What Is the Messianic Secret?

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by Tim Widowfield

The Messianic Secret, William Wrede
The Messianic Secret, William Wrede

Taking a breather

Since more than one person has asked me, I thought it might be best to pause in the middle of my series on Reading Wrede Again for the First Time and state the case clearly and correctly. Given the lack of scholarly comprehension surrounding the motif and Wrede’s analysis of it, I probably should have started with this post. But there’s no sense in crying over water under the bridge.

Upon reflection, “lack of scholarly comprehension” is almost too charitable a description of the state of play. What we have instead is a prime example of “disunderstanding,” which, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts and comments, is the active, deliberate misunderstanding of a point, usually in favor of a straw man argument. It is analogous to the difference between misinformation and disinformation, except rather than a dishonest transmitter we have a dishonest, incompetent, or lazy receiver.


The motif in itself is not Wrede’s theory; it is observable evidence. Wrede’s theory is about seeking the best explanation for the presence of the motif.

The Messianic Secret is a motif in Mark’s gospel wherein Jesus exhibits behavior that appears to be aimed at self-concealment. In other words, he seems to be trying to keep the fact that he is the Messiah from the general public. He commands demons to shut up. He tells people not to spread the word about his healing of the sick. He teaches the crowd in riddles, so that they can’t understand him. Moreover, his own disciples fail to comprehend his teaching or his intentions.

By motif we mean a “theme.” It could be a narrative device, a theological contrivance, or a historical theme (i.e., an authentic habit of the historical Jesus preserved in Mark’s tradition). On the surface, we know that it is a literary motif, but only through diligent exegesis can we decide where it came from and what it means. The motif in itself is not Wrede’s theory; it is observable evidence. Wrede’s theory is about seeking the best explanation for the presence of the motif.

By Messianic, Wrede meant “of or pertaining to the Messiah.” But whose definition of Messiah should we use? Wrede was very clear. We must start with Mark, because that’s what we have at hand. If we ignore Mark, we ignore the early Christians for whom he wrote and we replace them with our own historical conjecture and presuppositions (or what NT scholars call “reconstruction”).

Wrede correctly points to Jesus’ confession to the High Priest as evidence to Mark’s understanding of Jesus’ identity. Quoting from the ESV:

14:61b — Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”

14:7 — And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

14:8 — And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need?

14:9 — You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.

For Mark the titles Christ (Messiah), Son of the Blessed (a circumlocution for God), and Son of Man are all bound up in the identity of Jesus. It is a mistake to apply to Mark a modern notion about discrete aspects of Jesus. So when Wrede’s detractors say the Jesus was hiding his “Sonship” at one point and his “Great Healer” aspect at another, hoping to divide and conquer, they are once again ignoring Mark. They are so intent on proving the historical nature of the Messianic Secret that they take no consideration of Mark’s view of Messiahship.

We continually see scholars wrestle with the problem of the blasphemy verdict, because in Judaism claiming to be the Son of God and Messiah would not mean Jesus claimed to be God or to be equal with God. But that’s not our concern at the moment. What we know from his gospel is that Mark thought calling oneself the Messiah would bring a charge of blasphemy.

(Note: I’ll have more to say about “what kind of Messiah” in a future post.)

By secret, Wrede did not simply mean concealed facts. In German, Geheimnis also connotes “mystery.” We may rightly think of “the Messianic Secret” (das Messiasgeheimnis) broadly as the theme of the (mysterious) concealment of Christ’s true identity in Mark and, to a lesser extent, the other Synoptic Gospels.

We’re just getting started

If you understood only this much and decided to run off and write a refutation of Wrede, it would be as foolish as trying to debunk Sir Isaac Newton when all you know about his theory of gravity is: “It causes objects to fall.”

Hang on. There’s more to it than that.

Yet we find real scholars — accredited professors with doctorate degrees who should know better — weighing in on the Messianic Secret while comprehending even less. See, for example, Dale Martin’s transcribed classroom discussion in my first post on Wrede. His explanation of the motif and his half-baked description of Wrede’s views are jaw-droppingly confused and wrong.


In Wrede’s day, at the turn of the twentieth century, source criticism was king. Scholars had reached a consensus on the Four Document Hypothesis, agreeing on Markan priority as well as the existence of a now-lost shared source for Matthew and Luke, known as Q. In general Mark was considered almost a rough draft of history, an unembellished account of true, historical events transcribed by John Mark, a bosom buddy of Simon Peter.

