Manuel Villalobos Mendoza – « Masculinity undone »

2. Young and beautiful?: Masculinity at risk!

Mark describes him as neaniskos (young man). This term will appear again in Mark 16.5, where the young man appears wearing a long white robe and explains to the women why Jesus’s body is not found in the tomb. It is interesting that in their obsession to reveal the historical identity of this enigmatic young naked man, scholars have paid little attention to issues of masculinity which, from my hermeneutic del otro lado are so evident and attractive. Biblical scholars have offered a plethora of interpretations about this young man:

‘Some regard him as real historical figure, one of Jesus’ own disciples (John the son of Zebedee, James the Lord’s brother, or John Mark, understood to be the evangelist himself), or a curious neighbor aroused from sleep who gets swept up into the confusion surrounding the arrest. Others take the “naked man” to be an angel (see 16:5), a symbol for Jesus himself, or even a symbol for the Christian undergoing baptismal initiation.’[4]

The identity of the neaniskos has not been – and likely will never be – resolved. And yet, Mark invites us to gaze upon this young naked body and challenges us to reflect whether he could be judged a verus vir or should be classified as a deviant effeminatus. The text, while short, offers several indicators that raise this question, especially when read on the background of other textual constructions of masculinity in antiquity.

Greek writers use the term neaniskos to describe a man who is at the height of youthful vigor and strength. The term neaniskos is a flexible category that could refer to a young man between 24 and 40 years old. Being a neaniskos was (is?) not an easy age for the veri viri, because they could easily lose their virility and suffer from the unmanly disease of effemination due to their emotional instability and other ‘womanish’ forms of behavior. The young men, who in some contexts are portrayed as vigorous, beautiful, and bursting with sex-appeal, can also be viewed, by older men, as willful, greedy, ambitious, sex-crazed, and emotionally unstable. For moralists, philosophers, and rhetoricians, these characteristics and behaviors are unbecoming to men and render the young men ‘effeminate’: 

‘Look at our young men: they are lazy, their intellects asleep; no one can stay awake to take pain over a single honest pursuit. Sleep, torpor and a perseverance in evil that is more shameful than either have seized hold of their minds. Libidinous delight in song and dance transfixes these effeminates. Braiding the hair, refining the voice till it is as caressing as a woman’s, competing in bodily softness with women, beautifying themselves with filthy fineries – this is the pattern our youths set themselves’ (Seneca, Controversiae, 1 praefatio 8).

[4] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002, p.  417.