Where Wrede Went Wrong? MacDonald vs Wrede on Why Jesus Tried to Hide His Identity

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by Neil Godfrey

In the Gospel of Mark Jesus avoids publicity, silences those he heals, and muzzles demons who recognise him. Unfortunately, the earliest evangelist never mentions why Jesus maintained secrecy.

William Wrede considered it damage control to explain why Jesus himself had never claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus avoided the title because it was inappropriate prior to his resurrection, as Mark seems to imply by having Jesus command Peter, James, and John, “to tell no one about what they had seen” on the Mount of Transfiguration, “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (p. 139, “Secrecy and Recognitions in the Odyssey and Mark: Where Wrede Went Wrong” by Dennis R. MacDonald, in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative.)

Dennis MacDonald proposes that Jesus was intent on keeping his identity hidden (directly or indirectly) from those who had the power to kill him until the time for crucifixion had come. He says that, contra Wrede, Jesus revealed his identity before the resurrection, though. He revealed it for the first time to his enemies at his trial, thus prompting them to declare him a blasphemer and have him executed.

Tim Widowfield is probably gritting his teeth at this point because he knows that MacDonald has, like so many other NT scholars, simply gotten Wrede wrong. Firstly, Wrede did and did not say that in the Gospel of Mark Jesus maintains secrecy. Wrede acknowledges that in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is often open about demonstrating his messiahship before large crowds. The secrecy is maintained in the sense that the crowds don’t understand who he is despite all his miracles. Moreover, Wrede in fact said that Jesus did not hide his Messiahship on several occasions before his trial and resurrection. The least ambiguous of those moments was when he entered Jerusalem to acclamations that he was the delivering Son of David.

MacDonald argues that the alert reader can see a pattern in the way Jesus would sometimes make an effort to silence others while at other times encouraging them to declare widely a miracle he had just performed. (Wrede says there is no pattern. There is only contradiction and tension.) MacDonald says that this pattern is discerned when one compares the Gospel with another famous work in which the chief character, Odysseus, strives to conceal his identity to nearly all except a few close associates (to whom he reveals himself by “signs” that only they can recognise) until the climactic moment of killing and salvation.

Dennis MacDonald is probably best known today for his controversial The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark in which he argues the Gospel is based in part on the Homeric epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, with Jesus modelled in part on Achilles and Odysseus. (This thesis does not deny that the evangelist simultaneously used Old Testament narratives as models for his Gospel: Thomas Brodie has demonstrated clearly enough that ancient authors regularly imitated widely diverse earlier works in the creation of a new composition.) Now I like a lot of things about MacDonald’s thesis, so much so that I have written an outline of it and added some of my own thoughts at my vridar.info site, The Gospel of Mark & Homer’s Epics. But there is something about his argument for the secrecy motif in Mark being modelled upon Odysseus’s efforts to hide his identity that troubles me.

MacDonald proposes four theses to support his case that Mark’s Jesus was hiding his identity from the authorities who would kill him if they knew it.

Thesis 1: Seldom are there secrets among friends

Jesus performed many miracles to which only his close disciples were witnesses. Not once did Jesus command silence:

  • The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law
  • The stilling of the storm
  • Walking on water
  • Withering the fig tree with a curse
  • Feeding the multitudes (probably only the disciples knew a miracle had been performed in each case)
Odysseus and Eurycleia, by Christian Gottlob Heyne
Odysseus and Eurycleia, by Christian Gottlob Heyne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Twice Jesus did order his disciples to be silent:

