Category Archives: Wrede: Messianic Secret


2015-02-19

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (11)

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 11: Luke Abandons the Secrecy Motif

While we may have had to wait until the end of Mark’s story for the denouement of the secrecy gospel, Luke removes all suspense early on with the scene in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-30). In The Messianic Secret, William Wrede writes:

Here Jesus reads out the words of Isaiah 61.1f. regarding the anointing for messianic vocation and then goes on to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. But this is nothing other than a messianic self-proclamation, and if Luke in all probability made up this scene himself in so far as it is at variance with Mark, and certainly thought of it as an introduction determining the character of the presentation of the story which follows, yet one gains the impression that here he is doing something which Mark would hardly have done. However many contradictions may be found in Mark along with the idea of secret messiahship, this is on a different footing. It looks like a denial of the idea itself. (Wrede, 1901/1971, p. 178, emphasis mine)

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

The Sermon on the Mount (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is the Sermon on the Mount private instruction?

Luke’s Jesus does not hide his light under a bushel. He lets everyone know who he is. We can see the extent to which Luke has embraced this public, openly messianic Jesus even in the way he teaches the crowd.

Wrede makes the point that in Matthew, much of the instruction Jesus imparts to his disciples remains private. The Transfiguration, the prophecy of the passion, the meaning of parables, the “question about the last things,” etc. happen away from the crowds and sometimes away from the majority of the disciples. But that’s not all.

We may also mention that even the Sermon on the Mount is regarded as instruction of the disciples. For according to 5.1, when Jesus sees the crowds, he goes up the mountain and then the disciples approach him[*] in order to receive his teaching. This, of course, is again forgotten at the end of the sermon in 7.28.

[*] prosēlthan autō hoi mathētai, Matthew is very willing to say, even although they were already together with Jesus. Proserchesthai [coming near to, approaching] is generally used by him more often than in all the other New Testament writings put together. (Wrede, 1901/1971, p. 178)

In other words, Jesus is moving away from the crowd and up the mountain where he will give private (secret?) instruction. Apologetic and traditional commentators haven’t seen it that way, of course. Instead of retreating, they imagine that Jesus is simply getting a better vantage point from which to address the crowd. But the text is quite clear. read more »


2014-02-12

The Author of Mark: Master of Suspense?

by Tim Widowfield
English: Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitc...

English: Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What Is Suspense?

A.H. [Alfred Hitchcock] In the usual form of suspense it indispensable that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense. (Truffaut: Hitchcock (1983), p. 72, emphasis mine)

Back when I was an undergrad at the University of Maryland at College Park, I took a film class that focused on British director Alfred Hitchcock. Our main text, based largely on interviews that you can listen to at the Internet Archive, was Francois Truffaut’s book, which I still highly recommended for any film buff.

The difference between suspense and surprise

Hitchcock, of course, had a keen interest in suspense, as distinguished from surprise.

A.H. There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it is seen as an absolutely ordinary scene. Now let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen an anarchist place it there.

The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.

The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!” (Truffaut, p. 73, reformatting and bold emphasis mine)

read more »


2013-09-02

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (10)

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 10: How Matthew and Luke changed Mark

The Martyrdom of the Apostle St.Matthew

The Martyrdom of the Apostle St.Matthew
(The evangelist prepares for the final cut.)
Jan de Beer (c.1530-1535)

Five months have passed since my previous post on The Messianic Secret. In the interim, I have focused on material related to the genre of the gospels, which has consumed most of my attention.

Recently, however, I’ve been simultaneously reading or re-reading several works on the problem of the Synoptic Gospels, including E.P. Sanders’ The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, William Farmer’s The Synoptic Problem, and Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q. I’ve learned much from reading each of these authors, but I would like to point out that we often will not necessarily understand what is important or significant until we read a work the second or third time.

