Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.1, Act 1, scene 2 - #12. The Arrest of Jesus, Part Three: Naked Flight of a Young Man, pp 294-304

(detailed summary)


The Arrest of Jesus, Part Three: Naked Flight of a Young Man
(Mk 14: 51-52)


Summary

This story of the young man who runs away naked presents a number of difficulties, and has a long history of varying interpretations. One of the first efforts at interpretation comes to us from the Secret Gospel of Mark, probably written around the year 125, which offers us a Gnostic reading in which the young man is initiated by Jesus into the mysteries of the kingdom of God. But the discussions over the years have focused mainly on the question of whether the young man is to be seen as a real person or as a symbolic figure. For the proponents of a real person, it is suggested that Mark speaks of someone who "followed" Jesus, using a typical verb applied to the disciples. For the proponents of a symbolic figure, various figures are evoked, such as the young man in white clothing who will announce the resurrection of Jesus at the tomb, Jesus who takes off his body through his resurrection, or the Christian who takes off his clothing to be immersed in the waters of baptism.

But this scene can only be interpreted correctly by placing it in the context of the flight of the disciples. There is nothing symbolic in the figure of the young man who represents someone who wants to become a disciple of Jesus and not run away like the others. Unfortunately, he will fail miserably. The very fact of letting go of this linen cloth, which is a luxury fabric, and being ready to face the shame of being naked, expresses how desperate he is in his desire to flee. Previously Peter had left everything to follow Jesus, now the last person who wanted to be a disciple leaves everything to flee.


  1. Translation
  2. Comment
    1. Ancient Interpretations by Copysts and by the Secret Gospel of Mark
    2. Identity of the Young Man Understood as a Real Person
    3. The Young Man as a Symbolic Figure
    4. Evaluaton and Suggested Interpretation

  1. Translation

    Mark 14
    51 And a certain young man (neaniskos) was following (synakoloutheō) with him, clothed (periballō) with a linen cloth (sindōn) over his nakedness; (gymnos), and they seize him. 52 But he, having left behind the linen cloth, fled naked (gymnos).

  2. Comment

    1. Ancient Interpretations by Copysts and by the Secret Gospel of Mark

      1. The expression "over his nakedness (epi gymnou)" poses a problem, because gymnou is the adjective gymnos in the genitive, but without a noun to qualify, and therefore should be translated literally: over naked. Our translation has replaced the adjective by a noun, nakedness. Some biblical scholars have circumvented the problem by following the manuscripts that have omitted this expression: the Codex Washingtonensis, the minuscule letters of the Lake family, Syrsin, the Coptic Sahidic and some Latin witnesses. The very fact that Matthew and Luke also omit this passage suggests that it was understood as referring to complete nudity, and therefore appeared somewhat scandalous.

      2. Another effort to interpret this passage comes from The Secret Gospel of Mark, a fragment quoted from an 18th century copy of a letter from Clement of Alexandria discovered by Mr. Smith of Columbia University in 1958. The letter is said to have been addressed to a certain Theodore, who asked his opinion on a strange Gospel then in circulation. Clement replied that Mark had written the "Acts of the Lord" (canonical Mark) during Peter's stay in Rome, but that after his martyrdom he had gone to Alexandria where he would have given a more spiritual expansion to his work for those who wanted to move towards greater perfection, in order to provide them with a guide to the inner sanctuary of a truth hidden by seven veils. Unfortunately, Carpocrates, a Gnostic, gave a totally biased interpretation of this work, and to illustrate his point, Clement quotes two passages, one of which is at the end of Mark 10:34. In what follows is an extract of Clement's quotation, with underlined words referring to our current study.

        And they come into Bethany, and a certain woman was there whose brother had died. And, having come, she bowed before Jesus and says to him: "O Son of David, have mercy on me." But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, angered, went away with her into the garden where the tomb was; and immediately a loud voice was heard from the tomb. And coming forward, Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb; and immediately going in to where the young man was, he stretched out his hand and raised him up, having taken his hand. Now the young man having looked upon him, loved him and began to beg that he might be with him. And going out of the tombs, they came into the house of the young man for he was wealthy. After six days Jesus commanded him; and when it was evening, the young man comes to him clothed with a linen cloth over his nakedness. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. Then arising, he went from there to the other side of the Jordan. (2, 23 – 3, 11).

        As we have said, this secret Gospel would be an expansion of the Gospel of Mark using material from the reading of either of the canonical Gospels. It is said to have been written about the year 125, at the time of Emperor Hadrian, for those who loved esotericism and sought, beyond baptism and the Eucharist, to escape from mass Christianity through special knowledge and initiation.