  • After Peter declared to Jesus that he recognized him as the Messiah or Christ, Jesus ordered him and his companions to tell no-one;
    • When the disguised Odysseus was being washed by his former nurse, Eurycleia, he was horrified to see that Eurycleia recognized him from the scar on his leg: Odysseus quickly grabbed her by the throat and warned her that she would destroy him if she told anyone else who he was. Odysseus conceded that either she learned his identity by herself of some god had revealed it to her, and severely admonished her to keep silent.
  • Again after his Transfiguration in which Peter, James and John had heard God declare Jesus to be His Son, Jesus admonished them to tell no-one until after the resurrection. MacDonald points out that this does not necessarily mean that Jesus’ identity would be revealed only at that time, but rather that only then would the disciples understand “what the rising of the dead could mean”. (I think MacDonald has stretched the meaning of Mark 9:9 here. Jesus instructs that the vision itself not be told to anyone until after the resurrection. The clear implication is that no-one else was to know God had declared Jesus to be his Son until after the resurrection.)

So when Jesus is among friends MacDonald observes that

he seldom insisted on secrecy. (p. 142)

Seldom. The reader of Mark must therefore try to figure out the reason Mark has Jesus not care about secrecy sometimes but make a point of it, even if only seldom.

Thesis 2: “Only mild anxiety” among foreigners

I’ll quote MacDonald in full here (though with my own formatting):

When in a public Gentile setting, Jesus shows only mild anxiety about rumors of his miracle working.

  • In fact, after exorcising the Gerasene, he said, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”
  • In “the region of Tyre” he did not want people to know he was there, but when he exorcised the daughter of the Syrophoenecian woman, he did not insist she keep silent.
  • Only once in a Gentile environment did he command by-standers “to tell no one”: the healing of a deaf man. (p 144)

So only seldom is there an exception to thesis #1 and only once is there an exception to thesis #2, even though in the region of Tyre he did not want to be recognized? Did the author of Mark write a companion to the gospel with instructions to the reader to explain to audiences that these contradictions indicated Jesus had “only mild anxiety” about being discovered?

Thesis 3: “Most likely to insist on silence” among Jewish crowds away from their leaders

Jesus is “most likely to insist on silence” when among Jews where their leaders are absent.

  • In a Capernaum synagogue a demon-possessed man identified Jesus as “The Holy One of God”: Jesus responded with a sharp rebuke for the demon to be silent and get out. Being in the synagogue, MacDonald suggests, increased the danger of Jewish authorities discovering his identity.
  • Again in Jewish Capernaum we read that Jesus healed many and cast out many demons, and would never permit the demons to speak because they knew him.
  • Later, large numbers of Jews and gentiles thronged to Jesus and he healed them and cast out demons: again he commanded them to be silent when they shouted out his identity.
  • When Jesus healed a blind man he ordered him to return home but to avoid the village, that is, the Jewish Bethsaida.
  • When the daughter of Jairus, ruler of the synagogue, died, Jesus took only his three closest disciples and the girl’s parents into the room where she lay to perform the miracle, and afterward commanded them to tell no-one what had happened.
    • MacDonald does not mention it, but one wonders if it might also be argued that the reason Jesus said the girl was only sleeping and not dead was to cast subsequent doubt among onlookers that Jesus really had performed a resurrection miracle.

Even though Jesus does not insist on secrecy after every miracle in a Jewish environment [no such command is issued after the healings at Gennesaret or after healing Bartimaeus], he does so far more consistently than when among Gentiles. (p. 145)

Does this reason explain why Jesus was angry with the leper?

Does this interpretation of Jesus’ secrecy explain why Jesus was angry with the leper who asked to be healed?

A leper came to him begging him, and said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Infuriated, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him.

(Text criticism gives us good reasons for believing that the Gospel originally said that Jesus was “moved with anger” when the leper asked to be healed, and that the word was replaced with “compassion” by subsequent scribes and evangelists who were offended by the original reading: see Why Jesus Healed the Leper; and search the words leper and orgistheis in Google for more details and other arguments.)

