William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret
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:
- The text as we interpret it today.
- The text as the early church fathers understood it.
- The text itself. (Often ambiguous.)
- The author’s intended meaning. (And what the first audience would have inferred.)
- The tradition as it came down to the author. (Whether it came from the first Christian communities or from Jesus himself.)
- 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]
Our focus is on Mark’s purpose for using the Messianic secret motif. Therefore we’re interested in what Mark thought bar nasha meant, not what Jesus thought it meant. And in fact we have an interesting clue that Mark did think that the Son of Man was a unique messianic self-designation. In 3:28 Jesus says, “All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men . . .” Casey notes:
Sometimes the different forms of a saying should be explained as a result of transmission in Aramaic or translation from Aramaic into Greek. For example, at Mk 3.28 the only occurrence of ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου in the plural in the Gospels is evidently due to the translator. He did not like the sense of a genuine saying of Jesus, which can be recovered with the help of Mt. 12.32//Lk. 12. 10.’ [Maurice Casey. Solution to the ‘Son of Man’ Problem (Library Of New Testament Studies) (Kindle Locations 1944-1946). Kindle Edition.]
In fact this section is often seen as a Mark/Q overlap, with Matthew and Luke making the Son of Man the target of blasphemy while Mark makes the sons of men the perpetrators. But in any case it seems highly likely that Mark’s source said something like “All sins shall be forgiven ‘a man’ (bar nasha), but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven.” So Mark’s redactional handling of the logion shows us that he viewed bar nasha as a special title reserved only for Jesus.
The prevalent view of the course of events (according to Mark)
I’m using Wrede’s sub-heading as my own for this post, because not much has changed in the common assessment of our earliest gospel. We’re told Mark’s gospel starts with the revelation to the reader that Jesus is the messiah. A few sentences later we have confirmation from heaven as the voice (which seems to be directed solely at Jesus) bears “testimony from on high that he is God’s son.”
The next crucial scene happens at the very middle of Mark on the Mount of Transfiguration, in which Peter finally realizes that Jesus is the Christ. Up to that time, the only actors in the play who have recognized Jesus for who he really is are from the supernatural realm. The demons know who he is — the holy one of God, the son of the Most High, etc. In a sense, Peter’s confession is a true leap of faith, because Jesus has “purposely veiled his messianic dignity in secrecy (p. 11).”
Even then Jesus tells Peter to keep it quiet. And so it continues until the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, followed by the violent public display at the Temple. The secret is finally laid bare at the trial. When asked if he is the son of the Blessed, he replies, “I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.”
Along the way we note the many times Jesus tells demons to be quiet and the people he healed to tell no man. He teaches people in parables (which seem more like riddles) and relates their true meaning only to the disciples. Wrede concludes:
Something like this is the picture of the messianic life of Jesus which the prevailing critical view finds outlined in the Gospel of Mark, and which for this very reason forms the best point of departure for our investigations.
I can hardly stress this point too greatly. When modern scholars and students conclude that Wrede’s contribution to scholarship was the discovery of Jesus’ concealment of his messianic dignity, they could not be further from the truth. What Wrede is saying is not, “Eureka! Mark’s Jesus kept his messiahship a secret.” Instead, he’s noting that the prevailing critical view was and is that Mark’s gospel contains a motif that we might call the “Messianic secret.” And that within this literary (or perhaps historical) motif, there is a consistent pattern of gradual revelation until everyone knows who Jesus is — even the centurion at the cross.
Now John Wayne finally knows what only we, the readers, knew from the very start.
Upon further examination . . .
Something odd happens when you start to look more closely at Mark. There seem to be conflicting threads, because for every call to silence, we read of an opposing account of Jesus’ fame being spread about far and wide. And while it would seem that Peter’s revelatory confession at Caesarea Philippi starts a new phase in the Gospel in which the disciples are onto the game and Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, it turns out that the Twelve are just as clueless after 8:29 as they were before.
Does the idea of gradual revelation culminating in the Passion truly hold up under scrutiny? What we see, Wrede says, is not so much a progressive, incremental realization of Jesus’ identity, but sudden recognition followed by ignorance, followed by another sudden recognition. How does blind Bartimeaus know who Jesus is? Mark doesn’t say. And what of the entry into Jerusalem with the crowd crying “Hosanna”? It remains a mystery.
[T]he act of messianic homage at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a completely isolated story in Mark. It leads nowhere and there are no kinds of clearly discernible preliminaries to it. The manifestation of Jesus’ messiahship is therefore still a mystery unless we again begin to read between the lines. These points already give grounds for caution. The narrative does not look like an intentional record of messianic developments. [p. 16, Wrede’s emphasis]
Wrede’s four points
The author closes this section on the general picture of Mark’s gospel with four observations that appear to indicate irreconcilable contradictions.
- Jesus heals people and casts out demons “in the full glare of publicity,” and then commands silence. If Mark had a definite plan in mind, then we might expect the commands to silence after secret miracles to taper off, but they occur sporadically as late as 8:26.
Did it not occur to Mark — if indeed his idea was “late disclosure of the Messiah” — that his narrative works against that goal? Mark certainly viewed the miracles as a sign of messiahship, so how can we account for the contradiction?
- Peter, James, and John are privy to the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Surely they must have known at that point they weren’t following some ordinary teacher. Here was a guy who could cast out demons, heal the sick, and raise the dead. Wrede asks, “How does this accord with the usual view that before Peter’s confession Jesus did not reveal himself even to his disciples and only prepared the ground for their recognition of him by his teaching?”
Jesus publicly calls himself the Son of Man very early (in chapter 2). Wrede concedes that he hasn’t proved that these statements are “incompatible with the writer’s presumed plan,” but the simplest reading of the text would tend to show that Mark thought of Son of Man as a special designation — since it plays a prominent role in Jesus’ predictions at the Transfiguration as well as the eschatological prophecy before the Sanhedrin.
In 2:19-20, Jesus refers to himself as the “bridegroom” and predicts that when he is gone, the wedding party will fast. Wrede sees this as a full-blown Passion prophecy. If Peter’s confession marks the turning point at which Jesus begins to tell the disciples about the Son of Man having to suffer and die, then what’s this story doing in chapter 2? And it won’t do to call this a vague or obscure saying. On the contrary: “Every schoolboy can see that Jesus is talking of himself and of his death.”
The standard model comes to grief
Our analysis of the gospel has raised too many questions to allow us to accept the popular critical view of Mark’s gospel.
From all this I conclude that, just as much by what he does not say as by a series of definite statements, Mark shows he was unaware of the view of history ascribed to him. His presentation is altogether too confused to enable us immediately to gain a clear picture. Accordingly the view supported by prevailing criticism comes to grief.
What are we to make of all this? As Holmes once said, “I suspect myself . . . of coming to conclusions too rapidly.” For Wrede there is but a single course of action open to us:
I draw only one provisional conclusion from the character of the Markan account which has been exhibited: that there is no more pressing need than to subject his data to thorough critical assessment.
Next time: The Self-Concealment of the Messiah
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