by Neil Godfrey
William Wrede considered it damage control to explain why Jesus himself had never claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus avoided the title because it was inappropriate prior to his resurrection, as Mark seems to imply by having Jesus command Peter, James, and John, “to tell no one about what they had seen” on the Mount of Transfiguration, “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (p. 139, “Secrecy and Recognitions in the Odyssey and Mark: Where Wrede Went Wrong” by Dennis R. MacDonald, in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative.)
Dennis MacDonald proposes that Jesus was intent on keeping his identity hidden (directly or indirectly) from those who had the power to kill him until the time for crucifixion had come. He says that, contra Wrede, Jesus revealed his identity before the resurrection, though. He revealed it for the first time to his enemies at his trial, thus prompting them to declare him a blasphemer and have him executed.
Tim Widowfield is probably gritting his teeth at this point because he knows that MacDonald has, like so many other NT scholars, simply gotten Wrede wrong. Firstly, Wrede did and did not say that in the Gospel of Mark Jesus maintains secrecy. Wrede acknowledges that in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is often open about demonstrating his messiahship before large crowds. The secrecy is maintained in the sense that the crowds don’t understand who he is despite all his miracles. Moreover, Wrede in fact said that Jesus did not hide his Messiahship on several occasions before his trial and resurrection. The least ambiguous of those moments was when he entered Jerusalem to acclamations that he was the delivering Son of David.
MacDonald argues that the alert reader can see a pattern in the way Jesus would sometimes make an effort to silence others while at other times encouraging them to declare widely a miracle he had just performed. (Wrede says there is no pattern. There is only contradiction and tension.) MacDonald says that this pattern is discerned when one compares the Gospel with another famous work in which the chief character, Odysseus, strives to conceal his identity to nearly all except a few close associates (to whom he reveals himself by “signs” that only they can recognise) until the climactic moment of killing and salvation.
Dennis MacDonald is probably best known today for his controversial The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark in which he argues the Gospel is based in part on the Homeric epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, with Jesus modelled in part on Achilles and Odysseus. (This thesis does not deny that the evangelist simultaneously used Old Testament narratives as models for his Gospel: Thomas Brodie has demonstrated clearly enough that ancient authors regularly imitated widely diverse earlier works in the creation of a new composition.) Now I like a lot of things about MacDonald’s thesis, so much so that I have written an outline of it and added some of my own thoughts at my vridar.info site, The Gospel of Mark & Homer’s Epics. But there is something about his argument for the secrecy motif in Mark being modelled upon Odysseus’s efforts to hide his identity that troubles me.
MacDonald proposes four theses to support his case that Mark’s Jesus was hiding his identity from the authorities who would kill him if they knew it.
Thesis 1: Seldom are there secrets among friends
Jesus performed many miracles to which only his close disciples were witnesses. Not once did Jesus command silence:
- The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law
- The stilling of the storm
- Walking on water
- Withering the fig tree with a curse
- Feeding the multitudes (probably only the disciples knew a miracle had been performed in each case)
Twice Jesus did order his disciples to be silent:
- After Peter declared to Jesus that he recognized him as the Messiah or Christ, Jesus ordered him and his companions to tell no-one;
- When the disguised Odysseus was being washed by his former nurse, Eurycleia, he was horrified to see that Eurycleia recognized him from the scar on his leg: Odysseus quickly grabbed her by the throat and warned her that she would destroy him if she told anyone else who he was. Odysseus conceded that either she learned his identity by herself of some god had revealed it to her, and severely admonished her to keep silent.
- Again after his Transfiguration in which Peter, James and John had heard God declare Jesus to be His Son, Jesus admonished them to tell no-one until after the resurrection. MacDonald points out that this does not necessarily mean that Jesus’ identity would be revealed only at that time, but rather that only then would the disciples understand “what the rising of the dead could mean”. (I think MacDonald has stretched the meaning of Mark 9:9 here. Jesus instructs that the vision itself not be told to anyone until after the resurrection. The clear implication is that no-one else was to know God had declared Jesus to be his Son until after the resurrection.)
