The Jesus Secret: A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Mark shows us that secrecy and fear are inextricably linked. After all, it was under the cloak of darkness, that the scribes and chief priests sent men to arrest Jesus.
We read that when Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, a group of armed men seized him. At which point, “Jesus said to them, ‘Have you come out as against a robber with swords and clubs, to capture me? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled” (Mark 14:48-49).
In this passage, Jesus is asking them rhetorically why they would choose to capture him in the middle of the night, in secret, when they had every opportunity to do it in the light of day. The answer to this question is obvious: it is because they feared him. This theme of secrecy and fear is at the forefront of Mark’s Gospel, and it serves a very important role in helping us to understand, not only the life and teachings of Jesus, but also the historical backdrop against which the Gospel is set.
After Jesus’s arrest, the Gospel of Mark tells us that all of those who were with Jesus fled. Well, all except for one. As we continue on, we read that “A young man followed him with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and [the group of men who captured Jesus] seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked” (Mark 14:51-52).
The two obvious questions that this passage raises are who is this brave “young man” that followed Jesus even when his closest followers did not, and what is his significance in the Gospel? To discover the answer to these questions, one has to fully understand the theme, content, and purpose of the Gospel of Mark.
A “When - Who - What - Why”
Overview of Mark’s Gospel
The Gospel of Mark is considered by most modern scholars to be the first Gospel written. It is typically dated sometime between 64 and 70 AD, between the crucifixion of Peter and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The majority of biblical scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel was one of the main sources for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which explains all of the stories in Matthew and Luke that are written near verbatim to those in Mark. [I, on the other hand, am in alignment with the Griesbach Hypothesis and believe that the Gospel of Mark was actually written third, and that the overlap that the three Gospels share comes from Mark compiling and harmonizing the Gospels of Matthew and Luke into one work (I delve into this in much greater detail in my essay on the Synoptic Problem)]
Despite, my belief that Mark was written third chronologically, it does not change the fact that I am actually in agreement with most scholars about the date of Mark. This is due to the fact that I subscribe to the Gospel dating proposed by scholar John A.T. Robinson in his extensively researched work, Redating the Gospels. So where most scholars see Mark as the first Gospel written in 64-70 AD, I see it as the third Gospel written at nearly the same time (with Matthew and Luke both written in the 50's as opposed to the 70s and 80s like most scholars contend).
All that being said, the point is, the Gospel of Mark was written within three to four decades of the death of Jesus, and because of its temporal proximity to the events, many scholars (especially those that subscribe to Markan priority) view the Gospel of Mark as the most historically reliable gospel. This conclusion, however, is not without its problems. I will explore those problems in greater detail later in this post. For now, what is important to know is the time in which the Gospel of Mark was written (64-70 AD) and the real life events that were taking place in and around Jerusalem at the time (e.g. violence against Christians, the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple).
There is much debate among scholars, whether or not Mark is the actual author of the Gospel that bears his name. Challenging the burgeoning majority, I believe that Mark did in fact write the Gospel of Mark. The first reason, is the proverbial elephant in the room of this discussion: Mark’s obscure position in the early church. That is, the question must be asked of those who deny that Mark is the author: if one were going to apply a fictional name to a Gospel as a way to give it more credibility and authority, then why not pick someone who was definitively closer to Jesus — the name of one of the twelve apostles for instance. Of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, only two of them are among the twelve apostles, and thus “verified” eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus. Mark, on the other hand is a figure that many lay Christians know very little about, and because of his obfuscation, he is therefore not seen as the authoritative voice that some of these skeptical scholars insist that he is.
What I find of particular interest in this debate of Gospel authorship is that scholars will vehemently deny that Matthew or John wrote their respective Gospels, yet Luke’s authorship is not really challenged at all. I believe that this is because Matthew and John were eyewitnesses to Jesus and Luke admittedly was not. Therefore, Luke's authorship is accepted because it is of no real threat to atheistic/agnostic scholars who want to keep the life of Jesus at arm’s length, so to speak.
What is more, it is for this same reason that I believe that scholars seem to be split on the legitimacy of Mark’s authorship. It is possible that he may have witnessed Jesus, so that question of whether or not he did, keeps his authorship suspended in the same question of whether or not he did. (See how it works?)
