Mark Essay 3: Is there a Messianic Secret in Mark?

The problem of the messianic secret in Mark is posed squarely by William Wrede, Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien (1902, first translated 1971 [this is an indication of the importance of reading German; Bultmann's great work, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, was first translated in 1968, nearly 50 years after publication]). According to Wrede the messianic secret is a prohibition to make known the messianic character of Jesus. It is to be seen in

1. Commands to silence addressed to the demons which acknowledge his power: 1.34; 3.12.

2. Instructions not to make his healing-miracles public: 1.43-45; 5.43; 7.36; 8.26.

3. Teaching to the disciples in private: 4.34; 7.17-23; 9.28; 8.31; 9.31; 10.32-34; 13.3.

4. Commands to silence addressed to the disciples: 8.30 and 9.9.

5. The parable-theory, 4.10-13, by which the parables are said to be intended to obscure the message so that outsiders may not understand.

Wrede saw all this as one phenomenon. He rules out from history any theory such as a progression in the revealing of Jesus' personality, on the correct grounds that the time-framework of the gospels is imposed on the material by the evangelist, and must therefore be attributed to his theology rather than to historical reality. Carried to its logical conclusion this would show that we cannot know how revelation progressed; however, it leaves open the possibility that gradual revelation was Mk's intention. Wrede interprets the whole as an attempt made by Mark to account for the fact that Jesus was not accepted as messiah: he simply made no messianic claims public. Wrede held that the earliest and most authentic Christian belief was that Jesus became messiah at the resurrection - whence 9.9, authorising publication of the knowledge after the resurrection -and it was only with the development of Christology that his followers came to hold that his whole life had been messianic.

One of Wrede's most positive reasons for maintaining that the 'secret' was unhistorical is that some of Jesus' miracles simply would not have been able to be kept quiet, for example the raising of Jairus' daughter, 5.43. On the one hand the crowds gather to be healed and to acclaim Jesus; on the other he attempts to silence them. But he simply does not act as a man who wants to stay hidden! The commands to silence simply ring unrealistically and unhistorically. There are also some judderings, e.g. when the commands to silence are disobeyed, or not even given after a miracle. It is unlikely that historical commands of Jesus which were disobeyed were recorded, and some non-historical explanation for this would be preferable.

The major Christological contention of Wrede cannot be upheld. Even if the commands to silence after the miracles of healing are invented subsequently, the fact of these miracles (unless they too are invented) must constitute a messianic claim; this is made clear in the Mt 11.2-6//Lk saying, where the meaning of the healing-miracles as the fulfilment of Isaiah's predictions is explained to the messengers of John the Baptist; but the whole tone of Jesus' proclamation, from its first opening with 'The kingship of God has come near' (1.14-15), is messianic. A much larger demolition-job needs to be done on the historicity of Mark if all public messianic indications are to be removed from the lifetime of Jesus. The miraculous feedings are a sign that Jesus is a second Moses, and so a messianic figure. Peter's messianic confession cannot have been invented subsequently because of its slur on the chief apostle. The messianic entry into Jerusalem may have been built up, but the deliberate entry on a donkey must have been intended by Jesus messianically. Finally the cleansing of the Temple must have messianic overtones, as the reaction to it by the Jewish authorities shows, both in their demand for Jesus' authority and in the accusation at the trial.

It is further impossible to explain Jesus' own claims unless they include messianic overtones. In particular his assembly of his own little community of the Twelve, his own qahal (= community, 3.13-14), parallel to Israel, implies that he is the representative of the Lord who originally gathered Israel to be his own special people. The same (delegated?) divine authority is implied by the claim to forgive sin (2.10) and to be Lord of the Sabbath (2.28). Particularly related to the end-time expectation of the messiah is the claim to be the bridegroom (2.19).


The second question, however, remains: did Mark impose the secret on the material or does it genuinely go back to Jesus? In either case, what is its sense? Before these questions are discussed, the extent of the secret must be somewhat pared down. It is possible that not all the evidence assembled by Mark in fact belongs together.

