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The Messianic Secret in the Doctrine of Mark the Disciple

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Throughout the Gospel of Mark, and more prominently in this Gospel than in any other, we are presented with numerous points at which the identity and activity of Jesus is attempted be kept secret. Since the publication of Wrede’s ‘epoch-making[1]’ work on the subject, scholars have come to refer to the pervading sense of Jesus’ concealment using Wrede’s own term: ‘The Messianic Secret.’ However, though most do recognise that such an air of secrecy does prevail, there continues to be disagreement regarding the overall centrality of the messianic secret and the role which it fulfils in Mark. In this essay I will seek to sustain the line of argument that the sheer frequency with which secrecy is alluded to in the Gospel acts as a clear indication of the theme’s import for the writer. However, though we might be able to deduce that the notion is significant in some way, the specifics are highly ambiguous. When examining the theology of the gospel, we must call into question how far the messianic secret is a purposeful theological addition to the text, as opposed to simply a historical documentation or an inheritance of an idea or a collection of ideas from an earlier tradition. Where affirmation of the first of these options would potentially point to the centrality of the messianic secret to the overall theology of the Gospel, affirmation of the latter two would lessen the extent to which we could claim its theological importance.

Prior to engaging in an exploration of the significance of the Messianic secret to Mark’s Gospel, it is perhaps worth outlining the textual evidence we have for the notion of secrecy; it is clear from the number of references that secrecy is something which the writer of Mark deemed in need of reinforcement. As Strecker maintains, ‘The motif of the messianic secret appears very frequently in a variety of ways. This indicates that we should acknowledge the fundamental significance of the motif for the interpretation of the whole Gospel[2].’ It is also worth highlighting that Wrede’s coinage ‘The Messianic secret’ was not simply intended to denote aspects of secrecy which specifically refer to Messiaship, though this is what the term immediately implies; ‘the phrase ‘messianic secret’ has become a quasi-technical term to designate a cluster of phenomena in the Gospels, particularly in Mark. Neither ‘messianic’ nor ‘secret’ conveys precisely what Wrede intended, he used ”messianic” not only to connote messiahship strictly defined but as a general term to designate Jesus’ religious status as a divine being or person endowed by God with transcendent power, and Geheimnis has the connotation of “mystery” as well as “secret”.[3]’ The diverse ways in which claims about Jesus are silenced in the Gospel are often categorized for ease of referral; for example, the category of commands to silence directed towards anyone who recognises Jesus’ identity. In these cases, Jesus himself takes the initiative to actively keep his identity disclosed[4]. For instance, we are told that Jesus ‘cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him[5].’ We see this silencing of the demons again at 3:12. Jesus seeks discretion from those he has healed; for example, after the raising of Jairus’ daughter, ‘ He strictly ordered them that no one should know this.[6]’ Commands of this nature can be seen at 1.43-45, 7.36, and 8.26, Jesus demands the silence of the disciples at 8.30 and 9.9. In addition to these numerous explicit demonstrations of the secrecy theme, we can see Mark suggesting Jesus’ desire for privacy when he retreats from the crowd to teach the disciples in isolation (4.34; 7.17-23; 9.28; 8.31; 9.31; 10.32-34; 13.3), an implicit suggestion of mystery and concealment. Jesus’ wish for privacy becomes manifest elsewhere in the text also; Boring refers to the notion of the ‘Incognito Christ’: ‘The Markan Jesus seeks privacy; he wills to remain unknown and unrecognized. After the “day of the Lord” of 1:21-34, when everyone was seeking him, Jesus avoids publicity and goes elsewhere (1:35-38). This pattern is repeated (6:31-32, 7:24, 9:28-32)[7].’ Many would also see Jesus’ speaking in parables as a method through which to prevent understanding of his teaching. It is clear, then, that the idea of secrecy is one well established within the text, it is clearly of some significance to the writer of Mark. The nature of this significance however, has been widely debated.

