Mindful of all the grief, pain and hard work, and grace, that has brought him to this point, Eli Knowles (pronounced “know-less”), now 63, seated on a campus bench, selects the first two orange 8-x-5-inch postcards from a stack of 300 and stands up. Two presumed students at the University of the South, or Sewanee, located on Monteagle mountain in southeast Tennessee, are headed his way. Eli, a burly man with a white beard and his long silver hair pulled back in a ponytail, steps up and hands each person a postcard, before sitting back down on the bench. He’s prepared to answer questions and produce any verses which might be required to confirm his thesis. Eli had gone to the trouble of printing out a series of verses from the gospels of John and Mark on green index-size cards. The cards are kept in a little tin box, with dividers and tabs. The students dutifully stop to read what they have been handed.
Eli has also brought a color print of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper and a copy of The Nag Hammadi Library, both of which shed light, in their own way, on the question of the identity of the Beloved Disciple of Jesus, who wrote the Gospel of John. Coptic material has prompted some scholars to revere the Nag Hammadi Library as scripture, when a Coptic biography of John Mark has been disregarded.
On one side of the postage-paid postcards is Eli’s address. The other side bears a question and six multiple-choice answers.
The question reads: It is one of Christendom’s most enduring and confounding mysteries: Who was the unnamed “other disciple, whom Jesus loved” (John 20:2), who knew the Jewish high priests Annas and Caiaphas (John 18:15), who leaned on Jesus at the Last Supper (John 13:23-25), and who presumably wrote the Gospel of John, the Johannine epistles and Revelation? Bible scholars, laymen and early church patriarchs have wrestled with the obscured identity of the Beloved Disciple and the writer of John’s Gospel for nearly two millennia. Based on what we know today, whom do you say was the Beloved Disciple?
The answers listed on the postcards are as follows: A) Lazarus; B) Mary Magdalene; C) apostle and disciple St. John, the son of Zebedee; D) James, the brother of Jesus; E) wealthy African refugee, Levitical priest and scribe St. John Mark, the founder of the Coptic church and a school of theology, the only professional writer in Jesus’ inner circle, a native of Cyrene in north Africa (Libya), who leaned on Jesus as a kid brother would at the Last Supper, hosted by himself and his mother Mary; his unusual Roman surname “Mark” means “Hammer”; 6) none of these.
Eli intends to pass out all of these “socratic” postcards in an effort to get out his message, even if it means he has to win over one person at a time. Nothing else Eli has done to try to generate attention and interest in his thesis pertaining to the Beloved Disciple, including international press releases, a letter-writing campaign and posts on his blog, has worked. He would write a scholarly paper, but the idea was just too much for him. Still, it was imperative that Eli reveal the racial identities of Jesus, John Mark, Simon of Cyrene and Mary Magdalene. In a society where people were chanting, “Black Lives Matter,” in the face of gun violence directed toward blacks, it was important for people of all colors to know Jesus was black.
Eli was a former reporter and editor at two local dailies. He could write stories and releases, even screenplays, but a full-fledged paper, with footnotes, wasn’t doable. Eli didn’t have time to construct an elaborate bibliography, and cite works in the body of a formal paper. So Eli, not a scholar, at least not an organized one, had to look for alternative ways to get out his message.
After looking at both sides of the card, the young female student said to Eli, “What if I were to choose B?”
“Which would be Mary Magdalene,” Eli said. I’m asking for the most correct answer,” Eli continued. “The man named John who wrote the Gospel of John.”
The young male student looked very nonchalantly at the card. But Eli saw his eyes widen.
“What’s this with choice E?” he said. “I’ve never heard … I don’t know anything about John Mark,” the male student said.
“And,” Eli said, “I would submit that there is a reason for that.”
The female student said, “C.”
Her male companion said, “Yeah, C. Is that right?”
“No,” Eli said laughing.
“Then E?” the male student said.
“Correctamundo,” Eli said, beaming. “St. John Mark has been hidden from us because of his African ethnicity and nationality, I submit. St. John Mark was the only professional writer in Jesus’ inner circle; he may have been Jesus’ only black disciple, unless you consider Mary Magdalene, being from Magdala, an ancient place in Ethiopia or Abyssinia.”
