An old (1973) article in the Journal of Biblical Literature by Robin Scroggs and Kent I. Groff make a case that the young man who fled naked from the scene of Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane and the young man (reappearing?) in the tomb to announce Jesus’ resurrection were originally created as symbols of the baptism ritual for new converts to Christianity.
The young man having his linen cloak (σινδόν / sindon) snatched from him is substituted by Jesus who is entering into his “baptism” of suffering, death and burial — as depicted by Jesus himself being wrapped in a σινδόν/sindon for burial. The young man then reappears in the tomb, sitting on the right side, clothed in white like Jesus at the transfiguration. These narrative scenes find their meaning in the baptism ritual of early Christians: the initiate first removed his garment and entered the baptism naked and was then given a new robe to symbolize a new life in the resurrected Christ.
Scroggs and Groff dismiss the likelihood that the detail of the young man fleeing naked from Jesus’ arrest is a genuine historical report or an autobiographical detail by the author:
What is described makes no sense as an actual incident.
- Why were not others seized as well?
- Would it be likely that on an early spring night one would have on only one article of clothing?
- In and of itself it is a trivial scene, and the Marcan author clearly is not interested in reporting trivial scenes.
- It is incredible that the moment signaled by the narrative itself as most important, the loss of the garment, would have been considered an important historical fact by the framers of the tradition.
- No one today can take seriously the suggestion that the author of the Gospel was an eyewitness.
(p. 532, my formatting)
Nor do Scroggs and Groff see the interest in devising a scene to fulfil a scripture in this instance as a sufficient explanation:
The possibility that Amos 2:16 and/or Gen 39:12 have contributed to Mark 14:51-52 cannot be denied. Even so, those passages cannot serve as sufficient explanations for the creation of the story. When Scripture is incorporated into the Marcan narrative, it usually serves to interpret an act of or about Jesus, on occasion the twelve disciples, but never an isolated instance about an unnamed person. In this interpretation, the pericope remains a trivial interruption of the Marcan narrative. (p. 532)
Scroggs and Groff begin their explanation of the young man fleeing naked with a study of the young man in the tomb at the end of the Gospel. Their intention is to demonstrate that the Gethsemane event is not so isolated from anything else in the narrative as is often thought.
The Youth (Νεανίσκος) as a representative of Christ
Though many readers assume the young man appearing in the tomb to announce Jesus’ resurrection to the women is an angel there is nothing in the Gospel to confirm this. Mark is quite capable of using the word “angel” when he speaks of angels. The authors of the article discuss other uses of νεανίσκος and conclude that it is never used to mean “angel” without some other explicitly clarifying statement.
Thus despite the nearly unanimous judgment of scholarship, there is absolutely nothing in the description of the one who announces the resurrection that compels the conclusion: he is an angelic being. Mark has, in effect, been interpreted out of Matthew and Luke. (p. 534)
So if the young man in white sitting in the tomb to greet the women is not an angel who else could he be?
The most obvious answer is Jesus himself.
The only other white garments are those glorifying Jesus at his transfiguration (Mark 9:3). Was this transfiguration scene originally a depiction of the resurrection as many scholars have thought? (If so, that would explain the otherwise strange remark that the crowds who saw Jesus descending from that transfiguration mountain were “greatly amazed” (Mark 9:15).
It may be significant that the resurrected or heavenly Christ in other literature was sometimes imagined as a young man. E. Peterson’s has shown how frequent this youthful image of the exalted Jesus was:
- Acts of John 73, 76, 87, 88
- Acts of Thomas 27
- Acts of Andrew and Matthew 18, 33
- Acts of Paul 3:13, 28; 4:2
(I have been unable to locate translations — print or online — of the last two cited references to Jesus as a youth.)
Many no doubt will be surprised to find such late texts being used to interpret the Gospel of Mark. The authors of the article explain in a footnote:
The apocryphal acts are currently dated in the late second or early third century C.E. . . . Obviously great caution must be used in adducing evidence from these texts for first century materials. Nevertheless, in some instances, especially those connected with baptism, they may reflect much earlier tradition. In the present instance they at least show it was possible for Christians to use these words of the resurrected Jesus without embarrassment or any feeling that they did not show adequate respect for the Son of God. (p. 535)
Scroggs and Groff are using the above to soften up readers for their main argument, however.
