Secrecy Elements in Mark; A Fresh Look at the ‘Messianic Secret’ in Mark’s Gospel

Introduced by Wrede in 1901 in his Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien,[1] the idea of Jesus’ “Messianic Secret” has had far-reaching implications and applications in the field of biblical studies. While taken by Wrede to bespeak a later development of the messiahship of Jesus (a messiahship not held by Jesus himself according to Wrede[2]), the notion of a Messianic secret has been developed far beyond this, with its primary benefit being that it has opened up the important consideration of a motif of secrecy in Mark. This form of the ‘Messianic Secret’ is one that has Jesus holding his identity as Messiah in reserve, not announcing it openly, requesting a silence regarding some of his miracles, and not allowing his identity to be revealed by those who seemed to know of it (namely the demonic forces as in 1:34, 3:11-12, etc).

That Jesus wished his identity or deeds to remain quiet is certainly clear from scripture. Jesus did command demons to be quiet and he did command silence regarding some of his miracles. Morna Hooker notes, “Secrecy and disclosure are a theme which pervades the whole of Mark’s gospel.”[3] Whether this amounts to a pervasive ‘Messianic secret’ motif in Mark, however, is (though widely assumed today) still debatable and could still stand a little closer scrutiny and perhaps revision. It is this scrutiny and nascent thoughts of revision that will be explored here.

Let us begin with the scrutiny. First, to apply the term ‘Messianic secret’ to all the instances of secrecy in Mark would be a misnomer, or maybe better, a ‘miscategorization.’ Strictly speaking, the only time that a command to secrecy accompanies any mention of ‘Messiah’ occurs in 8:30 when Jesus acknowledges his he identity as Messiah and then quickly “charged them to tell no one about him.” This is the only time is secrecy linked with Jesus’ messiahship; with the demons, it is connected with him as being the Holy one of God (Mk 1:24), the Son of God (3:11, 5:7), or just because “they knew him” (1:34). The commands of silence to demonic forces do appear closely linked with Jesus’ identity, though not specifically with his identity as ‘Messiah.’ Other instances of injunctions to secrecy accompany instances of healings in which Jesus commands the healed to tell no one of what has been done (1:43-45, 5:43, 7:36, and 8:26). Wrede still calls these “injunctions to keep the Messianic secret,”[4] even though there is no apparent messianic revelation in these passages. So when one examines all of the cases of secrecy in Mark and their particular settings, they will see that the injunction to secrecy is not consistently (or often) linked with the idea of Jesus’ identity as Messiah.

Further inconsistency appears when it is noticed that Jesus did not always command the healed to silence, nor did he silence demons who spoke accurately of his identity. After the crossing of the sea in chapter four, Jesus and his disciples are met once again by a demon possessed man, and again the demons identify him as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” (5:7). However, at this point, though it says that Jesus rebuked the demons, it does not explicitly say that he commanded silence from them. If a strict messianic secret motif was Mark’s intent, it appears that he missed an opportunity to again show Jesus’ reticence to have his identity revealed. Here, however, no such command to secrecy is issued. Rather, actually, Jesus commands the healed man to “Go… and tell…” (5:19). Regarding instance of healings, of the fourteen individual healings recorded in Mark, only four receive commands to be silent concerning them (1:44, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26).[5] Again, missed opportunities to secrecy. Mark, then, does not appear to be consistent in this theme others have foisted upon him. Donahue and Harrington said it well: “What are often lumped together under the heading ‘messianic secret’ are quite disparate phenomena.”[6]

What, then, might be the true purpose of these commands to secrecy? Wrede himself acknowledged that “nowhere is a motive expressed for these instructions.”[7] Hooker posits that one such motive for the messianic secret is that it may have been presented as an apologetic for a lack of recognition of Jesus as Messiah – by both the disciples and the Jewish leaders.[8] She also notes that it may arise from a desire to conceal his messiahship “for fear that it would have been misunderstood as a claim to political kingship.”[9] With this sentiment, we begin to move into the territory of exploring our own thoughts of revision regarding the motive behind the instances of  the supposed messianic secret.

To begin with, even the elementary exegete will notice that in many of these encounters, other motivations for the secrecy are quite plausible. For instance, post-healing commands to secrecy are often seen in the context of ministry, in which shortly after the healing or revelation of his work, Jesus is unable to enter the city (1:45), or the environment around his ministry has become incredibly crowded (2:2; 3:9-10, which is also linked with the motif of secrecy in vv. 11-12). So it’s quite possible that these particular instances are not connected in any way to the messianic secret, but the request of secrecy is simply for the practical application of ministry.

Perhaps most poignant is the account of the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-44 in which Jesus heals the leper and then commands him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest.” However, it says, the leper “went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, to that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town” (45). At the beginning of verse 45, we see the disjunctive use of the conjunction, δὲ, and how it draws a contrast between the command and the man’s actions. It is then followed in the same sentence by the resultative conjunction, ὥστε, showing the “outcome or consequence of an action,”[10] in this case the result of the man’s inability to remain silent was that Jesus could no operate as freely in ministry. The command, followed by the disobedience, then followed by the result seems to draw the reader’s mind to the result and conclusion of the matter, showing their relation, rather than to speak of any desire to keep his identity from being made known. Mark, it appears, gives us Jesus’ motivation in this passage. Shortly after this, and perhaps in relation to it, Mark says that when it was reported that Jesus was in the area, “Many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door” (2:2). Thusly, that Jesus’ motive was to conceal his messiahship is not directly evident from the text and its context; that the revelation of miracles was a hindrance to his ministry is. We may wish to side more ardently with the latter.

