The Naked Young Man in Mark 14:51-52

Then Jesus said to the [sent to arrest him], “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a guerrilla? Day after day I was with you in the Temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” All of them deserted him and fled. A young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen [cloth]. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen [cloth] and ran off naked. (Mark 14:48-52)

When Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, it was somewhere around midnight in late March or early April, and it was cold enough so that two or three hours later, Peter was grateful to warm his hands at the fire.

Clothing was very expensive. Most people owned exactly two pieces of clothing: an everyday garment like a tunic (knee-length for men, longer for women), and a cloak for inclement weather. Some men wore loincloths under their garments, some men wore a little thing that looked like a miniature slip, and some didn’t wear anything at all.

Mark describes the young man in question as a neaniskos, meaning he was in the prime of his life, perhaps 15 to 25 years old. The verb that is used, sunékolouthei, means “was following as a disciple” or “was accompanying.” Since no one evinces any surprise at the young man’s presence, he was probably a disciple.

Fascinatingly, the word neaniskos, which is rare in the Christian Testament, crops up a second time in Mark, to describe the young man in the long white robe who tells the women disciples that Jesus has been raised and they will see him again in Galilee.

Who was this young man? Why was he not considered a disciple in the same category as Peter, James, and John, who couldn’t have been much older? Why was no one surprised that he was standing around in Gethsemane with Jesus’ inner circle of male disciples (and a huge posse of Roman soldiers) wearing “nothing but a linen” — when it was probably no warmer than 50F.? Was the neaniskos of this passage the same neaniskos as in Mark 16:5, who in the meantime had found himself a nice stolén leukén (long, white robe) to cover his nakedness?

Traditionally, scholars have agreed that because of the “embarrassment factor,” this incident may really have happened — i.e., it was so embarrassing that the early church would have been just as happy if it had never happened and they hadn’t HAD to record it. Jewish people abhorred nakedness; that was just too, too pagan for them.

The best guess of the editors of the Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version is that “perhaps [the young man] was sleeping in the house where Jesus ate the Last Supper and rose hastily from bed to follow Jesus to Gethsemane.”

In Word Meanings in the New Testament, Ralph Earle comments, “This brief incident is found only in this Gospel. It might be Mark’s way of saying, ‘I was there.’ If the Last Supper took place in the home of John Mark’s mother (cf. Acts 12:12), Judas Iscariot may have returned there first to betray Jesus. We can then understand how John Mark would be roused, perhaps grab a sheet to cover his body, and rush to [Gethsemane] to warn Jesus.”

It is remotely possible that the first-generation Christians in Mark's community may have seen this incident as the fulfillment of a prophecy. In a passage in Amos describing the Day of God’s Judgment, God tells us, “and those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day” (2:16).

But how likely is it, really, that this scene happened in the real world? As I mentioned earlier, when this incident is said to have happened, it was probably around midnight, and cold enough that a few hours later, Peter, dressed and cloaked, was glad to be near a fire. Although it would have been fine to sleep naked inside one’s home in Palestine in April, Jerusalem had a higher elevation than most places, and the Mount of Olives higher still. If Jesus’s young disciple had been wearing nothing but a loincloth or a little slip under his “linen,” he was probably very chilly, especially after the two-mile walk from Jerusalem was done and he had nothing to do but stand around and shiver while he waited for Jesus to finish praying.

Saying that an incident might not have happened in “real life” does not mean that the incident is not true. German theologians have added three useful words to our vocabulary. Historie refers to actual events, the kind of thing you find in history books — names, dates, Social Security numbers. Geschichte refers to the meaning or significance of an historical event — for example, “Jesus lived” is historie, and “Christ is the revelation of God” is geschichte. And heilsgeschichte can be translated “holiness history” or “salvation history.” The Bible is not historie, but heilsgeschichte.

When a parent says to a child, “Santa Claus came last night,” that is not a factual statement, so it is not historie-true — but since there are lots of presents under the tree, it IS geschichte-true. Many “events” recorded in the Bible that literal-minded people think they are required to believe are historie-true — such as Noah collecting two of every one of the 800,000 species of insect — are not historie-true, but they ARE heilsgeschichte-true. As a general rule, an incident recorded in the Bible is likelier to be historie-true if it is something your denomination is embarrassed to have young people about — like the incident where a king got assassinated while his attendants thought he was having a bowel movement (Judges 3:19-25).

In verses 14:51-52, Mark tells us that “A young man was present who was wearing nothing but a sindon. The posse caught hold of him, but he left the sindon and ran away naked.”

Here’s the big discovery I stumbled over by accident: A sindon was a linen cloth used for clothing or burial. The word is used exactly four times in the Christian Testament: in the three synoptic gospels to describe the cloth in which Jesus’s dead body was wrapped for burial . . . and here.

It seems to me that, whoever the naked young disciple was, the story is not meant to be historical in the historie sense. What 15-year-old’s would allow him out of the house in the middle of the night wearing nothing but a winding-sheet? — to walk two miles to the Mount of Olives in the company of Jesus and at least three other disciples, stand around for a minimum of an hour in the cold, and then run two miles back to Jerusalem naked? Even before they started walking, wouldn’t Peter, James, or John have said, “Hey, kid, what are you, nuts? — at least put on a cloak, before you freeze to death”?

