William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret
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.
On reading nonfiction
If you read nonfiction the same way you read a novel, you’re probably missing a lot. That may sound like common sense, but it’s a fact that people are seldom taught in schools. Teachers assign readings and expect students to absorb the contents and be ready to talk about them in class. However, I would venture to guess that very few students have ever been told how to read nonfiction.
In my undergraduate days I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a great professor, Dr. Jon Sumida of the University of Maryland. He assigned some very challenging books and expected his students not to have merely a passing familiarity with the texts, but to understand them. To that end, he taught us his method for reading nonfiction. You can take it with a grain of salt, but his recommendations have served me well over the intervening years.
Here are some of the high points.
- Pay close attention to the title and subtitle. Unlike in works of fiction, for which the title is usually chosen for its ability to entice potential readers to purchase the book, the titles and especially the subtitles of nonfiction books are carefully chosen to convey information the author wanted to share.
- Study the structure of the book. In other words, look carefully at the table of contents and thumb through to see how the work was laid out. It helps to understand what the author wanted to say when you also understand how he or she intended to convey the message. As with the title and subtitle, the structure of a nonfiction work does not appear by accident.
- Read the front matter carefully. It’s tempting to skim over the foreword, preface, and introduction, but don’t. Slow down and take it all in. Carefully reading the preface will prove especially useful, because it often contains the background to the subject matter, the author’s conception of the issues at hand, basic definitions, methodological considerations, etc.
- Leaf through the book to get a preview of what’s coming. You’re under no obligation to read the book in a linear fashion. In fact, it will help you understand it better if you skim the first and last paragraph of each chapter before you dig in. The author’s conclusions are not like the revelations of “whodunit?” at the end of an Agatha Christie novel; you’re not “spoiling it” by reading ahead.
Unfortunately, the English version of this book (The Messianic Secret, 1971, James Clarke & Co., LTD.) is not without its problems with respect to understanding the original text. Our suspicions are immediately aroused by the title, because the actual title in German is Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien, or in English: “The Messianic Secret in the Gospels.”
What exactly did Wrede mean by “Messianic Secret”? On the face of it, we may presume it has to do with Jesus’ concealment of his messiahship in certain gospel pericopae. That is, Jesus had a secret, and that secret was his true nature as the Christ. But we may wonder if Wrede also wanted us to speculate whether he meant simply “The secret is that he’s the Messiah” or perhaps also “The Messiah has a secret (or some secrets).” If it’s the latter, then his concealment could include the true nature of the Kingdom of God, the real reason for his coming death, or the actual meaning of his resurrection.
We may also wonder if the semantic scope of the word Geheimnis in German might be different from the English word “secret.” Should the fact that Geheimnis sometimes carries the connotation of “mystery” or “arcanum” color the way we think of the term “Messianic Secret”?
In the English translation, the subtitle is missing from the title page, but we find a reference to it in the Author’s Preface (p. 1 — note: all page numbers from here onward will refer to the 1971 English translation). Wrede writes:
I have called the work “at the same time a contribution to the understanding of the Gospel of Mark”; and I do in fact put some weight on the sub-title.
It’s somewhat troubling that Google Translate does a better job here. The subtitle is better rendered in English this way: as a contribution to the understanding of the Gospel of Mark. If this is any indication of what’s to come, we’d better have the German version handy and keep our German-to-English dictionary out on the desk.
I will admit that the first time through, I read the Translator’s Introduction. However, I think it somewhat hindered my understanding of the book, because I started viewing the work through the lens of the translator and with the baggage of the subsequent scholarship, which begins following the subheading The “Secret” since Wrede, and continues for several pages. It’s a useful summary and well worth reading, but I should have read it after finishing Wrede’s own words.
Wrede immediately tells us that his attention lately has been focused on the “the gospel tradition of Jesus as the Messiah.” He presents two concerns:
- What do the gospels say about the traditions of Jesus as the Messiah?
- Did the historical Jesus conceive of himself as the Messiah?
These are related questions, Wrede acknowledges, but they can be separated because . . .
. . . one can imagine a very unfavourable evaluation of quite clearly messianic materials in the Gospels, and yet also a failure even then to settle the question of Jesus’ messianic consciousness.
In other words, we may discover the strains of the earliest traditions (either for or against the messiahship of Jesus) and still not know for sure what Jesus really thought. As we will shortly see, at the turn of the century critical scholarship had arrived at a consensus about the primacy of Mark’s gospel. However, Wrede noted that we shouldn’t naively fall into the trap of thinking that primacy is the same as authenticity. As he points out so well on p 2.:
No a priori judgement can be made on the value of the Markan transmission, for we are entirely without the means of checking it against other sources. It must therefore be held possible that the oldest written material which tells us of Jesus, and which came to have a dominant influence on what came later, has incorporated much more than we could desire of the secondary tradition that had already accumulated, and much less of the good material. [emphasis mine]
Longtime readers of Vridar will recognize these warnings. Even if we can be assured in our conviction that Mark was the first gospel, we still don’t know how much goes back to the historical Jesus. It is simply a single, uncorroborated witness, and however ancient it may be, it has come down to us via a process of transmission — namely, a collection of deeds and sayings, presumably collected within an oral tradition, and likely added to and refracted by the communities that preserved it. In other words:
History teaches us that after the earliest Gospels were written down extraordinary changes in the picture of Jesus still took place. I cannot imagine why previously it should not have been so.
The key will be how to judge the Markan material without access to extant written sources. When studying Matthew and Luke we have the luxury of knowing how they changed Mark, and to a lesser extent how they changed Q. However, when studying Mark we have to look for subtle clues within the text itself. One of Wrede’s lasting contributions is his pioneering work in the field that would later be called Redaction Criticism.
In the next installment, we’ll tackle the Introduction.
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