The truth is Mark is a much more allusive figure than most scholars are comfortable with. They often have a lot of difficulty pinning him down. There are two schools of skeptical thought in regards to Mark. I have already alluded to the first school; it is those that see Mark as such an important figure in the early church — just on the periphery of Christ — that someone in the early church simply used Mark’s name and all its cachet to add authenticity to the Gospel. To this point, I have already argued: if the goal was simply to apply a name of an important person around Jesus as a way to to give the Gospel authority, why not choose someone who was without a doubt a witness to Christ such as one of the twelve apostles. What is ironic, is that the second school of skeptical thought about Mark actually proves this first point for me. This second group of skeptical scholars often have no problem accepting Mark’s authorship, because they contend that the significance of Mark in scripture is exaggerated, and thus to use him as some kind of authority is meaningless anyway. Let me further explain this point.
You probably did not know this, but Mark is mentioned in the New Testament, (outside of the Gospel of Mark) [at least] seven times in five different books. Those who question Mark’s significance in the early church, oftentimes attempt to challenge the belief that all of these invocations of Mark are referring to the same person. In fact, the second/third century Christian historian, Hippolytus of Rome, denies that all of the references to “Mark” are referring to the same man. And, what is more, within the church calendar there are separate feast days for the different “Marks.” Thus, it would appear that even the church supports this multi-Mark belief as well. However, that is not exactly true, for within the church itself there are many (if not the majority) that believe that all mentions of Mark are in fact referencing the same man.
In Biblical scholarship, there are a lot of contentions that I do not necessarily agree with, but I can usually at least understand the other side of the argument. In studying scripture you have to sometimes just make your case the best you can, and then let the argument go, knowing that you cannot necessarily “prove” your side of the debate. For instance, I can accept people challenging the authorship of Mark’s Gospel, and truth be told, neither side can effectively prove the truth of this point one way or another. They can simply gather the evidence they have, in order to draw likely conclusions. But all of that being said, this argument that not all of the mentions of Mark are referring to the same person — Mark the Evangelist — is such a poorly thought out argument, that in this particular case of Biblical scholarship I believe that I can in fact prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it is the same person referred to all seven times.
At this point, you may be thinking: even if I can prove that all New Testament mentions of Mark are referring to the same person, I already admitted that I cannot definitively prove that the Gospel of Mark was authored by him, so what is the point of all of this? The point is, once you understand who Mark truly is, using scripture to uncover his character, the likelihood of you believing that he also wrote the Gospel that bears his name increases exponentially.
First, let us look at the New Testament mentions of Mark, in order to construct a timeline and character study of this man, and the events that surround him. Fortunately, the first mention of Mark in the New Testament (not including his own Gospel) is also in chronological order. That is, in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Acts, we read of how King Herod began to deal with leaders of the church violently. First he killed James the brother of John, and then he imprisoned Peter. However, before Herod could present Peter as a prize to the people, in order to please them with his capture. We read that an angel appeared and helped break Peter out of prison. After Peter had escaped he decided to seek refuge in the home of a trusted friend. It is written, Peter “went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark” (Acts 12:12). When Peter came knocking on their door, they were in disbelief and thought that he was merely an angel. “But motioning with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, ‘Tell this to James and the brethren’” (Acts 12:17).
We can see in this passage that when Peter was in desperate need of help, he turned to “John whose other name was Mark.” And if going to his home in his hour of need was not enough to reveal the close bond between Peter and Mark, the fact that Peter told him the story of the angel, and asked him to relay the tale to James, shows us that his trust in Mark is absolute. Furthermore, this apparent love that Peter had for Mark seems to be confirmed at the end of the First Letter of Peter, when he refers to him as “my son Mark” (1 Peter 5:13).
The fourth century Christian historian Eusebius, confirms this unbreakable bond between Peter and Mark. Eusebius writes that, “Peter’s hearers, not satisfied with a single hearing or with unwritten teaching of the divine message, pleaded with Mark, whose Gospel we have, to leave them a written summary of the teaching given them verbally, since he was a follower of Peter. Nor did they cease until they persuaded him, and so caused the writing of what is called the Gospel according to Mark." In other words, the early followers of Christ, saw Mark in the same way that Peter saw him, which is to say, he was seen as the ideal person to relay Peter’s miraculous stories of the Lord to others.
