Friday, December 25, 2009
The Messianic Secret
Over at Peje Iesous, Chris Skinner is reading Are You the One Who is to Come? and he offers his own reflections on Mark's "messianic secret". Notably, he regards the secrecy motif as essentially a Marcan construction over and against my efforts at showing its historical character. Let me offer a few thoughts in reply to Skinner:
1. There is no denying that the secrecy motif is a narrative and theological device in the Marcan plot. From the incipit in 1.1 the reader knows who Jesus is, yet the characters in the story bumble along with a mixture of comedy and irony in trying to ascertain who Jesus precisely is. Viewed this way, Mark deliberately creates a literary tension in terms of who Jesus is said to be and who he is regarded as by characters in the Gospel.
2. Nonetheless, I'm convinced that there was a "secrecy" motif in Jesus' ministry for a number of reasons: (a) Simply on account of social realism it make sense. Amidst the various prophetic figures of first century Judea, it was natural to ask "who is this guy?" or "who does this guy think he is?". If Jesus thought himself to be a messiah or deliberately evoking messianic themes in his speech and actions, and if this would have aroused the intervention of the authorities, it is entirely conceivable that he would keep the question, or at least his answer to it, a secret. (b) It is quite probable that Jesus, like other apocalyptic seers, thought himself privy to divine revelations that could not be manifested until the appointed time. One such revelation was the identity of Elijah and the Messiah.
3. On William Wrede, it is important to note that Wrede never ascribed the messianic secret to Mark himself, but rather, he contended that Mark merely amplified a tradition already known to him about secrecy tied to Jesus' messianic identity. The messianic secret arose in order to explain why the early church believed Jesus to be the messiah when in fact Jesus' earthly life was widely known to be non-messianic. I focused on Wrede in the book mainly because he's been so influential (e.g., Bultmann just assumed that Wrede was right). But I find his description very problematic on account that he assumes that it was belief in the resurrection that lead to the messianic faith of the early church which is a non sequitur. In addition, what is silenced in Mark is not messianic, and what is messianic is not always silenced!