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.