It is clear that Eusebius believes that Mark was the author of the Gospel of Mark, and he has even given us a reason to believe it. Let us continue looking at the rest of the mentions of Mark in the New Testament in order to confirm or deny this theory.
After we read of Peter going to Mark’s house, in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Acts, we are told what Mark does next. At the end of this very same chapter, it is written, “Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, bringing with them John whose other name was Mark”(Acts 12:25). It should be apparent that this is the same Mark as before, by both, the proximity to the story of Peter (earlier in the same chapter), as well as the use of the same moniker: “John whose other name was Mark.” Thus far I have alluded to three separate mentions of Mark (two in the same chapter of Acts, and one in the first letter of Peter), and all of them seem to be clearly referring to the same person.
So what does this passage at the end of chapter 12 of Acts tell us? It tells us that on his first missionary journey, Paul (i.e.“Saul”) took with him two men, Barnabas and Mark. This is of extreme importance, because it places Mark at the center of everything. The Book of Acts is the earliest history of the church that we have, and it mostly focuses on the work of two men Peter and Paul. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul himself describes their respective roles in the early church as follows, “I had been entrusted with the Gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the Gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for the mission for the circumcised worked through me also for the Gentiles).” In other words, Peter spread the word of God to the Jewish communities and Paul spread the word of God to the Greeks (and others). So let us step back for a moment and put things in perspective. According to the Book of Acts, as well as Paul’s letters, the two leaders of the early church were Peter and Paul (the two early church leaders were actually James and Paul, but that is a post for another time.) The point is, Mark is the clear connecting point between these two pillars of the early church. Mark was both, a trusted follower of Peter as well as one of Paul’s two companions on his first missionary journey.
Despite being the bridge that connects Peter and Paul, and playing a pivotal role in the early church, Mark is still viewed as an obscure and controversial figure. Perhaps this because of what the Book of Acts says of him in chapter 15. After their first missionary journey, Paul asks Barnabas to return with him to revisit the church communities, but Mark seemed to be the reason that this did not happen. As it is written:
After some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Come let us return and visit the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.’ And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to work. And there rose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed to Cyprus but Paul chose Silas and departed” (Acts 15:36-40).
What are we to make of this passage? Paul’s disappointment in Mark as a missionary companion is clear. Paul had deep respect for Barnabas, but his resentment for Mark was apparently greater. When it came to his second missionary journey, Paul would rather go WITHOUT Barnabas than WITH Mark. On the surface it seems like Mark, if he really did abandon them during the first mission like Paul says, is the one at fault here. And perhaps that is true, but let us put things in a bit more context, before we judge.
So far, we have highlighted four of the seven references to Mark in the New Testament, three of which are in the Book of Acts, and use the same phrase when describing him: “John whose other name was Mark,” or “John called Mark.” And the fourth mention highlighted was in the First Letter of Peter. I invoked the latter in conjunction with the words of Eusebius to highlight the close relationship between Peter and Mark, which was itself first highlighted by the first reference to Mark in the Book of Acts. Based on all of this, I would invite anyone who thinks that these four references to Mark, are not referring to the same man. At this point, they would be hard pressed to prove that point to anyone. The evidence seems quite clear that all four of these mentions are referring to the same person.
The three remaining references to Mark in the New Testament come from Paul himself. As we left Paul in Acts, he was setting out on his second missionary journey with Silas, since he was not going to go with Barnabas if he insisted on taking Mark with them again.
You may be wondering why Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas in Pamphylia, and why Paul was angry about it but Barnabas wasn’t. Scripture tells us that prior to arriving in Pamphylia, Paul was stoned at the behest of Jews from Antioch and Iconium, and he was left for dead. Within five lines of this, the three of them (i.e. Paul, Barnabas and Mark) arrived in Perga, (i.e. Pamphylia). Although it is not said explicitly, based on the contextual clues, it seems likely that Mark saw what happened to Paul and grew scared that he, too, may be attacked and even killed for preaching the word. This side of Mark’s character is important to understand because I think it becomes a compelling piece of evidence in favor of his authorship of the Gospel.