So when Jesus is among friends MacDonald observes that
he seldom insisted on secrecy. (p. 142)
Seldom. The reader of Mark must therefore try to figure out the reason Mark has Jesus not care about secrecy sometimes but make a point of it, even if only seldom.
Thesis 2: “Only mild anxiety” among foreigners
I’ll quote MacDonald in full here (though with my own formatting):
When in a public Gentile setting, Jesus shows only mild anxiety about rumors of his miracle working.
- In fact, after exorcising the Gerasene, he said, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”
- In “the region of Tyre” he did not want people to know he was there, but when he exorcised the daughter of the Syrophoenecian woman, he did not insist she keep silent.
- Only once in a Gentile environment did he command by-standers “to tell no one”: the healing of a deaf man. (p 144)
So only seldom is there an exception to thesis #1 and only once is there an exception to thesis #2, even though in the region of Tyre he did not want to be recognized? Did the author of Mark write a companion to the gospel with instructions to the reader to explain to audiences that these contradictions indicated Jesus had “only mild anxiety” about being discovered?
Thesis 3: “Most likely to insist on silence” among Jewish crowds away from their leaders
Jesus is “most likely to insist on silence” when among Jews where their leaders are absent.
- In a Capernaum synagogue a demon-possessed man identified Jesus as “The Holy One of God”: Jesus responded with a sharp rebuke for the demon to be silent and get out. Being in the synagogue, MacDonald suggests, increased the danger of Jewish authorities discovering his identity.
- Again in Jewish Capernaum we read that Jesus healed many and cast out many demons, and would never permit the demons to speak because they knew him.
- Later, large numbers of Jews and gentiles thronged to Jesus and he healed them and cast out demons: again he commanded them to be silent when they shouted out his identity.
- When Jesus healed a blind man he ordered him to return home but to avoid the village, that is, the Jewish Bethsaida.
- When the daughter of Jairus, ruler of the synagogue, died, Jesus took only his three closest disciples and the girl’s parents into the room where she lay to perform the miracle, and afterward commanded them to tell no-one what had happened.
- MacDonald does not mention it, but one wonders if it might also be argued that the reason Jesus said the girl was only sleeping and not dead was to cast subsequent doubt among onlookers that Jesus really had performed a resurrection miracle.
Even though Jesus does not insist on secrecy after every miracle in a Jewish environment [no such command is issued after the healings at Gennesaret or after healing Bartimaeus], he does so far more consistently than when among Gentiles. (p. 145)
Does this reason explain why Jesus was angry with the leper?
Does this interpretation of Jesus’ secrecy explain why Jesus was angry with the leper who asked to be healed?
A leper came to him begging him, and said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Infuriated, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him.
(Text criticism gives us good reasons for believing that the Gospel originally said that Jesus was “moved with anger” when the leper asked to be healed, and that the word was replaced with “compassion” by subsequent scribes and evangelists who were offended by the original reading: see Why Jesus Healed the Leper; and search the words leper and orgistheis in Google for more details and other arguments.)
MacDonald suggests that Jesus was angry for the same reason Odysseus was angry when his disguise was threatened with being uncovered. Healing a leper, according to the Mosaic Law, required a public act on the part of the one healed and a presentation to the priestly authorities. If Jesus wanted to conceal his powers from those authorities at this stage then we may wonder if this is why he was angry at being cornered with this healing request. Jesus took the leper aside away from the crowds after a grumbling protest, healed him then sharply ordered him to avoid the crowds and go straight to the priests according to the law, but apparently without telling them who had healed him. We know that the leper disobeyed and returned immediately to the city and proclaimed everything, with the result that Jesus felt a need to remain in the isolated region outside the city.
This argument sounds reasonable enough on the surface, but I have a few niggling questions about the details. Unfortunately I am not adept enough in the original Greek to know how to evaluate these details as well as I would like.
Besides, is Jesus really in fear of the authorities here or is he trying to avoid the crowds when they are likely to recognize him for some other reason? If he really feared the authorities why did he send the healed leper immediately to the priests?
Again, we have a rule (Jesus orders silence among Jewish crowds away from leaders) that is made to be broken.
