Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (5)

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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.

In, “How Mark Writes” (Chapter 7, The Written Gospel, 2005, Cambridge University Press), he explains that it’s all a misunderstanding. What we need to understand, Evans explains, is that Mark was a clumsy writer and frequently misplaced his “γαρ (gar) clauses.” The most famous example of this curious habit is in 16:3-4. I’ll quote from Young’s Literal Translation, so you get the full flavor of the misplaced γαρ clause.

3. and they said among themselves, ‘Who shall roll away for us the stone out of the door of the sepulchre?’ 

4. And having looked, they see that the stone hath been rolled away — for [γαρ] it was very great 

What is this supposed to mean? Was the stone rolled away because it was very great? No, the women were wondering who would help them get into the tomb because the stone that sealed the entrance was too large for them to move.

We have a similar problem, Evans claims, in 1:33-34. He writes:

1.34. ‘He would not permit the demons to speak, for (gar) they knew him.’ Mark 1.33-4 summarizes Jesus’ healing activity in Capernaum: ‘And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, for they knew him.’ The impression the evangelist gives is that perhaps Jesus perhaps would have allowed the demons to speak had they not known him. But this of course is nonsense. It is because the demons know who Jesus is that they speak. (p. 136)

Evans further explains that knowing the name of a demon gave an exorcist power over him. Conversely therefore, if a demon knew who the exorcist was, it might give the unclean spirit the upper hand. Given those ground rules, we can scarcely be surprised that Jesus forbids them to talk. He continues:

Accordingly, the point of the gar clause is that because the demons knew who Jesus was, they spoke; and they spoke in a desperate bid to thwart Jesus’ attempts at exorcism. But Jesus had no intention of wrangling with these spirits, so he did not permit them to speak.

Recognition of Mark’s misplaced gar clause in this case may well have implications for the so-called messianic secret motif in this Gospel. The point of Jesus’ command was not to conceal his identity; it was to forbid them from arguing with him. (p. 137) [emphasis mine]

Is Evans right? Was Wrede barking up the wrong tree? Well, Dr Evans is certainly right about one thing: If his misplaced gar argument is correct, it does have dire implications for Wrede’s thesis. Unfortunately for Evans, he is wrong on nearly every count.

Clause, but no see gar

It may seem like a minor point to quibble over, but we have to address the elephant that is not in the room. The explanatory clause in 1:34 begins with (hoti), not gar. As an amateur, I only have access to a few Koiné translations. According to the UBS, the Textus Receptus, Scrivener, Westcott-Hort, and Stephanus, this verse has no gar. I even checked the Codex Sinaiticus on line. They all say this:

. . . ὅτι ᾔδεισαν αὐτόν.

. . . because they knew him.

Now Evans could be arguing that any parenthetical statement in Mark could be out of place, no matter what preposition or conjunction it starts with; however, it seems awfully strange that he would specifically focus on misplaced gar clauses, and then cite as his very first example a verse that does not contain gar.

What about the assertion that the reason Jesus commanded the silence of the demons was that “it knows who he [Jesus] is and therefore can speak directly against him, possibly harming him” (p. 136). One way to test this theory is to examine each case of exorcism and see if it withstands scrutiny. It’s true that in Galilee he always tells the demons to hold their peace.

My name is Legion

However, when Jesus and the disciples take their little day trip to the country of the Gadarenes (or Gergasenes, for those keen on harmonization), things are different. Let’s not forget that the Gadarene demoniac was truly a holy terror. When the local folk tried to bind him in irons he was able to break the chains with his bare hands. This guy didn’t have just one demon, but a whole pack of them. Mark says that no man could tame him, and that “night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.” (Mark 5:5, KJV) This is the kind of thing that can really spoil a picnic.

If Evans’ theory had any validity at all, we should expect Jesus immediately to command these demons to be silent. After all, if they got the upper hand, there’s no telling what they might do. Jesus surely will not want to “wrangle with these spirits.” So what does Jesus say?