So according to the Acts passage in chapter 15, Paul felt betrayed by Mark, and thus did not want him coming on his second missionary journey with him. But what did Paul say about Mark in his own words? Before we get to Paul’s references to Mark in his letters, we must first establish an historical timeline, so we can better understand the evolution of Paul and Mark’s relationship. The first missionary journey is believed to have taken place sometime between 47 and 49 AD. At which time, it is unlikely that Paul wrote any of his letters (with the possible exception of his two letters to the Thessalonians). Most scholars believe that two of the three letters of Paul that mention Mark were written between 60 and 62 AD, while Paul was under house arrest in Rome. These two letters are the Letter to Philemon (which is considered by most scholars to be an authentic Pauline epistle) and the Letter to the Colossians (which is a debated Pauline epistle).
At the end of the Letter to Philemon, Paul writes “Epaphrus, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke my fellow workers” (Philemon 1:23-24). So here we see that Paul is speaking for Mark, and describing him as a “fellow worker” (and possibly as a "fellow prisoner"). It would seem that Paul and Mark have since mended their troubled relationship.
Furthermore, towards the end of the Letter to the Colossians Paul invokes Mark’s name yet again in his final greeting, but this time, Paul gives us more details about Mark. Paul writes, “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions — if he comes to you receive him)” (Colossians 4:10). There is a lot to unpack in this one line of Paul. First, the familial connection that is highlighted between Mark and Barnabas reveals much to us. Now it all seems to make sense. Of course Barnabas would stand up for his cousin with Paul, even if Mark was wrong to abandon them during their journey. What is also interesting is the way that Paul subtextualizes Mark to the Colossae church. This seems to imply that Paul has already spoken to them at some length about Mark. Whether this was all positive or not, one can only speculate. Nevertheless, the result is the same, Paul has mentioned Mark in two letters — believed to be written at the same time, in a similar style, and using the same names. Surely no one would question that the “Aristarchus” in each letter is the same person, nor should one challenge that the Mark in each letter is the same person. But the question remains, are both of these references to Mark in Paul, referring to the same person from Acts and 1st Peter that we explored earlier?
Thinking about the evolution of Paul and Mark's relationship in a positive light, I like to think that Paul and Mark mended fences sometime in the 50’s AD, and between 60 and 62 AD, Mark visited his “fellow worker” Paul while he was under house arrest in Rome (or perhaps, as others contend, Mark was also under house arrest with Paul at the time). So Paul, having been in the company of (or recently in the company of) Mark, sent greetings on his behalf to Philemon, and then told the church in Colossae to receive him if he comes. Perhaps the Colossians needed to be told this, because the last time Paul mentioned Mark to them it was not in the best light (like we saw in Acts 15).
Nonetheless, Paul and Mark’s relationship seems to have grown only stronger from then. For in one of his last letters, the Second Letter to Timothy (likely written in 67 AD just before Paul was put to death). Paul writes, “The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight…Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me” (2 Timothy 4:11). It would seem that for Paul to want Timothy to bring Mark with him, at a time when he knows his life is near its end, shows his true affection for him.
Notice, also, the familiarity with which Paul speaks of Mark to Timothy. This ease-of-use reveals that this is clearly the same Mark that is referenced in Paul’s earlier letters. One of which connects Mark directly with Barnabas, which in turn clearly connects him with all of the previous mentions in the Book of Acts — where Paul, Barnabas, and Mark are all together.
For anyone to contend that these seven references to Mark are not all referring to the same person clearly does not understand the historical backdrop of scripture. As I said earlier, a lot of the things that Biblical scholars contend are not “provable” in the true sense of the word; we simply put forth our best argument with the scriptural evidence we have. This issue, however, of whether or not all of these references to Mark are referring to the same person seems painfully apparent.
Moving on from that “controversy,” I think that we now have a clear picture of who Mark is according to other writers in the New Testament. He was a trusted follower of Peter, and he came to be loved by Paul, in spite of abandoning him and his cousin Barnabas in Pamphylia on their missionary journey together. Scripture seems to suggest implicitly that Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas because he was fearful for his life. This last part is important to remember as we look at the content and theme of Mark’s Gospel, and why I believe it suggests Mark’s authorship.