Thesis 4: Never commands silence in the presence of the authorities
When Jesus and the authorities do come into direct confrontation, he keeps them flummoxed concerning his identity by means of evasion, metaphors, and sheer wit, much like Odysseus among the suitors.
Even though he seems to have understood that his miracle working might blow his cover, he healed a paralytic in the presence of “some of the scribes,” healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath while “the Pharisees” were in the synagogue, and cast out a demon in the vicinity of “some scribes.” These are the only miracles Jesus performs in the presence of the authorities, and quite appropriately none of them ends with a command to silence.
Those from whom Jesus wanted most to keep his identity a secret had themselves observed his powers. (p. 146, my formatting)
If anyone else has read MacDonald’s argument and has views on it I’d be interested in hearing them. Surely here is an inconsistency with MacDonald’s thesis: Why would Jesus demonstrate his powers (even “only sometimes”) among those “from whom he wanted most to keep his identity a secret”?
True, Jesus did refuse to perform miracles as signs to identify him when challenged to do so by the authorities.
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign (σημεῖον) from heaven, to test him . . . And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign (σημεῖον)? Truly I tell you, no sign (σημεῖον) will be given to this generation.’ (Mark 8:11-12)
Mark’s σημεῖον is the Koine equivalent of Homer’s σημα. In the Odyssey, characters test the hero by asking for signs that he was who he said he was, and he complied but only for those who had proven to be faithful. In the presence of his enemies, however, he avoided all revealing utterances and acts. . . . (p. 146)
But he didn’t always avoid all revealing acts, as MacDonald had earlier noted.
Is Wrede wrong or right?
Homer makes it clear to his readers why Odysseus disguised himself. There is never any confusion over why Odysseus reveals his identity to some people, why he commands them to be silent, and why he eventually declares his identity. This is not the case with Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Readers need a guide to comment on each passage, and explain when we are reading exceptions to the rules to be set aside, if MacDonald’s theses are correct.
In response to all these exceptions and different tactics (with exceptions!) with different groups, Wrede would have objected with:
Why would the narrator give no hints if he was thinking now of one and now of another reason? What reader could guess his opinion. . . . One can therefore only suppose that he assumed the reader would read all these remarks with an idea which he did not first need to communicate to him. (Messianic Secret, pp. 37-38)
MacDonald returns to intertextual arguments linking passages in the Odyssey to others in Mark. He draws parallels between Jesus’ self-disclosure to the Sanhedrin several of Odysseus’s self-identifications to various persons. He further compares the Transfiguration in Mark 9 with Odysseus’s revelation to his son Telemachus, as we know from his book on Homer’s epics and Mark. But even if these intertextual cases are all sure signs that the author of the Gospel was influenced by his recollection of scenes from the Odyssey, it does not follow that the secrecy motif was necessarily based on Odysseus’s strategy.
Inconsistencies mar MacDonald’s thesis. He himself acknowledges these inconsistencies:
He did not require silence of everyone. Instead, he most consistently insisted on silence when in a public, Jewish environment, where the authorities were absent. He never insisted on silence when the authorities were present, because they had seen everything for themselves. Once they cornered him into claiming to be the Messiah/Son of God, they wasted no time in seeing to his destruction on the charge of blasphemy. (p. 153)
Wrede points out that even as early as the opening chapters Mark conveys to readers his belief in Jesus as the Messiah/Son of God/Son of Man by placing such words and meanings into his mouth. Of course scholars discount the way Mark makes Jesus present himself as this Messiah from the start and attempt to re-write the Gospel to make it more historically plausible. But Wrede’s point is that the Gospel of Mark is not plausible as history and was never intended to be read like that. MacDonald is trying to find a consistently plausible story line where Wrede insists there is none.
I thank Tim Widowfield for his series on Wrede. It has led me to read Wrede with more attention and thought. I’d like to post something on the way Wrede shows that the Gospel of Mark is just as historically implausible and just as theological in all its sequences and scenes as is the Gospel of John. I’m beginning to wonder — probably way behind Tim on this point — that Wrede comes very close to explaining how a heavenly Christ of Paul came to find a life on earth in the Gospels. (Not that Wrede was a mythicist, of course.)