1. The concept of further private teaching to an inner group is quite different from the positive withholding of information implied by a secret. This private teaching could be simply a literary move (common elsewhere, e.g. Plato) to give the chance for further teaching and explanation. In addition, much of the private instruction to the disciples has nothing to do with the personality of Jesus: 7.17-23 concerns the meaning of Jesus' imaged teaching on clean and unclean foods; 9.28-29 teaches the disciples that certain spirits can be driven out only with prayer; 13.3ff concerns the future of the Temple and of the community. None of these, therefore, concerns a messianic secret. This limits private instruction about the person of Jesus to the great prophecies of the passion, 8.31; 9.31; 10.32-34; these must all be seen in the light of 9.9, the injunction to keep his identity secret until after the resurrection.

2. The matter of parabolic method of teaching must certainly be considered separately from the general matter of secrecy. Dunn, in his 1970/1974 article in Tuckett, p. 128-9, stresses ta. pa,nta in 4.11, balanced by the Markan 4.34 'without parables he did not speak to them': all Jesus' teaching was in parable (or imaged) because this forceful, imaged sort of teaching was the only way in which such a new teaching and new mindset could be conveyed. Jesus chose this method 'Rather than a straightforward statement of certain truths which would register on most of his hearers' understanding but make no impact on their emotions or their will.' It is certainly true that virtually all Jesus' teaching makes thorough-going and constant use of images; this is only to be expected from a near eastern charismatic teacher - or indeed, probably any effective modern communicator.

But this is not the whole story, for the parabolic teaching is viewed by Mark as obscure and needing clarification: 4.34 'but to the disciples he interpreted everything' (evpilu,w is used primarily of interpreting dreams or visions). The i`na of 4.12 must be taken seriously, and may not be brushed under the carpet as a Markan misunderstanding of an Aramaic d`, giving the same sense as Matthew's 'because'. However, despite the fact that in the Old Testament God is frequently said to harden hearts (e.g. Pharoah's), it is difficult to imagine that deliberate obscurity was Jesus' intention. Raisanen insists that Mk's claim here (4.11, 34) that all the teaching to the crowds was in parables is simply not true: in 8.34 Jesus teaches the crowds as well as his disciples about taking up the cross. Nor can the crowds have wholly failed to understand his teaching, 1.22 and 11.18 evxeplh,ssonto at his teaching; 1.27 the impressive dida,ch kai,nh kat evxousi,an must have been at least partly understood. The stylistic indications are that Mk 4 is a composite chapter, for Mark very frequently joins on a new saying with kai. ev,legen auvtoi/j (vv. 11, 34) or more simply kai. ev,legen (vv. 9, joining on a serviceable warning-phrase which occurs also v. 23 and 7.16; v. 24, introducing an unconnected proverb which occurs also in the Targum of Isaiah; vv. 26, 30, introducing the parables of the Seed Growing Secretly and the Mustard Seed respectively). The run of the disciples' question in v. 10 and Jesus' answer in v. 13 is much smoother if the intervening verses are removed.

The whole atmosphere of the pair of verses is in fact Pauline: musth,rion is used nowhere else in the Gpp, but 8 times in Rm and 1 Co, and 10 times in ColEph, always in this sense in the singular (Mt and Lk change the singular into plural, which certainly fits this context better; the singular sounds thoroughly puzzling).

The phrase ta. pa,nta is not used elsewhere in GppAc (except Ac 17.25, in a different sense), but 26 times in Paul.

The phrase oi` evxw. occurs only here outside Paul, but 5 times in Paul; the idea of the division into insiders and outsiders is Pauline. It has no place in the ministry of Jesus.

The idea of God hardening the hearts of the Jews is itself Pauline: Rm 9.18. It is perhaps not without significance that in Acts 28.26 Paul's last words to the Jews quote the same passage of Isaiah. The function of the explicit quotation in Mark may be no more than to stress that the scripture is fulfilled.

It may well be, therefore, as Raisanen suggests, that these verses reflect the difficulties experiences by the apostolic missioners to the Jews ('a sort of compendium of mission problems', p. 135) rather than Jesus' own experiences, let alone his intentions. However, the fact that it does not stem from Jesus does not remove this passage from the Markan problem.

