Bill Flippin: Naked Young Man and the Easter Angel in the Gospel of Mark - Mark 14:51-52


"And a young man followed [Jesus], with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked."

Jesus had no help at the cross from his followers. Only he could bring about our salvation, and so he had to work alone. This view of disciples abandoning Jesus at his loneliest hour is affirmed in all the Gospels. However, I believe, in looking closely at some Greek words, that Mark's intention as a Gospel writer, showing that this man dressed in a white robe had a secret message -- a prevalent theme in Mark of the rebirth of humanity that was naked in sin.

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.)

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' dead body was wrapped for burial... and here. This to me is the connection of the naked young man and the burial of Jesus and the proclamation of the Easter Angel. In Mark's Gospel, he explicitly says that the person that proclaimed to the confused women present at the tomb was a young man, not an angel wearing a white robe. For him to be wearing a sindon, which is very specifically used for burial clothing, has some deliberate correlations by the Gospel writer Mark in identifying the significant transformation of the death and rebirth of humanity as found in the Resurrection. The motif of the clothing reinforces the impression that the two episodes form a coherent whole. Mark often mentions clothing with strong symbolic overtones so that it has special significance for him. Consequently the clothes of John the Baptist in Mark 1:6 identify him as a prophet, and, therefore, as an important figure at the beginning of the gospel. The clothing of Jesus in the episode on the transfiguration in Mark 9:3 becomes dazzling white, 'whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.' The nature of the clothing underlines the mysterious significance of the event. In Mark 14:30" 33, the High Priest tore his clothes after Jesus' pronouncement about the Son of Man at the right hand and coming with the clouds.

These references to exceptional clothing are found at crucial points at the beginning and at the turning point of the narrative where important revelations are given. In the episode on John the Baptist in Mark 1:7 there is a reference to the coming one and in the transfiguration narrative in Mark 9:7 the voice from the cloud reveals Jesus as the divine Son to whom his followers should listen. The action of the High Priest also takes place at a seminal moment in the trial of Jesus. In all of these cases, the significance of Jesus is highlighted through the narrative detail of clothing.

The clothing of the young man in Mark 14:51-52 and in 16:5 should be understood against this background. The young man in Gethsemane, according to Mark, is dressed in a linen cloth. How important this was to the author is clear from the fact that he repeats the reference in the following description of how the young man, having fled naked, left behind. This focus on the clothes is not merely a report of an event, but is also an indication of the significance of the event. In a Jewish context nakedness would be regarded as a shameful state. Mark is implying that the young man, eager to follow Jesus after others fail him, also falls into shame. His leaving behind his clothes is stressed also by the ensuing and explicit reference to his nakedness.

Exegetes who identify the two young men use this motif of clothing to point to the complete reversal of his condition. If the previous dress (in the garden) was the linen cloth, this one in the tomb, however, is white. Though he is dressed in both cases, the difference in dress expresses the development within the narrative. The portrayal is therefore characterized by closure: the shameful condition of the young man as he flees the scene of Jesus arrest in the nude is replaced by his restoration. What would otherwise be an incomplete narrative if the coherence between two episodes is not understood becomes a coherent picture because of the motif of clothing.

One may even take the comparison further by analyzing the type of dress mentioned by Mark. It is often noted that Mark spoke of a linen cloth in which Jesus was buried (Mk 15:46). The linen cloth is mentioned twice in Mark 14:51-52 and in 15:46. In Mark 15:46 Mark again repeats the motif of the linen cloth, emphasizing to his readers in what cloth Jesus was buried. In this way Mark's description of clothing reflects the dress of Jesus before his resurrection. Taken together, Mark associates linen clothing with shameful betrayal and with death. The young man in the empty tomb is said to wear a white dress to indicate that he is not simply resuming his earlier lifestyle.

The young man in the tomb also has a special place in the narrative in another sense. He is, namely, the first to give witness to Jesus' resurrection. He is well informed about the whereabouts of Jesus and reveals the coming appearance of Jesus to his disciples. He relates what has happened to Jesus, points out the empty tomb and sends a message to the disciples that Jesus has gone to Galilee. He is, moreover, an important figure as a messenger who explains the significance of the empty tomb to the women. Witnessing to Jesus is of seminal importance to Mark. The young man in the tomb gives witness to Jesus in the sense of Mark 1:2. Mark ends his gospel in the same way he began it in Mark 1:2, where he refers to Isaiah's description of the messenger who will prepare the way of the Lord. His appearance, though described rather cursorily, has, explains, apocalyptic features, which befits his important role. He is a herald of the end-time "of the final moment of triumph.

The effect of Mark's location of the young man's character is to create an inclusio. The last one who has been with and who then abandons Jesus is also the first one to announce his resurrection.

African Descent Understanding of the Naked Young Man

How can I relate to the nakedness of this young man found in the Gospel of Mark with knowing the motivation of nineteenth-century missionary efforts to find God's kingdom in the savage wilderness. These gestures began with the covering of African nakedness. To the colonists it spoke of darkness, disorder and pollution. There achievement in that covering was not only by doctrinal instruction but through the place of dress in this enterprise: clothes proved the accoutrements of a civilized self. They were to prove a privilege means for contrasting new forms of value, personhood, and history on the colonial frontier.

As we celebrate Easter and reflect on the Gospel of Mark, we recognize that clothes are important entities not in colonial endeavors but in the explanation of how God gives us transformational changed by God's grace.

I believe that this young man once naked in the Garden now dressed in a dazzling white robe is representative of humanity and our new found role as witnesses of the Resurrection. Let us be like this young man-Easter Angel not perhaps in a traditional sense of what we are accustomed to and realize that though we are naked in sin, we are reborn anew by the power of the Resurrection. 

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