I remember as a graduate student talking about my undergraduate research with another student. There was interest until I mentioned that I had examined the potential identification of the Beloved Disciple/John the Evangelist with the John also called Mark.
Immediately the mood changed. Words didn’t need to be spoken; the incredulous look and change in demeanor said it all. The conversation was brought to an abrupt end.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised. My own reaction was pretty incredulous too, when I was first exposed to the idea while reading R. Alan Culpepper‘s book, John the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend, in which he provides an overview of all the various proposals that have been put forward for the identity of the Beloved Disciple. In fact, I laughed and turned the page, until my curiosity got the better of me some moments later.
The idea is, perhaps, not quite as absurd as it–for some reason–seems to sound. In fact, it has enjoyed surprising support from renowned scholars.
Theodor Zahn was perhaps the first to suggest that John/Mark and John the Evangelist were sometimes confused in sources, pointing in support to the identification of both in Christian tradition with the young man who fled naked in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 14:51) and the association of both with the site of the Zion church in Jerusalem.
Francis Pritchett Badham, who like Zahn approached this topic from the angle of Christian traditions, also suggested some “confluence of personality” between the two on account of depictions of both as priests wearing the sacerdotal plate.
Daniel Völter seems to have been the first to posit that the Beloved Disciple of the Fourth Gospel was John Mark. He was followed by Julius Wellhausen, and then by Carl Erbes in 1912, Johannes Weiss, Pierson Parker, John Marsh, and, more recently, Wolfgang Eckle.
Oscar Cullmann viewed John/Mark as a possible identification for the Beloved Disciple, while Stephen Smalley acknowledged that the view “is not as wild a suggestion as may at first appear”; and R. Alan Culpepper thought that the view “has much to commend it.”
Then there was the work of J. Edgar Bruns, who in two short articles drew attention to medieval traditions which placed John/Mark in Johannine narratives, and sometimes apparently in the role of the Beloved Disciple himself. He also drew attention to the confusion of John and Mark, noting that both were said to have had a father named Aristobulus, the brother of Barnabas; this suggested, he observed, that the two were “not distinguished”.
While few have heard of Bruns’ work, Robert Kysar and Harold W. Attridge have suggested on the basis of it that John and Mark were sometimes confused in some early Christian sources. C. Clifton Black even suggested that “some writers of Christian antiquity were inclined to identify John Mark with the apostle John”.
I hope to continue my research in the future and produce a monograph looking at the identification of John Mark with the Beloved Disciple from the perspective of the internal evidence of the Fourth Gospel.
My book, The John also called Mark: Reception and Transformation in Christian Tradition, discusses, like Zahn, Badham, and Bruns, the external evidence provided by early and medieval Christian sources, arguing that the identification of John the Evangelist with John/Mark originated early and was once fairly widespread. A discussion of some of the evidence presented in the book is also available in my conference presentation, The Confusion of John and Mark.