It might, nevertheless, be reasonable to localise the problem and suggest that it can be safely applied only to the parables rather than to Jesus' teaching as a whole. After the first parable of the Sower, Mark brackets the remainder of his parable-chapter with these reminders of their need for explanation. He again harks back to the same subject, the revealing of what is concealed, between the Explanation of the Sower and the remaining pair of parables. Did perhaps Mark himself find parables especially different? Outside the parable-chapter he uses only one story-parable, compared to the dozen used by Mt and Lk.

3. We are left with three phenomena, commands to silence addressed to demons, to those healed and to the disciples. The first two of these can hardly be historical: Jesus cannot have intended simultaneously to make a public impression and to hide away. Attempts have been made to differentiate between cases, to substantiate the historicity of the commands by explaining why they are sometimes missing. The Gerasene ex-demoniac is told to spread the news in his region, but then he is in the Decapolis which makes him a special case. The blind man at Bethsaida is forbidden even to go into the village (presumably a form of silence-injunction, 8.26) but Bartimaeus at Jericho is not prevented from following Jesus on the road (10.52); but then it is too late for silence as Jesus approaches Jerusalem. Anyone standing at the bottom of the Wadi Qilt on the tell of Herodian Jericho is well aware that Jerusalem, where the full revelation of Jesus is to occur, is only a couple of hours walk away. The Bartimaeus-incident is the immediate prelude to the exposure of the secret. In any case, exceptions do not necessarily prove a rule.

4. The commands addressed to demons must be seen as particularly difficult to accept as historical if the whole concept of demon-expulsion is seen as a mythical way of understanding the healing of an inexplicable and partly psychological illness through the force of Jesus' personality. It is psychologically plausible that the sick person, in the emotional and tortured moment of break of tension, should give an inarticulate cry; it is this which the gospel tradition reasonably interprets as an acknowledgement of Jesus' personality, putting the sounds in the form of a verbal recognition. The statement thus becomes wholly Christian and theological.


The commands to silence addressed to the disciples cannot directly be gainsaid. But when they were sent out to preach, what did they preach? A kingdom without mention of Jesus? The coming of the kingship of God through their own miraculous powers, without reference to their Master? At any rate, until Caesarea Philippi, the commands to silence refer primarily to the person of Jesus. He seeks to focus attention on the kingdom rather than on his own person. This explains why (if their mission is historical) they could preach at all before they had understood his personal messiahship.

The answer to this question therefore provides the answer to the theology behind the secrecy commands. The structure of Mark's gospel makes clear that the instruction into Jesus' personality comes in two stages: first, leading up to Caesarea Philippi, the gradual process of learning that Jesus is messiah. This is prepared by the blindness of the disciples suddenly being shattered at the symbolic healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. But the first silence-command to the disciples comes immediately after it (8.30), showing that this knowledge is not yet sufficient. They have still to learn what sort of messiah is Jesus. The second command (whose explicit mention of the resurrection excludes at least verbal historicity) is related explicitly to the resurrection (9.9); it is only then that they will have received the full message. At this stage a third element may be introduced, the centurion's confession (15.39). This public protestation in a public scene must be significant, the more so because it is made by a gentile and because it uses the title 'son of God' which is of such significance for Mark. It would seem that for Mark as for John the moment of the resurrection has already begun in the death of Jesus.

The secret therefore has a twofold function:

1. It is part of Mark's theology of the cross. The message of suffering was not easy to understand. In fact the presentation of Jesus as the Suffering Servant (the Voice at the Baptism quotes Is 42.1, the opening of the first Servant Song, etc) was a complete novelty in messianic thought. It took time to digest, and without it the message would not be ready for preaching. Mk is insisting that any message of Jesus which does not include the cross and resurrection is incomplete. Those who are forbidden to spread the Good News are so prevented because they cannot yet know the full import of that Good News.

2. It is a function of Mark's irony. If Mark is to maintain the dual level of discourse which is the basis of all irony, he cannot allow the actors in the drama to come too quickly to a realisation of Jesus' identity. Hence his insertion on various occasions of the secrecy commands (stylistically shown to be his own work) and of the parable-secret, which originally had a quite other import.

