The four gospels describe the account of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and subsequent arrest. However, Mark stands alone in the gospel accounts when he throws in some additional trivia that leaves the reader wondering. Mark 14:51-52 reads:
A young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him. But he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked.
What was Mark trying to confer to us when he decided to add that to the gospel record? What point was he trying to make?
Mark describes the young man as a neaniskos, possibly 15 to 25 years old. The term, “to follow”, akoloutheo, means “was following as a disciple” or “was accompanying.” Interestingly, only one other time does Mark describe another man as a neaniskos, when he tells of the man in a long white robe who was in Jesus’ tomb when he was raised. “Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed.” (Mark 16:5)
The typical Jew did not have a closet full of clothes as we do today to pick and choose from as clothing was very expensive. In fact, the average Jew only owned two garments, a tunic for everyday use and an overcoat for inclement weather.1 Some also may have worn undergarments, as we can assume from Peter when he was fishing since he was “stripped for work.” (John 21:7)
During the time of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion it would have been chilly as it was still early in the season, around the 5th of April and late into the night. This begs the question, why was this man wearing only a sheet to cover his body on such a cold night? We are also told later that night that Peter warmed himself by the fire during Jesus’ trial while in the courtyard of the High Priest. Since we don’t hear about this man earlier in the evening when Jesus was praying in the garden, it may be safe to assume that he came with the crowd of soldiers that Judas brought to arrest Jesus. He may have grabbed the first piece of clothing available to him and, in haste, followed the men out to the garden of Gethsemane when he heard what was going to happen to Jesus.
So who was this man who was following Jesus after his arrest? When all Jesus’ closest friends had abandoned him, this young man does not run away, but follows him. The apostles had all scattered in the paragraph prior to this man’s mentioning, so we can safely assume that this was not an apostle. Here are a few possibilities:
- Some alledge that the man was Mark, speaking of himself in the third person. How else would he have known to write about it.
- The editors of the Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version have guessed that this man was the one who lent the Upper Room to Jesus and his disciples to eat their supper that night.
- Ralph Earle notes in Word Meanings in the New Testament, “This brief incident is found only in this Gospel. It might be Mark’s way of saying, ‘I was there.’ If the Last Supper took place in the home of John Mark’s mother (cf. Acts 12:12), Judas Iscariot may have returned there first to betray Jesus. We can then understand how John Mark would be roused, perhaps grab a sheet to cover his body, and rush to [Gethsemane] to warn Jesus.”2
- Another possibility is the correlation he may be making with Amos 2:16 which reads, “‘Even the bravest warriors will flee naked on that day,’ declares the Lord.”
- In the second chapter, Amos is relating the words of the Lord regarding the judgement that is to come upon Israel for their sins because they have not kept his statues. They have turned away from him and He will judge the nation for its immoral actions. Mark may be drawing a tie between the symbolism this man represents and the soon to be coming judgement on the nation of Israel.
We will probably never know the identity of this man, nor why Mark decided to write about him. What we do know is that when the disciples fled, as cold as he may have been this man bravely stayed, at least for a while, accompanying Jesus. Yet even in the end, this man ultimately desperately fled from his presence, willing disgrace (nakedness) over following Jesus to the end.
2 Ralph Earle, Th.D. Word Meanings in the New Testament, One-Volume Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1986), p. 47.