Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (2)

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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.

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.
Perhaps the most important concept to keep in mind is this: You want to prepare the mental scaffolding on which to hang the author’s ideas. Paradoxically, you have to read the book before you can read the book.

The title

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”?

The subtitle

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.

Translator’s introduction

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.

Author’s preface

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:

  1. What do the gospels say about the traditions of Jesus as the Messiah?
  2. 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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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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9 thoughts on “Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (2)”

  1. To understand Wrede’s Messianic Secret one must recognize the history of origins for the period 30 CE – 65CE, before Christianity, before the Gospels, even for the earliest decade before Paul. It’s the period of post-execution Jesus traditions: two denominations each with their own distinctly different understandings of Jesus. The first, the Jerusalem Jesus Movement beginning with the key disciples concerned to again take up the teachings of Jesus. This was soon followed by a group of Hellenists Jerusalem Jews who, with their traditions of dying and rising heroes or gods, took up the notion that Jesus significance was the salvific effects of his death for mankind’s sins which abrogated the Torah. This was deeply abhorrent to the Jesus Movement and treason to the Temple authorities. An insurrection set off by Jewish authorities resulting in the stoning of Stephen, one of the Hellenists group, driving the group out of Palestine. Here Paul is introduced participating as a Temple sympathizer. The group fled to Damascus. Then we find Paul as persecutor pursuing the group with his “vision” experience on the road to Damascus, leading to his conversion to this group. It was from this group that he received his Christ kerygma. Paul takes his new-found gospel to the Gentile world beginning with Antioch, with his Christ kerygma to effectively sever knowledge of Jesus from his Jewish roots. As Reimarus, the father of the quest for the HJ said it: ‘Search the New Testament Scriptures and see if Christianity was not based on an historical mistake.” The mistake being Christianity was based on Pauline kerygma of the salvific effects of Jesus death and resurrection, rather than on the Jesus Movement with its teachings of Jesus.

    Now to Mark’s Messianic Secret: Mark the Gentile was proclaiming the Pauline Christ myth of what was now Gentile Christianity. Fully aware of his opponents, the Jesus Movement with their sayings of Jesus, with his secret motif he deliberately denigrated the disciples to say they were stupid, they just did not get who Jesus really was. He was the Christ, Jesus knew it, even the certain women knew it, but Jesus kept it a secret.

    1. All to say, Mark is not a reliable source for knowledge of the man Jesus. The fact that the later Gospels depend on Mark, must say the same judgment applies to them. Yet the Gospel of Matthew historicaly stands as a significant exception. Unmistakable evidence shows that Matthew had been a member of the Jesus Movement, now in Antiocch having fled there during the 70’s war where he wrote his Gospel. Robinson recognizes a seam in Mathew 3-11 over against 12-27. 3-11 marks “a first installment, the perfecting of the Q argument, as a monument to and justification for having held out in Jesus’ own life style for so long, before infact yielding to the unremitting pressue of the Gentile Christian community and its Gospel of Mark, – – the last stand of “Jewish Chritianity” (the Jesus Movement) in 3-11, before Matthew simply copies out Mark in 12-28, only toning down unobtrusively here and there Markan excesses. But Matthew leaves far behind his Judaism, with blood on his hands for killing Jesus (27:25) and lies on its lips for accusing the disciples of stealing the corps (27:62-66; 28-11-15), as Matthew’s church marches forth with the Great Commissiion making disciples of all nations, no doubt much to the distress of the holdouts for Jewish Christianity, and with mixed feelings on the part of the Evangelist himself.”

      1. Why would a “reliable witness” like the author of Matthew deign to rely upon an unreliable witness like Mark, copying him word for word? Not only does Matthew copy chunks of Mark wholesale, but he clearly relies on the earlier gospel for the general narrative structure of Jesus’ life. Compare, for example the synoptic structure of the Passion narrative.

        Matthew contains about 90% of Mark. Is it only the uncopied 10% that’s unreliable? Or is Matthew only reliable when he isn’t copying Mark? But then how do we know that his other sources are reliable? Or better yet, why should we assume that the double tradition (i.e., “Q”) is a “significant exception”?

        Where is the corroborating evidence?

  2. Assuming you have read both of my comments, your shows a level of misunderstanding to which I can only ask that you read my #28 comment to # Ed Jones Dialogue

  3. Yes, I now see that my statement “Matthew stands as the exception” can readily be read as saying Matthew is the exception to the claim that the Gospels are unreliable sources for knowledge of Jesus. Apologies! (See it as a quirk of age, 93). So I read your Comment out of context. What I meant was: Matthew is a Jew, the other authors being Gentile, for one thing among several others. A primary exception, he is seen as having been a member of the Jesus Movement. In any case I await your next installment the Introduction.
    I am yet puzzled by your question which Robinson. It is James M. Robinson, one of our greatest NT “experts”, perhaps the greatest on Q.

    1. Yes, I see now. I need to catch up on James Robinson. I’ve read a lot from his successor, John S. Kloppenborg. Of course he’s quoted extensively in the Documenta Q series, but reading snippets isn’t really sufficient.

      It’s a wonder to be able to chat on the ‘net with somebody of your age. If my dad were alive today, he’d still be four years younger than you. Cheers to you, sir!

  4. A ready online access to Robinson: click on The Real Jesus of the Sayings Gospel Q, by James M. Robinson The relevant section “How does one get from the Sayings Gospel to us?” is his reconstruction of the Jesus tradition.

    Also on line Faith and Freedom by Schubert M. Ogden, the last half of the article is pertinent to origins.

    Further, the online article Beginning From Jerusalem by Merrill P. Miller
    is a good contribution to Robinson’s reconstruction.

    Thanks for the age bit, its so that you take all the help you can get.

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