The Genius of the Gospel of Mark: The Messianic Secret

This is the fifth post in a series discussing literary features of the Gospel of Mark. You might first look at the Introduction, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

We live in a world that overshares. Social media allows us to broadcast our lives to the far reaches of the globe. However, what we share on social media is curated. We put our best foot forward. Somewhere deep down in our souls, we probably want to inspire jealousy in others. It is rare that someone willingly shares that which denigrates them. In a world where more of our lives are accessible, we still try to keep secrets. Some are dark while others are happy secrets. Expecting parents might keep the pregnancy under wraps for a little while. Sometimes you know of a job promotion before everyone else. Secrets are not universally bad or good. The Gospel of Mark has a secret (one that involves suffering but is ultimately good). On a number of occasions, Jesus attempts to keep his miraculous deeds a secret. It might seem curious at first, but Mark is using this secret motif to shape the reader’s idea of Jesus as Messiah.

Instances of the Secrecy Motif 

This messianic secret motif first appears in Mark 1:24. A man with an unclean spirit identifies Jesus as the “Holy One of God.” Jesus rebukes the spirit and orders silence. Later in Mark 1:34, the author finishes a summary statement with, “and he would not permit the demons to speak because they knew him.” The theme continues in Mark 3:11-12. Unclean spirits fall down before Jesus and confess that he is the “Son of God.” At this, Jesus “strictly ordered them to not make him known.” The demons were not confused; however, Jesus would not allow those demons to reveal his true identity and purpose.

The secret motif is also associated with miraculous healing. In Mark 1:40-45 Jesus heals a leper. After healing him, Jesus charges him to not speak openly about it and quietly present himself in the temple. Later in Mark 7:31-37, Jesus heals a deaf man and charges him to speak to no one (a command those present blatantly disregard). In Mark 8:22-26, Jesus tells the blind man he heals to not go back into the village. Jesus never seems keen to have his healing abilities broadcast widely.

Finally, the secret motif is also associated with Jesus being a heavenly being. In Mark 8:27-30, Peter makes an extremely important confession. “You are the Christ.” This is the central claim of the Gospel of Mark and Christianity as a whole. However, Jesus tells his disciples to keep this a secret. In Mark 9:2-9 Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John. He is clearly revealed as a heavenly being conversing with Moses and Elijah. Coming down from this literal mountaintop experience, Jesus yet again orders them to remain silent. Why would Jesus want people to keep his true identity secret? He came to announce and to bring salvation to the world. But at the beginning of his ministry he orders those that know the truth to keep silent. Why? What purpose does the secret serve?

Possible Explanations: The Practical Solution

A Sunday School teacher once offered what I call a “practical” explanation for the secrecy motif. Jesus wants his healing abilities secret because the crowds are becoming unmanageable. He would be unable to preach because all his time would be taken up with healing. This explanation fails on many levels even if you only consider the evidence within the narrative of the Gospel. First of all, the feeding of the five thousand and the subsequent feeding of the four thousand indicate that Jesus is capable of handling any size crowd. Also, the people healed disregard Jesus’s command for silence. If Jesus was trying to keep the crowds manageable, his plan completely backfires. There is little reason for Mark to include the secret motif if the motivation was “practical” for Jesus. If this explanation were true, Jesus’s intentions would completely fail. That failure would paint Jesus in a bad light (something any Gospel writer would try to avoid).[1] Mark has to have other reasons to include the secrecy motif.

