Mark’s Linen Sheet

Mark’s Linen Sheet December 11, 2016

I had a conversation with Rev. Paul Albrecht recently, and he shared with me his view on the man who runs away naked in the Gospel of Mark. It is an interesting way of connecting the dots between elements in the story, and not necessarily an implausible one. Let me know what you think.

Paul Albrecht’s suggestion is that, having departed from the Passover meal occurring in the upper room traditionally in John Mark’s house, the “Last Supper,” Judas would have naturally returned there with the cohort that sought to arrest Jesus. By this point, John Mark would be in bed. Answering the door and, in his grogginess, indicating where Jesus was headed when he left, John Mark would then have hurried to try to reach Jesus first to warn him about what was happening, wrapped in the bedclothes that he had around him when he answered the door.

He would then also provide an awake witness to Jesus’ prayer and other activities in the garden of Gethsemane.

When Jesus was arrested, John Mark left behind the sheet in which he had hastily wrapped himself when he got up from bed. And so it would have remained in the hands of those sent by the Jewish authorities – and would have provided the most readily available linen sheet for Joseph of Arimathea to use when it came time to bury Jesus.

A lot of the above is speculative – and comes from someone who is inclined to view the Shroud of Turin as genuine, but I don’t want to hold that against them in relation to an exegetical question. However, this suggestion also doesn’t deal with the statement that Joseph bought a linen sheet in which to bury Jesus (unless obtaining confiscated property could require some kind of payment in kind). 

And yet nevertheless there is something compelling about this way of connecting the dots between the mentions of a linen sheet in the Gospel of Mark. At the very least, it reflects an impressive creativity, I think you’ll agree.

What do you think of this? Too speculative? Or an interesting and creative attempt to explore gaps in Mark’s narrative?

Painting by Pavel Popov.
Painting by Pavel Popov.

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  • Erp

    Were sheets used on beds then?

    • I’ve seen some evidence to that effect – and that for the poor, their outer wrap or cloak doubled as bedding. But I have found fewer clear descriptions that either cite primary sources or draw on archaeological studies and so I would welcome more information if other have any to share.

    • Michael Wilson

      I always assumed it was the table cloth of the last supper. Later used as the burial shroud and returning in history as the shroud of Turin. There are clearly wine and salsa stains on it.

  • It would make sense for Judas to first return to the house where Jesus had his last supper. Would Judas have known to go from there to Gethsemane, which according to Luke 22:39 was the “usual” place Jesus would go to? Or would someone at the house need to tell them? If the latter, would it need to be John Mark? Regardless, it would explain why someone was following Jesus in the middle of the night wearing nothing but a linen sheet. But it’s difficult to believe that this would be the same linen sheet used to wrap the body of Jesus in. Nor do I understand what the significance would be in connecting the two sheets.

  • Tony Prost

    I don’t think a wealthy man seeking to honor Jesus in death, would resort to a used bed sheet to wrap him in. There must have been ceremonial and liturgical requirements, which a dirty sheet from a violent arrest episode would not satisfy.

    • In Mark, Joseph of Arimathea is giving Jesus a dishonorable burial – hence stories about anointing Jesus beforehand and attempting to do so afterwards.

      • Dr. McGrath,

        Could you explain this to us in greater detail, please?

          • Though I haven’t yet bought your book (I promise I will), and I was unable to access the third article, I was able to read your article at the second link. A few thoughts:

            (1). Did Joseph “dare” to ask Pilate for the body out of fear of Pilate or out of fear of the high priests?

            (2). You did not mention that Mark describes Joseph as someone who “was himself waiting for the kingdom of God.” Mark seems to want to put Joseph in a special category, distinct from the other members of the Sanhedrin. Possibly a secret admirer of Jesus?

            (3). Since Mark doesn’t describe the tomb as a dishonorable place, I couldn’t figure out why you or others are so sure that it was.

            (4). Lack of public mourning for Jesus probably would have been out of fear of both the Roman and Jewish authorities. Only the women of Jesus’ entourage witness the crucifixion “from a distance.” They go to care for his body early Sunday morning, probably to avoid curious eyes, and run in fear when they see somebody inside. So using the lack of mourning as evidence that Joseph or others buried Jesus in dishonor seems something of a stretch.