The first two words that Jesus utters in the Gospel of Mark are “Be silent” and I think that this sets the tone for the entire Gospel. Time and time again, Jesus is performing a miracle of one kind or another and after he does so, he implores those he heals not to tell anyone what he has done. The irony is that when he tells them not to spread the word, they want to tell the world what he has done even more. Or as it is written, “And he charged them to tell no one, but the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it” (Mark 7:36).
Jesus imploring people to secrecy is a repeating pattern throughout Mark's Gospel. Let us look at some examples. After healing a leper, it is written, Jesus “said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to any one’ (Mark 1:43). After raising a girl from the dead, it is written, “he strictly charged them that no one should know this,”(Mark 5:43) and while addressing demons who recognized his divinity, it is written, Jesus "would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (Mark 1:34). And it was not just those outside of his inner circle that he implored to secrecy. We read that Jesus asked his apostles, “But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, 'You are the Christ.’ And he charged them to tell no one" (Mark 8:29-30).
Not only did Jesus explicitly tell people to keep quiet about who he was and the things that he has done, but he even tried to impose other secretive barriers by which to restrict access to “knowing him” as well. That is to say, Jesus specifically taught in parables, in order for the hearer to have to figure out the secrets of God’s Word on their own, as a way to keep the undeserving out. As the Gospel tells us, “When he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand” (Mark 4:10-12).
You may be wondering, why all the secrecy? Well, as I said when I began this post, secrecy and fear are inextricably linked. This secrecy, however, does necessarily reflect Jesus’s fear per se, but rather Mark’s fear as the one who is spreading the word.
That is not to say that Jesus himself is not characterized by fear at times throughout the Gospel in his own right. Jesus’s fear is most evident when he is in the Gethsemane praying to the Father to be spared his crucifixion (Mark 14:35). Jesus was part man after all; it only makes sense that he would have moments where he feared death like the rest of us. This brings us back to Mark on his journey with Paul and Barnabas, just after the people attempted to murder Paul by stoning him. Mark, much like the Jesus he portrays in his Gospel, is palpably afraid of what may happen to him if word of who Christ is, and the power he possesses, were to spread. As you can see the same paradox that plagues Jesus in Mark’s Gospel also plagued Mark himself: if he is fearful about the word of the ministry spreading, then the mission — which is to spread the word of God — becomes much more difficult as a result. This is the internal struggle at play in the Gospel of Mark.
I began this post by highlighting what happened during Jesus’s arrest. He was taken in the middle of the night, in secret. And what did the apostles do when Jewish authorities swarmed in? They fled. And what did Mark do after the Jewish authorities swarmed in on Paul. He fled.
We read, however, of a young man in a linen cloth who did not immediately flee when Jesus was captured. He instead followed after him until the men seized him, at which point he left his linen cloth behind and ran away naked. The two questions posed at the beginning of this post were: who is this man? and what is his significance? What is particularly interesting is that there are some scholars who believe that this passage is self-referential. In other words, this young man in the linen cloth is actually Mark himself. To understand why this is not only possible, but in fact probable, one must understand the scriptural reference that Mark is making in this passage.
To understand what Mark is doing here, and at other key moments in the Gospel, one needs to be familiar the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. There are a few clear connections between that Old Testament work, and the Gospel of Mark. The first is that in the Book of Ezekiel, the Lord repeatedly refers to Ezekiel as “the Son of man” which is the same title that Jesus uses to refer to himself.
What is more, the historical context of the Book of Ezekiel is of great importance as well.
The Book of Ezekiel was written at a time when Jerusalem was seized and the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. Ezekiel explains that God made this happen because the nations of Israel and Judah had turned to idolatry in the temple. The similarities we see in the Gospel of Mark are striking. Mark, too, is writing during a time when Jerusalem was under attack, by a foreign power in their land (i.e. the Romans), and the destruction of the temple was imminent (or had just happened, depending on the date of composition you subscribe to: before or after 70 AD).
What is more, Jesus, much like the Lord in Ezekiel, is angered by the sinning in the temple. As it is written in Mark, Jesus “entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and bought in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he taught and said to them, ‘Is it not written, my house shall be called a house of prayer for all other nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.’ And the chief priests and scribes sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him. because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching” (Mark 11:15-18).