Possible Explanations: The Skeptical Solution

 At the turn of the twentieth century, the German scholar William Wrede made a name for himself through his investigations into the messianic secret motif.[2] Wrede argued that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus only became the Messiah at the resurrection.[3] The pre-Easter Jesus of Nazareth was just an itinerant preacher in Palestine. Later Christians would make the pre-Easter Jesus a divine Messiah. Mark represents an important transition between the earliest stage of Christology and what would emerge as the “orthodox”[4] Christology that includes a pre-Easter divine Jesus capable of great deeds. Wrede’s theory is that Mark creates the secrecy motif to promote his claim that Jesus was always the divine Son of God and suppress evidence to the contrary. The Gospel was written at a time when there were possibly still living witnesses to Jesus’s ministry. If anyone brought up the lack of public claims made by Jesus or great miracles performed by him, Mark counters that they were guarded secrets. You had to be one of the privileged few to know the truth during Jesus’s lifetime. Wrede’s explanation is one of those pernicious theories that is impossible to completely disprove, but it also asks too much. Wrede argues that Jesus never made public claims to be the divine Messiah despite the fact that all of the earliest accounts of his life depict him as making such a claim.[5] Wrede is asking us to believe his telling of the story in the shadow of a mountain of contrary evidence. In my opinion, Wrede fails to give a satisfactory answer to why these later followers of Jesus would make such an incredulous claim. If they were trying to maintain their status, why? At the time of Jesus’s death, they were members of a very small persecuted sect of Judaism. It would have been better to return to fishing. If someone really wants to believe Wrede’s explanation, I cannot conclusively disprove it. I do not have a tape recording of Jesus claiming to be the Messiah. However, Wrede’s explanation is unreasonable in what it asks us to believe in light of the available evidence.

The Didactic Solution

Mark’s purpose for the secrecy motif is didactic. He is trying to teach us something. We have already discussed in previous posts that the climax of Mark is found in chapter 14. Jesus publicly declares that he is the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed at his trial. At the cross, that declaration is put in the mouth of the “world” when the centurion exclaims, “Surely, this man was the Son of God.” Mark has not hid the idea the fact that Jesus is the Messiah from the reader. It is in the first line of the Gospel. However, here at the end is where the reader should clearly understand what makes Jesus the Messiah.

Mark has used the secrecy motif throughout the Gospel for what scholars call “corrective Christology.”[6] He is molding us as readers to think correctly about Jesus as Messiah. Jesus coming as the physically poor preacher of the Kingdom of Heaven already subverts the then popular conception of the messiah as a political/military savior that would liberate the Jewish people from Roman rule. Mark uses the secrecy motif to suppress possible further misunderstandings of Jesus as Messiah.[7] The fact that Jesus has power over demons is not why he should be proclaimed as the Messiah. It might be evidence in favor of Jesus being the Messiah, but it is not the determinative reason. The same is true of Jesus’s healing abilities. Healing the infirmed, the deaf, and the blind does not make him the Messiah. Healers and exorcists came before (and after) Jesus. Even the truth that Jesus is one who has come from Heaven and conversant with Moses and Elijah does not make him the Messiah. At best, this is all secondary evidence that bolsters the case that Jesus is Messiah. When these abilities come up in the narrative, Mark uses the secrecy motif to subdue them so that they do not become the primary points of proclamation.

Jesus comes out into the open at his trial. One cannot understand Jesus as the Messiah without the context of his suffering. Jesus is the Messiah because he came to suffer as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Any great deed Jesus performs outside of his suffering are secondary. They are to be kept quiet until they can be brought under the full light of his suffering. Jesus himself says as much in Mark 9:9. After the transfiguration, Jesus tells his disciples to keep quiet until, “the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” All other possible understandings of Jesus as Messiah are subsumed under his death and resurrection.

[1] There is a line of thought here that I want to keep in the footnotes. No Gospel writer would willingly write something to embarrass Jesus but the idea of embarrassment is an important historical criterium for scholars. The theory is that if Jesus says or does something in the Gospels that is potentially embarrassing, then it is most likely true. This is because it is unlikely that a Gospel writer would invent a potentially embarrassing saying or story.

[2] Wrede’s primary work on the Messianic Secret is Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien (Gottengen 1901). It is available in English as The Messianic Secret (London 1971). I should admit that I have never read Wrede’s primary work. The description I am providing here is consonant with numerous descriptions I have heard in classrooms and read in summaries in other works.

[3] It should be noted that there is no indisputable literary evidence that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus became the divine Messiah only after the resurrection.