What most directly suggests that the νεανίσκος has something to do with the resurrected Jesus, however, is the apparently most superfluous detail in the story. They young man is seen “sitting on the right side” . . . . As a topographical detail [and I would add body-posture detail] this is either meaningless or irrelevant. As a christological symbol, it would carry great significance, for it is the exalted Christ who is seated at the right side — in heaven before the Father. (p. 535)
Early Christianity was well acquainted with the opening line of Psalm 110 as a prophecy of Christ sitting at the right hand of God. More pertinently, the Gospel of Mark twice before this final scene depicts Jesus Christ sitting at the right hand. Mark 12:36 quotes the Psalm and Mark 14:62 portrays Jesus declaring that he will be the one sitting at the right hand of power.
This is very close to what the women in ch. 16 see. “They saw a young man sitting on the right side.” It is now widely held that many early Christians understood the resurrection of Jesus not in terms of appearance on earth, but rather as exaltation to heaven and enthronement there as the eschatological and cosmic ruler.
The authors of the article argue that the final scene is better described as a resurrection announcement scene than as an empty tomb scene. The resurrection meant the raising and exaltation of Jesus into heaven. Therefore,
If Mark is to portray the resurrection of Jesus, he must do it symbolically. (p. 536)
At the same time the young man is clearly not Jesus himself. He announces the resurrection of Jesus. There is no reason to think he is an angel, either.
To explain this ambiguity surrounding the young man in the tomb Scroggs and Groff explain early Christian baptismal imagery and practices.
Early Christian baptismal imagery and practices
A. Baptism as dying and rising with Christ.
Paul in Romans 6 shows us that there were early Christians who understood baptism’s immersion into water as symbolic of participating in the death of Jesus, and the emergence from the water as symbolic of participation (now or in the future) in the resurrected life of Christ.
The same symbolism is found in later epistles also: Colossians 2:11-12; Ephesians 2:5-6; 1 Peter 3:18-22. Only once does the same symbolism appear in the Synoptic Gospels and that is in Mark 10:38-39:
and Jesus said to them, `Ye have not known what ye ask; are ye able to drink of the cup that I drink of, and with the baptism that I am baptized with — to be baptized?’
And they said to him, `We are able;’ and Jesus said to them, `Of the cup indeed that I drink of, ye shall drink, and with the baptism that I am baptized with, ye shall be baptized
In Mark’s gospel it is clear that the “cup and baptism” that the disciples of Jesus must share with him is his suffering and death. (Cup is a well-recognized Old Testament symbol of suffering.)
Matthew 20:20-28 has significantly omitted Mark’s reference to baptism in the words of Jesus in this same episode. “Matthew seems to be opposed to this interpretation of baptism, perhaps as reflecting too much a pagan influence.” — footnote p. 537.
Thus there can scarcely be any doubt that Mark 10:38-39 makes oblique reference to the sacraments and that, furthermore, the baptism is seen as a dying in relation to the dying of Christ.
B. Baptism as a change of garments
The authors next argue that the composer of the Gospel of Mark knew of and was alluding to a practice of entering the baptismal water naked and being reclothed with new garments on rising out of the water.
For evidence of the early Christian practice of stripping off clothes to become ritually naked for baptism, and being reclothed afterwards, readers are directed to Jonathan Smith’s article “The Garments of Shame” (History of Religions 5, 1966, 217-38). Smith cites literary and artistic evidence for this practice in pagan mystery religions, such as the Eleusinian mysteries and its early adoption by Christians.
Again Scroggs and Groff must refer to later patristic texts as evidence for the practice in early Christianity, but argue that these texts “all seem to assume the praxis as known and accepted by the church.” Early Christian texts that mention the removal of clothes are:
- Gospel of Philip 123. 21-25
- Gospel of Thomas 37
- Acts of Thomas 121, 133, 157
- Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 21.3, 20
- Acts of Xanthippe 21
- Didascalia Apostolorum 16
- Testamentum Domini nostri, 2.8
- Egyptian Church Order 46
- (Possibly Tertullian in De res. carnis, 8)
- Odes of Solomon 11:9-10; 15:8; 21:2
- Testament of Levi 8:4-5 (said to be a Christian interpolation)
Early Christian paintings and reliefs of baptism also always show the initiate nude.
The conclusion to be drawn first is that we just have no way of demonstrating that the praxis was in effect in the first century; but, secondly, the widespread and non-controversial character of the references, plus the very common sense of the matter, suggest that one should hold as completely open the possibility that the practice dates back to the early decades of the church’s existence. It would seem that similar rites were practiced in some of the hellenistic cults of this period, and Smith argues that in Jewish proselyte baptism the candidate was nude. (p. 538)
Scroggs and Groff conclude that whatever the practice among earliest Christians the imagery of disrobing and re-dressing in connection with baptism “is primitive.”