Well, ironically, verse 8 appears to be an actual misplaced gar clause. Verse 7 contains the demons’ response to the command to leave the victim given in verse 8, out of temporal sequence. Jesus commands him to vacate the body, and the unclean spirits start wailing and complaining. At this point, Jesus surely tells them to shut up, right?

9. And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.

10. And he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country.

11. Now there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding.

12. And all the devils besought him, saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them.

13. And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea.

At no time does Jesus silence the demons. In fact he engages in a conversation with 2,000 evil spirits, or at least with their spokes-demon. The salient difference between the exorcisms in Galilee and the expulsion of the legion of demons into the swine is the lack of the onlooking crowd. When the public is not present to hear the secret, Jesus doesn’t care. Mark knows that Jesus is too powerful to worry about demons getting the upper hand; it isn’t even a remote possibility. So when the demoniac cries out on behalf of his unwanted guests — “What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not.” — Jesus makes no effort to keep him quiet.

Whatever it is, they’re against it!

As I said early on in this series, conservative scholars as a general rule do not fully understand Wrede, and what they think they understand, they do not like. Evans shows us that to discredit Wrede they’re willing to take a long, twisted detour that depends on Mark’s bad Greek and ancient exorcists’ fear of demons. But Mark is very clear on this matter. He summarizes the exorcisms in 3:11-12.

11. And unclean spirits, when they saw him, fell down before him, and cried, saying, Thou art the Son of God.

12. And he straitly charged them that they should not make him known.  (KJV)

Mark tells us why Jesus commanded silence. It isn’t because he doesn’t feel like “wrangling.” It is because he does not want them to make him known. It could hardly be any clearer.

I hope you will all forgive my little digression, but I think it’s important to point these problems out. We’re frequently told we need to “engage with modern scholarship” when we discuss NT matters. I’m sure many scholars in the guild would be amused that we spend so much time on Vridar dwelling on “old” critical scholarship and “debunked” authors such as Couchoud and Guignebert. However, it’s difficult to deny that much of modern scholarship is tepid, timid, apologetic, and often downright sloppy.

Next time: “The Self-Concealment of the Messiah” — Demons (continued)

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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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22 thoughts on “Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (5)”

  1. “we wonder at the inability of everyone around him to miss the obvious.”
    Having not much else to say, can i remark: shouldn’t it be “we wonder at the inability of everyone around him to see the obvious.”?

  2. The temptation to manipulate, modify or correct the Biblical texts is as old as the most ancient of our existing manuscripts.
    Concerning the famous Codex Vaticanus (No. 1209), which is slightly older than the Sinaiticus, Wikipedia notes:
    “On page 1512, next to Hebrews 1:3, the text contains an interesting marginal note, “Fool and knave, leave the old reading and do not change it!” – “ἀμαθέστατε καὶ κακέ, ἄφες τὸν παλαιόν, μὴ μεταποίει” which may suggest that inaccurate copying, either intentional or unintentional, was a recognized problem in scriptoriums.”
    This note is mentioned by Bruce M. Metzger in his NTTC book. The later (minuscule aera) scribe complained about the change of the text of Heb 1:3 in indignant terms: “Fool and knave, can’t you leave the old reading alone and not alter it!”


    1. My first guess was that Evans had memorized the text in English, then imagined the original Greek as “gar.” However, every English translation I can get my hands has translated the “hoti” as “because.”

      There’s something else going on here that I should probably expand into post of its own. Conservative scholars are quick to “throw Mark under the bus” if they don’t like where the evangelist is heading. Evans’ audience will likely read what he says about misplaced gar clauses and accept it as coming from a serious expert on Mark. Recall that he’s the author of the second half of the World Bible Commentary on Mark.

      But consider what Robert M. Fowler had to say about gar clauses in Let the Reader Understand. Far from being a clumsy afterthought, Mark’s gar clauses intentionally pull the reader out of chronological sequence, which:

      . . . take[s] the reader forward one step and then backward two steps. The gar clause simultaneously reveals a gap in the reader’s knowledge, but probably more important it teaches the reader to follow the narrator, even in a momentary retreat.