[4] I realize that “orthodox” is a value judgement. I do believe in orthodoxy, but here I am using it descriptively as the primary view of Jesus expressed throughout the majority of Christian history.

[5] I consider the four canonical Gospels to also be the earliest complete accounts of Jesus’s life.

[6] I first encountered the term in Mark Allan Powell, Fortress Introduction to the Gospels (Minneapolis, MN: 1998), 54. Powell cites others who use the term as well.

[7] I am indebted here to the work of Jack Dean Kingsbury, The Christology of Mark’s Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).

10 Comments Add yours

  1. ljhooge says:

    I enjoyed this. In addition to the above, I wonder whether maybe Jesus was a aware of the difficulty that might come His way if ‘who’ He was (messiah, Son of God) become more recognized? Would such claims have been politically dangerous? Dangerous for one’s well-being/life? … Ultimately, it seems it was.

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    1. Daniel Hulsey says:

      I think Jesus knew his identity, message, and actions would bring him trouble. That he would have implored secrecy in order to protect himself (and his followers) until the proper time would fit best under a practical explanation for the messianic secret motif. It is certainly a better explanation than Jesus trying to avoid crowds! In the post, I avoided the thorny issue of whether the secrecy motif is a literary invention of Mark or something that goes back to Jesus himself. (I have no real quarrel with either position.) I prefer to interpret the secrecy motif as teaching the reader how to think of Jesus as Messiah, which could have been a method Jesus himself used. However, that interpretive decision treats it more like a literary convention and discounts practical explanations.

      By the way, I was able to take a couple of minutes to peruse your site. In another comment, you mentioned your view of Mark as a chiasmus and I was intrigued. I do think that Mark’s overall structure has chiastic elements. Although, Mark’s emphasis on the passion narrative at the end would seem to unbalance the symmetry that a chiasmus strives to achieve, but I am no expert in chiasmi. If you ever get around to making the website on Mark as a Chiasmus, I would be interested.

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  2. ljhooge says:

    I need to look into the messianic secret some more. Personally, I’m torn between a practical solution and a literary solution. I’m assuming both are possible.

    One of the things I wonder about is whether Mark was more open to the ‘messianic secret’ because of his audience, which I think may have been facing persecution. Eg., would Jesus’ practical avoidance of potential danger have been a good example for Mark’s audience? Could Mark’s audience have learned from Jesus’ example of wisely avoiding conflict? … Similarly, I sometimes wonder whether Mark’s willingness to demonstrate the weaknesses of the disciples may have resonated with his audience, who under the pressure of persecution, may have also been struggling with their own weaknesses and failure. … ?

    Thanks for looking at my blog. I haven’t written anything new for a while, but plan to get back to it in a year or two, when I retire. Ditto for Mark’s chiasmus. I’ll either do a separate blog for Mark, or write a book. We’ll see. If you ever want to learn more about it before then, we could discuss it via email. Peace.

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  3. ljhooge says:

    I read this by Dunn on the messianic secret. Thought it was interesting:

    http://tinyurl.com/yaop7mvo

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  4. ljhooge says:

    Your blog post inspired me to take another look at this issue – which for me, was long overdue.

    I would like to propose more clearly what I would call “The Protection Solution”, which I think is a little bit different than your Practical Solution (though I think the practical solution is also true: eg., big crowds = political danger). In my view, Mark is using a secrecy motif in his writing as way to protect Jesus in his dangerous and life threatening mission. You can see the danger Mark sees in the mission by how he intercalates the story of the disciples being sent out on their own and the story of John the Baptist’s death (6:7-30). John the Baptist’s death is a commentary on the disciples ‘ministry’. His death indicates the inherent political danger in doing mission. Death is a possibility. The disciples’ mission is dangerous.