Let me explain further. About a month ago I began reading The Synoptic Problem by William Farmer, and much to my surprise I learned quite a bit about how we arrived at the “Two-Source” (Mark and Q) consensus — things I didn’t pick up from reading Streeter or anyone else, for that matter. Farmer’s perspective gave him free rein to look for inconsistencies, bad logic, and questionable motives. I now feel the need to go back and re-read The Four Gospels with this new information in mind.

Reading Sanders and Goodacre (again) helped change my perspective on the problem. And as luck would have it, reading Schmidt’s The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature as well as the later chapters of The Messianic Secret forced me to re-evaluate those thorny questions.

Synoptic questions

The basic questions we ask ourselves concerning the Synoptic Problem — once we admit that the first three evangelists were somehow copying one another — are:

  1. Who copied whom?
  2. Who changed what?
  3. Why did they change it?

In order to mount a convincing argument as to which gospel came first we need some set of criteria that convincingly explains why an author would change his source material. That is, can we detect any editorial tendencies of an author that caused him to truncate or expand a story? What theological preconceptions might cause a later author to gloss over “difficult” or “uncongenial” passages?

Wrede tackled these sorts of questions in Part Two, “The Later Gospels: Matthew and Luke.”

A primary question will then have to be how the Markan material we have examined is treated in both Gospels.(p. 152)

He’s referring to the passages in Mark that deal with concealment and misunderstanding. If, in Wrede’s view, both Matthew and Luke recapitulate much of Mark, taking over his historical sequence (such as it is), then we should be able to acquire a “direct insight into the history of the approach, which is of interest to us.” (p. 152)

In his examination of Matthew’s use of Mark, Wrede closely examined several pericopae, identified the differences, and tried to develop a coherent reason or set of reasons for the author to change his source material. We will look at two of those stories now.

read more »


2013-03-12

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (9)

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 9: Concealment Despite Revelation

This unit continues with the section of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret (1971 English translation) from pp. 82 through 114, which focuses on the phenomenon of the disciples (and others) seeing or hearing the truth about Jesus but failing to understand that truth.

Jesus with the Twelve(Duccio di Buoninsegna)

Jesus with the Twelve
“Are you guys even paying attention?”
(Duccio di Buoninsegna)

Where MacDonald went wrong

Somewhat coincidentally, Neil recently posted a piece called “Where Wrede Went Wrong? MacDonald vs Wrede on Why Jesus Tried to Hide His Identity.” In it, he discussed Dennis MacDonald’s contention that the Gospel of Mark at least in part draws upon narrative motifs from the Odyssey, including the necessity of secrecy as the travel-weary protagonist plots to take revenge against “the Suitors.”

According to MacDonald (see Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative), Wrede mistakenly placed the revelation of messiahship at the resurrection, when the actual revelation occurred earlier. He writes:

This understanding of secrecy [i.e., the one for which MacDonald is arguing] deviates from most other interpretations, including Wrede’s, by proposing that the disclosure of the secret takes place not at the empty tomb but at the Sanhedrin trial. (p. 142, emphasis mine)

While I am amenable to his proposal that Mark at times imitates Homer, MacDonald has failed to understand one of the enigmatic features of the messianic secret. For while self-concealment is a core component of the motif, Mark’s gospel also contains a number of instances in which the true identity of Jesus is plainly revealed to the people around him, and yet the secret remains intact.

By that I don’t mean that certain people “in the know” keep his secret. They hear all, but understand nothing. Only the demons seem to understand the full implications of the true nature of Jesus, and they weren’t told, but already knew it, owing to their supernatural existence.

MacDonald is correct about the disclosure of the secret at the Sanhedrin trial. In fact, from a narrative perspective, it is the turning point that inexorably sends Jesus down the path toward crucifixion. However, as we will see, this instance of disclosure resembles previous occurrences in that understanding does not follow revelation.

