St James the Apostle

For St James’ Day, here’s an interesting detailed bit of early church detective work: Justin Martyr was one of the early Christian writers called the Apostolic Fathers. He lived from 100-160 AD. A convert to the church, he wrote various works defending the Christian faith–which was then about 100 years old. One of the details he recorded is this:

“It is said that he [Jesus] changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and it is written in his memoirs that he changed the names of others, two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means ‘sons of thunder’….”

What are Peter’s “memoirs”? We know it isn’t the Gospel of Peter–which is a later apocryphal gospel that was written after Justin Martyr died. The early tradition of the church was that John Mark was the companion, translator and scribe for Peter, and that Mark’s gospel is based on the memories of Peter himself. We can safely conclude that the “memoirs” of Peter that Justin Martyr probably refers to Marks’ gospel. What seals the deal is that Mark is the only one of the Evangelists who records that Jesus nicknamed James and John “Boanerges–Sons of Thunder”.

Why does it matter? Because modernists scholars and those who would undermine the historical reliability of the New Testament would like to suppose that the gospels were late invented myths–that the stories of Jesus had been exaggerated and elaborated with later “mythical” elements–and that they were certainly not written soon after the death of Christ, recording eyewitness accounts. If, however, Justin Martyr knew of Peter’s “memoirs” which recorded a detail only found in Mark then we can be confident that Mark was the companion and secretary of Peter and the gospel records eyewitness accounts.

The tradition also records that Mark was in Rome with Peter, and that Mark’s gospel was written for the benefit of the Christian fellowship in Rome. In the passion narrative Mark records the detail that Simon of Cyrene was “the father of Rufus and Alexander.” (Mr.15.21) Why on earth would he record such a detail unless his readers would know who Rufus and Alexander were? The early traditions say Rufus and Alexander became missionaries.

Could be that Simon of Cyrene’s family were some of the founding members of the Church in Rome. Paul mentions a certain Rufus and his mother in Romans 16:13. We know from I Peter 5:13 that Mark was with Peter in Rome. We don’t know who the Rufus is Rome in who Paul refers to–but Mark is in Rome and knows the Roman Christians and mentions that Simon of Cyrene was Rufus and Alexander’s father. What happened to Alexander? In 1941 an archeologist discovered first century tombs of Cyrenian Jews in the Kidron Valley near Jerusalem. One of the ossuraries had the Greek inscription: Alexander, son of Simon. Maybe by the time Paul wrote to the Romans Alexander had died and only Rufus and his mother were still living. If so, and Paul’s letter to the Romans was written around 56 AD–if all this circumstantial evidence is correct Mark’s gospel would have to have been written before 55 AD.

I know these are common names in the ancient world, and nothing is proven; nevertheless, they are intriguing details. For more on the early date of Mark’s gospel go here.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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