What seems significant to me is the sindon, the “linen.” Because having a punk kid tag along on one of the most important nights in human history is almost certainly not historie-true, the author of Mark (the earliest of all the canonical gospels) must have included the story because it was significant to his congregation for its spiritual truth, its heilsgeschichte.

I believe this incident may be a semeion, an action symbolic of something else. Baptism, for example, was originally a semeion for death and resurrection/rebirth, in which one dies to one’s old way of life and is “born [again] of water and the Spirit.” Those who were baptized were submerged in “living” (running) water, symbolizing both drowning and amniotic fluid, and came out of the water as naked as the day they were born the first time.

I believe it is possible that this incident was either a semeion describing the young man’s baptism into Christ (resurrection/rebirth) — or possibly, a semeion describing Jesus’s “baptism” into his new life. Remember, for no reason that Mark ever explains, the Roman soldiers who have walked two miles through the dark and cold of night, on the holiest night of the year, specifically to arrest Jesus, try to grab the young man (15:51) — but he escapes, naked as the day he was born, leaving behind only the sindon, or winding-sheet — in other words, leaving behind only the evidence of Jesus’s approaching death to his old life and resurrection into the new.

Here is another idea to add to the stew: Clement of Alexandria quotes a fragment of text known as the “Secret Gospel of Mark.” The fragment goes,

And they came to Bethany. And there was a woman there, whose brother was dead. And she came and fell down before Jesus and said to him, “Son of David, have compassion on me.” But the disciples rebuked her. And in anger Jesus went away with her into the garden where the tomb was; and immediately a loud voice was heard from the tomb, and Jesus went forward and rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And immediately he went in where the young man was, stretched out his hand and raised him up, grasping him by the hand. But the young man looked upon him and loved him, and began to beg him that he might remain with him. And when they had gone out from the tomb, they went into the young man’s house; for he was rich. And after six days Jesus gave him an order; and in the evening the young man came to him, clothed only in a linen cloth upon his naked body. And he remained with him that night; for Jesus was teaching him the mysteries of God’s Domain. And from there [Jesus] went away and returned to the other bank of the Jordan. . . . [Fragment 2:] He came to Jericho. And there were the sisters of the young man whom Jesus loved, and his mother and Salome; and Jesus did not receive them.

“Secret Mark” was discovered in the summer of 1958 by a scholar named Morton Smith, who retains the text and has released only photographs of it. It may be a genuine letter of Clement’s — in which case we can be sure only that an expanded version of the Gospel of Mark existed in Alexandria around 170 C.E. Schneemelcher concludes only that “The time of origin of the ‘secret Gospel’ probably lies not before the middle of the second century.” . . . in other words, it probably never “really happened.”

Whether or not it “really happened,” few scholars are particularly thrilled with Secret Mark, which has a strong implication of homosexual love. (“Come to me late at night wearing nothing but a linen sheet and I’ll teach you what heaven is all about.”) Clement’s letter, in fact, denies the possibility vehemently. Charles W. Hedrick writes,

The excerpts from the Secret Gospel of Mark are quoted in Clement’s letter to Theodore. Theodore had written Clement asking whether or not certain things were found in the Secret Gospel. Clement replies that Mark had written two gospels. His original gospel, intended for beginners, was written at Rome. The second gospel, Mark wrote sometime later in Alexandria, Egypt. This second gospel, Clement says, is an expanded version of the original gospel. Mark simply added to the earlier gospel whatever seemed appropriate for persons progressing toward a more advanced level of instruction in Christian faith. This expanded version Clement dubbed the ‘Secret Gospel,’ and described it as a ‘more spiritual gospel’ . . . ‘the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils.’ . . . Clement denied that the Secret Gospel divulged the sacred mysteries of the Lord, or revealed ‘things not to be uttered.’ . . . The leader [of an Alexandrian Gnostic sect, Carpocrates,] apparently revised the Secret Gospel, adding to it other information, which Clement regarded as ‘shameless lies.’ Carpocrates proceeded to interpret his expanded version of Secret Mark in line with his own carnal teachings.

The original gospel, “intended for beginners, was written at Rome” in approximately 65 C.E., shortly before the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. Whether or not Secret Mark was written for advanced students by Mark (but notice the somewhat anachronistic references to Lazarus and Martha) or by Carpocrates for his own “carnal” purposes, it offers an intriguing glimpse into the story of the naked young man beyond what we get from the canonical gospel.

The possibilities are:

For our modern purposes in recovering these verses for our own use, we observe that it was probably not a historically factual incident, and is therefore included in the gospel for its spiritual truth.

Since “all of them deserted him and fled,” the neaniskos was not a member of the set “all of them.” “All of them” must refer either to Peter, James, and John or to all the disciples who went with Jesus to Gethsemane — which raises the intriguing possibility that the “young man” might have been .

The incident with the neaniskos involves death (the winding-sheet, the arrest at Gethsemane) and escape from death — “They caught hold of [the young man], but he left the sindon and ran away naked.” If the young man is meant to be an avatar representing Jesus’s resurrection body (which Jesus will be “wearing” in a matter of a little more than 48 hours), the incident becomes a foreshadowing of the Resurrection. If the young man is one of the female disciples, the actions of the posse are again more reasonable than their trying to arrest the wrong guy even after Judas pointed out the right one — but rather less palatable to audiences both ancient and modern.

And that leaves us with my original idea — that the incident is a semeion, a sign-action symbolizing the “death” and rebirth of baptism. . . .