The Messianic Secret in Mark’s Gospel

The Gospel of Mark may have been the first of the four Gospels that were written, sometime between 48 and 60 A.D.    Mark’s Gospel, which is the shortest, overlaps with Matthew’s Gospel about 90% of the time.  Scholars disagree as to whether Mark was a source for Matthew’s longer Gospel, or whether Matthew was a source for Mark’s shorter Gospel.

The Roman historian Eusebius tells us that Mark traveled with Peter to Rome.  Mark then brought the Christian faith to the largest city on the North African coast – Alexandria, Egypt. Mark is considered the founder of the Orthodox church in Egypt.

Students of the Synoptic Gospels are familiar with the so-called “messianic secret” in Mark. The “messianic secret” is simply short-hand for Mark’s tendency to portray Jesus as telling his disciples “to tell no one” of his mighty works.  This theme is certainly not unique to Mark, but it occurs more frequently in Mark than it does in the other three Gospels.

In Mark 1:39-43, Jesus heals a leper.  In Mark 5:39-43, he raises Tabitha from the dead.  In Mark 7:32-36, Jesus heals a deaf man.  In Mark 8:20-26, he heals a blind man.  In each of these four cases, Jesus enjoins the faithful not to speak of the miracle.  After the Transfiguration, Jesus tells Peter, John and Andrew to say nothing of the event, in Mark 9:1-9. These pericopes are just a few examples of the “messianic secret,” there are perhaps another half dozen examples of this phenomena in Mark’s Gospel

There a couple of different theories that attempt to explain the “Messianic Secret.”

1. The first theory considers the situation behind the text: Jesus performed a public ministry, but did not encourage his disciples to publicize his work. Jesus preached in public, he taught in the synagogues, and he healed in the towns.  Even when Jesus tries to get away from the crowd and wanders into the Galilean countryside, he is followed by hundreds of people. Such is the case with the the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves.

Though Jesus preached and healed in public, he discouraged his disciples from advertising his ministry. The Gospels give us no evidence that Jesus encouraged his disciples to antagonize either the Roman occupiers of Judea, nor the Pharisees, with accounts of his preaching or miracle-work. Jesus is astute, and he does not want his followers needlessly harassed or punished, either by the Romans or the religious leaders, on his account. This is especially true prior to the Resurrection. As some have pointed out, Jesus reveals himself gradually, on his own terms and in his own time. He does not want his disciples to get ahead of him, and he wants the ability to move about the countryside without his disciples turning his ministry into a political or religious circus.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus performs miracles either to acknowledge the faith of a believer, or to to bestow an unmerited gift on a person.  Sometimes he performs these miracles in full view of the public, as he did when he healed the man with a withered hand in the synagogue, on the Sabbath. The Gospels also tell us that the work of Jesus on the Sabbath was especially controversial.  Nevertheless, Jesus performs miracles, albeit in a very discriminating manner.  He rewards those who demonstrate faith, and challenges the assumptions of his disciples who misunderstand or distort the Judaic law.

2. Rodney Reeves has a good treatment of the “messianic secret” here. Reeves suggests that there are at least a dozen instances where Jesus suggests that others keep silent or be reticent about discussing the nature of Jesus. Reeves argues that, in Mark’s Gospel, the revelation of Jesus as Messiah is a gradual process. This also happens to be the case in John’s Gospel, where the miracles progress from the mundane – water into wine – to the astonishing – the resurrection of Lazarus.

3. A visitor below argues that Mark’s own community suffered under a Roman persecution of Christians, so it might not be surprising that the idea of “secrecy,” or at the very least, caution, would emerge from Mark’s Gospel. In other words, the tendency to encounter in Mark the “secrecy” of the ministry of Jesus may reflect editorial concerns of Mark himself, and his community.

At the same time, Jesus is portrayed as impatient with those who insist that he turn his ministry into a magic show. Jesus will perform a healing on the Sabbath, if the need arises. But Jesus will perform neither a miracle nor a sign on demand.  In Luke 11:29, he says:

When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.