Another interesting possibility for some instances of requested secrecy is Jesus’ desire to forestall people from seeking a set pattern for their healing. We see this possibility presented together in context with 7:24-30 (with the secret in v. 24), 7:32-37 (secret in v. 36), and 8:22-26 (secret in 23, 26). In the first instance, a Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus for healing of her daughter but is turned away until she presses Jesus for healing. While there are many applications that can be drawn from this passage, one perhaps consists of Jesus’ desire to see her push forward in genuine faith rather than a set method or assumption. A key to this might lie, perhaps (if you’ll allow me to step outside our Markan scope), in Matthew 15:22 when we see the woman call Jesus the “Son of David.” How does this non-Jewish woman know to address Jesus as the Son of David if she is not a Jew? Assuming that she is not a Jewish convert schooled in the Torah (an assumption, granted), she likely heard this from others begging Jesus’ hand of healing (e.g. Mark 10:47-48). Therefore, rather than pressing in on her own in genuine fashion, she appeals to patterns she has seen from others. Jesus moves to break her of this pattern in a search for genuine faith. In 7:32-37, a deaf man is brought to Jesus and those who brought him “begged him to lay his hand on him” (32), again observing the way Jesus had healed others and seeking that same pattern (Mark 5:23, 6:5, 8:23). Jesus, however, takes the man aside (a secrecy element according to Wrede[11]) and heals him in a most unorthodox manner, breaking, it seems, any previous pattern that had been observed. Then, finally, in 8:22-26, a blind man is brought to him and those bringing him “begged him to touch him” (22). Jesus then takes this man aside as well, creates mud with spittle, and proceeds to heal the man, with another apparent command for secrecy. But again, we see Jesus performing a healing in an unorthodox manner, outside of the people’s requests and outside of the previous pattern of healing. Again, while a greater observation may be drawn from this passage (particularly the progressive aspect of this man’s healing in comparison with the disciples’ progressive understanding of Jesus’ identity), the point still stands that there very well may be other valid reasons for Jesus’ secret actions and imperatives.

One final potential revision to the messianic secret to be explored here is the idea (mentioned parenthetically above) that the secret was withheld from the disciples for the purpose of gradual and progressive development. Wrede writes that “there can be no doubt about it that [Mark’s] objective was indeed to describe and demonstrate Jesus as God’s Son through what he wrote,”[12] and I believe we see this objective, description, and demonstration gradually and increasingly played out throughout the story. This is where I agree with Wrede’s assertion that “we are not to suppose that the narrative here is telling us so much about a moment in the life of the disciples as that it is telling us what Jesus is and yet cannot be in public.”[13] This revelation of Jesus’ identity as Messiah and Son of God is an identity that cannot be revealed in its fullness without some development of the idea (and the disciples) first. Hooker sums up the messianic secret in how Jesus’ identity is “deliberately concealed from the characters of the story,”[14] but I want to take it a step further to say that his identity was deliberately concealed for its development. This, I believe, is the main impetus behind the messianic secret.

Why would this idea need development for the disciples? For two reasons: to correct their misunderstandings and expectations of the plan and purpose of the Messiah, and, having torn down the edifice of their preconceptions, to lay a new foundation of understanding and to give to them a revelation of what the Messiah was to truly be. Tannehill pays particular attention to the development of Jesus’ disciples, to their “failure to identify Jesus correctly,”[15] and to their progression as disciples who seek to ascertain who Jesus is. The Messianic Secret is to be revealed to the disciples as they, themselves, are developed – once he has corrected their misunderstanding about who Messiah is to be. Even in the great confession of Peter, in which he professes Jesus to be the Messiah, we still see the disciples’ lack of understanding quickly follow. In Peter’s rebuke of Jesus, who had just announced a key element to his ultimate role and purpose of the Messiah (death), we see “the conflict between the desires, expectations, and actions of the disciples and the authoritative instruction of Jesus.”[16] For these disciples to understand who he is, and for them to join him in him mission, he must slowly reveal to them his messiahship while at the same time shaping their understanding of who the Messiah was to truly be.

So then, might the ‘messianic secret’ actually be a purposeful and calculated unfolding of Jesus’ identity, perhaps through his displays of authority? I believe this can be answered in the affirmative and this is an idea that I hope to flesh out in the near future. As for now, and across the board of scholarly hypotheses, “Perhaps Luz had it right more than thirty years ago: the messianic secret is still a mystery.”[17]

 

—–

[1] William Wrede, Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1901); tr: J.C.G. Greig, The Messianic Secret (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1971).

[2] Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus, 303

[3] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 68. Emphasis mine.

[4] Wrede, 34.

[5] Admittedly, many of the other healings occur in public view, thus rendering an injunction nonsensical.

[6] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 71.

[7] Wrede, 37.

[8] Hooker, 69.

[9] Ibid, 67.

[10] Daniel B. Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 301.

[11] Wrede explores this idea of location as pertaining to the messianic secret in pp 132-136.

[12] Wrede, 126.

[13] Ibid, 119; emphasis mine.

[14] Hooker, 20.

[15] Robert C. Tannehill, “The Disciples in Mark: The Function of a Narrative Role,” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Oct., 1977), pp. 386-405, p. 400.

[16] Ibid., 401-402.

[17] Gregg S. Morrison, The Turning Point in the Gospel of Mark: A Study in Markan Christology (Cambridge: James Clark & Co., 2015), 213 citing Luz, “Secrecy Motif and Marcan Christology,” ZNW 56 (1965) 9-30.

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