One more scene to delete from the original Gospel narrative?

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by Neil Godfrey

Antonio da Correggio, The Betrayal of Christ, with a soldier in pursuit of Mark the Evangelist, c. 1522 (Wikimedia)

How much has been written about that young man fleeing naked from those who came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane — how many literary analyses, how many theological interpretations. . . . But what if. . . .

Here is the passage — in Mark 14

43 Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.

44 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” 45 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. 46 The men seized Jesus and arrested him. 47 Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

48 “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.”50Then everyone deserted him and fled.

51 A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, 52 he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

Strange details stimulate creative imaginations and I once wrote of a view known to many — that the youth was to be identified with the young man in the tomb after Jesus’ resurrection: That Mysterious Young Man in the Gospel of Mark.

Renowned literary critic Frank Kermode wrote about this young fellow in The Genesis of Secrecy and compared his strange intrusion into the narrative to the stranger in the Macintosh in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Kermode begins with Joyce:

Let me remind you about the Man in the Macintosh. He first turns up at Paddy Dignam’s funeral, in the Hades chapter. Bloom wonders who he is. “Now who is that lanky looking galoot over there in the macintosh? Now who is he I’d like to know?” And Bloom reflects that the presence of this stranger increases the number of mourners to thirteen, “Death’s number.” “Where the deuce did he pop out of? He wasn’t in the chapel, that I’ll swear.” . . . (p. 50)

After some discussion K comes to the next instance of a cryptic character appearing suddenly out of nowhere….

“And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” And that is all Mark has to say about this young man.

Kermode continues:

The difficulty is to explain where the deuce he popped up from. One way of solving it is to eliminate him, to argue that he has no business in the text at all. Perhaps Mark was blindly following some source that gave an inconsistent account of these events, simply copying it without thought. Perhaps somebody, for reasons irrecoverably lost, and quite extraneous to the original account, inserted the young man later. Perhaps Matthew and Luke omitted him [if they had him in their copies of Mark] because the incident followed so awkwardly upon the statement that all had fled. [It is also conjectured that the Greek verb translated as “followed,” sunekolouthei, might have the force of “continued to follow,” though all the rest had fled.*] Anyway, why is the youth naked? Some ancient texts omit the phrase epi gumnou, which is not the usual way of saying “about his body” and is sometimes called a scribal corruption; but that he ran away naked [gumnos] when his cloak was removed is not in doubt. So we have to deal with a young man who was out on a chilly spring night (fires were lit in the high priest’s courtyard) wearing nothing but an expensive, though not a warm, shirt. “Why,” asks one commentator, “should Mark insert such a trivial detail in so solemn a narrative?” ** And, if the episode of the youth had some significance, why did Matthew and Luke omit it? We can without difficulty find meanings for other episodes in the tale (for instance, the kiss of Judas, or the forbidding of violent resistance, which makes the point that Jesus was not a militant revolutionist) but there is nothing clearly indicated by this one. . . . (pp 55f)

* Kermode cites Taylor’s commentary, but compare also one of the points I copied recently from Wilke
** cites Cranfield’s commentary

Kermode lists common explanations and one of his own (my formatting):

If the episode is not rejected altogether, it is usually explained in one of three ways.

First, it refers to Mark’s own presence at the arrest he is describing. Thus it is a sort of reticent signature, like Alfred Hitchcock’s appearances in his own films, or Joyce’s as Macintosh. This is not widely believed, nor is it really credible.

Secondly, it is meant to lend the whole story verisimilitude, an odd incident that looks as if it belongs to history-like fortuity rather than to a story coherently invented – the sort of confirmatory detail that only an eyewitness could have provided – a contribution to what is now sometimes called l’effet du réel. We may note in passing that such registrations of reality are a commonplace of fiction; in their most highly developed forms we call them realism.

Thirdly, it is a piece of narrative developed (in a manner not unusual, of which I shall have something to say later) from Old Testament texts, notably Genesis 39:12 and Amos 2:16. Taylor, with Cranfield concurring, calls this proposition “desperate in the extreme.”

And his own “incorrect” option?

I suppose one should add a fourth option, which is, as with Macintosh, to give up the whole thing as a pseudoproblem, or anyway insoluble; but although commentators sometimes mention this as a way out they are usually prevented by self-respect and professional commitment from taking it.

That one hurts. A problem without a solution and thus not a real problem?

But what if….?

But Christian Gottlob Wilke whose searching in the early nineteenth century for the original gospel led to the now widely accepted view that the Gospel of Mark was the first written of our canonical gospels believed that someone for reasons unknown, or maybe for the sake of one of the options above, set forth reasons he believed the episode could not have been penned by the original author.

Wilke’s reasons for proposing to cut the scenario out of the original account:

1. the larger passage is about the fleeing of the disciples when the authorities come to arrest Jesus — the flight of the young man is an irrelevant intrusion

2. the account of the flight of the young man is out of place in the way the story is worded: it suggests the authorities were attempting to arrest the followers of Jesus before the arrest of Jesus

3. the point of the story is to tell us that only one person followed Jesus, viz Peter.

4. the story begins with the express statement that Jesus went with the twelve disciples only, and then says that it was those twelve who fled — leaving the introduction of the young man out of context.

Bruno Bauer drew attention to Wilke‘s conclusion and added that no other evangelist thought it fit to repeat the episode — suggesting it was not there to begin with.

I would add that Matthew loved to bring in as many explicit prophecy fulfillments as he could and even he passed up this opportunity to refer to the Amos prophecy of the flight of the youth naked.

It would follow, then, if we accept the above factors, that it was never part of the original gospel after all.

Of course, even if it were not part of the original narrative, we have no way of knowing if early Christians who liked Mark’s gospel thought the addition to be an improvement. Maybe even the author himself was persuaded to add it at some later point? We simply don’t know.

Wilke, Christian Gottlob. Der Urevangelist oder exegetisch kritische Untersuchung über das Verwandtschaftsverhältniss der drei ersten Evangelien. Dresden ; Leipzig : Gerhard Fleischer, 1838. http://archive.org/details/derurevangelisto0000wilk.