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). 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. Wrede argued that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus only became the Messiah at the resurrection. 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” 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. 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.” 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 I consider the four canonical Gospels to also be the earliest complete accounts of Jesus’s life.
 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.
 I am indebted here to the work of Jack Dean Kingsbury, The Christology of Mark’s Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).