William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret
Part 6: “The Self-Concealment of the Messiah” — Demons (cont’d)
This unit continues Part 1, Section 2 (p. 24) of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret.
Revealing and Concealing
As we have seen, Wrede agreed with the critics of his day that Mark’s Jesus seems to be intent on keeping it a secret that he’s the messiah. Yet, right next to the commands to silence, we find testimony to the fact that Jesus’ fame spread far and wide.
And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more zealously they proclaimed it; (Mark 7:36, KJV)
Similarly, the disciples seem to alternate from ignorance to knowledge and back again. Wrede’s concern is to discover where this motif comes from. Is it purely a literary convention, or is it historical? If it is a literary motif, was it present in his sources or is it a Markan invention?
By examining the various manifestations of the Messianic Secret, perhaps we can discover its roots and significance. Ultimately, thought Wrede, such knowledge may help us reveal authentic traditions of the historical Jesus.
Exorcism and the Messianic Secret
The exorcism stories in Mark provide two distinct aspects of the Messianic Secret. First, obviously, are Jesus’ commandments of silence. A more subtle, secondary aspect is the spiritual rapport between Jesus (now endowed with the pneuma) and the unclean spirits. In other words, the fact that the demons know exactly who Jesus is simply by being nearby, or as Wrede puts it:
A direct rapport exists between him and them; it is not tied to any earthly means of communication. Spirit comprehends spirit, and only spirit can do so. For this reason, the idea that Jesus’ messiahship was a secret is not to be found merely in the command to be silent but is already independently present in the circumstance that the demons know about him. Their knowledge is secret knowledge. (p. 25 — emphasis mine)
Demons detect the proximity of Jesus and immediately know who he is and what his presence on the earth means — namely, that they’re in imminent danger. Further, while they can’t help being terrified by the presence of Jesus, they are “magically drawn to him.” (p. 26)
As we said earlier Wrede hoped that a careful examination of Mark’s tendencies (foreshadowing both form and redaction criticism) would help us discard the mythic or legendary husk and reveal the historical kernel. So, in the author’s estimation, can we accept the exorcisms in Mark as historical? Wrede painstakingly works out a complete argument that takes several pages — from p. 25 to 34 — and finally declares, “No.”
To the consternation, no doubt, of evangelicals, apologists, and today’s timid scholars who continue to pretend that supernaturalism is a viable option, Wrede immediately rejects the idea that demons exist and that they can possess human beings. So, if we’re dealing with some nugget of actual history, what is it?
The critics naturally cannot take Mark’s items of information in the sense they originally had. What do they put in their place?
Here is what we find held to be the kernel of these stories. Those who were mentally ill will have been disquieted by the presence of the one who was pure and holy, and will have called on him to leave them in peace. Thereupon, quite understandably, a surge of power will have gone out from the pure personality of Jesus, in all his intimacy with God, to take effect upon the deranged psyches of the diseased. This view is a wholesale abnegation of the object of scientific study and an illegitimate restatement in the modern key of ethics. . .
In cold prose this means that Mark’s account must rather simply be stating that on numerous occasions victims of hysteria or people otherwise mentally disturbed addressed Jesus as Messiah when he was still totally unknown as such. (p. 27-28 — bold emphasis mine)
In short, Wrede agrees with the critics of his day who brushed aside superstitious belief in demons; however he parts company with them on the idea that Mark’s possession stories could be explained by psychological phenomena. (Recall that at the time he was writing, we were on the tail end of the age of rationalism, in which scholars dreamed up naturalistic explanations for miracles, presuming that the gospel writers were honest witnesses who simply misunderstood what they saw.)
He grinds on, page after page, until at last he admits:
This debunking is almost too sweeping. But it was necessary to show that psychology, to which an appeal so often is made, is not and cannot here be helpful so long as our starting-point in regard to the Gospel is the recurrence of these incidents. (p. 31)
For Wrede, the formulaic repetition of the stories is the key — the unmistakable sign that we’re dealing with legendary material. And even if we can whittle the stories down to a single prototype from which Mark derives the rest, we really haven’t gotten anywhere.
Here the “kernel” does little for us. We simply do not see how the overall view of Mark is supposed to have been formed from a real incident or how a typical and significant feature could have grown out of an isolated peculiarity. By contrast the idea or notion held by the narrator or by others who were his predecessors does do a great deal for us. It explains the one circumstance just as well as the many and the many as well as the one; for if in Jesus’ encounter with demons we are dealing with the intercourse of supernatural beings, the idea that the spirits know him is already directly contained in this. It does not even need to be deduced.