But when Wrede read the gospel of Mark carefully, that isn’t what he saw. Instead, he noticed the same telltale signs of authorial intrusion that were already apparent in the other Synoptic gospels. He saw obvious signs of a writer using sources in a particular way to present a particular theological point of view.

However, in the case of Matthew and Luke, we have access to one shared source, viz. Mark, and we can theoretically reconstruct Q through careful analysis of the double tradition. The Gospel of Mark, on the other hand, is a completed literary product with no extant antecedents. Clearly, Wrede needed something other than source criticism to analyze Mark.

Just as Newton created the calculus in order to work on the problem of gravity, for all intents and purposes Wrede invented the form-critical approach to help him understand Mark. He created a methodology that anticipated both form criticism and redaction criticism.

The results of Wrede’s study

Norman Perrin in What Is Redaction Criticism? writes:

Wrede’s contribution to our discussion [of the history of redaction criticism] is his book Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien (the Messianic Secret in the Gospels), which was published in 1901 and is not so much a contribution as a bombshell! Few books have had such a drastic and far-reaching consequence in a given field of study as this one; so far as Gospel studies and Life of Jesus research is concerned, nothing would ever be the same again. (p. 8)

He continues:

Wrede showed once and for all that it was impossible to read Mark as a vivid, simple record unless one read as much into Mark as he read from it, and he showed that the narratives in Mark are permeated through and through with a theological conception — that of the Messianic Secret — which necessarily was of post-Easter origin. In other words, those whom we shall call the “historicizers,” those who read Mark as fundamentally a historical record, were bringing their history to Mark rather than taking it from him, and they were also closing their eyes to a major feature of the actual Marcan narratives(p. 8, bold emphasis mine)

Writing in 1969, Perrin was surely too optimistic when he wrote that last sentence using the past tense. Never underestimate the tenacity of conservative scholars who choose to close their eyes and plug their ears when confronted with findings they do not like. Even in this century authors are proud to endorse the comments of William Sanday who pooh-poohed Wrede back in 1907.

David F. Watson in his repetitive and tedious Honor among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret (2010, Fortress Press) spends two pages out of 231 to summarize Wrede’s work, wasting one paragraph to quote Sanday:

In 1907 William Sanday wrote, “The chief merit of Wrede’s book consists in its independence, its originality, and the newness of the questions which it raises. I consider it to be not only very wrong but also distinctly wrong-headed.” To a great extent, Sanday’s comment presaged much of the scholarly reaction to Wrede’s work: while Wrede’s overall thesis would not win the day, the set of questions that he raised would give rise to decades of scholarship. (p. 5, emphasis mine)

Vincent Taylor was astonished at the persistence of Wrede’s legacy, since (he asserts) it was “widely rejected.” He waxes poetic: “The citadel has caved in; but the flag still flies.” (The Gospel according to St. Mark, p. 123) For academicians who are ardent Christians first and scholars second, Wrede was just some cranky German writer who asked a few interesting questions, but was “far too skeptical” and “very wrong.”

Wrede’s conclusions

For the following list, I owe a great deal to Heikki Räisänen’s excellent book, The Messianic Secret in Mark’s Gospel. (See esp. Chapter Two, Section A.)

  • Contrary to the popular notion in his day that Mark’s gospel tells a logical story of gradual revelation, Wrede painstakingly shows that this is not the case. One cannot conclude there is any sort of “intentional messianic development” without reading his or her own interpretation into Mark.
  • While the secrecy motif is a dominant theme, we also find cases in which Jesus performs messianic works in the open. In the case of Jairus’ daughter, it’s obvious that everyone is going to find out that the little girl has been restored to life, and yet Jesus tells her parents to tell no one what happened. The secrecy theme and openness theme are both present and are related to each other.
  • The gaps and contradictions in the narrative show that “Mark no longer has a real view of the historical life of Jesus.”
  • Wrede’s contemporaries tried to explain the many calls to silence with different, scattershot reasons, which in the end he showed make no sense. He says it has to be the same reason, if only for the fact that Mark never explains why Jesus continually demands silence. Wrede writes, “Why would the narrator give no hints if he was thinking now of one and now of another reason? What reader could guess his opinion?”
  • All the commands to silence are historically implausible, and the key to understanding them is in Mark 9:9, in which Jesus charges the disciples to tell no one what they saw on the mountain “until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” In fact, Wrede declares that all the prohibitions and the “concealment of his Messianic dignity” can be explained from this single verse.
  • The post-resurrection explanation of Jesus’ Messiahship also explains the parable theory. The parables’ true meaning remains hidden from the crowd, deliberately — “That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.” Only after his resurrection would the veil of secrecy be removed.
  • The failure of the disciples to understand Jesus throughout the narrative is the other side of the concealment coin. Even what little Jesus chose to reveal to the Twelve or to his inner circle was not clearly understood until after the resurrection.
  • The Messianic Secret arose as an apologetic, transitional idea during the evolution from the earliest christological view — namely, that of Jesus becoming the Messiah after his death, upon his ascension into heaven (see, e.g., Philippians 2:5-11) — to the view that he became the Messiah at the baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended into him. Finally, it became firm Christian doctrine that Jesus was the pre-existent only Son of God, eternally begotten, and present before the creation. But in Mark’s day, traditions were less clear and more varied. He had before him some traditions in which Jesus fiercely hid his identity, but others in which he performed great works in public with no qualms at all.