Scenes of recognition

The scene in the Odyssey in which Telemachus recognizes his father, MacDonald says, bears a strong resemblance to the scene in Mark wherein Peter “recognizes” that Jesus is the Christ. Interestingly, Telemachus first believes he is in the presence of a god and is frightened nearly out of his wits. At the close of both scenes, the protagonist orders silence. MacDonald writes:

read more »


2013-02-09

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (8)

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 8: A Different Kind of Messiah? — An astonishingly persistent misconception

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan! (credit: Wikipedia)

This unit picks up after our mid-stream break in which we answered the question: “What Is the Messianic Secret?

Restatement of purpose

It is not my main purpose to argue for or against Wrede’s thesis. That isn’t why I’ve embarked on this reading expedition. My reasoning is straightforward: Before we agree or disagree with Wrede, we ought to know what he really said. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, The Messianic Secret had a profound impact on NT scholarship. Yet that impact is mostly misunderstood and largely muffled by scholars and laymen who opine on the subject with only the most cursory reference to the actual source material.

I note with some sadness the historical irony here. Wrede continually asked his fellow scholars to stop ignoring Mark. Instead of asking, “Why did Jesus do that?” we first should ask, “What did Mark mean when he wrote that?” Having learned nothing from The Messianic Secret, scholars now ignore both Wrede and Mark.

The vast majority of scholars who talk about the Messianic Secret are clearly ignorant of Wrede’s work. They waste our time by rehashing arguments that Wrede already convincingly addressed and discredited. And they do a disservice to their students and the reading public who get a distorted view of what the Messianic Secret is all about.

A short autobiographical digression

When I left the USAF back in ’92, I ended up working for a consulting company that specialized in information technology (IT) management, and which also dabbled in business process re-engineering (BPR). We became heavily involved in helping the Air Force with the merger of the old AF Systems Command and AF Logistics Command into the combined AF Materiel Command. Specifically, we were to assist them in deciding on a single set of IT standards, methods, processes, etc.

I found myself in the unexpected role of facilitator in round-table discussions, with a group of high-ranking, strong-willed people who had larger-than-life egos. They were all rulers of their fiefdoms, and quite unaccustomed to being told how to run their businesses.

My job was to keep the discussion on an even keel, to make sure everyone contributed to the discussion, and to gently guide the group to a consensus. One of the rules that we followed (and which I enforced) was this: Before anyone could disagree with a previous point, he or she had to restate it to the satisfaction of the person who had made that point. You would be amazed at how well this rule works not only in de-escalating tensions but in saving time.

How does it save time? Well, people don’t hear very well when they think they and their cherished beliefs are under attack. So when Mr. X would speak up and say, “I disagree with Ms. Y, because the real problem with . . .” My job was to say, “Hang on. Explain what Ms. Y said.” Immediately his posture would change. Instead of leaning forward aggressively, he would usually sit back, reflect a moment, and say: “Well, I think she said . . .” The ensuing give-and-take helped to clarify the issues at hand, and more often than not, Mr. X would admit that he had misunderstood Ms. Y. Frequently they found that they were actually in “violent agreement.”

I tell this story to explain why I have such a strong conviction about understanding a work before criticizing it or proposing “better” explanations. The vast majority of scholars who talk about the Messianic Secret are clearly ignorant of Wrede’s work. They waste our time by rehashing arguments that Wrede already convincingly addressed and discredited. And they do a disservice to their students and the reading public who get a distorted view of what the Messianic Secret is all about.

“Don’t get the wrong idea about me.”

I almost hate to bring up Bart Ehrman again as a bad example, because it’s starting to look as if we’re unduly picking on him. He is not uniquely wrong at explaining Wrede; in fact in some respects he’s better than most. However, his assessment of the Messianic Secret motif is very instructive with respect to the idea of “different kinds of messiahs.” In his survey textbook, The New Testament, he summarizes Wrede’s thesis. He misses many of the nuances of Wrede’s arguments, but he’s generally accurate.