In this passage, Mark is not only connecting his writing and the teaching of Jesus, with the events depicted in the Book of Ezekiel, but he is also foreshadowing another moment in Jesus’s story still to come. That is to say, Jesus is chastising the chief priests and scribes for allowing the temple to be defiled in such a way, referring to them as “robbers.” And because of this, we read that they sought to destroy him. This post began with the arrest of Jesus, and I would like to remind you of what Jesus said to his enemies at that time. Jesus asked them why they were treating him like “a robber” — the same word he used when describing them in the temple — instead of like one they had seen day after day in the temple. But that is the irony, isn't it? It was because they saw him in the temple that they were doing what they doing. They saw him drive them out, and literally upend their way of life. For this reason they feared him.
As I have already said, fear and secrecy are inextricably linked. It is clearly because of their fear of Jesus that they swooped into arrest him under the cloak of darkness, at night, in secret.
So now let us connect this idea of secrecy, with what I believe to be the most important connection that Mark is making with the Book of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel, as the Lord is preparing his destruction of Jerusalem, six executioners are sent in to slaughter all the guilty, and with them there is a man in a linen cloth. (Sound familiar?) In Ezekiel it is written, “with them was a man clothed in linen, with a writing case at his side” (Ezekiel 9:2). This messenger of God, “with a writing case at his side,” appears to be the ideal figure with whom a Gospel writer may want to associate himself. As we continue reading we see something even more interesting. The Lord “called to the man clothed in linen, with a writing case at his side. And the Lord said to him, 'Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it'” (Ezekiel 9:3-4). In other words, it was this man’s job to “mark” those who would be saved from the smiting of the Lord’s executioners, those who had a problem with sacrilegious activities in the temple.
Although there is no actual linguistic connection between the name “Mark” and the Aramaic word used for “mark” in this Ezekiel passage. Nevertheless, that does not mean, that the Aramaic word for “mark” is not of great importance to our current discussion. The Aramaic word for “mark” — as in the mark that this man clothed in linen with the writing case at his side put on the foreheads of those who would be saved from God’s punishment — is “Taw,” which is also a letter in Semitic alphabets. The taw in Phoenician is an “X” and it gave rise to the “T” in both Greek and Latin. With this connection being made between an X and T, one cannot help but think of the cross. So to read the Ezekiel passage through this etymological/ Christian lens, and combine it with our theory about Mark being the “young man” in the “linen cloth” we can see that it is not such an intellectual leap to associate “the man clothed in linen with a writing case at his side” whose job it was to mark the foreheads of the saved with the “cross,” with Mark himself (i.e. the young man in the linen cloth) -- the Gospel writer who is preaching the same exact message of people being saved by the cross.
As you can see the allusion being made in this passage is profound, and the metaphorical aspect of it speaks volumes. We read that “the young man” (i.e.Mark) left behind the linen cloth and ran away naked. The fact that the young man leaves the cloth behind and runs away naked is symbolic of Mark leaving his “sheet” behind, so to speak, (i.e. his written Gospel) by which, he is “revealing” himself and “baring it all,” as it were. And at this moment when everyone else ran away from Jesus, he was the only one brave enough to attempt to follow him. Perhaps this is Mark trying to re-write his own less-than-courageous history, where he was the one who ran away from Jesus, because he was too scared of what people might do to him.
The secrecy and fear that surrounds Jesus in Mark’s Gospel may seem enigmatic, but if one is willing to search after the deeper meaning hidden in scripture, the mystery of God will reveal itself to you.
In the Gospel of Mark it is written, “For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light” (Mark 4:22). As I have repeatedly said, secrecy and fear are inextricably linked. There is a story in the Gospel of Mark, where the apostles are with Jesus on a ship, and a violent storm comes upon them. The boat was filling with water, and the apostles were full of fear. Jesus then awakes, calms the seas, and asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40)
With just eight simple words, the Gospel of Mark has shined the proverbial light on the darkness that is our ignorance. That is to say, with just two simple questions, Jesus has given us the remedy to fear: Faith! So it stands to reason that if fear leads to secrecy, then faith should lead to revealing — or another way to say “revealing” is revelation. It is through faith that we are granted revelation. This is a deeply complex subject, but I will try to explain it as simply as I can.