Persistent myths about the Messianic Secret

  • Mark did not invent the Messianic Secret; it already existed in his tradition.
  • Wrede did not try to explain away the non-secrecy passages in Mark. As Räisänen put it:

Both motifs, hiddenness and openness, are very important for the evangelist. Mark’s presentation is thus characterized by a tension, but it is one of which he himself is not conscious. (p. 44)

  • Wrede did not presuppose that Jesus never considered himself to be the Messiah. Yes, if Wrede’s explanation of the Messianic Secret is correct, we would have evidence for the possibility that Jesus did not think he was the Messaiah; however, that line of reasoning is not central to Wrede’s case. His main point is that the secrecy motif is a secondary, redactional, theological idea and therefore not historical.

Why historical interpretations of the Messianic Secret don’t work

Historical interpretations may present clever explanations for why Jesus wanted to keep his Messiahship a secret, but they bypass Wrede (and Mark!) altogether.

Clearly, Wrede’s emphasis was not on historical matters. Although he did believe that the disciples’ view of Jesus really did change after post-Easter events, which became the catalyst for a reworking of the tradition, he mainly wished to comprehend the process by which the Messianic Secret arose and became part of Mark’s gospel. Hence, his arguments rely on a form-critical approach that seeks to understand Mark’s “tradition” and how he used it to write his gospel.

Historical interpretations may present clever explanations for why Jesus wanted to keep his Messiahship a secret, but they bypass Wrede (and Mark!) altogether.

The fact that one can point to ‘secret’ features in the preaching of the historical Jesus does not answer the question why such an unbalanced and peculiar presentation such as Mark’s has developed from these starting points. Within the context of an historical interpretation, one can make more or less well-founded conjectures as to why Jesus might possibly have wished to avoid publicity. But one cannot in this context answer Wrede’s question of how the tension between hiddenness and openness, and the particular features in connection with the secret, are to be explained. Wrede’s analysis of Mark cannot be refuted with historical arguments, even if those arguments were more plausible than some of those mentioned here. For Wrede’s work was one of redaction criticism (to use an anachronistic term). The two approaches do not coincide. (Räisänen, p 54, bold emphasis mine)

Now that we have a solid foundation, a clear explanation (I hope) of Wrede’s thesis, we can now resume our series, Reading Wrede Again for the First Time.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is an RV Park host who lives with his wife and six cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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  • 2013-01-04 03:46:58 UTC - 03:46 | Permalink

    I might be deleted, but I’ll try anyway.

