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.

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Neil Godfrey

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26 thoughts on “One more scene to delete from the original Gospel narrative?”

  1. If Mark wrote a play, the naked young man is good theater. On p. 75 of my book I suggest that he is a reappearance of the healed Gerasene demoniac, who has been ‘converted’ to one of Jesus’s followers (but never until now had a chance to prove it), and is here chiastically returned to his original naked situation. In addition, his flight diverts audience attention from any changing of the set on stage. And nakedness in confusion was a standard trope of the dramatic genre of mime.
    Assuming this was the situation, we can see why the other evangelists omitted the scene–they knew GMark’s provenance as a Roman play, and knew the scene had no religious value, indeed, was evidence of GMark’s secularity.
    All speculative of course, but I offer it as an alternative.

  2. Yes — the young man was there to be baptized, said Morton Smith in both his popular books, “Jesus the Magician” (1978) and “The Secret Gospel” (1980). It was a midnight baptism, too, relates Smith. This was (and remains) a staple of shamanic worship.

    But why baptism? It’s not new in pagan religion, of course, but in the days of Jesus, the symbol of Baptism was the hallmark of John the Baptist (JBap), who, as Geza Vermes suggested, baptized in the Jordan River for repentance — THEREBY SPURNING THE TEMPLE RITES OF REPENTANCE.

    Just as the Qumran (Essene) Community by the Jordan River was based upon SPURNING THE TEMPLE leadership, so did JBap spurn the Temple rites — so that the Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem came to interrogate him.

    Jesus was clearly kopasetic with this political movement, so he volunteered for John’s Baptism. Jesus himself spurned the Temple three times: (1) by the legendary “cleansing”; (2) by processing into Jerusalem on a donkey as the new Solomon; and (3) by predicting the total fall of the Temple.

    NOTE: While perhaps most scholars allege that Jesus’ predicting the fall of the Temple (Mark 13) was ‘proof’ that he wrote after the Temple actually fell (70 CE), that is the weakest ‘proof’ we ever saw. *Any* Jewish reader of the period could have predicted the fall of the Temple!

    Anyway — there was a Jewish Anti-Temple movement in Jerusalem during the first half of the 1st century, and Jesus was part of it, just as JBap and Qumran were. Baptism was thus a POLITICAL symbol.

    So, the young man was in Jesus’ night-time camp was really there for the new ritual, the political Baptism; and why Jesus was really placed under arrest. The Temple authorities had already killed JBap, and now they were going to kill Jesus.

    As Jesus might have predicted, his disciples scattered like sheep. This was their great humiliation. It seems to me that the story of the young, naked man was also a SYMBOL of the fleeing of ALL the disciples, in their weakness, their helplessness, their shame.

    The police seized the sheer CLOTHING of the follower — which symbolized how close the disciples came to losing their OWN lives. Close call — but also shameful.

    So — Morton Smith (1978) gave us a cogent analysis of Mark unforeseen by Wilke-Weiss-Bauer back in the 1840s. While much of Mark is indeed carefully composed by the author(s) — there is also a very real undercurrent of history — of Jesus the Magician.

  3. Such explanations — (I compare them to piecing together pieces of a jigsaw) — sound plausible when set against the background of other historical information, but I suggest they are in the end speculative. A plausible explanation is not necessarily a “correct” one. We only have to witness the wide variety of results in historical Jesus research to see that the hypotheses must rest on ultimately speculative interpretations.

    This is one reason I think before we assume historicity behind a narrative that we analyse the texts as literature, to understand as best as we can what they are doing, how they work, etc. Literary analysis, in other words. That there should be a baptizing mission in the Gethsemane scene is read into the text, not out of it, is it not?

    Rivka Nir in The First Christian Believer starts at the right starting line when it comes to further attempts to understand John the Baptist and baptism itself in the gospel. — I’ve referred to it a few times in passing here.

  4. I never had a problem with this iuvenis being Mark. But then, I am a noted disciple of Evan Powell who thinks that Mark actually existed, and that Mark wrote down Shim’on Petros’ apologia against the Johannine community. “But not in the correct sequence”, as Papias sniffed.
    Pseudo-Matthew and Pseudo?-Luke would have recognised this calling-card for what it was, and deleted it.
    As far as “mythicism” goes, I concede we are deep in speculation, which speculation is difficult to avoid prior to Trajan’s War. [And I do hope vridar.org gets back to those events; these were some of the most fascinating posts on this blog.]

    1. There will be more to come. I had to detour to order and catch up with some references cited by the main works I was following in my earlier posts. I am keen to get back to this topic.

  5. The Gospel of Mark does not mention his bodily resurrection. The story seems to end when the explorers of the empty tomb were so overcome with fear and delusion that they did not tell anyone what they had experienced because of fear. And that seems to be where the gospel ends. But this is not the case 🙂 The original and attentive readers had to realize that the gospel, that is, the good news, cannot end with this ending. So the gospel is just beginning. The man dressed in white in the empty tomb actually sends the reader along with the characters to the beginning of the story, that is, to Galilee. The chiastic structure, which can also be understood as an oval wheel, gives the story another boost, and the gospel itself begins:-) The beginning of Christ’s gospel:-) Which can be read until the reader reaches faith in the Son of God.
    Brilliant solution 🙂

    1. Your point about the Gospel of Mark being “the beginning of Christ’s gospel” is something I have plans to post about — that is, that the gospels were written to be gospels according to Jesus, Jesus in the gospels is the one presenting the gospel — but this is a point of view of a classicist who has dabbled in NT studies from time to time. More to come, as they say.

