An explanation of the young man in Mark 14:51-52

In a previous blog post, I looked at how the material unique to Mark can form the basis of a rudimentary argument in favour of Markan priority.  One example of the material that falls into this category is the mysterious story of the fleeing young man in Mark 14:51-52: “A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.”  It is not difficult to imagine why Luke and Matthew would chose to omit this story from their gospels – it is clearly rather bizarre, its intended meaning is not at all clear and it can easily be removed without apparently disrupting the surrounding narrative.  In contrast, it is difficult to see why Mark would want to specifically add such an odd story, particularly when he would have omitted so much more congenial material available in Matthew and Luke.  The passage therefore supports the idea of Markan priority.

Given the confusion the passage seems to have caused the very earliest readers of Mark’s gospel, it is hardly surprising that contemporary scholars are still divided on the meaning the story.  One particularly interesting explanation offered in a 2010 article written by Pieter G.R. de Villiers proposes a link with Mark 16:5:

Mark 14:51-52 Mark 16:5
A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

Pieter G.R. de Villiers suggests that the young man in both passages ought to be identified as the same figure.  He views the young man as a symbolic character [1] used by Mark to illustrate the significance of Jesus’ resurrection in terms of the effect it has on those who believe:

His story illustrates the radical transformation which is brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus. It shows how radically he was changed from a disciple who abandoned Jesus, falling into a state of betrayal and shame to someone who gives witness to the resurrection.  Through this contrast between a fallen and restored status, Mark frames the cross and resurrection to make the important point that the cross and resurrection had a complex transformative effect on believers. [2]

In support of his hypothesis, Pieter G.R. de Villiers points to a number of similarities between the two passages that suggest that they ought to be interpreted together.  First, they both employ the same term νεανίσκος (a young man) to refer to the figure they describe.  Arguably, this is unlikely to be a coincidence because these are the only places in the gospel where Mark uses this particular term.  Second, the common anonymity of the young man in both passages leaves the figure open to a single identity.  Third, both passages have a strong focus on the clothing of the young man.

This emphasis on the clothing of the young man is particularly significant for this interpretation.  It is telling to compare the nakedness of the young man in Mark 14:51-52 with the imagery used in Amos 2:14-16 – “The swift will not escape, the strong will not muster their strength, and the warrior will not save his life.  The archer will not stand his ground, the fleet-footed soldier will not get away, and the horseman will not save his life.  Even the bravest warriors will flee naked on that day,” declares the Lord.”  Both Mark and Amos associate fleeing in fear or shame with nakedness and this parallel suggests that the naked young man ought to be viewed as symbolic of the failure of the disciples at the moment of Jesus’ arrest. [3]  Furthermore, the symbolism of the clothing of the young man at the tomb is illuminated by comparing it with the similar description of the clothing during the transfiguration of Jesus in Mark 9:3 – “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.”  Thus, while the young man in the garden is associated with shame through his nakedness, the young man at the tomb is associated with holiness and power through the whiteness of his clothing.

Admittedly there are a number of problems with Pieter G.R. de Villiers’ hypothesis, not least of which is that the text does not make it unambiguously clear that Mark intends to make a connection between the two passages.  If Mark did indeed use the ‘sandwich technique’ to frame his passion narrative with the transformation of the young man, he went about it rather clumsily so that the reader can easily fail to notice the connection.  This is predominantly due to the great length and dramatic nature of the passion narrative, which acts to distract the reader’s attention away from any link.  On the other hand, clumsy sandwiching of narratives of great lengths is not entirely without precedent in the New Testament.  In John for example, the author uses the mother of Jesus to frame Jesus’ earthly ministry and this spans across almost the entire gospel. [4]  It is also worth noting that other ancient writers often created parallels across considerable lengths, particularly when employing chiastic structures.

Thus, despite these difficulties, I find the proposed connection between the two passages to be insightful and worthy of further attention.  Significantly, if Pieter G.R. de Villiers’ interpretation is correct I believe that an additional argument in favour of Markan priority could be made on the basis of the connection between Mark 14:51-52 and Mark 16:5.  It is very difficult to see why Mark would deliberately take a well-established tradition about an angel appearing at the empty tomb from Matthew and Luke and radically alter its meaning by introducing the parallel with Mark 14:51-52. In contrast, it is far more plausible that Mark initially made the connection and that it was inadvertently broken afterwards by Matthew and Luke because they missed it, read the first half in isolation and then omitted it because it made little sense without its parallel.  Furthermore, it is far easier to understand how the tradition about the empty tomb would gain congenial detail over time rather than lose it.  As such, it is unlikely that Mark would strip the tradition of details like the guards and the earthquake (Matthew 28:2-4), Peter’s visit to the empty tomb (Luke 24:12) or the explicit reference to an angel itself (Matthew 28:5) in favour of greater emphasis on the failure of discipleship at the arrest of Jesus.

1. Those that take the story literally argue that Mark simply understood the young man to be a real historical witness to the events being narrated who fled at the arrest.  While this is possible, I think that it is an inadequate explanation because it fails to take into account the strong emphasis on the linen garment and the subsequent nakedness of the young man.  Viewing the young man and his clothing as historical details with no further significance in the narrative fails to explain the incredible prominence Mark awards them.

2. The article is available online here:

3. Mark often uses clothing to symbolically illustrate a particular point.  For example, Mark compares John the Baptist with Elijah through a description of his clothing in Mark 1:6.  I go into more detail about John the Baptist’s clothes here.

4. Lieu, Judith M, ‘The Mother of the Son in the Fourth Gospel’, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 117, No. 1 (Spring 1998), pp 61-77


4 responses to “An explanation of the young man in Mark 14:51-52

  1. Pingback: ‘Special Mark’ material and Markan Priority | bibleLAD·

    • What reason do we have for thinking that?

      I think it is unlikely that the author would choose to identify himself exclusively with those who fled and abandoned Jesus at his arrest.

  2. I too after reading the Bible many times have never been drawn to this topic, but this year as I read I was drawn to it as though it was never there before and like others I also sought the world wide web for clarification of theses characters in Mark. But let’s not forget who the real author is. This is Gods word not Marks if we don’t understand it, it’s because it has not yet been revealed to us yet. If you need to know who this young man is and if they are the same lets ask the one who wrote it and see what He has to says. I am buy no means a Bible scholar, just seeking understanding.

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