    You can also see the ‘danger in mission’ theme in how Mark arranges the center of his book, which is also the climax of the first half (the climax of ‘who Jesus is’). In the center of Mark you have the story of Peter’s Confession and the story of the Transfiguration. In the former Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah. In the latter, God proclaims Jesus as His son (Son of God). But it’s interesting to see what follows each of these claims. Both stories are followed by a request for silence (the messianic secret), which are then both followed by stories of death. In the story of Peter’s Confession it goes like this: ‘You are the Messiah’ … request for silence … Jesus’ first prediction of his death / as well as teaching on the willingness to ‘pick up your cross and follow me’ (a willingness to die for the cause). In the story of the Transfiguration you have: ‘You are my beloved son’ … request for silence … a reference back to John the Baptist’s death. For me then, you have at the center of Mark/climax of the first half, a close association between claims of who Jesus is, the messianic secret, and death. I think that Mark sees such strong claims of Jesus’ true identity (Messiah, Son of God) as politically dangerous, requiring secrecy – at least until the right moment. … Such claims can lead to death. Even pre-mature death?

    And then of course, you actually do have the death of Jesus occurring because of his claim to being the Messiah and the Son of God (14:61-62). In the end you can actually see why Jesus might have wanted to avoid these identities earlier in Mark’s gospel.

    So what of all the other ‘messianic secrets’ in Mark? Can they be brought under the theme of the ‘Protection Solution’. I would say yes. First I think you would want to understand the overall, more general, milieu in Mark’s writing. That is, I’m impressed by how quickly Mark relates the danger involved in Jesus’ working of his mission. E.g., the set of 5 controversies in Mk 2-3, ends with the Pharisees and Herodians already conspiring as to destroy Jesus. This is closely followed by accusations that Jesus is in league with Satan (Mk 3). Danger abounds.

    As to specifics, early on, a few of the messianic secrets relate to the unclean spirits knowing that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’. As seen above, this is dangerous stuff, and hence, their silencing.

    There are a few silencings associated with healing (5?). Two of them, I think, would have been considered too big, or strong, and hence too dangerous by Jesus/Mark. These would have been the healing of the leper, and the raising of Jairus’ daughter. The healing of a leper was considered a very difficult thing to do, even equated with ‘raising someone from the dead’! These are too big to ‘let out there’ … ?

    Basically, in sum and total (I gotta go to work) I think all the messianic secrets associated with healings can all be accounted for by the ‘Protection Solution’. To me, this makes the most sense regarding Mark’s overall writing. I’ve never really been convinced by the skeptical or didactic solutions. 🙂

    Thoughts?

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    1. Daniel Hulsey says:

      My first thought is that you have made some very perceptive textual observations linking Jesus’s identity/message with the associated danger. I want to think about it a little more before responding in full, but my initial reaction is that your protection solution runs into problems explaining the secrecy involved with exorcisms and healing. However, I will note that Jesus instructs the Gerasene Demoniac in 5:18-19 to share his experience with Jesus among the mixed Jewish/Gentile community in the Decapolis. You might argue that Jesus’s message did not carry the same political dangers there as in Galilee or Jerusalem. The notes in the ESV Study Bible on these verses could bolster your theory. So, even though my initial reaction to your solution is that it does not sufficiently explain the secrecy associated with healings, I offer evidence to the contrary! (I am not setting myself up well in this friendly debate.)

      I have skimmed parts of the article by J.D.G. Dunn. Thank you for sending it. I want to read it before responding more fully to your Protection Solution. The parts I skimmed suggested that it might inform how I respond, which I plan to do in the next day or two.

      Thanks again. I’ve enjoyed our discussions.

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    2. I wish that I had read the Dunn article before writing my post; not because my ideas have fundamentally changed, but because he has inspired me to nuance things differently to better support my primary point.

      Something Dunn says at the beginning of the article helps us. There does not have to be one theory that explains all instances of the secrecy motif. It is possible that “in different situations there were a variety of motives operative” (Dunn, 94). Jesus could be concerned for the privacy and well-being of those healed. He could also be trying to discourage misleading ideas about him.

      I think your Protection Solution could be among this “variety of motives.” That is particularly true for the secrecy surrounding Peter’s confession and the transfiguration (and possibly the silencing of demons). I would add that it is only protection until the proper time.