      1. Hi Neil!
        No, that’s not what I mean. If I said that, I would be confusing history. Not according to Jesus! The Gospels according to the apostle Paul. There are many parallels between Paul and Mark.

  6. According to Paul, the recipient of the message can be convinced of the existence of the invisible reality through faith in Christ. Faith in Christ is not the same as the Christian understanding of faith revealed in Hebrews 11:1, but faith in Christ leads (can) to it, as Paul makes it clear when he declares that God’s truth is revealed “from faith to faith” (Romans 1:17). This is how the quintessence and essence of Paul’s gospel becomes understandable, which he is not ashamed of, and which, unlike many Hungarian translations, he calls the gospel of the Son of God, not Christ, in the beginning of the letter to Romans, in which, according to him, God’s truth is proclaimed “from faith to faith”: that is, from faith in Christ, the unseen into a conviction of reality, that is, into faith in the unseen (the Son of God). Based on some verses, this can be well proven:
    “For I am not ashamed of the gospel (of Christ); because God has the power to save all believers, Jews first and Greeks first. Because God’s righteousness is revealed in it from faith to faith, as it is written: And the righteous man lives by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17). (I note in parentheses that this translation of verse a.) is not supported by the oldest manuscripts, that is why I put the word Christ in parentheses.)

    “That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and my sharing in His sufferings, being conformed to His death;” (Philippians 3:10)

  7. So Paul preached Christ as crucified, and with this his goal was to bring his audience from faith in Christ to faith in the Son of God. Paul identified the visible with Christ, the visible as his old man crucified with Christ, and himself with the invisible, internal, renewed spiritual man: “For now we see dimly through a mirror…” (1Cor 13:12). “Look only at the things in front of you! If someone has believed that he is the Anointed One (Christ’s), he should, starting from himself, consider that just as he is the Anointed One’s (Christ’s), so are we.” (Chiah; 2 Corinthians 10:7)

  8. Roger Parvus: A Simonian Origin for Christianity
    All this scripture is great, but it does not show that neither Christ nor the Son of God has extension in Jesus. Where Jesus was placed was the work of late copyists. I do not know and do not want to prove that it was so, but I strongly believe in it.

  9. Ah, the fleeing naked young man episode is a foreshadowing of Jesus fleeing his tomb, having left his burial cloths behind.

    Hey, it isn’t any more ridiculous than the foreshadowing claims made by “scholars” and “experts.”

    1. Do you think Mark was really that stupid? That Jesus escapes from his tomb after leaving his burial cloths, and the naked young man is a foreshadowing of this? Yes? Let’s not continue.

      1. The remaining clothes signal a vanishing body. It’s standard translation. It’s ubiquitous in antiquity. Mark has an apotheosis, not a resurrection.

        1. I must add, though, that the ending of the Gospel of Mark is not simply about a missing body. It is about an empty tomb which, given the Mark’s intertextual links with Isaiah’s metaphor of the Jerusalem Temple being a “tomb cut from a rock”, carries an added layer of meaning. Again from earlier posts where I addressed the details that I found spelled out in Karel Hanhart’s The Open Tomb — Note the interesting nuance when “empty” is replaced by “open” in the context of the Temple.

          Was the Empty Tomb Story Originally Meant to be Understood Literally?

          Jesus’ Crucifixion As Symbol of Destruction of Temple and Judgment on the Jews

  10. The most interesting thing about the “young man” for me is that the other evangelists delete him rather than manipulating him. He has no narrative value even when the opportunity exists to make him their own.

    Smith’s implausibly-perfect-explanation suggests, if I recall, that this auto-deletion might be embarrassment over Jesus’s apparent habit to explain the secrets of the kingdom of God to naked young men in the middle of the night. That’s only second for me to the “Paul-is-a-Roman-spy” theory for entertainment value.

    1. Surely so. We see how Matthew took Mark’s setting of Galilee and made its prophetic fulfilment explicit. A Google search with the terms [gospel Matthew OT fulfilment] will bring up many scholarly, theological and popular articles and webpages discussing this special trait of Matthew. That the author failed to point to the same formula when so many others have had no difficulty linking the scene to the Amos prophecy of the strong man fleeing naked “in that day” looks like an uncharacteristic oversight.

  11. I mentioned this before in another thread I think but to reiterate: The young man is so eager to escape capture that he is willing to forego his dignity. Jesus, on the other hand, knows what his fate is and is not trying to escape it. Look at it as a literary device designed to make Jesus look good. These colors don’t run!

  12. Other fun possibilities (I’m not married to any of them, just fun to discuss):

    – Jesus was a pederast and this neaniskos was his lover. Mark 10:13 says that people brought children to Jesus that he might haptomai them. This can mean touch, but a secondary meaning is to know carnally.

    – The neaniskos was there to be ritually initiated into a mystery cult with hallucinogenic drugs. The sindona, linen cloth, was medicated, delivering the hallucinogen/deliriant via mucosal tissue. Jesus “began to be deeply distressed and troubled,” as one would on a deliriant, and said, “take this cup from me”.

    – The neaniskos is supposed to represent the reader.

    – The only other time that the word neaniskos is used is at the empty tomb. Is this supposed to be the same neaniskos that fled naked in ch 14?

    1. This is all nonsense. There is no evidence to support any of the ideas — only lurid imagination. Think of Red Riding Hood. Salacious minds have adapted the fairy tale to a wide range of dirty jokes and spin-offs — none of which has anything to do with the original. But, as you say, “fun” games with the text.

      1. Gotcha! Thanks for responding, I heard those first two from another classicist PhD awhile ago and was wondering what other people in the field would think (I am far from an expert).

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