Both students shrugged, as if to say, “So what?”
Eli smiled. The students marked their cards and handed them back to Eli. They had both chosen Zebedee’s John, the Galilean and brother of James, neither of whom had been very bright. Jesus had told both sons of Zebedee that they would drink from the same cup of martyrdom as Jesus would drink. That’s an important point for Eli. Because St. John Mark and Zebedee’s John are both said to have been martyred, eliminating St. John Mark. But Eli believes the claim of John Mark’s alleged martyrdom in Alexandria, Egypt is false. Eli believes that like Enoch, the Beloved Disciple of Jesus, as Jesus had intimated, had not tasted death before proceeding into heaven.
Eli watches as a cluster of students exits a classroom building and turns up the sidewalk toward him. Eli counts six students and takes that many postcards from the stack. As he stands up to pass out the cards, he sees a woman exiting the same door, who looks to be in her thirties or forties. She carries a leather satchel as beautiful as herself. Eli continues to watch her as she turns in his direction. He passes out the six cards to the students, then bends down to take another card for this captivating African-American woman. Was she a student or a professor? He hoped she was faculty; in truth, he was trolling for faculty members and the clergy because these were the only ones who could bless Eli’s work and encourage, with results, its publishing. At the least academics could make calls or provide editing and direction, if they were to embrace Eli’s thesis and his efforts to write his screenplay.
“Is this a student project?” a young female student asks Eli.
Eli was grinning from ear to ear. “No, I’m not a student,” he said. “Just a voice in the wilderness, trying to make a splash … to mix metaphors.” Eli and the student laughed.
“Where did you get this information about John Mark?” a male student inquires.
“A Coptic biography that has only existed in English since 1997.” The explanation satisfies the male student. His eyebrows are nicely raised, Eli thinks to himself. The rest of the students, thankfully, were busy reading and marking their cards at the opportune moment Eli steps forward to hand a postcard to the African-American academic.
“Thank you,” the woman says, and immediately begins to read the postcard that has been handed to her. Eli loves campuses. Usually, everybody is so open.
“Irenaeus, in the third century, said the writer of John’s Gospel was C, the apostle and disciple John, the son of Zebedee,” a male student said.
“Yes, he did,” Eli agreed. “He was told that by someone, not saying who, and it has always been taken as gospel. But Zebedee’s John didn’t know the high priests, on the night Jesus was arrested. Read John 18:15. John Mark knew them, because he worked with them; he was himself a Levitical priest.”
“How do you know that?” another male student asks.
“The biography, The Beholder of God,” Eli replies, “which was written in 1968 by the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III, is the only such biography that we have. No other saints have had as much detail written about them as John Mark has in this instance. But the biography and John Mark himself have been hidden, or discredited, I believe, because of what it would say about Jesus’ racial identity.”
“What was Jesus’ racial identity?” the African-American woman asks.
“The short answer is Ethiopian, since He would be considered to be the half-brother of DNA superman scientific Adam, who arose in East Africa. That’s a theory of mine. The long answer about Jesus race can be found in the book of Hebrews, which I believe was written by John Mark. Hebrews, chapter seven, verse fourteen.”
The African-American woman was agape. But she hid it well.
“My name is Mary Elsworth,” she said.
“Eli Knowles,” Eli responds.
“I’m a member of the faculty,” Mary explains, as she, to Eli’s great astonishment and glee, puts her satchel down on the bench and begins to withdraw her Bible.
“How has John Mark been discredited?” another female student asks.
“Thank you for asking,” Eli replies. “John Mark’s unusual Roman surname ‘Mark,’ according to one church tradition, is meant to convey that John Mark mutilated his fingers to get out of becoming a priest.”
Mary turned and looked at Eli. “Really?”
Eli was beaming, because he was knocking it out of the park in front of this professor. He had her utmost attention. “Of course, the thing about the mutilating of fingers is nonsense.
“Oh, I have the verses printed on cards,” Eli said. “You can put your Bible away; I have it right here.” Eli withdrew a smaller postcard from the little tin box with tabs and dividers. “Hebrew 7:14. He knew the high priests. If anything, it tells us that indeed John Mark was a Levitical Jewish priest. It’s just that someone was out to get him.”
