John = Mark. What are we to make of these surprising overlaps between Mark and John the Baptist—if anything?

Thirdly, the Acts of Mark shows the strong presence of a southern (Judean) tradition and quite ignores Galilee, which is mentioned only once in chapters 1-5. Curiously, Jesus performed miracles “many years” in and around Jerusalem. Then Jesus goes “from Jerusalem into Galilee.” This is contrary to the canonical storyboard where Jesus has a fairly short ministry, comes from Galilee and winds up in Jerusalem. (The south to north sequence corresponds with the putative movement of Jesus-followers/Ebionites to Pella and beyond the Jordan in I CE.)

Some of the text’s curiosities serve to inflate the traditional figure of Mark into a quasi-Jesus figure himself: Mark is the herald of gnosis; he effortlessly carries out miracles; he knows “perfection.” In one passage, Mary the mother of John-Mark is curiously evocative of Mary the mother of Jesus: she is “truly blessed and honored” when she receives the “only-begotten son and word of god” into her house…an uncanny echo of the Annunciation.

The foregoing suggests to me that “Mark” was a figure—possibly mythical—who represents an early (pre-canonical) stage between Yeshu ha-Notsri and Jesus of Nazareth. The sequence of stages would be the following:

– Johanan the Hasmonean (known by his followers as Yeshu ha-Notsri)
– John “the Baptizer”
– John-Mark
– Mark, the disciple of Jesus, first evangelist, and founder of Alexandrian Christianity.

In the Acta Marci, Jesus is referred to as ho theanthrôpos, i.e. “the god-man” (chp. 4). The phrase “the God Christ” occurs, as also the construction “Christ their God.”

Finally, the Acts of Mark is violently anti-Semitic. It mentions “the baseless and lie-plastered betrayal of the all-brazen Jews,” and “the accursed Jews” (Chp. 5). Pearson considers this aspect of the text a later expansion.

Only Chapters 1–5 (of 41 chapters) are included in the translation on this site—the remaining chapters have yet to be translated from the Greek. From the chapter summaries, we learn that the apostle Mark eventually travels to Gaul. This suggests to me a link between Mark and the ultra-heretical Marcosians known from Southern Gaul (cf. Acts of Barnabas, chp. 5; Acts of Andrew 2.293:25–27). The natural inference is that the apostle Mark = the heretic Marcus (generally dated to II CE!).

Though loaded with the miraculous, there are several “sermons” by Mark and other material in the many remaining chapters which will be fascinating when they become accessible.

THE DATE: So many ‘fringe’ Christian works are summarily dismissed because they continued to be edited many centuries after the turn of the era. Such is the case with the Acts of Mark. The fact that the work may occasionally rely upon the Acts of Barnabas (V CE)—as has been suspected—tells us little about the text as a whole, nor about elements which may long predate such late accretions. Indeed, after the Church had coalesced around various canonical positions, who would have added such unusual elements as Mark being a disciple of John the Baptist and a Levite? (See stages above.) Rather, must not such elements be early vestiges from a time before the Church formulated its positions? I discuss dating considerations at greater length here.

After Halkin published the Greek text in 1969, the Acts of Mark provoked a sharp, defensive reaction from scholarship. Birger Pearson deals with the work in the monograph The Roots of Egyptian Christianity (1986:140 f). His frank antagonism to the text shows itself in a footnote when he refers to the Acts of Mark as “a fabulous piece of hagiography utterly devoid of historical value.” This is a pity and reveals Pearson’s failure to detect early and remarkable features of this work.

NEXT—Acts of Mark: Summary


Greek text: F. Halkin, “Actes Inedits de S. Marc.” Analecta Bollandiana 87 [1969]: 346-371. Preceded by discussion.

– W. Schneemelcher, ed. New Testament Apocrypha, 1992, II:464–465. A short but helpful note by A. De Santos Otero.

The following deal with related works, sometimes with the Martyrium of Mark under the misleading rubric Acts of Mark:

Greek and Latin texts: Migne, Patrologia Graeca CXV cols. 163-170. “Marturion tou agiou apostolou…Markou.”. (Codex Reg. Paris 881. XI century.)

– A. D. Callahan, “The Acts of Saint Mark: an introduction and commentary.” Thesis (Ph.D.). Harvard University, 1992.

– A. D. Callahan “The Acts of Mark: tradition, transmission, and translation of the Arabic version.” In Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. Francois Bovon ed. (Boston : Harvard Univ Pr, 1999) pp. 63-85.

– A.D.Callahan “The Acts of Saint Mark: an introduction and translation.” Coptic Church Review 14 (Spr 1993), pp. 3-10.

– R. A. Lipsius, “Die Akten des Markus,” in Die apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und Apostellegenden. Bd.II. Amsterdam: APA-Philo Press, 1890, pp. 321-336.

– G. Lusini, “Gli Atti apocrifi di Marco,” Aethiopica 12 (2009), 7-47.

See also:

Life of the Apostle and Evangelist Mark by Severus, Bishop of Al-Ushmunain (fl. ca. AD 955 – 987). Translated from the Arabic by B. Evetts (from Patrologia Orientalis, first series). The first chapter is a late “History of Saint Mark.” It concerns itself with the victory of Christianity over two signal elements of paganism: veneration of the “olive tree” (cf. tree of life), and worship of the moon (cf. pagan gnosticism). The second chapter of this work is a version (paraphrase) of the Martyrium of Mark.

– B. Pearson, “Ancient Alexandria in the Acts of Mark.” In SBL 1997 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Scholars Pr, 1997) pp. 273-284.

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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