However, because Ehrman sees the gospel of Mark as an “ancient religious biography” (see Chapter 4), and because he fails to understand that Wrede’s questions are more about Mark, not the historical Jesus, he finishes his assessment by shooting over the heads of Wrede and Mark, offering the following historical explanation to what is essentially a form-critical question:

read more »


2013-01-06

Where Wrede Went Wrong? MacDonald vs Wrede on Why Jesus Tried to Hide His Identity

by Neil Godfrey

wredemacdIn the Gospel of Mark Jesus avoids publicity, silences those he heals, and muzzles demons who recognise him. Unfortunately, the earliest evangelist never mentions why Jesus maintained secrecy.

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. read more »


2013-01-03

What Is the Messianic Secret?

by Tim Widowfield
The Messianic Secret, William Wrede

The Messianic Secret, William Wrede

Taking a breather

Since more than one person has asked me, I thought it might be best to pause in the middle of my series on Reading Wrede Again for the First Time and state the case clearly and correctly. Given the lack of scholarly comprehension surrounding the motif and Wrede’s analysis of it, I probably should have started with this post. But there’s no sense in crying over water under the bridge.

Upon reflection, “lack of scholarly comprehension” is almost too charitable a description of the state of play. What we have instead is a prime example of “disunderstanding,” which, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts and comments, is the active, deliberate misunderstanding of a point, usually in favor of a straw man argument. It is analogous to the difference between misinformation and disinformation, except rather than a dishonest transmitter we have a dishonest, incompetent, or lazy receiver.

Definitions

The motif in itself is not Wrede’s theory; it is observable evidence. Wrede’s theory is about seeking the best explanation for the presence of the motif.

The Messianic Secret is a motif in Mark’s gospel wherein Jesus exhibits behavior that appears to be aimed at self-concealment. In other words, he seems to be trying to keep the fact that he is the Messiah from the general public. He commands demons to shut up. He tells people not to spread the word about his healing of the sick. He teaches the crowd in riddles, so that they can’t understand him. Moreover, his own disciples fail to comprehend his teaching or his intentions.

By motif we mean a “theme.” It could be a narrative device, a theological contrivance, or a historical theme (i.e., an authentic habit of the historical Jesus preserved in Mark’s tradition). On the surface, we know that it is a literary motif, but only through diligent exegesis can we decide where it came from and what it means. The motif in itself is not Wrede’s theory; it is observable evidence. Wrede’s theory is about seeking the best explanation for the presence of the motif.

By Messianic, Wrede meant “of or pertaining to the Messiah.” But whose definition of Messiah should we use? Wrede was very clear. We must start with Mark, because that’s what we have at hand. If we ignore Mark, we ignore the early Christians for whom he wrote and we replace them with our own historical conjecture and presuppositions (or what NT scholars call “reconstruction”).

Wrede correctly points to Jesus’ confession to the High Priest as evidence to Mark’s understanding of Jesus’ identity. Quoting from the ESV:

14:61b — Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”

14:7 — And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

14:8 — And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need?

14:9 — You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.

For Mark the titles Christ (Messiah), Son of the Blessed (a circumlocution for God), and Son of Man are all bound up in the identity of Jesus. It is a mistake to apply to Mark a modern notion about discrete aspects of Jesus. So when Wrede’s detractors say the Jesus was hiding his “Sonship” at one point and his “Great Healer” aspect at another, hoping to divide and conquer, they are once again ignoring Mark. They are so intent on proving the historical nature of the Messianic Secret that they take no consideration of Mark’s view of Messiahship.

We continually see scholars wrestle with the problem of the blasphemy verdict, because in Judaism claiming to be the Son of God and Messiah would not mean Jesus claimed to be God or to be equal with God. But that’s not our concern at the moment. What we know from his gospel is that Mark thought calling oneself the Messiah would bring a charge of blasphemy.

(Note: I’ll have more to say about “what kind of Messiah” in a future post.)

By secret, Wrede did not simply mean concealed facts. In German, Geheimnis also connotes “mystery.” We may rightly think of “the Messianic Secret” (das Messiasgeheimnis) broadly as the theme of the (mysterious) concealment of Christ’s true identity in Mark and, to a lesser extent, the other Synoptic Gospels.