Eli pauses to regather his thoughts. “The surname Mark actually means ‘hammer,’ which John Mark no doubt adopted after seeing as how the hammer had been used against his Lord. He was, with Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the crucifixion site, John Mark was. And he would have seen everything. Nothing that any of Jesus disciples could say.”
Mary stopped reading the postcard and looked at Eli, intrigued with the words spoken by this burly, white-haired, white-bearded stranger. She was intrigued because Eli spoke not only with conviction, but authority.
“Are you a student?” Mary asks Eli, holding her place in her Bible.
“Oh, no,” Eli says earnestly. “Just a beggar searching for bread.”
“The verse you cited says Jesus evidently was of the Tribe of Judah,” Mary says.
“Yes,” Eli replies. “What do you take from that? Keep in mind that in Revelation Jesus is referred to as ‘the Lion of Judah.’
“Jesus was of the same tribe as David and Solomon,” Mary says. “Do you concur?”
Eli nods yes. “I believe Jesus was called the Son of David, because he looked like Solomon, whose mother, Bathsheba, was an Ethiopian. And she is hidden in the Gospel of Matthew, by the way, in Jesus’ genealogy that appears at the opening of Matthew. There’s a fascinating reference to Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, whose name is awkwardly stricken from the list.”
Eli reached out to collect the cards from the students, as they trailed away. One person had voted for Mary Magdalene, but the rest had voted for Zebedee’s John, to Eli’s great disappointment.
“Interesting, Mr. Knowles,” Mary said.
“Let me provide you with two cards,” Eli said, “one of which has John 19:26-27 printed on it; the other card is Acts 1:13-14. Cross referencing these verses is the quickest and best way to show that John Mark was the Beloved Disciple. In John 19:26-27, the Beloved Disciple is described with Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the cross of Jesus. Of course, Jesus asks the Beloved Disciple to adopt his mother, in effect. And then we read that the Beloved Disciple took Mary to his home ‘in that hour.’ If the Beloved Disciple is Zebedee’s John, there would be no way that John could have Mary at his home in Galilee in an hour. Everybody hung out at John Mark’s house.
“In Acts 1, we learn that Mary, the mother of Jesus, all of Jesus’ disciples and some of his brothers are living in the house with the upper room. John Mark and his mother Mary, being wealthy, gave comfort, food and shelter to everyone involved with Jesus whenever they were in Jerusalem.”
Mary moved to sit down on the bench, as Eli got his things out of the way. The two talked for nearly an hour and a half.
“Eli, I could talk a little longer, but I’ve still got a busy day ahead of me,” Mary confided, “I’m having friends over tonight for dinner. Won’t you join us?”
“Can I bring over my materials … and make a presentation?”
“Um, well, I suppose.”
“And,” Eli added, “I’d really like to speak here, at Sewanee, if you can arrange that.“
“Let me think about that,” Mary said, giving Eli a big, reassuring smile.
“Great,” Eli said excitedly. “What time should I be there?”
“Seven’ll work,” she said. “I’ll write my address on the back of a business card. You have GPS, right?
“Yeah, just got it on my phone.”
“I live in Tracy City, about ten minutes from the campus,” Mary said, adding, “I certainly think your findings are worth sharing with a … theological audience, here,” Mary hesitated, “I could pencil you in.”
“I have Chapel Talk in St. John’s Chapel tomorrow,” Mary said. “At 9 a.m. Maybe I can slip you in. It will give you about 20 minutes.”
“You’re serious?” Eli said, slightly overwhelmed. “You promise?”
“Yes, I promise,” Mary laughed. “We’ll talk more about it tonight. For now I have to go and see the dean, and I’ll mention it to him.”
“Can you give me directions to St. John’s Chapel?” Eli asked.
“Yes,” Mary said, “do you see that building and the double doors?” Mary pointed to the double-door entrance of the administrative building across the street.
“Yes,” Eli replied.
“Go through the double doors through the building. St. John’s Chapel is on the other side.”
Mary gave Eli a firm handshake as he handed her the two green postcards. She had checked the letter E.