His impatience is most evident in, of all places, the Gospel of Mark (8:10-13).  Jesus, who is rarely cordial with the Pharisees, has this exchange with them:

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him.  And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.”  And he left them, and getting into the boat again he departed to the other side.

To summarize, Jesus does not perform miracles simply to satisfy those who doubt.   As that is the case, then the  “Messianic Secret” needs to be placed in context. What was secret was not the preaching of Jesus, nor his miracles. What was to be kept secret was the effect his ministry had on others. Jesus did not want his followers to draw inferences publicly (that he might be Messiah), as that would compound his own problems with the religious leadership of the day.

The overstatement of the idea of a Messianic Secret comes from the same academic bureaucracy that gave us the “two-source hypothesis,” and that spawned the Jesus Seminar: the German University system of the nineteenth century.  In the case of the “messianic secret,” this thesis is a project of William Wrede, who studied and taught at the University of Breslau between the Franco-German War and World War I.  Wrede, a scholar of scripture, wrote a book entitled Das Messias-geheimnis (Messianic Secret) in 1901.

Wrede was a faculty member at Breslau, in Prussia, at a time when it was not possible to remain a tenured faculty member and hold religious views that defended the faith.  Bismarck had, in 1872, prohibited Catholic clergy from teaching in the state-supported universities. Even the education of Catholic seminarians fell to Bismarck’s state-appointed instructors.

In the book the Messianic Secret, Wrede argues that Mark knew that Jesus was not the Messiah, but that Mark changed the history (along with Paul) to convince the growing Christian community that Jesus was the Messiah.  The text is an obvious anti-Christian polemic that parades as scriptural scholarship. The Scriptural scholar Raymond Brown, who is well-versed in historical critical scholaship, tells us that William Wrede, along with Albert Schweitzer, form the original “Quest for Jesus” team of academics.

Wrede and Schweitzer are an eccentric pair of scholars.    They are somewhat derisively called questers by scholars such as N.T. Wright.  Fortunately, Wrede and Schweitzer’s scholarship is declining in popularity.  Over the past fifteen years, the influence of bad historical-critical scholarship has given way to less ideologically-driven criticism, and other methods of scriptural analysis that are more respectful of the historicity of the Gospels.

That said, I should acknowledge that the theme of “discretion” is evident in Mark’s Gospel. But the explanation for this theme is more common-place than Wrede would have us believe.

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  1. I am sure much more can be said about the Messianic Secret. Mark’s Gospel, the first, was written at a time of initail persecution for the Christians and at a time of public humiliation for the Jews. It was important to emphasise caution in passing on information about the faith. Messiahship still contained political connotations that was never the purpose of Jesus but which appealed to his disciples. Jesus was the long awaited Messiah but his “Kingdom” was not the anticipated one. A fine balance was presented by Mark of the urgency of Jesus in establishing His reign but the need to conceal or underplay the ideals associated with him that were present around him.

    • Rev Jim.

      Thank you very much for your most welcome comments.

      Perhaps we should distinguish between two “Messianic Secrets”

      1. A thesis put forward by the turn-of-the-century scholar Wiliam Wrede, who suggests that Mark never believed Jesus to be the Son of God. His book is entitled, “Das Messias-geheimnis” (the Messianic Secret).

      2. Your comments, I believe refer to more mainstream scholarship. I went back and read Mary Healey’s commentary on Mark. She argues, based on the testimony of Papias, Clement of Alexandria, Polycarp, Irenaeus et.al. that Mark was an associate of Peter, and that Mark’s source for the Gospels may have been Peter.

      There are latinized terms in his Gospel, like “legion,” “praetorium,” “centurion,” and the term “good news” or “gospel.” Euaggelion is used 4 times in Matthew, 8 times in Mark, and most ironically, 10 times in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, of all places. Father Robert Barron has said that a “euaggelion” in the Roman world was a term used to mark a triumph. NT Wright has argued that the accesion of an emperor to the throne was a euaggelion, and that his arrival in a city was a parousia. Cicero uses the term euaggelion in his letters to Atticus. The Christians, some scholars argue, borrowed the latinized Greek term to refer to the good news, or victory, of the Resurrection.