I therefore conclude that these features are to be deleted from the real history of Jesus. Their very regularity is what makes them suspicious and betrays their origin. If we are anxious to find here a scanty remnant of history then we have to support the Markan account at our discretion to make it tolerable; but in itself it remains uncomprehended. If we give up the history we have the account entirely as it stands and find it in the supernatural view of the author — which indeed amounts to what is historically impossible — a direct way of understanding the whole. (p. 33, bold emphasis mine)
By definition, Wrede means to say, the modern study of history is a scientific endeavor; hence it must explain events naturalistically. If we cannot explain events by naturalistic means, then we’re probably dealing with myth. Of course, everyone studying ancient history other than the New Testament would argue the same thing. Scholars might contend that there was a historical Gilgamesh, but they would not insist that “we can’t say for certain” or “we must suspend judgment” as to whether he was two-thirds divine.
Wrede’s misinformed critics
As you might expect, evangelicals are scandalized by Wrede’s conclusions about demons being mythological. How dare he cling to such outrageous, indefensible, naturalist presuppositions?! While researching this subject online, I came upon many papers, essays, posts, etc. by apologists who set about to “debunk” Wrede. Here’s something you can do for fun when you have some time to waste. Search for the term “so-called Messianic Secret” in your favorite search engine. Then sit back and enjoy the mind-twisting prose of the apologists.
One core, foundational element of Wrede’s argument that most evangelicals and even many “real” scholars get wrong is Wrede’s understanding of the origin of the Messianic Secret. Heikki Räisänen in The ‘Messianic Secret in Mark’s Gospel writes:
According to an astonishingly widespread and persistent misunderstanding, Wrede regarded Mark as the originator of the ‘messianic secret’. [Räisänen gives several examples in a footnote.] However, Wrede himself says quite explicitly that the theory that the messianic secret was a Markan creation would be a ‘quite impossible idea‘. If it were a (new) concept in Mark, then Mark would have undoubtedly carried through his theory more consistently. . . The idea is already there [in the tradition]. ‘Mark is already under its sway, so that we cannot even speak of a Tendenz‘. [Wrede, p. 145] It is thus a question of a pre-Markan idea which dominated fairly large (though not necessarily very large) circles. (Räisänen, p. 44-45 — emphasis mine)
Here are some examples I happen to have at hand for your reading pleasure. The first is from James D.G. Dunn in his 1970 paper, “The Messianic Secret in Mark” (warning: PDF):
The Messianic secret is nothing other than the attempt made by Mark to account for the absence of Messianic claims by Jesus Himself. (p. 93 of the Journal/p. 2 of the PDF — emphasis mine)
[Note: Dunn is the first English-speaking scholar I can find who called William Wrede “Wilhelm.”]
Richard Longenecker wrote (in the Evangelical Quarterly, edited by F.F. Bruce) in his 1969 essay, “The Messianic Secret in Light of Recent Discoveries” (warning: PDF):
It was William Wrede who in 1901 first established the thesis that the reticence of Jesus to declare himself openly a Messiah is a Marcan device . . . What differences there are among advocates of this position [i.e., that secrecy was a post-Easter invention] have to do mainly with the refinements of Wrede’s thought regarding the specific purpose of Mark’s fabrication . . . (p. 207-208, emphasis mine)
As recently as February of this year we can find scholars repeating this misunderstanding of Wrede. Over on the Patheos website, Alyce M. McKenzie, the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, wrote in a post called “Blessed to Be a Blessing: Reflections on Mark 1:40-45“:
This is the first time we encounter the “Messianic Secret” in the gospel of Mark. The so-called “Messianic Secret” was a theory proposed by William Wrede, a German Lutheran Theologian in 1901. It refers to the motif of secrecy about Jesus’ Messianic identity found primarily in the gospel of Mark. Wrede’s theory was that it was the creation of the evangelist to explain why Jesus was rejected and put to death. More recent scholarship offers a number of reasons why the “messianic secret” may have come from Jesus himself. (emphasis mine)
[Incidentally this “more recent scholarship” is pretty much a regurgitation of apologist denials of Wrede that date from the 1910s.]
They don’t read Wrede
I wish I could say that these examples were isolated cases, but they are, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg. I can only conclude that scholars do not read Wrede. They may skim his work, but I think it more likely that they simply read what other scholars have written about Wrede and the Messianic Secret. On reflection, I can’t say I’m surprised by this revelation. They don’t read Wellhausen. They don’t read Bultmann. So why the hell should they waste their precious time reading Wrede — especially if nobody is ever going to call them out on their blunders?
Finally, please take note that this misunderstanding of Wrede is not some minor, inconsequential detail. Wrede believed some of Mark’s sources contained the references to the Messianic Secret, and that the evangelist (somewhat clumsily) put those stories side by side with stories that did not contain such references. Failure to comprehend such a fundamental detail means (1) they haven’t read Wrede (as we’ve already said) and (2) that they’re struggling against an argument that they neither understand nor care to take the time to understand. I wouldn’t even call it a straw man, because I’m convinced they are working from blissful ignorance and not malice.
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