            (5). Your final point: Nobody honored Jesus’ burial place until centuries later. Maybe because he didn’t use it long enough?

          • In reverse order:

            5) The brief period spent in the tomb did not motivate people to ignore it as a place of pilgrimage later, nor did it motivate the Gospel authors not to improve the kind of burial Jesus received. The latter suggests that they knew enough about his burial to consider this worth doing. And absence of evidence for focus on the site is not a valid argument, especially under the circumstances.

            4) The evidence for dishonor is what is explicitly said: the family and followers of Jesus were not involved, and actions before and after the burial were interpreted as providing what Joseph did not.

            3) Mark simply says that Jesus was placed in a tomb, and in addition to the evidence above, the most natural interpretation is that it was a site used for burying those executed at that location.

            2) Mark highlights that Joseph was at least relatively righteous, compared to others in the ruling council, and so he makes sure that the law is obeyed and that Jesus is buried before sundown.

            1) Boldness seems to have always been required when dealing with the Roman authorities. But Joseph’s boldness is not said to have been motivated by anything other than observance of the Jewish law, which in view of the other evidence, led to Jesus being buried, but not anointed for burial or otherwise honored.

  • Paul E.

    Creative indeed, but it strikes me as pretty wildly speculative. Just a few off the cuff thoughts: 1) In Mark, Judas does not leave the Last Supper; in fact, I don’t think there is any mention of when he leaves. Therefore, based on Mark (and dealing with its text on its own basis), the best inference, imo, is that he left when Jesus took Peter, James and John off and people started falling asleep. 2) If the plan was to arrest Jesus in a house, the sign of the kiss seems strange. Judas and the soldiers would not be approaching people out in the open, but would be forcefully entering a dwelling, or perhaps dealing with it in a siege-like fashion, but there would be no mistake as to intentions. Therefore, an innocently-explained sign such as a kiss makes little sense in that context, imo (although I suppose the kiss could have been arranged post-house visit). 3) Mark says the young man was “following” Jesus. That suggests something more than getting up in the night and running out to Gethsemene; imo, that suggests the young man was there all along (perhaps surreptitiously). 4) There also seems to be theological undertones to the young man’s “following,” “fleeing,” the cloth and being naked, especially when you get to the young man in the tomb in the white robe. 5) Joseph of Arimathea buying the linen from the guards seems a pretty wild speculation, imo, simply on the basis of what the odds would be against such a coincidence. It also indicates a strange lack of preparedness on Joseph’s part (but if the death was swift and buying linen from Jews on a holiday was a problem, I suppose maybe it is possible). Those are just a few thoughts.

    • While your first point is an important one, others seem to have straightforward responses: it is not said that the sign of the kiss was arranged before Judas and the guards set out, but only before they went to Gethsemane; following Jesus need not indicate what you say – it could mean he was a disciple, or more likely, that he was following their party at that moment; Judas running out as the Sabbath is dawning to make a purchase seems unlikely.

      • Paul E.

        Sure there are responses (I even supplied some of them), and even the first point has a straightforward response, i.e. Mark just left out when Judas left and the other gospels filled in that gap. Nevertheless, imo and in response to your query in the post, I simply find the scenario too speculative, albeit creative and interesting.

        Just a couple other thoughts: 1) “Following.” Sure, there are multiple possible interpretations, and simply because one explanation might be the most plausible does not mean it is correct. In the context of the story, “following” makes little sense as an immediate act, imo. Jesus was stationary when captured and “everyone” fled. That is when the young man who was “following” Jesus was seized. The most likely reading of that imo is that the young man was there all along and that “following” had a broader meaning than as an immediate act.

        2) “Purchase” of the linen cloth. That detail has always puzzled me, as it seems to strain the timeline and may have some problems with whether you could legally buy things at that particular time during Passover. Nevertheless, it is there. If Joseph was performing a bureaucratic duty, it seems to me there would be a bureaucratic process. You have X number of executions, so you need to have X number of cloths and Y amount of burial space, personnel in place to perform all necessary functions, etc. I think it far more likely the Sanhedrin had a ready and usual supplier from whom it bought such items rather than having to rely on last minute purchases or whether some guard had recently happened to render a young man shirtless.