Prior to the work of Wrede, and indeed, after it, many critics of Mark’s Gospel believed an historical reading of the text was the obvious approach; as Tuckett notes, ‘the earlier studies of Holtzmann and others had convinced the majority of scholars of the literary priority of Mark’s Gospel. However, this was then often taken as an indication of Mark’s historical reliability[8].’ Under this interpretation, he question with regards to secrecy became a question of the reasons why the historical Jesus might have wanted to conceal his identity. A popular conclusion was that Jesus understood his own Messiahship very differently to the way he believed others would; he concealed his identity in an attempt to escape the misinterpretation of the term which would inevitably follow. Jesus’ contemporaries might have understood Jesus’ Messiahship as a political one, a ‘claim to political kingship.[9]’ Forbidding the Messianic proclamation until after his death and resurrection would signal that Jesus was not this earthly, political Messiah[10]. Many recognised a gradual disclosure of Jesus’ Messiahship which allowed for the correct interpretation of his role to slowly develop. It is not difficult to imagine other practical motives behind Jesus’ secrecy; the crowds, for example, might have become burdensome- we can already see this flagged as a slight issue earlier on in the text (3:9). Alternatively, we might envisage Jesus not wanting to detract attention from his preaching about God which Messianic claims might have done.

However, the problems with this historical line are evident. Firstly, as Hooker points out, the historical approach does not explain why Jesus would want to confuse his disciples regarding his understanding of his Messiahship. In addition, the approach presumes the reality of ‘unclean spirits’ and, further, presumes that witnesses to Jesus’ exorcisms would not notice the Messianic proclamations of these spirits[11]. In addition, it mustn’t be forgotten that the messianic secret is a purely Markan addition- Jesus’ identity is proclaimed freely throughout the other Gospels. Matthew and Luke, for example, depict magi and angels as identifying Jesus right at the beginning of their Gospels[12]. The Fourth Gospel explicitly rejects notions of secrecy, Jesus claims he has ‘spoken openly to the world…I have said nothing in secret[13].’ Wrede rejected the historical approach entirely claiming that conclusions about the historical Jesus from Mark had been drawn to too hastily; ‘the key had to be sought in the thought-world of Mark, not in the history of Jesus[14].’

Wrede, himself, took on an entirely new approach to the idea of secrecy in the Gospel. He viewed all of the various strands of secrecy within the text as a whole and concluded that the idea stemmed entirely from Mark’s tradition. He noted that the early church recognised that Jesus had been made Messiah by God at his resurrection; his life was not considered to be Messianic. Only later in the history of the tradition, did the belief start to emerge that Jesus’ life had been Christological. Wrede concludes that the messianic secret was, therefore, a ‘transitional idea and it can be characterised as the after-effect of the view that the resurrection is the beginning of the messiahship at a time when the life of Jesus was already being filled materially with messianic content. Or else it proceeded from the impulse to make the earthly life of Jesus messianic, but one inhibited by the older view, which was still potent[15].’ So, if one were to adopt Wrede’s viewpoint, to what extent could we claim that the notion of the messianic secret was theologically important to the Gospel? We can, at least, claim that this viewpoint allows more room for secrecy having theological significance than the historical approach; if the events were simply an historical account of real events, then we perhaps cannot claim any amount of theological interpretation for the Gospel. But, if Mark’s ideas stemmed from the brewing Christologies around him, then we can perhaps only claim that the secrecy theme is either an attempt to appease these different Christian groups or an attempt to represent them. Would we regard this is a solid theology? ‘ The idea of Mark as an independent theologian is not entertained by Wrede at all[16].’

However, many have found fault with Wrede’s rather uncomfortable interpretation. Hooker, for example, notes that Jesus was put to death as a ‘Messianic pretender[17]’; questions about his messiahship must already have been being asked even if Jesus was reluctant to answer them. She maintains that ‘Jesus acted with authority and believed himself to have been commissioned by God: it is difficult not to use the term ‘messianic’ to describe such authority[18].’ Furthermore, she notes that had the church intended to put forth a messianic interpretation, something clearer than the messianic secret would have emerged. Aside, from Wrede’s view, however, others have put forth reasons for the secrecy theory which stem more from an agenda than a theological approach. For example, the apologetic interpretation regards the messianic secret to be a Markan technique to explain the reasons why Jesus was rejected by the Jews. If it could be claimed that Jesus was intending to keep his messiahship concealed e.g. through speaking in parables, then it is more understandable that he wasn’t more embraced.

