The Martyrdom of Mark the Gospel writer

Mark journeyed to Alexandria in Egypt and established a community of Christians there. The holiness of the church he founded is extolled by Eusebius, Philo, and Jerome. In my opinion, Mark’s death should be placed in Nero’s 11th year. This conclusion fits into the political events of the time. Nero began to openly persecute Christians after the fire at Rome during his 10th year. Once people learned that the Roman Empire was persecuting and killing Christians, there would have been an implied permission for them to do the same.

How soon would the people of Alexandria in Egypt have found out that Nero was persecuting Christians? The burning of Rome occurred in Nero’s 10th year, in July. After the fire, people began to talk among themselves about the cause of the fire. Many suspected that Nero had ordered the burning of Rome. He wanted to be the last emperor of Rome. He wanted to found a new city, built on its ashes, named after himself. So he ordered his soldiers to burn Rome, the capital city of his own empire, to the ground.

The realization, among the citizens of Rome, that Nero ordered the fire took time to be formulated and to spread among the people. Eventually, Nero began to realize that people were accusing him. Though the fire occurred in July of Nero’s 10th year, Nero’s persecution of Christians was not immediate. According to Tacitus, at first Nero tried other strategies to end these accusations. “But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order.” After these other strategies failed, Nero hit upon the idea of accusing the Christians.

He blamed the Christians for starting the fire and for other problems in society. In Rome at that time, Christians were a minority; their religious beliefs were considered strange; their ideas were unpopular and not generally accepted. Tacitus says that the Christians were “loathed for their vices,” and he calls Christianity, “the pernicious superstition,” and, “the disease.” He says that Christianity spread to Rome, “where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.”

So Nero began to torture and to put to death some of the Christians of Rome. When, after a time, he saw that this strategy worked to distract people from blaming him for the fire, he continued and increased his efforts to persecute and kill Christians in Rome.

All of these events took time. He may have begun to put Christians to death by the beginning of autumn, but it took time for him to realize that his strategy was working for him. The people of Egypt would not have heard of this persecution of Christians right away. The trip by boat from Rome to Egypt may have taken 2 months, in favorable weather. And in winter the Mediterranean was essentially closed to travel by boat because of winter storms and unfavorable sailing conditions. Thus, it was probably not until the spring of Nero’s 11th year that the people of Alexandria received repeated and reliable reports that a sustained persecution of Christians was occurring in Rome with the instigation and full approval of the emperor. Once they realized that the emperor allowed and encouraged such treatment of Christians, they would have wondered if they could get away with the same.

Mark the Gospel writer had been leader of the church at Alexandria for many years. Some of those who worshipped the pagan gods would have liked to have killed him much sooner than they did. But the Roman government did not permit the peoples under their jurisdiction to put anyone to death, especially for reasons of solely a religious disagreement. That is why they did not put Mark to death on the first day that they mistreated him. On Easter Sunday, they dragged Mark through the streets with a rope around his neck. They had him under their control and could have killed him that day, but they did not.

They waited a day to see how the Roman government at Alexandria would react. They were testing the limits of what they could get away with. Did Nero’s persecution of Christians mean that the Roman government would not intervene if they attacked Mark? By the next day they realized that the Romans would not stop them from harming Mark. So, on the day after Easter Sunday, they again dragged Mark through the streets of the city with a rope around his neck. But this time they did not stop until he was dead. The Romans would not have allowed anyone to be put to death by a mob and without the intervention of Roman authority. So the killing of Mark could not have occurred before Nero began to order the death of Christians, thus creating an implied permission for others to do the same.

Implied permission to persecute Christians was a major factor in Mark’s death. In contrast, such implied permission was clearly not present at the time of James the Less’ death. Albinus rebuked the Jewish high priest, Ananus, for killing James. And Herod Agrippa II promptly removed the high priest from office for the same reason. James was killed in the spring, about the time of Passover, in Nero’s 10th year. The burning of Rome occurred in the summer of Nero’s 10th year, beginning, according to Tacitus, on July 19. Nero’s persecution of Christians began after the fires in Rome and so after the death of James the Less. Thus, at the time that the Jewish high priest ordered James’ death, the Roman government did not support or permit the killing of Christians.

Saint Jerome places the deaths of James the Less and Mark the Gospel writer in adjacent years. In the year that James was killed, the Roman government did not support the killing of Christians. Albinus threatened the Jewish high priest who killed James and Agrippa removed the high priest from office promptly. Yet, in the very next year, a mob in Alexandria could drag Mark through the public streets without Roman intervention and kill him the next day with impunity. This change in attitude on the part of the Roman government shows that James died before the burning of Rome and Mark died afterwards. Thus James’ death must have occurred in the spring of Nero’s 10th year, and Mark’s death must have occurred in the following year, Nero’s 11th year.

Mark died about 14 years after he first came to Egypt to preach the Gospel and to establish the church at Alexandria.

(Adapted from my book: Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary)

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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