If, like me, you are a child of the ‘70s, you might recall an athletic form of exhibitionism from that era called Streaking. It was one of that decade’s contributions to Western Civilization, like Disco, Pet Rocks, “Whip Inflation Now!” Buttons and the Bicentennial Minute; and it involved young male college students dashing across a public space while buck naked. I’m not exactly sure what the point of this was, unless maybe to encourage young female college students to do the same
One might not expect the Bible to have anything to say about this type of behavior, but there is a venerable tradition among Bible pedagogues like myself of trying to make Holy Writ seem hip and relevant by seizing on some popular trend and purporting to find mention of it Scriptures. This doesn’t always work, but sometimes it’s interesting. At least to other pedagogues.
Now, granted Streaking has not been trendy since the Ford administration; but being out-of-date has never stopped me before. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the story of the Bible’s Streaker.
The story comes in the account of the Passion Narrative found in the Gospel of St. Mark. It tells how Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane by group of thugs, “a crowd armed with swords and clubs”, sent by the chief priests and guided by Judas, who identified Jesus to them. The disciples who were with Jesus ran off in fear. The guards escorted Jesus to the high priest, and it is on the way there that Mark inserts this peculiar little incident:
A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. (Mark 14:51-52 NIV)
Evidently, this young man was a follower of Jesus, but not one of the Twelve Disciples. Perhaps he heard about the arrest while he was taking a bath and threw something one to run and see. Or perhaps he had just heard that Jesus would be in the Garden and only wanted to see him, but arrived as Jesus was being taken away. He showed more courage than most of the other disciples, following the armed escort; but when the guards spotted him and tried to lay hold of him, he too ran away.
Who was this impetuous young man? The text doesn’t really give us much about him. It’s been suggested he might have come from an affluent family because he wore linen, instead of the more common wool outer garment. That’s not really much to go on. But Tradition offers an interesting supposition: that the young man was Mark himself.
John Mark, traditionally considered the author of the Second Gospel, was a young man mentioned on a few occasions in the Book of Acts. His mother, who was named Mary, but probably unrelated to any of the other Marys of the New Testament, had a house in Jerusalem which served as a meeting place for believers in the early Church, (Acts 12:12).
John Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their First Missionary Journey, but he bailed out about the time they got to Pamphylia. Perhaps he was homesick. Possibly he just felt like he was in over his head. Maybe he just wasn’t working out. The text gives no details; it just says he left Paul and returned to Jerusalem. (Acts 13:13) When Paul was organizing a second journey to visit the communities he’d started in Asia Minor, Barnabas asked Paul to give the kid a second chance. Paul refused and the disagreement broke up their partnership.
Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them. But Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia, and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. (Acts 15:37-40)
Eventually, though, Paul got over his bad impression of Mark, and mentions him favorably in a couple of his letters.
The Early Church Father Papias, writing around 140 AD, quotes an earlier source saying that Mark became a close associate of Peter, Scholars believe that Peter had an assistant, because his first Epistle is better written than his second, and it is believed that he had someone with a better grasp of Greek polish up his writing. That someone might have been Mark.
Papias’s source goes on to say that Mark compiled Paul’s teachings and stories about Jesus into the Gospel which was ascribed to him. That would certainly explain where Mark got his material, and also why the other Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke, follow Mark’s outline and often repeat him verbatim.
Modern scholars have cast doubt on this traditional view, though, noting that Papias wrote a good century after the fact and that we know nothing about the source he quotes. And there are some goofs in geography in Mark which no Galilean like Peter would make. Then again, many scholars date the Gospel to about the time of the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, around AD 70. This would have been after Peter’s death, when he wouldn’t be around to correct the galley proofs.
The incident of the Young Man and his Towel is a peculiar one that seems pointless and irrelevant. It seems to have nothing to do with the Great and Portentous events of the Passion Narrative; which may be why Matthew and Luke, who otherwise follow Mark’s outline pretty closely, make no mention of it. I suspect that the reason why the author of Mark includes it must be that it had some personal meaning for him. That’s why I think Tradition is right and Mark was that young man. John Mark, the callow and inexperienced would-be-missionary of Acts chapter 13, could have been an adolescent at the time of Jesus’ trial, too young to participate, and only able to view it from a distance. And he was living in Jerusalem at the time
Or perhaps not. Perhaps the writer was someone else, and had some other reason for inserting the incident. We can’t really know for sure. But I like to think that this was Mark’s Brush With Greatness, the one moment when his own life intersected with that of Jesus, however peripherally. And that, as embarrassing as it was, when he set down the stories he had heard about the ministry of Jesus, he included his own brief encounter.