Galatians 3:27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on [ἐνδύω usually meaning “clothe”] Christ.
Colossians 3:9-10 lie not one to another; seeing that ye have put off [ἀπεκδυσάμενοι = stripped off] the old man with his doings, and have put on [ἐνδυσάμενοι = clothed] the new man, that is being renewed unto knowledge after the image of him that created him:
Colossians 2:11-13 in whom ye were also circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, in the putting off [ἀπεκδύσει = putting off as of a garment] of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with him in baptism, wherein ye were also raised with him through faith
Scroggs and Groff ask:
Which comes first, the act or the metaphor?
The fact that the act of undressing is a practical necessity in any baptism by immersion, coupled with the rather unusual, if not awkward nature of the metaphor (there are surely easier linguistic ways of talking about new existence), suggests that the metaphor is probably derived from the praxis. . . .
And conclude for the author of Mark that:
Thus, despite the absence of explicit evidence, it must be considered possible, indeed probable, that the author of Mark was well aware of the change of garments both as actual event and as metaphor of baptism. (p. 539)
C. Relation of the baptized to the resurrected Christ
The idea that “being raised with Christ and “putting on Christ” implied the believer was in some sense now or destined to be living a new life identified with the exalted Christ himself was common across Christian sects. Baptism led to a new existence — a Christ-existence — for the believer.
Smith’s article mentioned above notes that ritual naked bathing was a feature of pre-Christian pagan mystery cults. Pagan mysteries were also considered to involve initiations into a divine world or existence. In the 11th book of The Golden Ass by Apuleius we read how the initiate, Lucius, is ritually bathed, descends to Hades, returns and is gloriously clothed in linen as the personification of the sun-god upon whom all onlookers gaze in wonder.
The Neaniskos as a symbol of the Christian initiate
Against the above ideas Scroggs and Groff argue that the youth fleeing naked in Mark 14:51-52 was composed to symbolize the baptismal initiate dying with Christ, and the young man in the tomb in Mark 16:5 to represent rising with Christ.
51 And a certain young man followed [συνηκολούθει] with him,
[This is an unnecessary and meaningless detail if meant literally; obviously he has followed Jesus to this point. But when “following” is taken in its usual symbolic sense as we find elsewhere in Mark, it highlights the youth being a disciple of Jesus. “He is the initiate.“]
having a linen cloth cast about [περιβεβλημένος] him,
[περιβεβλημένος = clothed, wrapped in. It is the same word and form used to describe the clothing of the young man in the tomb in 16:5. The reference to this garment and its fate “is the central moment of the story.” Here the garment is said to be linen (σινδών). Some scholars have interpreted this as a pointer to the young man’s wealth because of the expensiveness of linen in the ancient world. “But again it must be stressed that the synoptic tradition is not interested in such historical details. The meaning must rather be symbolic.”
To be noted is that at the burial of Jesus Joseph buys linen and wraps Jesus in it before burying him in the tomb. “Within the baptismal theology the meaning of this relationship is clear. The death facing the young man is taken up by Jesus himself. Jesus dies for him, i.e., in his stead, and the young man is rescued — he escapes — from his own death.“]
over his naked body: and they lay hold on him;
[The emphasis on the young man’s nakedness indicates the baptismal candidate stripped of his garments.]
52 but he left the linen cloth, and fled naked.
[In the narrative context the flight of the young man is part of the flight of the disciples. But more specifically, just as the garment and other features appear to have symbolic currents, we see here an indication of the image meaning that only Jesus can die the required death. “What is impossible for man, Jesus does for him. As a result the believer escapes the fate of death. . . . Only Christ really dies so that the believer may escape and be freed from death.” This interpretation of S&G is consistent with other ambiguous ironies in Mark: James and John seeking to be at the right and left of Jesus in his glory and being substituted by the two bandits; Peter promising to take up his cross and follow Jesus but being substituted by Simon of Cyrene.]
