William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret
Part 1: Preface
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.
Whatever it is, they’re against it
It comes as no surprise that scholars following Wrede disagreed with his theory of the Messianic Secret motif in the Gospel of Mark. Since he concluded that the historical Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah, Wrede became a pariah among conservatives and apologists. However, even among critical scholars, his thesis found detractors. Of course, this is how scholarship always proceeds. What’s the point of writing a doctoral dissertation that agrees with everything that came before? One leaves one’s mark by making new contributions to the field. Nonetheless, if your goal is to point out where Wrede went wrong, it seems only sporting to state his case correctly first and proceed from there.
Before continuing, let’s get something straight about his name. In all official references to his works, his given name appears as “William,” not “Wilhelm.” It’s remarkable that in many of their superficial references to his works, apologists call him “Wilhelm” — hence N.T. Wright’s fluffy little piece, The Historical Jesus and Christian Theology. Worse still is the nauseatingly shallow treatment by Dr. Robert Cara in his iTunes course, “The Gospels,” (presented by the Reformed Theological Seminary) in which he unfailingly calls him “Wilhelm Vray-Day.”
An open secret?
Even otherwise reliable and respectable scholars give William Wrede short shrift. In Dale Martin’s video course, Introduction to the New Testament, (freely available from Yale) we get this curious summary. He notes many problems in understanding the Gospel of Mark, and says:
There’s first the problem — one of the most famous problems — of the “Messianic Secret.” This is when over and over again in Mark (and it happens sometimes in the other gospels, but it happens more in Mark than a lot of other places), you get Jesus doing something and then he tells somebody to be quiet about what he’s just done.
. . .
One of the old theories about the “Messianic Secret” was [advanced by] a modern scholar in the early 20th century who said, “Well, here’s what happened. The disciples of Jesus (so would say the writer of the Gospel of Mark) knew that Jesus wasn’t proclaimed openly and widely as the Messiah during Jesus’ own lifetime. He was proclaimed to be Messiah by Jesus’ disciples after his death.” So why is it all these people [didn’t] recognize Jesus as the Messiah during his lifetime and so the scholar said, “Well, the writer of the Gospel of Mark decided it must have been because Jesus kept it a secret. Jesus wanted to keep it a secret.”
Now the problem with that theory is – can you pick out the problem with that theory? The reason we have the Messianic Secret in Mark is because people knew that Jesus was not openly proclaimed as the Messiah during his lifetime, so this is a literary device to explain why Jesus wasn’t known in his lifetime – it’s because Jesus kept it a secret. What’s wrong with this theory? Yes, ma’am.
[Inaudible response from a student.]
There’s one place were he does tell – the Binding of the Strong Man. Other problems with the theory?
[Inaudible response from a student.]
The people tell anyway! So it doesn’t explain that Jesus wasn’t proclaimed as the Messiah, because all the people he tells to be quiet go and proclaim him anyway. And it just says, “His fame spread.”
So there have been a lot of other theories about this whole Messianic Secret. What does it mean? Why does he tell people to be quiet? What is it that he wants them to keep quiet? And why do they go tell about him anyway? What does it mean for the story? That’s the first problem.
Perhaps it’s just as well Dr. Martin forgot to mention poor Wrede’s name. So let’s get this straight. The reason the theory of the Messianic Secret is wrong is that the secret wasn’t kept. Gee, Dale, do you think maybe Wrede read the Gospel of Mark? I’ll bet he did. Clearly, something is amiss here. Either this penetrating analysis somehow escaped several generations of scholars until now, or maybe, just maybe, Martin doesn’t understand Wrede’s conception of the problem or his proposed solution.
Let Wrede be Wrede
The purpose of this series of posts on Wrede and the Messianic Secret is to provide a kind of “guided reading.” We’re going to look closely at what the author had to say. What were his preconceptions? How did he define his terms? What new methods did he contribute to NT scholarship? What did he mean, exactly by “secret”? What issues did he identify, and what solutions did he offer?
Above all, we want to clear away the middlemen and get to the source, to allow Wrede to speak for himself and let his “secret” be revealed again — for the first time.
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