    First, I basically agree with Wrede’s conclusions, except for one important point: “Only after his resurrection would the veil of secrecy be removed”. I’ll come back to that later.
    The best way to explain the so-called messianic secret in gMark, for me anyway, is that “Mark” had to reconcile two things (OK, most of you here will be shocked, but at least give me a chance):
    1) The testimony of at least one true eyewitness, about a “humble” Jesus, credited of some healing, but never giving the impression he was divine in any way, or was getting divine power. Of course, what was told was rather trivial and anecdotal, little and likely boring.
    2) But when the gospel was written the “humble” Jesus was not acceptable anymore, after he had been titled the Christ and Son of God. The Christian community of “Mark” could not think anymore that Jesus did not give sign of Divine power. “Mark” had to oblige and entwined with anecdotal material, or sometimes created from scratch, extraordinary feats requiring Divine power into Jesus.
    So the gospel shows Jesus was divine but, most of the time, that was kept secret (explaining that was not heard through eyewitness(es)).
    Next, from my website, dealing in part with the messianic secret:
    “Here is an abbreviated list of items where “Mark” tried to counteract the embarrassment (E) or explain the silence (S):
    a) Disciples NOT saying Jairus’ daughter was resurrected (5:42-43) (S)
    b) Rejection of Jesus in his own village (6:2-4) (E)
    c) Disciples NOT “seeing” the miraculous feeding(s) (8:17-21) (S)
    d) Disciples NOT claiming Jesus was Christ (8:29-30) (S)
    e) Peter NOT comprehending (as a Christian would) Jesus’ Passion (8:31-33, 9:31-32) (E)
    f) Disciples NOT telling about the events on the high mountain (9:9-10) (S)
    g) Disciples NOT knowing what is meant by resurrection (9:10,31-32) (E)
    h) Disturbance in the temple (11:17) (E)
    i) Peter saying Jesus cursed at a fig tree (11:21-24) (E)
    j) Disciples falling away after Jesus’ arrest (14:27) (E)
    k) Disciples NOT knowing about the empty tomb and Jesus’ rising (16:8) (S)”

    And here, I showed examples on how “Mark” entwined trivial/anecdotal testimony with made up extraordinary/divine stuff: http://historical-jesus.info/hjes2.html then search on >> 15. <<

    Finally, about that important point: I am rather certain the so-called disciples of Jesus (who later became some of the "pillars" of the Church of Jerusalem) never became Christians, never started the Church of Jerusalem, never believed in the Resurrection or future resurrections. I can show many clues from within gMark and the Pauline epistles, which I already wrote about on my website and blog.

    Cordially, Bernard

    • 2013-01-05 09:55:15 UTC - 09:55 | Permalink

      Good comment, Bernard. Would you like to point out specifically where it engages with anything said in the main post?

      • 2013-01-05 11:51:30 UTC - 11:51 | Permalink

        Thanks Neil for not deleting my comment. Thanks for appreciating my participation. And I did comment about Wrede’s conclusions, favourably (that is against apologetic historicists), which would be in your liking. I sketched a solution for Wrede’s messianic secret, which I acknowledge requires the existence of Jesus and disciples, but Wrede & Raisanen also did believe in the existence of both.
        Other commenters also posted their own solution to the messianic secret, with less connections to Wrede and what you wrote than my comment.
        Cordially, Bernard

  • John
    2013-01-04 05:23:40 UTC - 05:23 | Permalink

    I haven’t read Wrede, but MacDonald persuades me that Mark imitates Homer and that the Messianic Secret theme is an imitation of Odysseus concealing his true identity from the Suitors. This seems convincing enough by itself, and dispenses any need to speculate futher what else Mark (or ‘Jesus’) may have thought about messianism.

    • 2013-01-04 06:13:28 UTC - 06:13 | Permalink

      I have a draft post I may finish and publish sooner rather than later in which I show how MacDonald explains this view of his specifically in response to Wrede. MacDonald’s thesis seems to have some wrinkles, though. I will explain them in that post.

  • 2013-01-04 06:17:20 UTC - 06:17 | Permalink

    It was when Xians were confronted by people who lived in the supposed areas of the miraculous healings and happenings and never heard of the miraculous healings and happenings that the Xians had to say that “it was kept secret, that’s why you didn’t hear about it”. Tell a lie and you have to tell another to prop it up with, simple as that.

  • David Hillman
    2013-01-04 06:59:14 UTC - 06:59 | Permalink

    Until I read the book of Isaiah (and in particular Isaiah 6 up to verse 13) I had thought that Mark must be a distortion of an earlier tradition: and in particular that teaching in parables was originally an effective and popular way of getting over truths but that Mark distorted this into speaking in riddles. Now I can see Mark’s story as the original story of Jesus Preaching. Isaiah’s preaching of doom is not heard because God hardens the hearts and closes the eyes and ears of the audience lest they repent – the point being that the whole generation is condemned to catastrophe till a saving remnant comes forward – their was no prior version of Isaiah in which his preaching was successful – it was God’s purpose that he should fail.
    Thompson has shown us that the only prophet of doom that was listened to was Jonah – and in Jonah’s eyes this made him a failure! Mark follows Jewish tradition exactly in showing Jesus’ preaching as unsuccesful except as leading to the new covenant following the destruction of Jerusalem. In Mark’s story Jesus’ purpose is to succeed in failing to get his message heard.

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