If we were to assert that the messianic secret was central to the theology of the gospel, we would have to argue that it did in fact have a theological purpose, that it was intended to communicate something Christologically about Jesus. In order for this to be asserted, I think one would maybe have to view the messianic secret as a narrative device. When read in the light of this interpretation, numerous potential narrative reasons for the inclusion of the secrecy theme begin to emerge. However, it is often necessary with this approach to view the instances of secrecy as separate events in place for separate reasons, as opposed to a Wrede-like notion that they all serve the same purpose. Many have noted that the theme of secrecy could potentially be a technique utilized by Mark in order to illustrate how amazed Jesus’ contemporaries were by his miraculous actions; it is often the case that even after being explicitly commanded to act with discretion, Jesus’ followers simply cannot help but proclaim what they have experienced. With regards to Jesus talking in parables, it has been suggested that this, being the only way in which humans would understanding Jesus’ teachings, expressed the ‘fundamental inaccessibility of God: only in a parable, only in a picture can we comprehend him at all, not in direct speech[19].’ It could also potentially be suggested that the messianic secret helps to establish a reliance or trust in the disciples’ preaching about Jesus, since they were privately taught by him. As Boring notes, ‘Despite his focus on the cross and resurrection, continuity with “the life and teaching of Jesus” is important for Mark. The community can rely on the revelation that has been mediated to it by the apostles. This, too, is an aspect of the messianic secret[20].’ Perhaps, also, it might be the case that Mark is attempting to remain true to the historical events of Jesus’ life whilst independently telling the reader that he is and was the Messiah; this arguably establishes a dramatic irony which enables Mark to tell the story of Jesus safe in the knowledge that the reader is aware of Jesus’ messianic identity. This would explain, for example, the silencing of the demons.

It is clear that throughout Mark’s Gospel, we are presented with numerous instances of secrecy regarding Jesus’ identity and a sense of mystery surrounding his teaching. The frequency of these occurrences is enough to assert in a very general way that the concept of secrecy was important to the writer of Mark. However, beyond this broad assertion, the specifics are rather ambiguous. I think that when examining the theology of the gospel, we must call into question the extent to which the messianic secret is a purposeful theological addition to the text, as opposed to simply a historical documentation or an inheritance of a collection of ideas from Mark’s contemporary audience. The adoption of any of these options would alter how we view the Messianic secret and its fundamental centrality to the theology of the Gospel of Mark.

[1] Georg Strecker, The Theory of the Messianic Secret in Mark’s Gospel, in The Messianic Secret, C. Tuckett (ed.) P.49 [2] ibid. p.53 [3] Boring, M. Eugene. Mark. Louisville, KY, USA: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. [4] ibid. [5] Mark 1:34 [6] Mark 5:43 [7] Boring, M. Eugene. Mark. Louisville, KY, USA: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. [8] Christopher Tuckett, The Problem of the Messianic Secret, in The Messianic Secret, C. Tuckett (ed.) [9] Morna Hooker, The Gospel according to St. Mark [10] Boring, M. Eugene. Mark. Louisville, KY, USA: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. [11] Morna Hooker, The Gospel according to St. Mark [12] Boring, M. Eugene. Mark. Louisville, KY, USA: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. [13] John 18:20 [14] H. Raisanen, The Messianic Secret in Mark’s Gospel [15] William Wrede, The Messianic Secret, p.229 [16] H. Raisanen, The Messianic Secret in Mark’s Gospel [17] Morna Hooker, The Gospel according to St. Mark [18] ibid. [19] Eduard Schweizer, The Question of the Messianic secret in Mark, in Messianic Secret, C. Tuckett (ed.) [20] Boring, M. Eugene. Mark. Louisville, KY, USA: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web.

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