Essay 4: Who did Mark think that Jesus was?

O Cullmann, The Christology of the NT (1957), chaps 2 & 3: Traditional title-Christology, maximalist view that Jesus understood himself as prophet and Servant, and that this came to him at the Baptism. All the principal sayings are accepted as authentic. Be careful in using this book to distinguish between the different gospels, which Cullmann does not need to do.

Morna Hooker, 'Is the Son of Man problem really insoluble?' in Text & Interpretation (ed E. Best) 1979. Cautious acceptance of Vermes' cicumlocutory sense. Principal context is sayings of vindication e.g. 8.38, in which (originally) his faithful will accompany him in vindication. Many later understood of a final scene of vindication. Originally 13.26 understood not as judge but that disciples must be ready to welcome their master, rewarder of his own; threats added by Mt. Dn 7 was vital in Jesus' thought (p. 167), particularly because it includes community.

James DG Dunn, Christology in the Making (1980), chaps 2 & 3

1. Basis of Jesus' relationship to Father is in his use of 'abba'. This is not unique, as Jeremias claimed, but his emphasis is unusual: 'abba' is used in prayer in Hasidic circles also (Vermes), but only exceptionally and in combination with other titles 'Lord of Heaven' etc, whereas Jesus uses it as his principal way. Rm 8.15, Ga 4.6 show that this left a mark on Christian consciousness.

2. No evidence that Messiah identified with Danielic Son of man except in Similitudes of Enoch (which not at Qumran) before gospels, and even then not in Mark, though clear in Mt and Lk.

Seyoon Kim, The 'Son of Man' as the Son of God (1983)

1. Uses 4QpsDanAa to show at least one text in last third of first century which interprets Dan messianically. But this seems to me too fragmentary to prove it; e.g. the figure could still be identified with Israel, which is the normal sense.

2. Points out the uniqueness and oddity of invariable use of article with 'Son of man'. Did Jesus mean 'That son of man', i.e. the Danielic one?

3. Mk 10.45 not invented by early church on basis of Is 53.10 because not close enough. But they share paradidonai, psyche autou, polloi, which is enough to show link. Further, diakonein may show link to Dn 7.10 (Stuhlmacher): son of man prefers service of God to dignity of judge. Related also to Is 43.3-4 lutron anti, dounai, o uios tou anthropou. So Jesus creatively combined Is 43 and 53, which makes his vicarious suffering on behalf both of Israel and of nations.

4. Authenticity of eucharistic words is among the strongest. Diatheke gives link to Is 42.6 and 49.8 for Jesus' self-understanding. Culmination of his preaching of kingdom.

Maurice Casey, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God (1991), chapter 4

Highly sceptical:

1. Jesus did not refer to himself as Messiah, because it was too general a term for a Davidic messiah. So Peter's confession must have been invented, and indeed has an excellent Sitz im Leben in early church to explain why messianic title never used; confession used to supercharge authentic recognition of Jesus as prophet. Mk 14.61-62 also early church, and followed by midrash on Dan 7.13; 'no authentic tradition of Jesus' condemnation because none of his sympathisers were there' (p. 43).

2. 'Son of God' occurs in Mk only 13.32; it 'arose from the delay of the parousia'. Standard defence that church would not invent a saying which shows ignorance in Jesus is based on mistaken idea of earliest christology (p. 45).

3. 'Son of man' used to make general statement intended to say something about speaker (e.g. R. Simeon b, Yohai and bird-escape). Mk 2.28 claims prophetic authority to interpret will of God about sabbath, but contains no christological title. Mk 3.28 uses general expressions 'to eschew direct polemic', where 'son of man' stands for 'me' and 'Spirit of holiness' stands for 'God at work in me'. Also 8.38. 'To declare his own exalted status and to avoid direct mention of a humiliating situation' (p. 51). Mk 10.45 seems to be general statement about human life as service. All three major christological titles 'owe their appearance as titles to the early church, though they have some connexion with the historic ministry' (p. 54).