First let us look at how the Gospel of Mark defines faith. In chapter 9, it is written, “All things are possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23). That seems simple enough. Let us explore this idea of faith further. At two different times, after healing someone, Jesus tells them, “Your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:34/10:52). I want us to step back from scripture for a moment here and acknowledge the Truth of Jesus’s statement. There is irrefutable scientific evidence that supports Jesus’s words here. What I am talking about is the placebo effect. The idea that when a person believes that they are given a treatment to help them get better (even though the treatment itself has no actual medicinal benefits in and of itself) they become well. In other words, the person’s belief is the direct cause for them getting better. Or another way to put it: their faith has made them well -- quite literally.
What is more, good health is only a small part of the unlimited power that is faith in God. As Jesus said to his apostles, “Have faith in God. Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it and you will” (Mark 11:22-24). As you can see, from this seemingly supernatural description of the power of faith, that Jesus meant it when he said, “All things are possible to him that believes.”
In my opinion, Mark’s Gospel is clearly self-referential. Subtextually, it seems to reveal the author's own inner struggle as a disciple of Jesus in the early church. It has been my contention, based on the evidence in the Book of Acts, that Mark abandoned Barnabas and Paul in Pamphylia because he was afraid of the danger and violence that they had come across. His struggle between fear and faith as revealed through this motif of secrecy is on full display in his Gospel. When one begins the Gospel, the secrecy surrounds Jesus and the apostles, and seems to imply a mood of fear among them; by the end, however, it is the authorities who are fearful of Jesus and the apostles. The authorities now fear them because they have conquered this world (i.e. the fear of death) through their power of faith.
To tie this all together, let us look at what Jesus said to the multitude: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s sake will save it" (Mark 8:34-35).
These words say it all.
Based on the evidence, Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas because he was scared of losing his life. In so doing, Mark lost everything that was of value to him. He missed out on the rest of the important things that Paul and Barnabas did on their journey, he was shunned by Paul (and likely countless others) for his betrayal, and most of all, he probably felt ashamed for turning his back on Paul, his cousin Barnabas, and most of all, on the Lord. Here he was, preaching about faith in Jesus, and then when things got tough, he succumbed to fear and literally ran away from what he believed in. These words of Jesus of losing one's life, highlight Mark’s understanding of the faith versus fear struggle that every Christian at that time (and since) has had to deal with one way or another.
What I find to be particularly interesting is that shortly after the “young man in the linen cloth” runs away naked from the authorities who arrested Jesus, we read that Peter was following Jesus at a distance. It would be shortly after this that Peter denies knowing Jesus three times. Mark is showing that even Peter, Jesus’s most trusted apostle, struggled with this fear versus faith problem. Fearful for his life, he denied Jesus, which is to say he denied his faith. In one of his denials of Jesus, it is written, “He began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know this man of whom you speak’” (Mark 14:71). Notice, that denying Jesus is tantamount to cursing one’s self. Perhaps, Mark felt like he too was cursed after he denied Christ on his journey with Paul and Barnabas. The solution to this problem of fear is to instead embrace faith in Christ by denying one’s self.
Placing Mark in the role of the young man in the linen cloth, who bravely attempts to follow Jesus makes sense on so many levels. As I have already pointed out the connection between this figure and the similar figure in Ezekiel is profound. Not only do they share the same characteristics (linen cloth and a writing case*), the same historical circumstances (Jerusalem under siege and the destruction of the Temple), and the same mission (using the cross as a way to save people). Furthermore, the fact that Mark chooses not to explicitly name himself (to the chagrin of scholars everywhere) is likewise profound. As Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Mark has denied himself here in more ways than one. He is unnamed, he is depicted as following Jesus in spite of danger, and by baring himself to the world through this Gospel (metaphorically symbolized by him leaving the sheet behind and running away naked), we are left with a display of his faith: his Gospel.