      For all the reputed awkwardness of Mark’s gar clauses, they are often employed to great effect. (p. 94)

      If a scholar, as a reader of Mark, misunderstands the author’s methods can we trust his analysis? If a scholar of Faulkner thought that the author was incompetent based on Benjy’s narration in The Sound and the Fury, should we hold out any hope for the rest of his analysis of the novel?

  3. Pingback: Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (5) « Vridar | Gospel Feeds
  4. Clearly no one here at Vridar has taken even the slightest account of the guild’s present radical reconstruction of post death Jesus traditions. The classic statement of the Scriptural basis for this reconstruction in the words of Schubert M. Ogden:

    “We now know, given our present historical methods and knowledge, not only that none of the Old Testament writings is prophetic witness to Jesus in the sense in which the early church assumed them to be, but also that none of the writings of the New Testament is apostolic witness to Jesus as the early church itself understood apostolicity. The sufficient evidence of this point in the case of the New Testament writings (the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT) is that all of them have been shown to depend on sources, written or oral, earlier than themselves, and hence not to be the original and originating witness that the early church mistook them to be in judging them to be apostolic.”

    Thus to say the writings of the NT are written in the context (authorial intent) of imaging the Christ of faith (the Christ myth), not the man Jesus. From now on all legitimate Scriptural Jesus studies must begin with this indisputable historical fact.

    Wrede’s treatment of Mark’s Messianic secret is making the explicit point that this is Mark’s mythic creation to counter the Jerusalem Jesus Movement with their Sayings Gospel witness to the Jesus of history, the earliest Jesus tradition. The disciples were just dull, stupid, they did not get it; Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, even the most unlikely beings, the demons, knew it as well as the women at the tomb but they were told to keep quiet. The one source of apostolic witness, Jesus’ disciples just didn’t get it. This is clearly not history, it is authorial intent, the context in which Mark the first Gospel was written, to become the primary source for the later Gospels, hence they are all not Scriptural sources for knowledge of the man Jesus. Merrill P. Miller’s online article “Beginning From Jerusalem –“ takes the majority of present NT scholars to task for following the Acts lead in depicting Jesus tradition origins, failing to take account of present NT reconstruction.

    Meanwhile the secular critics have their hay day digging up NT grist for their No Jesus mill.

    1. This is not about arguing for “no Jesus”. I’m sure all of us here do recognize that the Gospels portray a Christ of faith and are not in themselves a source for the historical Jesus. I don’t understand why you would think otherwise.

      It is simply about reading Wrede and understanding what Wrede himself argued, since the way Wrede’s arguments are presented among too many contemporary scholars is false.

      1. Exactly so, Neil. Wrede saw no reason to doubt the historical Jesus. However, he did not have a naive approach to our earliest written gospel. He rejected the notion that we can get to the authentic Jesus simply scraping away the supernatural stuff and gathering up what’s left.

        In a way, many modern scholars are guilty of the same naive approach that Wrede warned against. They take out their box of tools (criteria) and start grinding away at the text. If it’s in Mark, and it’s “plausible,” and multiply attested in Paul, John, or Q, then it’s probably an old tradition that predates them all. They then leap to the conclusion that antiquity equals authenticity.

        Wrede was one of the first scholars to point out that Mark, while likely the first written gospel, was not free from theological redaction. I cannot help but suspect that some conservative scholars focus on Mark’s primitive if not “poor” writing style as proof that he was nothing more than a block-headed stenographer. They don’t want the first evangelist to be an intelligent, imaginative, creative writer.

      1. “Ed, I’ve replied at the Dialogue discussion. No point repeating ourselves here :-)”–
        I’m interested in this interpretation of Wrede’s treatment, Could you please give a link to that Dialogue discussion? Thanks in advance.

