Who is the naked man mentioned in Mark 14?

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A certain 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 14:51-52 (NRSVue)

Who is this man? What is the significance of this addition?

1 Answers

The identity of the young man in Mark 14:51-52 has been the subject of much speculation. The question does not have a definitive answer, but there are a number of possibilities:

The text seems to indicate that the young man was following Jesus which raises the possibility of him being one of the known disciples.

  • The young man could be Mark. Reasons to suspect the young man is Mark include: gMark is the only gospel to record this strange account, the incident is briefly mentioned without explanation, and Mark’s mother’s house became a meeting place for the disciples (Acts 12:12). A possible point against this identification is Papias (d. 163 CE), who claimed that Mark neither followed nor heard Jesus.
  • The young man could be another known disciple: Gregory the Dialogist, Ambrose, and Bede all thought the young man was the apostle John. Epiphanius seems to have identified the nude youth with James, brother of Jesus. Theophylact states that the young man was likely from the house where Jesus and the disciples had been eating, but also notes that some before him had identified the youth as James. If the young man had indeed followed the group from the house where they feasted, we are still left with the question of why he was attired so: why would this young man be dressed in loose linen?
  • An interesting, yet unlikely, explanation is found in the dubious ‘Secret Gospel of Mark’: in the letter supposedly written by Clement of Alexandria, Jesus comes to Bethany and, in a scene reminiscent of the raising of Lazarus, raises a man from the dead after being implored by the man’s sister. The dead man is raised wearing nothing but linen grave clothes. The man spends the night with Jesus while Jesus teaches him about the kingdom of God. Again, it is from a highly questionable source, but it goes to show that people continue to contemplate the identity of the nude youth.

Alternatively, the young man could be serving a symbolic purpose.

  • Some people connect the scared young man in linen with the young man (angel) in a white robe at the empty tomb.
  • Others see in this passage a glimpse of the coming resurrection: as the young man escapes his would-be captors, leaving his linen behind, so Jesus would escape the clutches of death and leave only a linen cloth behind.
  • Still others see a hint at baptism since early tradition saw participants baptized naked and then clothed in white, but rather than victoriously overcoming, this young man flees shamefully.
  • The young man fleeing naked while his would-be captors hold his linen clothing has also been connected to Joseph fleeing Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39:12) and to the mighty fleeing naked on the Day of Yahweh in Amos 2:16; however, the young man is presented as afraid rather than as a mighty warrior in Mark 14 and his flight is meant to save his life rather than to preserve holiness like Joseph.
  • Perhaps the most likely symbolic option is that the young man was meant to represent the disciples as a whole in fulfillment of Jesus’ quotation of Zech 13:7 in Mark 14:27 (“strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered”): just as the youth was sent fleeing in shame, so all of Jesus’ disciples abandoned him to those arresting him.

So, we have possibilities for the identity of the young, naked man: he may have been Mark, James, John, Lazarus (unlikely), or another disciple or follower; he may have come from the house where Jesus and his disciples had eaten, or he may have been intended to have symbolic value. Whatever his identity he fled with the rest of the disciples, leaving Jesus alone with his captors in Gethsemane.