      As I wrote before, I think you made some great and helpful observations linking the message of Jesus with danger. The sending out of the apostles being followed by the execution of John the Baptist is perhaps the most striking to me. However, though the danger of Christianity is still present, Christians are called to boldly proclaim Jesus to all nations, which is the opposite of secrecy. Given this, I would ask what the Protection Solution does for the reader now?

      Mark 8:27-31 (along with 9:9) are important verses for my understanding of the secrecy motif. After Peter confesses him to be the Christ, Jesus begins teaching that the Son of Man must suffer, die, and be raised. Here you have both the command for secrecy and Jesus teaching what it truly means to be the Messiah. I believe this passage most clearly shows the “teaching” motive for secrecy. Before you proclaim, you must understand. That the Messiah must suffer and die was not the popular messianic conception in the 2nd Temple period. I agree with Dunn that Jesus used commands for silence to discourage false conceptions of Messiahship (Dunn, 112). One motive for encouraging silence after healings and exorcisms is to discourage the view that Jesus is a “Galilean wonder-worker.” Silence after Peter’s confession and the transfiguration was to discourage the misconception that he is a “warrior or political King of the Jews.” Jesus’s conception of Messiahship is one of “service and suffering in this world and of exaltation only after death” (Dunn 115). Jesus was not trying to keep his Messiahship secret; he was trying to ensure that people correctly understood what it means to be the Messiah.

      As I said above, I think protection until the proper time probably was among the motives for secrecy. However, I would not adopt it to the exclusion of other motives. I still think the overarching purpose (and present relevance) of the secrecy motif is to teach a proper understanding of Jesus as Messiah. That is why I used the term didactic.

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  5. ljhooge says:

    Hi again. I guess I’m still struggling with the didactic solution (DS). I suppose I shouldn’t be, given how many scholars advocate it. … Hmmm. There must be something wrong with me. (And true, I do like to think outside of the box, and I am a bit of a contrarian … the two may go together.)

    As a matter of fact, bottom line, I’m ok with DS. After all, I can’t falsify it. At the same time, I assume the protection solution (PS) can’t be falsified either?

    But let me push PS a little bit more, just for fun. For me, the key is 14:53-64, where Jesus agrees with the high priest that he is the Messiah and the Son of the Blessed One. This claim to being Messiah/Son of God is the death knell for Jesus. The high priest tears his clothes and claims “Blasphemy”! In a way, I would view this episode as a kind of climax to Jesus’ ministry – at least as far as Jesus’ opposition is concerned. It’s the end game to which the overall story is inevitably headed.

    There’s a couple of things I’d like to mention. 1) I wonder if claiming to be a healer or an exorcist may not be a terribly dangerous thing to do (eg., 9:38-39). Presumably there were healers and exorcists around who didn’t get into religious or political trouble? But claiming to be the Messiah or the Son of God may be a different story? 2) I wonder whether the term ‘messianic secret’ is inadequate. It seems to presuppose that Messiah and Son of God are equivalent. I tend to see Son of God as an elevated term in Mark – something more than Messiah. Eg., you have the demons using SoG to the exclusion of Messiah. Similarly, in the the stories about Jesus’ baptism, the Transfiguration, and the parable in 12:1-12, you have God ‘referring’ to Jesus as his ‘beloved Son’ (Son of God?). Not Messiah. Why does the supernatural realm point to Jesus as the Son of God rather than Messiah? I don’t think the two terms are equivalent. I think Son of God is something greater. Perhaps the stories of the feeding of the 5000 and the calming of the sea illustrate this? The feeding of the 5000 is sometimes described as a story that points to Jesus as the Messiah. I wonder whether the story that follows, Jesus calming the storm, points to Jesus as the Son of God (walking on the water, passing by, I Am)? Is Jesus in some sense divine/God?