It is just possible, though the evidence is extremely tenuous as the authors note, that neaniskos (young man) is “a quasi-technical term denoting the class of initiates” — compare 1 John 2:12-14. Here this class of Christians are said to have overcome the evil one or Satan. Scroggs and Groff in a footnote remind us of Jesus’ own baptism being associated with the overcoming of Satan. Baptism elsewhere was also associated with the exorcism of the devil. S & G then ask in fine print:
Is the baptism of Jesus a prototype of that of the believer? (p. 542)
This deserves a fuller exploration in a follow-up article. Did the baptism of Jesus itself originate as a symbolic narrative?
Summary. At the last moment that it is possible within the structure of the passion narrative, Mark portrays the near arrest and escape of the follower. Through this means he points to the participation of the believer in the death of Jesus. The coherence of the story is strained to the limit because of the presence of the many symbols needed to communicate the significance of the story to his readers. The initiate is stripped of his garment and is now ready for baptism. He is baptized into the death, but only Jesus actually dies, and the substitution is symbolized by the linen which the young man leaves but with which Jesus is actually shrouded in burial. (p. 542)
And entering into the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, arrayed in a white robe; and they were amazed.
The language closely parallels the language of the first appearance of the young man, as noted above. Though S & G do not explicitly point it out, there is also inclusio structure of the two young man appearances: at the beginning of Jesus being “handed over to the hands of men” and his final victory over the suffering and death they have inflicted upon him. This, I believe, also is meant to underscore the symbolic message and points to the way the reader is expected to interpret the central story of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. Compare other inclusio structures such as the fig-tree cursed either side of the temple cleansing and the raising of Jairus’ daughter either side of the healing of the bleeding woman.
We can now see how these various threads are to be woven together. The neaniskos is a representation of the exalted Christ because he symbolizes the believer who, now baptized, participates in the resurrection of Christ. (p. 543)
The garment and sitting at the right apply equally well to both the newly baptized and the exalted Christ Jesus.
(Again according to late evidence — Theodore of Mopsuestia, Jerome, John the Deacon, Zeno of Verona –) the white robe is the traditional garment worn by the person newly baptized.
It symbolizes the new existence of the believer, in effect, his resurrection.
Also in the Shepherd of Hermas (Vision 8:2, 3) all those entering the tower (=heaven) are wearing white garments. Men in heaven are dressed like the angels. (cf. 2 Enoch 22:8-10; 2 Apoc Baruch 51:10; Mark 12:25)
Some scholars (Lutger Schenke, G. Schille, W. Nauck) have also suggested that the reference to the early morning hour (at the rising of the sun) in Mark 16:1-8 derives from a dawn worship cult at a tomb in Jerusalem. Apocryphal acts literature also indicates that baptism ceremonies took place at night or sunrise. If the narrative does echo some cultic practice then the idea that the young man is an angel is almost certainly ruled out. He would have to be a person who declares the resurrection of Jesus after his baptism.
Summary. The cumulative evidence presented satisfactorily and coherently explains the details in both stories that have so long baffled scholars. In a cryptic yet clear fashion (to the readers of Mark who would have been familiar with such practices), the dying and rising of the believer is woven into a narrative which is ostensibly only about the dying and rising of Jesus. The initiate is stripped of his garments at the death of Jesus, and he appears in his white baptismal robe at the resurrection of Jesus. Thus robed he appropriately represents Jesus to the women. Jesus himself cannot appear, for he is already exalted to heaven and is already sitting at the right hand of God. (pp. 544-45)
It is interesting to compare Mark’s Gospel with Matthew’s here. Matthew avoids relating baptism to the metaphor of dying and rising with Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel also changes the young man at the tomb into an angel coming down from heaven. Matthew’s Jesus also promises his disciples power till the end of the age. Mark’s gospel on the other hand offers little in the way of power to the believer in this present age. All hope if to be found in the disciple’s ability to imitate and enter into the sufferings of the Son of Man now in order to receive the promise of exalted life in the future.
The implications of this article deserve to be thought through and studied along with other clearly symbolic details in the Gospel of Mark — such as the mysteries of the numbers of the left-over baskets of food that so befuddled the disciples when Jesus reminded them of these events, the symbolic ambiguities of James and John seeing bandits crucified in their place either side of Jesus, the puns on the names like Peter and Capernaum and Bethsaida (and on Jesus/Jason the healer himself), John the Baptist representing Elijah, etc. Is the entire Gospel itself a symbolic narrative?
The article discussed in the above post can be found at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3263122
Baptism in Mark: Dying and Rising with Christ
Robin Scroggs and Kent I. Groff
Journal of Biblical Literature
Vol. 92, No. 4 (Dec., 1973), pp. 531-548