      Based on this scholarship, many scholars surmise that Mark wrote during a time of persecution of Christians. I have not, personally, looked at Mark through this lens, though it is certainly possible.

      “TELL NO ONE’
      There is the question as to why Mark, on at least four occasions, inserts the term “tell no one” in situations where Jesus has either performed a miracle, or is noted to be a Holy One. Of course, Jesus likely asked his disciples to “tell no one” about his mighty works, as (Mark chapter 1 tells us) he drew crowds on the basis of his preaching and works alone: he did not need to advertise.

      I would agree with your comments that Jesus understood that if he pressed his case about the kingdom of God, he might antagonize the status quo. But this begs the question as to how a purported “messianic secret” fits into the general theology of the Gospels.

      In John’s gospel, Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd” and he distances himself from those who would assail the walls of the temple. In John’s Gospel, John heals a blind man. The blind man tells no one, but he is approached by neighbors who demand to know how it is that he has come to see. And then he ends up being brought before the Pharisees, along with his parents. The price of faith is, for the blind man, some humiliation before the leadership, and Jesus consoles him after the encounter.

      In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus insists on several occasions that passers-by, disciples, even demons “tell no one” of his work. The theology is the same in Mark as it is in John. Jesus cannot go about doing ministry if some openly advertise his works, and thereby antagonize the religious authority. Admittedly, in Mark the phrase “tell no one” occurs more often than in John. Ironically, it is safe to say that both John’s and Mark’s Gospel contain traces of evidence (though in neither case is it overt) that the community for which they write is persecuted.

      But Mark tells us in chapter 1 that the ministry of Jesus needed no promotion. Jesus attracted crowds simply by who he was and what he said and did. Jesus went about doing the legitimate business of healing and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. At the same time, he must have understood that this work would antagonize the religious leadership.

      Despite the risks involved, Jesus was willing to debate the pharisees and scribes. And he often did so in a manner that cannot be called “pastoral” or “diplomatic” or “secretive.” Jesus openly debated the pharisees, and he was quite scathing in his remarks, and he was critical of the example that they set. In this case, we see no secret at all: Jesus openly debated the religious leadership. The confrontation between Jesus and the religious leadership is a centerpiece of the latter half of Matthew’s Gospel.

      But in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus does discourage some people from promoting or advocating his case. I think it is fair to hypothesize, as you suggest, that Mark’s community may have been experiencing a persecution at the time Mark wrote his Gospel. Mary Healey, STD discusses this hypothesis at length in her commentary on Mark. Thus, Mark may have been sensitive to Jesus preaching in a like vein during his own time. After all, both Jesus and Mark’s community faced a Roman government that was nervous, to say the least, with the religious sentiments of those who hailed from the region where Pilate ruled in 30 c.e.

      At the same time, the Gospels do not tell us that the ministry of Jesus, prior to the Resurrection, is predicated on the martyrdom of his own followers. Jesus does not encourage his followers to openly confront any authority, either religious or political. In fact, the discourse in John chapter 10 tells his followers to “keep calm and carry on.” Jesus needs them as witnesses to the events of the Passion. Thus Jesus says, “tell no one”… for the time being.

      After the Resurrection, Jesus tells his Apostles quite the opposite: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every living creature” (Mk 16:15). Thus we see the hypothetical Marcan secret “turned on its head.” Of the twelve apostles, eleven will face the same fate as Jesus. But their time will come – after the Resurrection.

      William Wrede coined the term “messianic secret,” and in that text, he argues that Mark distorted the historical record and that Mark never believed Jesus to be divine. As Catholics, we certainly do not subscribe to such beliefs, and therefore, good judgment asks us to avoid muddying the waters with scholarship with a distinctly anti-Christian bias. Wrede’s work is currently considered an historical oddity, even among defenders of historical criticism.

      Having said that, yes I think we can ask ourselves why, in fact, Mark tells some to “tell no one” of his works. Perhaps the term ‘messianic secret’ overstates the case.

      Thank you very much for your comment, I apologize if I have not properly represented your views.

      Justin

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