We’re just getting started

If you understood only this much and decided to run off and write a refutation of Wrede, it would be as foolish as trying to debunk Sir Isaac Newton when all you know about his theory of gravity is: “It causes objects to fall.”

Hang on. There’s more to it than that.

read more »


2012-11-29

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (7)

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 7: “The Self-Concealment of the Messiah” — The injunctions to keep the Messianic secret

This unit continues Part 1, Section 2 (p. 34ff.) of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret (covering other features of the motif and the defense of a single coherent theory).

Demons in retrospect

Jesus Confronts Demons

Last time in Part 6 we finished up Wrede’s discussion of the demons’ recognition of the Messiah. At this point, we should probably mention why Wrede wrote about exorcisms first. And here, once again, I will refer to James D.G. Dunn’s 1970 paper, “The Messianic Secret in Mark” (PDF).

I rather suspect that Wrede was misled by taking the exorcisms as his starting point. It was natural that a nineteenth/twentieth century man should fasten on to these incidents which were to him among the most bizarre and incredible, and which for that very reason gave him immediate access to the theological viewpoint of the primitive Church — that is, to the way the primitive Church had viewed and worked over the historical facts. No psychological argument could explain how, for example, the Gerasene demoniac came to hail Jesus as Son of the Most High God, and recourse to a supernatural explanation was unacceptable. Therefore, Wrede concluded, we are in the presence of a legendary development in the tradition which leads us straight into the heart of the Messianic secret. Leaving aside the issue of demon possession and the possibility of supernatural knowledge, which I personally hold to be a far more open question than Wrede allowed, it still seems to me that Wrede’s approach was methodologically suspect. (p. 97 of the Journal, p. 6 of the PDF, bold emphasis mine)

Dunn thinks Wrede latched onto the stories of demonic possession (1) because they were “bizarre and incredible” and (2) because they give modern, critical scholars a window on the “theological viewpoint of the early church.” Yet Dunn is suspicious of Wrede’s methodology. Why would that be? Dunn is intimating that Wrede’s post-Enlightenment, scientific, naturalistic biases drew his focus to the exorcism stories, and that these biases further clouded his judgment, causing him to overstate his case.

read more »


2012-06-19

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (6)

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 6: “The Self-Concealment of the Messiah” — Demons (cont’d)

Medieval book illustration of Christ Exorcisin...

Image via Wikipedia — Legion exiting the Gadarene demoniac

This unit continues Part 1, Section 2 (p. 24) of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret.

Revealing and Concealing

As we have seen, Wrede agreed with the critics of his day that Mark’s Jesus seems to be intent on keeping it a secret that he’s the messiah. Yet, right next to the commands to silence we find testimony to the fact that Jesus’ fame spread far and wide.

And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more zealously they proclaimed it; (Mark 7:36, KJV)

Similarly, the disciples seem to alternate from ignorance to knowledge and back again. Wrede’s concern is to discover where this motif comes from. Is it purely a literary convention, or is it historical? If it is a literary motif, was it present in his sources or is it a Markan invention?

By examining the various manifestations of the Messianic Secret, perhaps we can discover its roots and significance. Ultimately, thought Wrede, such knowledge may help us reveal authentic traditions of the historical Jesus.

Exorcism and the Messianic Secret

The exorcism stories in Mark provide two distinct aspects of the Messianic Secret. First, obviously, are Jesus’ commandments of silence. A more subtle, secondary aspect is the spiritual rapport between Jesus (now endowed with the pneuma) and the unclean spirits. In other words, the fact that the demons know exactly who Jesus is simply by being nearby, or as Wrede puts it:

A direct rapport exists between him and them; it is not tied to any earthly means of communication. Spirit comprehends spirit, and only spirit can do so. For this reason, the idea that Jesus’ messiahship was a secret is not to be found merely in the command to be silent but is already independently present in the circumstance that the demons know about him. Their knowledge is secret knowledge. (p. 25 — emphasis mine)

Demons detect the proximity of Jesus and immediately know who he is and what his presence on the earth means — namely, that they’re in imminent danger. Further, while they can’t help being terrified by the presence of Jesus, they are “magically drawn to him.” (p. 26)

read more »


2012-03-18

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (5)

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Devil medium

Image via Wikipedia -- A picture of the Devil from Codex Gigas (1204-1230 CE)

Part 5: “The Self-Concealment of the Messiah” — Demons

This unit begins Part 1, Section 2 of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret.

