The consensus among scholars is that the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Or rather, they are what might be called “second-generation accounts.” They were composed by Christians who had never met Jesus but who had been converted to him by the preaching of the apostles. No scandal or shock here because the Gospels generally do not present themselves as eyewitness accounts. In fact, Luke explicitly states that his Gospel is a compilation of such accounts, one based upon apostolic preaching (1:1–4).
The names that we affix to the Gospels are not part of the Gospel narratives themselves, and scholars continually debate how appropriately a name should be ascribed to a given text, though with limited import. It is the same Gospel, whatever the name of the saint in the title.
The Fourth Gospel, the term scholars prefer for St. John’s Gospel, is the strong exception. The last to be composed, it nonetheless bases its authority on being the eyewitness account of “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” which is how the text itself identifies its author. So, although all four Gospels are based upon eyewitness testimony, only the Fourth claims that the eyewitness is himself the primary author of the text. Yet there might be a second Gospel composed by an eyewitness, at least in part.
There is a very curious feature in the Passion account of St. Mark, which we hear this Palm Sunday.
There is a very curious feature in the Passion account of St. Mark, which we hear this Palm Sunday. It appears to be a snatch of remembrance. One so personal, so vivid and so shame-filled that it could only have come from the person who had had the actual experience.
We have long known that Mark’s was the first Gospel to be composed. He essentially invented the genre. Matthew and Luke took Mark’s text as a starting point, adding or subtracting material in accordance with their own unique sources and perspectives. Together, these three are called synoptic Gospels because if you line-up their three narratives in comparative columns, you can see that they concur much more than they differ. And it is the differences that tell us so much about the individual perspective of the evangelists.
The church cycles through the three synoptic Gospels, reading each of them every three years on Palm Sunday. The only difference noted by most of us is that Matthew’s Passion is the longest and that Mark’s is the shortest. Like his Gospel in general, John’s passion narrative starts from a different perspective and often diverges from the others. This is the Passion that we read each and every Good Friday.
“Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.”
Here is the curious feature of Mark’s Passion, the one so personal, so vivid and so shameful. It is in the garden scene, just after the eruption of violence when a bystander “drew his sword, struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his ear” (14:47). We hear:
And they all left him and fled.
Now a young man followed him
wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body.
They seized him,
but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked (14:50-52).
The Gospels are of one voice about his male followers abandoning Jesus. A fact that speaks both to their veracity and to the likelihood of them being second-generation accounts. It is shameful to admit that the church abandoned its Lord—but that is what you have to do if you want to tell the truth. It is made a little easier if it was the first generation of believers that failed him, not your own.
But who is the unnamed, young follower of Jesus? He is seized in what we would call his underwear, and he gladly leaves it behind, running away naked, in great fear of his life. It is such a personal detail. The sort of thing that only an eyewitness—more than an eye-witness—the principal actor himself, one still suffering from the shame of it, would remember. Is that why Matthew and Luke excise the passage? Is it too personal, more like an individual confession that does nothing to move their own stories forward?
It is not our failure that matters most. It is Christ’s strength.
This might mean that the author of Mark’s Gospel, at least of this scene, is the young man who was there that night and who must remember, in all the years that follow, the personal shame of knowing that he himself abandoned his Lord in the decisive moment. He was found wanting. His naked, young body was not the only thing laid bare that night. So was the depth of his discipleship.
But now an older, more committed disciple tells us the story of that night. He recalls his searing shame because he wants to give witness to the triumph of grace. He wants to share two truths with subsequent generations of Christians.
First, he wants us not to take our discipleship for granted. We think that it is strong, but has it truly been tested? When it is put to the trial, are we so sure that we will not run, will not be equally exposed?
Second, he wants to address those who live with deep regrets about their past discipleship. (And that is so many of us!) He wants us to know that, if we have run, if we have been exposed for all the world to see, it is not our failure that matters most. It is Christ’s strength. We have been claimed by Christ. What we cannot accomplish by ourselves we can accomplish in him. Christ bravely bears witness to the truth. He freely sheds his blood on the wood of the cross. All that we must do, weak and fearful as we are, is to cling to him and to his cross.