Why Is Mark In Mark?

Yesterday I received this email from a member of The Crossing:
“I’m reading through Mark and wondered if you could enlighten me with the significance of verses 51-52 of Ch 14? They are not in Matthew and I just wondered why they were included, as it seems they don’t have anything to do with the Gospel message.”

Here are the verses to which this person was referring (the narrative is right after Jesus was arrested when he was praying in the garden of Gethsemane, and his disciples fled):

Mark 14:51–52 ESV
And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.

Strangely random, isn’t it? Or at least so it seems because that’s all it mentions about this “young man” in the Gospel of Mark. And the emailer is right—all the other gospels omit this little insertion to the narrative. Such an irrelevant blip in the story.

So why is it here in Mark?

The answer lies in the author of the Gospel of Mark. In fact, this young man is probably Mark himself when he was a young teenager.

The ESV Study Bible states:

“This incident is recorded only in Mark’s Gospel, leading many commentators to think that Mark himself, the author of this Gospel, was this young man, but that out of modesty he did not include his own name.”

Well, modesty, yes, and probably also a bit of shame. He did flee from Jesus in his hour of suffering. Perhaps that was his greatest regret in life as an adult.

But why was a young teenage Mark even there to be almost seized with Jesus?

I think the answer is found in the context of all that happened on this fateful night prior to this event. Remember that Jesus and his disciples were out-of-towners while in Jerusalem. They lived way up north in Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee. They were in far-away Jerusalem for the Passover (and unknown to the disciples, Jesus was going to be the final Passover Lamb).

Earlier in this chapter (Mark 14:13-16), Jesus arranged for his disciples and himself to eat their Passover meal as guests in a house in Jerusalem with “a large upper room furnished and ready” (this was probably the same house and the same “upper room” where the disciples were staying on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 1:13).

Mark was probably a teenage relative of some kind (a young cousin?) of the owner of the house (Barnabas?) where Jesus had just had the Passover meal (i.e., the Last Supper) with his disciples. After the meal and the singing of a hymn, Jesus and his disciples left and went to the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:26; Mark 14:32), where Jesus repeatedly prayed his petitions to the Heavenly Father that he might find a way to avoid the cross.

It had to be exciting to a young teenage Mark to have this renowned Jesus as their houseguest. Jesus is actually HERE in our house! After the meal, Jesus and his disciples suddenly leave on some clandestine errand. It was the dark of night. What was Jesus up to? Mark had to have been curious. So he secretly followed and watched them from a distance. They end up at Gethsemane.

And if this is the case, Mark was a witness to Jesus’ prayers, repeated rebuke of his disciples for their slumber, and his eventual arrest. By the way, Keith gave some other interesting insights we know about Mark from the Bible in his sermon last Sunday, May 20th.

So in these strangely odd two verses, the now adult Mark inserts himself into his gospel narrative because that’s where Jesus’ story intersects with his. In a sense, this is the author’s “Alfred Hitchcock” appearance in his narrative.

So what does all this tell us?

The emailer is right—strangely, this little insertion has absolutely nothing to do with the message or story of Jesus. It is irrelevant to the narrative. But it’s in Mark’s gospel because it’s in Mark’s memory. And he remembers that night very well. It is one more of so many examples of our reading the unimportant details in the gospel narratives simply because they are part of someone’s memories. It happened. They remembered. And so it’s part of the Bible’s narrative account.

Author Tim Keller comments on this phenomenon (King’s Cross, p. 47):

In his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (p. 343ff), biblical scholar Richard Bauckham examines the characteristics of eyewitness memory. One of the marks of an eyewitness account is “irrelevant detail.” Composed, fictional stories contain details that move the narrative along or convey a message that the author wants to get across. But eyewitnesses record many details simply because they remember them. It is true that fiction writers today often add small details to their stories to make them realistic. But that’s not the way legends were composed in ancient times. …These sorts of details don’t advance the plot and don’t develop the characters. Vincent Taylor, the prominent twentieth-century biblical scholar, said that these details were “so unnecessary to the story” and therefore have the marks of “genuine reminiscence.”

And this kind of genuine reminiscence is just another historical marker that this story—the story of Jesus—really happened.

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