At the beginning of the liturgical year I offered some comments on Mark’s Gospel as a source for patristic commentaries – mainly to the effect that there were not a great many of them. But that did not mean that the early Church did not value the Gospel, indeed it received it as the best extant record of what St Peter thought and, indeed, as effectively his memoir. As Eusebius of Caesarea (c.262-c.339) – who had access to the best library in Palestine and the traditions recorded therein, wrote:
Mark writes thus, and Peter through him bears witness about himself. For the whole of Mark’s Gospel is said to be the record of Peter’s teaching. Surely, then, men who refused (to record) what seemed to them to spread their good fame, and handed down in writing slanders against themselves to unforgetting ages, and accusations of sins, which no one in after years would ever have known of unless he had heard it from their own voice, by thus placarding themselves, may justly be considered to have been void of all egoism and false speaking, and to have given plain and clear proof of their truth-loving disposition. And as for such people who think they invented and lied, and try to slander them as deceivers, ought they not to become a laughing-stock, being convicted as friends of envy and malice, and foes of truth itself, who take men that have exhibited in their own words good proof of their integrity, and their really straightforward and sincere character, and suggest that they are rascals and clever sophists, who invent what never took place, and ascribe gratuitously to their own Master what He never did?
He concluded, and this was the consensus of the Fathers, that Mark was ‘a written monument of the doctrine which had been [by Peter] orally communicated to them.’ We know that from the earliest days it was read at the Divine Liturgy. We see this tradition at Rome, in Antioch, in Alexandria and Constantinople, and they seem, as far as we can reconstruct them, to be independent of each other – that is to say that everywhere it was known that Mark was Peter’s interpreter and what he wrote was Peter’s, not his own. As Athanasius the Apostolic put it: ‘Mark, the Gospel writer … uses the same voice [as Peter did in his confession of Christ as Messiah], speaking in harmony with the Blessed Peter’ [Sermon on the Nativity of Christ, 28]
That most learned translator and scholar, St Jerome, wrote, in his Lives of Illustrious Men [chapter 8]:
Mark the disciple and interpreter of Peter wrote a short gospel at the request of the brethren at Rome embodying what he had heard Peter tell. When Peter had heard this, he approved it and published it to thechurches to be read by his authority as Clemens in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes and Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, record. Peter also mentions this Mark in his first epistle, figuratively indicating Rome under the name of Babylon
She who is in Babylon elect together with you salutes you and so does Mark my son. So, taking the gospel which he himself composed, he went to Egypt and first preaching Christ at Alexandria he formed a church so admirable in doctrine and continence of living that he constrained all followers of Christto his example. Philo most learned of the Jews seeing the first church at Alexandria still Jewish in a degree, wrote a book on their manner of life as something creditable to his nation telling how, as Luke says, the believers had all things in common at Jerusalem, so he recorded that he saw was done at Alexandria, under the learned Mark. He died in the eighth year of Nero and was buried at Alexandria, Annianus succeeding him.
Jerome concluded that, in effect, Mark’s Gospel was the testimony of St Peter himself.
Soon we shall bid farewell to Mark’s Gospel as the subject of the Sunday patristic commentaries, but, for all the occasional frustrations at the slim pickings it offers from that point of view, it has been a privilege to follow it through the year and to walk in the footsteps of St Peter himself.