Word of the Day: MARK

Word of the Day: MARK

Today is the feast day of Saint Mark, the evangelist whose sentences, in rough to-the-point Greek, are not polished as Luke’s, or studded with animadversions to the prophets, as Matthew’s, or both intimate and soaring, as John’s. It is easy to warm up to the eloquent Luke, or to immerse yourself in the sayings of Jesus in Matthew, or to contemplate the beauty of the Word in John. Mark is the scraped knuckle of the gospels, and we get from him certain details whose presence can only be explained as the happenstance memories of an eye witness, probably Peter. There is neither high art nor studied artlessness in Mark. It is simply what it is, and in that way it has a strange and persuasive power.

We know that Saint Paul, fiery soul that he was, had a falling out with Mark, and they parted company, though later they were reconciled. Reading between the lines suggests that Mark, the younger of the two, was not as headstrong as Paul, because, well, nobody was as headstrong as Paul. The irony is that MARK is a Roman name, not a Hebrew name, and it comes from the name of the war-god, MAVORS > MARS, who lent his name to that fiery wanderer of the skies. When I was a kid I was under the impression that SAUL became PAUL after that incident on the Damascus road, but that is probably not so; it seems that a lot of non-Romans and non-Greeks, including Jews, had Roman or Greek names, sometimes in addition to or in place of the name they were given in their mother tongue. So SAUL might well have gone by PAULUS when he was dealing with Romans; PAULUS or PAULLUS was a common moniker in Rome, meaning something like SHORTY. MARK’s Hebrew name was JOHN, that is, JOHANAN, GOD IS GRACIOUS, rendered in Greek as IOANNES. At least two of Jesus’ apostles have Greek names, PHILIP (PHILIPPOS = LOVER OF HORSES, that is, HORSE-RIDER) and ANDREW (ANDREAS = MANLY). What their Hebrew names were, no one knows.

Boys’ names in Greek have to do with being big, strong, brave, good at the hunt, good in council, good on the battlefield, cunning, nobly-born, and so forth: the nickname PLATON = BROAD SHOULDERED (cf. English FLAT); LYSANDER = MAN-LOOSER = KILLER; PERICLES = FAMOUS ALL OVER … Germanic names are similar: HERBERT = WAR-BRIGHT, SIGMUND = VICTORY-MINDED. But Hebrew names are not like that. Hebrew boy-names tend to express gratitude to God, or to express some truth about God: JOEL, THE LORD IS GOD; MICHAIAH, WHO IS LIKE THE LORD?, DANIEL, GOD IS JUDGE…

MARK is not related to the homonym MARK = PUT A MARK ON, MARK OUT AN EDGE OR BOUNDARY. The Germanic word is cognate with Latin MARGO = EDGE, MARGIN, and it spread into the Romance languages. A MARCHEGGIANO is an Italian from THE MARCHES; the SPANISH MARCH is where the legendary Roland was ambushed on his way back into the valleys of fair France; DENMARK = DANE-MARK is where the Danes are rounded up.

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