    2. Identity of the Young Man Understood as a Real Person

      1. The Secret Gospel of Mark considers the young man as a disciple of Jesus. The verb akoluthein (to follow) describes in Mark the disciple or the one who wants to become a disciple. In our text, the compound verb synakoloutheō is only found in Mark 5:37 (Peter, James and John who follow Jesus) and Luke 23:49 (the women who accompany Jesus); in these two cases we speak of people who are disciples.

      2. Some biblical scholars have raised two objections to this interpretation. First, if all the disciples have just fled, why would there still be disciples there? The answer to this could be that Mark, in his logic, did not hesitate to continue to portray Peter, an exception that confirms the rule; would not this young man confirm the general rule through another disciple? The second objection raised is this: dressed as he is, as if getting out of bed, this young man was certainly not at the last supper with Jesus. To this one could answer: the verb to the imperfect (was following) can describe someone who wanted to follow Jesus, sympathetic to his cause. In this case, Mark would tell us the story of the last person who wanted to follow him, even when the others fled.

    3. The Young Man as a Symbolic Figure

      1. Some biblical scholars relate this passage to Mark 16:5: "When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man (neaniskos) sitting on the right, dressed (periballō) in a white robe, and they were astonished". For them it is the same young man, because the two words neaniskos and periballō only appear here and in Mark 16:5. The main problem with this interpretation is that the young man in Mark 16:5 is rather an angelic figure. Not only do the similar scenes in Matthew (28:2-5) and Luke (24:4) depict an angel, but the white robe (see Revelation 7:9) and the questioning (Do not be afraid) is typical of a heavenly context. To this can be added the observation that angels in the Bible are primarily a male figure (for example, Daniel 8:15; 9:21). And 2 Maccabees 3:26,33 describes a heavenly figure with the term neanias. In short, to bring 14:51-52, which seems to describe a real personal and 16:5, which rather describes a heavenly figure, does not make sense.

      2. Other biblical scholars have seen here the symbolic figure of Jesus who is sought to be seized in order to put him to death, but who, according to the eyes of faith, escapes from his captors. We then make the link between the linen cloth (sindōn) in our scene and the one in which Jesus will be buried (14:46). But Mark does not say that during his resurrection Jesus abandoned this linen cloth.

      3. Other biblical scholars have seen in the figure of the young man the Christian who is living the ritual of baptism. In order to follow Christ, the disciple must leave his clothes behind, enter the water to be baptized, and emerge to be clothed in a white garment. The major objection to this interpretation is that immersion baptism is not attested until about 150 AD, about 80 years after the writing of Mark's Gospel. Moreover, in the symbolism of Christian baptism, the baptized person becomes a new, rejuvenated being; so why in our scene is the person a young being even before his baptism? Finally, if we have here a baptismal symbolism, why did Matthew and Luke ignore it?

    4. Evaluaton and Suggested Interpretation

      1. Interpreting this scene in a symbolic way does not do justice to the context of Mark where the disciples flee: there is a parallel between the disciples' flight and that of the young man. There is nothing symbolic in the term neaniskos, as we see in Matthew 19: 20-22 where he describes someone who wants to become a disciple of Jesus. The mention of the linen cloth over his nakedness is only there to prepare the denouement of the scene. Thus, this young man is an illustration of someone who really wants to be faithful to Jesus and not run away like the others. But his attempt to face the trial (peirasmos) fails miserably. The very act of letting go of his garment, this linen cloth (sindōn), a luxurious fabric (see Proverbs 31:24; Judges 14:12), and being ready to face the shame of being naked (on nudity, see Matthew 25:36; John 21:7; James 2:15; Revelation 3:17; 16:15), expresses how desperate he is in his desire to flee; this quest to follow Jesus fails miserably. For Mark, Jesus' passion is an eschatological moment, and as the prophet Amos says, "And the strong one will no longer put his heart in his strength; and naked he will flee in that day, says the Lord" (2:16: LXX). This is Mark's warning to his community.

      2. There is something ironic about the scene. Earlier Peter was presented as the model disciple, who said, "Behold, we have left everything and followed you" (10:28). Now, the last person to want to be a disciple leaves everything and runs away. There is something harsh in this portrait, and it is understandable that neither Matthew nor Luke took it back. Mark completes his picture in contrast by opposing the young man who proclaims his victory over death at the empty tomb with the young man who pitifully flees.

Next chapter: Analysis Covering All Three Parts of the Arrest of Jesu

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