Patterns of concealment or the “Shrouded Savior”

In this section Wrede lays out the various ways in which Jesus hides his true nature from the public, and at times even from his own disciples. It’s worth mentioning again that the author of Mark and the readers of his gospel have no doubts about who Jesus is. The narrator tells us from the very start that he is the Christ, the beloved Son of God. However, Mark keeps us in suspense while we wonder at the inability of everyone around him to see the obvious.

“I know who you are!”

Now that Jesus has been possessed by the Holy Spirit (as Wrede puts it, “equipped with the pneuma“), the other actors in the supernatural dimension, the demons, become acutely aware of his presence. They tremble in fear for their lives. They beg not to be disturbed. It would seem they fear not just simple eviction, but that the Son of God’s presence on earth signals the imminent eschaton, in which they will meet their doom.

While reading the gospel, we cannot help noticing that the exorcisms in Mark follow a recurring pattern. The presence of Jesus agitates them. They cry out to be left alone, often throwing the demoniac to the ground. Jesus commands them to be silent and casts them out. The ex-demoniac is cured and “in his right mind.”

Why does Jesus order the demons to shut up?

The name of this section gives away the answer to that question. According to Wrede, Jesus commands their silence in order to keep the Messianic Secret. Is his conclusion justified? Craig A. Evans thinks not. read more »


2012-03-13

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (4)

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

English: A layered pound cake, with alternatin...

Image via Wikipedia -- A layered pound cake, with alternating interstitial spaces filled with raspberry jam and lemon curd, finished with buttercream frosting.

Part 4:  Mark — “Some Preliminaries on the General Picture of the Messianic History of Jesus.”

This unit covers Part 1, Section 1 of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret.

Layers upon layers

One of the things that struck me while reading this section is Wrede’s clarity of thinking, especially when it comes to making judgments about what the text of Mark means. In each case we have to try to come to terms with several distinct layers. I would include among them:

  1. The text as we interpret it today.
  2. The text as the early church fathers understood it.
  3. The text itself. (Often ambiguous.)
  4. The author’s intended meaning. (And what the first audience would have inferred.)
  5. The tradition as it came down to the author. (Whether it came from the first Christian communities or from Jesus himself.)
  6. What Jesus actually did, said, and thought.

The Son of Man sayings

I’m jumping ahead a bit, but I think this is a crucial matter, and one that is sometimes ignored in current scholarship. Wrede cites Mark’s use of the term “Son of Man” as a probable indicator of messiahship. Many modern scholars would likely dismiss that characterization out of hand, because we know so much more now about bar nasha, thanks in part to works like Maurice Casey’s The Solution to the Son of Man Problem. Presuming Jesus did exist, he likely spoke in Aramaic. Hence, his pronouncements such as “The son of man is lord also of the Sabbath” probably meant “Man is master of the Sabbath” (i.e., the Sabbath was made for human beings and not vice versa).

But Wrede knew that. It was already well known in his day that bar nasha is an Aramaic idiomatic expression for “the man” (or “a man” or “a guy”). He writes:

This would naturally make the passages no longer usable as proofs for an earlier use of the messianic title by Jesus. But this judgement is premature. Our primary concern is with Mark, not with Jesus. The original sense of the passage is completely immaterial here. The one thing that remains established is that Mark is here speaking of the “Son of man” in the same sense as he is everywhere. [p. 19, emphasis mine]

read more »


2012-03-02

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (3)

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 3:  Introduction

Gospels are stories

Illuminated Manuscript, Ethiopian Gospels, Eva...

