Manuel Villalobos Mendoza – « Masculinity undone »

Manuel Villalobos Mendoza – « Masculinity undone: Reading Mark 14.51–52 from  el otro lado »

1. Introduction

For biblical scholars, it is almost an obligation nowadays to ‘come out’ in the biblical field in order to disclose their social location. In my situation, I have resisted the temptation to describe myself as Latino or Hispanic due to the ambiguity of both terms. Thus, I have created a hermeneutic which may embrace my ‘otherness’ as well as my denied existence due to my race, economical situation and sexual orientation. In Mexico people that deviate from heteronormative practices and are incapable to perform correctly a ‘toxic masculinity’ are mercilessly situated into the non-existence of el otro lado (‘the other side’). Consequently, my hermeneutic is called a hermeneutic del otro lado.

I have described elsewhere how this hermeneutic del otro lado privileges questions and voices of otherness, masculinity, marginality, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, ethnicity, economics, and the borderland in the biblical text and my biblical interpretation.[1] Some of these concerns will be obvious in my approach to Mark 14.51–52, where the author narrates a very rare scene during Jesus’ arrest: ‘A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked’ (NRSV).

In this article, I am primarily concerned with how Mark exposes this young man to our gaze and situates him in a dangerous arena where conflicting issues of masculinity are present. I do not attempt any assessment of textual historicity here. My interpretation del otro lado does not care if this young man was a historical character or a creation of the author.

I am concerned in this article how the textual construction of this young man’s masculinity may challenges other textual constructions of masculinity in the Greco-Roman culture of the first century, contemporary to Mark’s gospel. Thus, I use the categories of ‘virile’ and ‘effeminate’ as they were understood in the Greco-Roman culture of the first century. These categories do not necessarily reflect our own understanding nowadays of ‘masculinity’. 

In antiquity (as today?), to be a ‘real man’ (verus vir) was understood primarily in terms of the relationship of power between penetrator and penetrated. A ‘real man’ was the one who penetrates another body, whether a female, a boy, an ‘effeminate’ man, or a slave.[2] The rule of masculinity thus was simple and well demarcated: to penetrate another and never be penetrated. In this struggle of power and dominance, the Romans saw themselves as the ‘impenetrable penetrators’;[3] the others were just the opposite, the shameful, the abjected, and the effeminate body.

If these were the rules regarding masculinity and ‘being a real man’ in antiquity, I wonder why Mark 14.51 depicts a young man running naked in the middle of the night? Is this the proper behavior of a verus vir, as constructed in Mark’s Greco-Roman context? What is the relationship of this young man with Jesus? Is Mark’s community subverting or redefining the notion of masculinity of their contemporary society? What might be the implications for us today, especially for all those who have suffered from a ‘toxic’ masculinity? These are some of the questions I will address in this article.

[1] Manuel Villalobos Mendoza, When Men Were Not Men: Masculinity and Otherness in the Pastoral Epistles, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014, p. 12.

[2] Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 180. 

[3] Jonathan Walters, ‘Invading the Roman Body: Manliness and Impenetrability in Roman Thought’, in Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner (eds.), Roman Sexualities, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 32.