          1. You say there that you “don’t disagree with the argument that Mark was written to denigrate that form of Christianity that claimed the authority of the twelve or some form of ‘Jerusalem Jesus movement’.” Yet Wrede, as far as I understand, proposes a totally different explanations of disciples’ misunderstanding Jesus in Mark. If one accepts this explanation, the “denigration” argument appears as superfluous (i.e., explaining something which is sufficiently explained otherwise).
            So, does you statement that I cited mean that you find Wrede’s explanation of disciples’ misunderstanding insufficient?
            Also, are you sure that the “denigration” thesis is ” is widely accepted in the scholarship”?
            Personally, I find it convincing, but could not find it expressly articulated except in a rather marginal study by an Eastern Orthodox priest. I would be grateful if you could refer me to some solid exposition of this thesis, preferably–in the study in which it first emerged.

            1. I should not have implied that Wrede was arguing that Mark was attacking a form of Christianity represented by the Twelve.

              The main proponent of that idea, from my understanding, is Ted Weeden (Mark: Traditions in Conflict. Weeden has come under fire for continuing to repeat his thesis without appearing to take account of a range of criticisms of it. I have in the past thought this thesis is consistent with the gospel coming from a certain form of Christianity that broadly included Marcionism. (I don’t think the Gospel was Marcion’s – but it does have some overlapping with Marcion’s views. But there were other sects that overlapped some of Marcion’s teachings.)

              But I am no longer so ready to be convinced that the gospel was attacking any particular form of Christianity. I have wavered on this for a long time.

              I wonder if the gospel is, quite simply, following the well-known theology/theme that dominated the Jewish scriptures. It is yet one more story about the failure of “the old Israel” serving as a morality tale for the “new and true people of God” whom God has chosen to replace the old. Those new and true ones are, of course, the original readers.

              The Gospel ends at the same place a number of the OT stories end — with a question mark for the readers. There is a glimmer of hope there in the narrative, but the reader is not led to see whether this hope was resolved in the storyworld itself. So 2 Kings, for example, ends with the failure of the main characters, the peoples of Israel and Judah, in captivity. A glimmer of hope shines when the king of Judah is lifted out of prison and permitted to eat with his captor. Readers anticipate that this will be the harbinger of a full restoration that takes place beyond the narrative. The message is for the readers to live up to what is required for that restoration and not fall into the hard-heartedness of the old people of God that led to their demise.

              Mark’s Gospel ends on a very similar ambiguous, uncertain, tense and dark note. Is it written not for or against any particular sect? I suspect not. It is a pioneering effort to write a metaphorical tale of what the new faith was really all about — a replacement of the old (Mosaic) religion of the Second Temple era with a new Israel that had a new understanding and spirituality by the grace of God, and that was chosen to replace the old. The Gospel of Mark is a message for those new people of God to rise above the obtuseness represented by the failures in the narrative.

              It’s not history. It’s a parable, a metaphor. It’s a re-write of a dozen OT stories that all once told the same story to earlier audiences.

              1. “I have in the past thought this thesis is consistent with the gospel coming from a certain form of Christianity that broadly included Marcionism.”–
                Why not call it just Pauline ?:) My question, appropriate to this series, is whether you find Wrede’s explanation of the motif of disciples misunderstanding sufficient.
                According to Wrede, as I understand him, Mark is saying that understanding is given after the Resurrection, in a Pentecost event (expressed differently in Acts and John).
                This is contradicted, IMHO, by the fact that a woman in 14:9 (let alone, the centurion), unlike the disciples (including the women who came to the tomb), gets it, nevertheless. There’s a clear contrast here, which Wrede does not seem to explain. Your reference to OT stories does not seem to explain it either.

              2. It was the anonymous few who from the outset of the narrative “got it” that argue against the idea that the Resurrection was the defining event for belief. And we are simply not told that the disciples did “get it” after the resurrection. The ending is ambiguous. The point of the narrative is not to tell us what happened to the disciples (led by Peter, rock, rocky soil) in the end but to urge believers to respond appropriately and not repeat their errors. It’s the same theme throughout the Jewish scriptures.