    Anyway, in the end I think a person would have take a look at all the specific instances of the messianic secret. I don’t think the exorcisms (Son of God) would be a problem for PS (SoG is the death knell). There’s 2 healings that also may not be a problem (healing a leper and raising Jairus’ daughter). These seem to be powerful healings that I could see Jesus (or Mark) wanting to muffle because it points to someone extra special and powerful (Son of God?; healing a leper was considered as difficult as raising someone from the dead). There’s 2 healings which might actually have to do with something other than PS (though they wouldn’t hurt PS). These healings are the healing of a deaf person and a blind person. I think these may have more to do with verses like 4:10-12 and 8:14-18 (seeing, hearing). Maybe – maybe not. The big 2 uses of the messianic secret appear to be with Peter’s Confession and the Transfiguration. I see these 2 stories as the ending and climax of the first half. The first half concludes with Jesus being the Messiah and the Son of God. The second half then turns to Jesus’ death. It’s not unusual for a chiasmus (which I think Mark is) to shift themes at the centre.

    At any rate, I don’t think I would have a problem with PS working with the messianic secret in Peter’s Confession or the Transfiguration. The story now turns toward Jerusalem. The disciples are fearful. Jesus is avoiding crowds. The end nears.

    I suppose another thing I would want to do if I were exploring PS more would be to outline the growth of Jesus ministry along with Mark’s plot line of opposition. Opposition actually occurs rather early in Mark. Eg., 3:6 already seeks Jesus’ destruction, followed by accusations of casting out demons by Satan’s power (Jesus is still viewed as just an exorcist?), followed by 4:10-12, etc. It seems danger is present early in Mark. I think this would fit with PS.

    ____

    Anyways, I don’t have a problem with DS per se. I’m just attracted at the moment with the possibilities offered by PS.

    It’s been an interesting discussion. Thank you for interacting with me.

    PS As to your question, what does PS do for the reader?, I would offer 2 answers. One, I’m not sure it matters if it simply reflects the dangerous politics of the day (IOW, it may reflect a reality), and two, if Mark’s audience was facing persecution (eg., 8:34-38, 13:9-13), then they may have been able to learn from Jesus’ cautiousness. Eg., Matt 10:16-18, when among wolves, be as shrewd as serpents.

    Peace.

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    1. I can be a bit of a contrarian as well (although the instinct has mellowed as I age). I doubt we will see completely eye-to-eye right now. As you say, you are attracted to the PS, whereas I have too much invested in the DS. That is okay with me. I actually like cordial and open-minded disagreement because it is an opportunity to sharpen your thought. Community in interpretation is vital.

      I do think that both the PS and DS are valid and probable motives for secrecy in Jesus’s teaching. I do not think our positions are diametrically opposed. We just have a difference in emphasis. I also accept your answers about PS’s relevance for the reader. Although, I do not think that caution during times of persecution involves silence or secrecy post-resurrection. As in Matt 10:27, “What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (see also Matt 28:18-20).

      Regarding your Messiah/Son of God discussion, I would agree that the terms are not technically equivalent. However, my initial thought is that the terms Messiah/Son of God/Son of Man/Son of the Blessed operate as virtual synonyms within the Gospel of Mark as they all function as Messianic designations. But I have not thought about it much beyond my initial impressions.

      I have enjoyed these discussions immensely. I am working on a post about the ending of Mark. My thought has become more complicated (and clouded) as I research the issue more. I would be interested to know how your view that Mark is a chiasmus handles the ending.

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  6. ljhooge says:

    Yeah, I think that’s maybe enough on the messianic secret – at least for now. Thank you for the informative dialogue. That was fun.

    IMO, Mark decided to purposely cut his gospel short – at 16:8. I can offer three structures reasons for why he did this. In addition, there’s also rhetorical and what I would call, social, or circumstantial reasons.

    Here’s one structural reason: Mark cut his gospel short so that his centre and ending would match. This is a common feature in chiasmi. At the centre you have Jesus’ first prediction of death and resurrection. At the end you have Jesus actual death and resurrection. A nice match.

    That being said, my chiasmus fills in Mark’s missing ending.

    I look forward to your next post. 🙂

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