The Last Disciples
And Jesus answering, said to them: Are you come out as to a robber, with swords and staves to apprehend me? I was daily with you in the temple teaching, and you did not lay hands on me. But that the scriptures may be fulfilled. Then his disciples leaving him, all fled away. And a certain young man followed him, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and they laid hold on him. But he, casting off the linen cloth, fled from them naked.
Few New Testament figures are more mysterious than the “naked fugitive” – the man who flees the scene of Christ’s arrest in Mark’s Gospel. Mark alone records the episode, which the other evangelists apparently found too scandalous or obscure to include.
Scholars and theologians have debated the man's identity for centuries. We know that he probably was not one of the Twelve. The preceding verse indicates that the disciples “all fled” before his arrival. It is unlikely that he reclined at the Last Supper with the Lord given his lack of underclothing.
Some have suggested that he was John Mark the evangelist, inserting himself in his own narrative a la Hitchcock or Vonnegut. John Mark’s mother, Mary, had a house in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12), placing Mark in the vicinity of Christ’s arrest. This theory holds that a young Mark was stirred from his slumber by the late-night seizure of the Lord, put a linen cloth atop his nakedness and wandered into the melee. Given the man's nude departure, proponents of this theory suggest that later evangelists’ failure to record the episode reflected their desire not to humiliate Mark.
Others have suggested that the fugitive was Lazarus of Bethany, raised from the dead by Christ in John’s Gospel. St. John adds that Lazarus was wanted by the chief priests for scandalizing the Jews (12:10-11), which would explain the Markan arresting party’s attempt to seize the young man. It would also explain why Mark kept the naked young man anonymous. At the time St. Mark composed his Gospel, it is possible that both Lazarus and the authorities who sought his execution were still alive. The New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham calls this practice “protective anonymity” – withholding a Gospel figure’s name to protect him from Christian antagonists.
Neither theory holds the emotional power of the one proposed by the sometimes-controversial Catholic scholar Raymond Brown. To Brown, the naked fugitive represents Christ’s “last disciple” – the final man to follow and, ultimately, abandon the Lord. In The Death of the Messiah, Brown wrote:
[W]e saw the ironic contrast made between the disciples at the beginning of the public ministry, leaving things to follow Jesus, and at the arrest, leaving Jesus to flee away. Here with “the last disciple” the irony is even more biting. In Mark 10:28 Peter described to Jesus a model of discipleship Jesus praised: “We have left all things and have followed you.” This young man has literally left all things to flee from Jesus . . . The Jesus who was abandoned disgracefully by the last disciple and left to face [His] hour of arrest and death alone is in [Mark] 16:5-6 served by an angel who proclaims [His] victory over death.
It is striking that this last disciple’s encounter with Christ mirrors that of other would-be disciples. Throughout the Gospels, men run up to Christ eager to follow Him, whereupon they are presented, implicitly or explicitly, with an offer to take up their cross.
Some do. All but two of the Twelve will die for their faith. Peter will literally be crucified. Others, like Mark’s fugitive, flee at the thought of the Cross. Their flight leaves them exposed, nude before God and men.
The "fugitives" in the Gospel are legion. A rich young man fell at Christ’s feet seeking the key to eternal life. He went “away sad, for he had many possessions.” A would-be disciple wished to bury his father. He was told to “let the dead bury their dead.” A man promised to follow Christ after saying goodbye to his family. He is deemed unfit for the kingdom of God.
We distance ourselves from these men -- they left our Lord; we like to think that we would follow Him. But who, upon sitting down to count the cost of discipleship, would not put his hand to the plow and turn back? Who would willingly walk with our Lord to the foot of the Cross?
Christians in the ecumenical age are scandalized by fleeing disciples. Surely, their flight from Christ is the Church's fault. How can we adapt the Gospel to accomodate modern sensibilities? How can we minimize doctrinal differences to make the Church more inclusive? What about dialogue? We cannot stomach the possiblity that those who flee -- a group that often includes us -- simply cannot handle the weight of the Cross. We cannot abide the Christ of stark choices, of right and wrong, of letting our “yes mean yes” and our “no mean no.” We hear Christ say that He came not to bring peace but the sword and wish He would reconsider.
In Mark’s Gospel, a ray of hope shines through for those who flee. It is a “young man” (neaniskos) who flees from Christ in the final moments before His captivity. It is also a “young man” who sits at the tomb and announces Christ’s resurrection. It is impossible to say whether they are the same “young man," but nothing ought stop us from hoping that we who once fled naked – last disciples all – can return to partake in Christ’s triumph on Easter Sunday.
John Hirschauer is the interim editor of RealClearReligion and a former William F. Buckley, Jr. Fellow at National Review.