                (I’ve never been sure that Mark is “Pauline”. But the explicit denunciation of the Twelve is certainly Marcionite.)

              3. “The point of the narrative is not to tell us what happened to the disciples”–
                No question about that.
                Yet the fact is disciples historically were the sole receivers of the Jesus’ tradition. Can one doubt that, by presenting them the way he does, Mark puts into question the authenticity of the tradition received through them?

                Markion is (radically) Pauline, this is a commonplace.
                Paul’s polemics against Jerusalem Jesus movement (sympolically represented by the “twelve” in Mk) is explicit enough in Galatians.

              4. To put it differently:
                it would be, of course, a sheer anachronism to speak of “Marcionism” in the 1st century.
                Yet Marcionism did not come out of the blew.
                There’re clear anti-Judaizing (thus, proto- [or, if you wish, pre] Marcionite) elements in Paul.
                And his is the earliest documented Christian teaching that we have.

  5. Tim, I am enjoying this series of posts. I have read and esteem Wrede’s book on Paul, but I never got around to reading this one on the messianic secret. Your observations are very helpful.

    In regard to the Gadarene episode: I am wondering if it is about something more than an exorcism. The question “He asked him, ‘What is your name?’” is ambiguous. Is the question directed to the possessed man or to the demon possessing him? It is of course always taken as directed to the demon. But would the author of the story have presented Jesus as ignorant, before being informed by the spokesdemon, that there was more than one demon present? And would the author have allowed the spokesdemon to basically refuse to give a name or names, and instead just have him bring Jesus up to speed with his “Legion” reply? Surely the author doesn’t want us to think that demons can refuse to give their names to Jesus as long as they are numerous enough! “Sorry. My bad. I didn’t know there was more than one of you in there.” True, Jesus may have had time constraints, but supposedly it was important to get names in order to effectively eject the little devils. Then too, doesn’t it seem like overkill for a legion of demons to be in a single man?

    I am thinking the question was directed to the man. And that by the answer “Legion” the author is telling us that the unnamed man stands for or represents a multitude of people who were being held captive by the demons. If so, what we have here is an allegory about the harrowing (i.e. despoiling) of hell. It is the harrowing of hell in a different setting. The crossing of Jesus over the water is along the lines of the crossing of the Styx. And according to Strong’s Concordance, Gadara means “reward at the end.” Assuming that etymology is correct, it would be fitting code for Hades. The man (or legion of men) running up to worship Jesus would correspond to the many who ran to greet him when he arrived in the Underworld. Until his arrival there they were living — again appropriately — in tombs. According to Marcion’s version of the harrowing there were some who refused to welcome Jesus in the Underworld. They had been tricked so often by the Creator God that they were afraid they were being tricked again. To them would correspond the townspeople who were fearful and asked Jesus to leave (Mk. 5:15 and 17).

    Unlike GMatthew, GMark doesn’t have any part of the harrowing of hell at the end of his gospel. GMatthew only has two verses about it: “Tombs were opened and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (Mt. 27:52-53). This would correspond to the Markan legion of ex-tomb dwellers who “went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done… and all were amazed” (Mk. 5:20)

    But there is an element in GMark’s version that makes me think his harrowing episode was gnostic (Simonian?) in origin. The tomb-dweller was naked, crying, and “cutting himself with stones” (Mk. 5:5). This may be intended to convey that man’s body, in gnostic fashion, is alien to him. It was the Creator God who put man in a material body. Part of redemption is escape from it. The man was furiously trying to cut his way out of his body. And after Jesus frees the man from the demons, he clothes him. (Mk. 5:15). This is reminiscent of Paul’s desire to leave his earthly body behind and get something better from the God in heaven: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.” (2 Cor. 5:1-2)

    So the Gadarene episode may be a Simonian allegory about the harrowing of hell: Jesus crosses over to free a legion of tomb-dwellers from the demons holding them captive. But if so, I have no idea why Gmark located it where he did (i.e., in chapter five) — unless that gospel was intended to be just a very loose collection of allegories without much strict chronology.

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