Illuminated Manuscript, Ethiopian Gospels, Evangelist portrait of Mark, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.850, fol. 60v (Photo credit: Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts)

In the previous installment, we read through the front matter of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret. This time, we’re going to look at the Introduction, which while technically part of the front matter, is a meaty chapter unto itself.

Quite recently, Neil remarked on this blog:

The most striking thing that hit me in Richard Carrier’s online discussions or articles on Bayes’ theorem was the point that one needs to stop and distinguish between whether we know X happened (e.g. someone saw an empty tomb) or whether what we know is that we have A STORY THAT SAYS X happened.

Apparently, we’re still re-learning the things that Wrede said over a century ago. Indicting the current “defective critical method,” he wrote:

First of all, it is indeed an axiom of historical criticism in general that what we have before us is actually just a later narrator’s conception of Jesus’ life and that this conception is not identical with the thing itself. But the axiom exercises much too little influence. (p. 5, emphasis original)

The story is not the event. The map is not the territory. He then drives the point home even harder, declaring: read more »


2012-02-27

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (2)

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

English: William Wrede (1859-1906) Deutsch: Wi...

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Part 2: Front Matter

A turning point in the quest

In the first installment, we introduced Wrede’s watershed book on the Gospel of Mark. And watershed is a fairly apt description of The Messianic Secret, since for many scholars it marks a turning point in The Quest of the Historical Jesus. In fact, as you may recall, Albert Schweitzer subtitled his classic work on the quest: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. For Schweitzer (and many others), Wrede signaled the end of the first quest.

If Wrede’s contributions to New Testament studies had such an impact, you would think today’s scholars wouldn’t simply skim over the Messianic Secret, concluding with a dismissive “Nobody believes that anymore.” Even if that were true, we should still like to know why he made such an impact in his day. What was it about the book that caused such a stir when it was published? Why did it have such a lasting effect on NT studies through most of the 20th century? The only way to be sure, I think, is to read Wrede’s work for ourselves. read more »


2012-02-25

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (1)

by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

A four rotor Enigma machine.

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Part 1:  Preface

Game-changers

A handful of works in the field of Biblical studies have the reputation of revolutionizing the field.  Later scholars refer to them as ground-breaking, game-changing, or seminal.  These works arrive on the scene and immediately change the nature of the debate, often providing an entirely new thought framework.  More than that, they supply scholars with fuel for generations to come as the original work is reinterpreted, recast, and re-imagined.

Some examples come to mind immediately:  Wellhausen′s Prolegomena, D.F. Strauss′s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, and Bultmann′s History of the Synoptic Tradition.  These important works in the tradition of historical-critical scholarship have much in common besides being seminal works.  First, they often unwittingly create a cottage industry for apologetic rebuttals. Dreadful little pamphlets and books hit the street almost immediately that attempt to debunk the new perspectives. These rebuttals, written by people who clearly aren’t up to the task, appear like mayflies: they burst forth, have their day in the sun, and then are entirely forgotten.

The unread classics

Among the common traits these ground-breaking classics share, we would have to include the way in which they become known to modern scholars and students.  They are not so much read as “absorbed” through the membrane of other scholars.  That is, students read what other scholars think the original work said, or they come across a synopsis of the work, and this serves a stand-in for actually reading it and understanding it on its own merits.  The original tract is reduced to footnote fodder with writers pretending to have read the work, when really all they’ve done is skimmed a summary, a passing reference, or an interpretation.

You’d have to look long and hard to find a better example of an unread classic than William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret (1901).  Unavailable in English until 1971, Wrede’s book was at first largely ignored in the US and UK (see J.D.G Dunn’s “The Messianic Secret in Mark,” (warning: link leads to PDF) Tyndale Bulletin 21 (1970) 92-117).  Apparently, by the time the English-speaking world took notice of it, so much had been written on the subject that scholars began to lose sight of the original thesis, while others simply misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented Wrede’s very description of the problem. read more »