        3) I cannot shake the feeling there is symbolic and theological significance in these details about the linen cloth, and I’d be interested to hear whether you think there could be any connection to Secret Mark. Could this young man have been an initiate? A symbol of someone who deserts Jesus naked only to be re-clothed in white to announce his resurrection?

        • The possibility of symbolism is real, although precisely what is symbolic of what is harder to pin down. It is interesting that in Mark, we don’t have reference to the sheet being left behind in the tomb.

          • Paul E.

            The linen sheet disappears in every gospel, doesn’t it? I should have looked this up, but I think where linen is seen in the tomb, it is linen strips and/or the head covering, and not the type of “sheet” seemingly described as being obtained by Joseph. I will look this up and edit when I get the chance.

            EDIT: Just had a quick chance to glance at the stories, and Luke and John both seem to discard the idea of a single linen “sheet” in favor of linen cloth (gives more honor and ceremony to the burial). Luke seems more interested in confirmation of the women’s story and John seems more interested in portraying a mysterious “poof” of body disappearance.

            This makes me wonder even more about the strength of a symbolic interpretation of the linen in Mark.

          • Yes, only John has a detail about strips of linen being left behind, but in John, it is precisely strips of linen that are used for the burial.

          • Paul E.

            Actually, Luke has the strips of linen cloth left behind as well, but there is no specificity about the type of cloth (sheet v. strips) Joseph obtains; Luke just says Joseph wrapped Jesus in linen cloth. It looks to me like Luke included the strips as visual evidence/confirmation of the resurrection itself.

            John, it appears to me, is not only interested in having a more elaborate and honorable burial through the mention of the strips of linen and the head covering, but is also positing a more specific type of resurrection (a sort of evaporation) given the way the strips were left behind.

            I’m not sure what this all means with respect to Mark’s narrative, though, because of the seemingly differing agendas.

  • histrogeek

    It is an interesting attempt to combine multiple traditions and the Gospels together,

  • E Bruce Brooks

    Nicely stated, and very convincing. But I would not call it creative. This way of reading Mk 14:5-52 has been around for a long time, and is still with us. From the commentaries which take that view of the young man, consider Gould (1896) 172; Swete (1898) 354; Menzies (1901) 264 quoting Zahn; Holtzmann (1901) quoting Zahn, “Das Monogram des Malers in einen dunkeln Ecke des Gemaldes;” Bartlet (1925) 401 quoting Wood (in Peake), “The Evangelist’s signature in his portrait of Jesus;” Rawlinson (1925) 215 citing Crum; Schniewind (1963) 191; Riley (1898) 172, and Geddert (2001) 354 “oldest and most plausible.” Decisive in its favor, I should think, is that those who reject this interpretation (sometimes derisively have nothing better to offer in its place except Amos 2:16, which does not seem to help very much. / Bruce

    • Gary

      I would like your opinion…
      Obvious. Jesus arrest.

      Mark 14:49 I was daily with you in the temple teaching, and ye took me not: but this is done that the scriptures might be fulfilled. 50 And they all left him, and fled.
      51 A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, 52 but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. 53 And they led Jesus away to the high priest:

      Old Testament connection. Jeremiah was into trashing temple authorities.

      Jeremiah 13:1 Thus saith Jehovah unto me, Go, and buy thee a linen girdle, and put it upon thy loins, and put it not in water. 2 So I bought a girdle according to the word of Jehovah, and put it upon my loins. 3 And the word of Jehovah came unto me the second time, saying, 4 Take the girdle that thou hast bought, which is upon thy loins, and arise, go to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock. 5 So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates, as Jehovah commanded me. 6 And it came to pass after many days, that Jehovah said unto me, Arise, go to the Euphrates, and take the girdle from thence, which I commanded thee to hide there. 7 Then I went to the Euphrates, and digged, and took the girdle from the place where I had hid it; and, behold, the girdle was marred, it was profitable for nothing.
      8 Then the word of Jehovah came unto me, saying, 9 Thus saith Jehovah, After this manner will I mar the pride of Judah, and the great pride of Jerusalem. 10 This evil people, that refuse to hear my words, that walk in the stubbornness of their heart, and are gone after other gods to serve them, and to worship them, shall even be as this girdle, which is profitable for nothing. 11 For as the girdle cleaveth to the loins of a man, so have I caused to cleave unto me the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah, saith Jehovah; that they may be unto me for a people, and for a name, and for a praise, and for a glory: but they would not hear.

