Manuel Villalobos Mendoza – « Masculinity undone »

4. I have nothing to wear

Not only is the young man’s performance of masculinity threatened by his age and his dress, but Mark also depicts him as losing his clothes and thus even this precarious hold on a normative performance of masculinity. For ancient Jews, male nakedness meant exposure of the penis, and it was considered an offense before God.[7] We are misled if we assume that Greco-Roman culture was more liberal regarding male nudity – quite the contrary. Some philosophers described the body as ‘clothing’ (Seneca the Younger, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, 66.3; Epictetus, The Discourse, 1.25.21; Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, 10.1) so that death was unclothing (Philo, Allegorical Interpretation, 2.56.). In addition, ‘nakedness was associated in the ancient Mediterranean with poverty, death, defeat, and pollution.’[8] Public nakedness could cause shame (as in Juvenal, Satires, 1.71; Plutarch, Roman Questions, 40; Plutarch, Moralia, 274A), even in the public bath, which was one of the rare sites in which the elite body was disrobed and thus the vulnerability of being penetrated was a constant threat.[9] There was never a guarantee that somebody’s eyes would not desoul one’s naked body: Tacitus tells us that Emperor Tiberius denounced Piso for displaying Germanicus’s naked corpse to the public for the crowd to ‘handle’ or ‘violate with their eyes’ (Annales, 3.12). ‘Toxic shaming occurred any time, any instant, when one sensed that there was not inhibition in the eye of others, when the eyes of others would violate and consume.’[10] Thus, for Greco-Roman culture the exposure of the male naked body was both an occasion for shame and an invitation to be emasculated by the gaze of others.

In my book Abject Bodies in the Gospel of Mark[11], I demonstrated how the Romans believed that there was force and power in the act of gazing. In this culture, the one who gazes emerged as an active subject and the one who is gazed upon, becomes a passive object. In this struggle of power, a manly man could ‘penetrate’ another body without actually possessing it. The man who was gazed upon felt penetrated by the gaze; even though his body was physically intact, he could feel dispossessed of his masculinity, degraded and humiliated for being treated like a ‘woman’.

If a ‘manlier eye’ could violate and consume a naked male body in antiquity, we can understand the uneasiness of some biblical scholars regarding the neaniskos’s public nudity. Some scholars, for instance Adela Yarbo Collins, clothe the naked body of the neaniskos too soon when affirming: ‘the young man would be wearing a light, upper garment over his underwear.’[12] According to Donahue and Harrington, this happens in order to render less problematic the young man’s non-normative nakedness: ‘Some argue that the young man had some clothing on underneath the sindōn (underwear), though that suggestion seems only to be softening the shame that the young man will experience.’[13] 

Robert J. Myles also sharply criticizes those who rush to dress the neaniskos’s shameful naked body: ‘Yet we seem blinded from recognizing such insults because the youth’s nakedness gets covered up by safer scholarly discourses about eye-witness verification, angels, and ambiguous symbols for discipleship. The reign of homophobia and heteronormativity implicit within our hermeneutical filters inhibits the many possibilities of meaning-making with the biblical text.’[14] But Mark emphasizes the neaniskos’s naked body and describes him as fleeing totally naked into the darkness of the night. Thus, we should avoid the temptation to clothe him only to fit social norms.

Mark accentuates the neaniskos’s naked body when he writes that he wears a soft linen cloth epi gymnou (literally, ‘over naked’), and then tells us that he fled naked. As Gundry correctly puts it: ‘Because the linen cloth was on his naked body, the young man fled stark naked when leaving the linen cloth in the clutches of his would-be captors.’[15] I have shown elsewhere[16] how Mark exposed Jesus’s naked body to be gazed upon which subordinated Jesus not just to the power of the soldiers, but also to other ‘manlier’ men who look at his nakedness. Here, Mark seems to do the same with the neaniskos. We are invited to look upon this naked body which is fully exposed to the ‘razor sharp eyes’[17] of the manlier soldiers, and is exposed, passively and vulnerably, for our own (dis)pleasure.

It has become the accepted view that a certain group of viri militaris existed among the legates who governed the consular military provinces in the Roman Empire. Yet in order to become these honorable manly men, the soldiers must know how to use the sword in the battlefield, and fight until death with courage. In one of Plato’s dialogue we read of Socrates asking his friend Laches the ‘manly’ question: ‘Try then if you can tell me, Laches, what courage is’, and Laches responds: ‘Whoever keeps his place in the rank, repels the enemy, and does not run away, is a courageous man’ (Laches, 190E). Thus, the neaniskos, surrounded by the night and running naked among the ‘manlier soldier’, is a vulnerable body. As I argue above, clothing is inextricably linked with one’s personality: ‘it has the body’s general shape, and it acts in many ways as a second skin, a protective barrier impervious to pain, like hair or toenails, a helpful reinforcement of the body’s boundaries.’[18] In the ancient world, clothing could raise or reduce someone’s personality or status. Mark’s description of the young man as running away makes him appear vulnerable and renders his naked body desirable and available to be penetrated by ‘the razor sharp eyes’ of the soldiers. 

The neaniskos’s nakedness in Mark anticipates the shameful death that Jesus is going to suffer by the hands of the manlier soldiers. Both the neaniskos’s and Jesus’s nakedness show their vulnerability and precariousness as no-bodies. The neaniskos’s nakedness and Jesus’s naked and crucified body enter into an ethical bond of unmanliness, shame, and pollution. Through this parallel, Mark’s Jesus debunks heteronormative discipleship so that the impure, the poor, the sick, and the effeminate could follow Jesus.

[7] Michael L. Satlow, ‘Jewish Constructions of Nakedness in Late Antiquity’, Journal of Biblical Literature, 116.3 (1997), 431.

[8] Erin Vearncombes, ‘Cloaks, Conflict, and Mark 14:51-52’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 75.4 (2013), 693.

[9] Shadi Bartsch, The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006, p. 159.

[10] Carlin Barton, ‘Being in the Eyes. Shame and Sight in Ancient Rome’, in David Fredrick (ed.), The Roman Gaze: Vision, Power, and the Body, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, p. 223. 

[11] Manuel Villalobos Mendoza, Abject Bodies in the Gospel of Mark, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012, p. 127.

[12] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007, p. 688.

[13] Donahue and Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, p. 417.

[14] Robert J. Myles, ‘Dandy Discipleship: A Queering of Mark’s Male Disciples’, Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality, 4.2 (2010), 77.

[15] Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993, p. 882.

[16] Villalobos, Abject Bodies, p.146.

[17] Barton, ‘Being in the Eyes’, p. 225. 

[18] Nicole Wilkinson-Duran, The Power of Disorder: Ritual Elements in Mark’s Passion Narrative, London: T. & T. Clark, 2008, p. 92.