It may surprise you to know that I do not believe that this is the only time that Mark makes an anonymous appearance in the Gospel. Before I get to that however, there is one thing I should point out about the composition of Mark’s Gospel. Some versions of the Gospel have an extended ending *(Mark 19:9-20) However, our earliest and most reliable versions of this Gospel actually end with line Mark 16:8. I say all of this because ending the Gospel at this earlier point has much more literary power, and furthermore, it seems to align better with what I believe Mark is trying to get across in his Gospel in regards to both meaning and style.
All that being said, I believe that the second appearance of Mark in the Gospel comes at the very end. We read that after Jesus died on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Jewish council, requested Jesus’s body from Pilate in order to give it a proper burial. Pilate granted the request, and Joseph wrapped the body of Jesus in a linen shroud. The body was placed in a tomb, with a stone rolled against the entrance. Next, we read that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome went to anoint the body. As they were making their way to the tomb, wondering who would roll away the stone for them to enter, they saw “a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, ‘Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee… And they went out and fled the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:5-8).
There is a lot information to explore in this verse. First I want you to notice that when the women entered the tomb looking for Jesus, they saw “a young man” sitting there. The only other time that phrase is used in the entire Gospel was when describing the “young man in the linen cloth." Is that enough to think that this is Mark though? Perhaps not, but based on the role of that this “young man” is playing in this scene, the likelihood increases; especially when you see how the symbolism shines through. That is to say, this young man is revealing to the women what has happened to Jesus. We as the reader of this Gospel are in the same position. The “good news” (i.e. the Gospel) about Jesus has been revealed to us by this “young man” and it is then up to us to figure out what to do with it.
What is more, the whole motif of secrecy has come full circle with the last line: “and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” The ironic reversal here is profound. When Jesus implored secrecy, (remember, even his first two words were “be silent”) people could not help but talk, and now that this young man is telling them to talk, they are too scared and become secretive. So between the thematic construction of the plot and how the story unfolds itself, one can see that the unique role of the “young man” in these two pivotal scenes (at Jesus’s arrest and at Jesus’s empty tomb) act as pillars to hold this story up. He is the one who was bravely following Jesus when even his followers didn’t, and he is the one revealing the truth about Jesus of Nazareth rising from the dead to the world. In the end, we do not see the risen Jesus, we are left only with this young man’s word, as it were. We have to take it all on faith.
I have gone to great lengths in this post to show you why I believe that Mark — as depicted throughout the New Testament (in the Book of Acts and the letters of Peter and Paul — is not only the same Mark who wrote the Gospel that bears his name, but also that he appears anonymously in it on more than one occasion; and furthermore, that his own struggle between faith and fear, which is highlighted by the theme of secrecy in his Gospel, is the driving force behind his narrative of Jesus.
The scriptural power of this theme of secrecy cannot be overstated. It takes us along on the literary ride of what is was like to be a follower of Jesus at that time (and beyond).
Scholars often diminish the Gospel of Mark in comparison with the other three. Their two main complaints are that it is far less polished than the others and/or that there are far too many miracle stories, which at times, make it border too much on the “magical.” To the first point, I hope that I have made a compelling case for the literary value in Mark by highlighting the nuances of the multilayered allusions and metaphor at work in the text. In other words, it seems quite polished to me. And to the second point, earlier I said that the majority of scholars believe that Mark was written first, and because of that "fact" it seems like it should be the most historically reliable because it is the closest to the events. Nevertheless, those same scholars are the same ones that complain that Mark’s Gospel seems to be so “magical” at times, it seems like it is actually the furthest removed from “reality.” It appears to me that these scholars are missing the point on both counts.
Remember, Mark is the one that bridges things together. He was the connecting point between Peter and Paul, he the connecting point between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and perhaps he is also the bringing together of the historical with the miraculous because that was the reality. Excuse me, is the reality. The placebo effect is scientific proof of the power of faith. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells us this “secret” over and over. It comes with one condition however: It is only true if you believe it; so I believe it must be true.
1. Bible Overview, (Rose Publishing: 2012), 176.
2. Hippolytus. "The Same Hippolytus on the Seventy Apostles." Ante-Nicene Fathers.
3. Paul L. Maier, Eusebius: The Church History. (Kregel Publishing, 1999, 2007), 64.
4. Bible Overview, 195.
5. John A.T. Robinson, Redating the Gospels, (Wipe and Stock Publishers: Oregon: 1976).