      So… Jesus is arrested, and Jerusalem and the Jewish authorities are left holding the bag (linen diaper, girdle, dirty laundry – separated from God). Symbolic! The author of Mark had a good sense of humor. Makes more sense than conjecture about who the person was, why the linen, where did the linen come from, what happened to the linen? As if this was an actual, important, eye-witnessed event that the author remembered 30 years later? Not likely.

      • In my opinion, expecting readers of Mark to see a reference to a linen sheet as an allusion to a girdle buried in the Book of Jeremiah is far less probable than that this is simply a recollection of what happened. It may be that the latter is improbable, but the vague allusion will still be less probable than that, because nothing in Mark provides any clear clue to the reader that they should recall this text in Jeremiah. Highly literate readers can of course find such connections, but these things should not be imposed on an ancient context.

        • Gary

          New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, commentary on Mark:
          “Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is portrayed in terms of popular Israelite memories of the great prophets, especially Moses, who had led Israel’s Exodus from subjection to alien rule in Egypt; Elijah, who had led the renewal of Israel in resistance to oppressive monarchs; and Jeremiah, who had proclaimed God’s judgement on the Temple and the rulers based there.”

        • Gary

          “is simply a recollection of what happened”…
          When writing Mark, perhaps 30 years later, the author remembers a factoid about a linen, and a naked man, when the main event is the arrest of Jesus? If the linen/man was significant, don’t you think the author would have elaborated? In my opinion, symbolism of the perpetrators of the main event. Not something that actually happened. Unless the author of Mark had a learning disorder, that caused him to remember trivial facts, along with the main event – the arrest of Jesus.

        • Gary

          Sorry for going into too much detail on the subject, but if your main objection is the translation Greek “sheet” to Hebrew “girdle”, perhaps you could elaborate on the various translations in different versions of the Bible, such as –
          Jeremiah: Linen belt, loincloth, waistband, girdle, undergarment, shorts…

          Mark: Linen garment, shirt, cloth, sheet…

          And then conclude that the two words are so different, that the author of Mark could not have possibly meant any reference to Jeremiah. But added the linen sheet, just to tweak our interest?

          • Is it possible that Mark is recounting his own experience or the experience of the person this happened to? If so, it would explain his attention to such a trivial detail.

          • Bilbo: That is certainly possible.

            Gary: My objection was not the mere lack of the same or similar terminology, but the lack of any other significant echo to bring the Jeremiah story to mind.

    • Gary

      I simply should have stated:
      Jeremiah 13 has a stronger correlation than Amos 2, if OT scripture fulfillments are being considered. Personal opinion – Amos trashes the Northern Kingdom a lot. Both Jeremiah and Jesus were from the North, so both of them being upset at Temple authorities seems a more logical connection.

  • Michael Wilson

    Great discussion. Made me re read some stuff, realized yeah, mark doesn’t specify it was Joseph of A’s tomb or that Judah’s left early or was clearly the betrayer. In that light a lot of theories are dismissed. Paul E is right, no reason to think Judas had left Jesus before heading to the mount of Olives. And yes, many scenarios are possible. I don’t think we can expect much accuracy from this account.

    This makes me reflect back to another post about Paul Luke and acts. I was talking with a friend about Herodotus and remarked that real knowledge and experience would not preclude inaccuracy, not due to memory, but lies and misinformation. Mark and Luke are not bound by what they know to write. They got a story to tell and idea to push.

    I suspect that the young man in mark might reflect the real circumstance, people running off naked, it could be incorporated into a deeper spiritual analogy or metaphor, or simple poetic religion. So many have noticed the robe of the man in tomb, or even the robe of the rich young man in secret mark. A number of possible kitties are president.