MacDonald suggests that Jesus was angry for the same reason Odysseus was angry when his disguise was threatened with being uncovered. Healing a leper, according to the Mosaic Law, required a public act on the part of the one healed and a presentation to the priestly authorities. If Jesus wanted to conceal his powers from those authorities at this stage then we may wonder if this is why he was angry at being cornered with this healing request. Jesus took the leper aside away from the crowds after a grumbling protest, healed him then sharply ordered him to avoid the crowds and go straight to the priests according to the law, but apparently without telling them who had healed him. We know that the leper disobeyed and returned immediately to the city and proclaimed everything, with the result that Jesus felt a need to remain in the isolated region outside the city.

This argument sounds reasonable enough on the surface, but I have a few niggling questions about the details. Unfortunately I am not adept enough in the original Greek to know how to evaluate these details as well as I would like.

Besides, is Jesus really in fear of the authorities here or is he trying to avoid the crowds when they are likely to recognize him for some other reason? If he really feared the authorities why did he send the healed leper immediately to the priests?

Again, we have a rule (Jesus orders silence among Jewish crowds away from leaders) that is made to be broken.

Thesis 4: Never commands silence in the presence of the authorities

When Jesus and the authorities do come into direct confrontation, he keeps them flummoxed concerning his identity by means of evasion, metaphors, and sheer wit, much like Odysseus among the suitors.

Even though he seems to have understood that his miracle working might blow his cover, he healed a paralytic in the presence of “some of the scribes,” healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath while “the Pharisees” were in the synagogue, and cast out a demon in the vicinity of “some scribes.” These are the only miracles Jesus performs in the presence of the authorities, and quite appropriately none of them ends with a command to silence.

Those from whom Jesus wanted most to keep his identity a secret had themselves observed his powers. (p. 146, my formatting)

If anyone else has read MacDonald’s argument and has views on it I’d be interested in hearing them. Surely here is an inconsistency with MacDonald’s thesis: Why would Jesus demonstrate his powers (even “only sometimes”) among those “from whom he wanted most to keep his identity a secret”?

True, Jesus did refuse to perform miracles as signs to identify him when challenged to do so by the authorities.

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign (σημεῖον) from heaven, to test him . . . And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign (σημεῖον)? Truly I tell you, no sign (σημεῖον) will be given to this generation.’ (Mark 8:11-12)

Mark’s σημεῖον is the Koine equivalent of Homer’s σημα. In the Odyssey, characters test the hero by asking for signs that he was who he said he was, and he complied but only for those who had proven to be faithful. In the presence of his enemies, however, he avoided all revealing utterances and acts. . . . (p. 146)

But he didn’t always avoid all revealing acts, as MacDonald had earlier noted.

Is Wrede wrong or right?

Homer makes it clear to his readers why Odysseus disguised himself. There is never any confusion over why Odysseus reveals his identity to some people, why he commands them to be silent, and why he eventually declares his identity. This is not the case with Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Readers need a guide to comment on each passage, and explain when we are reading exceptions to the rules to be set aside, if MacDonald’s theses are correct.

In response to all these exceptions and different tactics (with exceptions!) with different groups, Wrede would have objected with:

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. . . . One can therefore only suppose that he assumed the reader would read all these remarks with an idea which he did not first need to communicate to him. (Messianic Secret, pp. 37-38)

MacDonald returns to intertextual arguments linking passages in the Odyssey to others in Mark. He draws parallels between Jesus’ self-disclosure to the Sanhedrin several of Odysseus’s self-identifications to various persons. He further compares the Transfiguration in Mark 9 with Odysseus’s revelation to his son Telemachus, as we know from his book on Homer’s epics and Mark. But even if these intertextual cases are all sure signs that the author of the Gospel was influenced by his recollection of scenes from the Odyssey, it does not follow that the secrecy motif was necessarily based on Odysseus’s strategy.

Inconsistencies mar MacDonald’s thesis. He himself acknowledges these inconsistencies:

He did not require silence of everyone. Instead, he most consistently insisted on silence when in a public, Jewish environment, where the authorities were absent. He never insisted on silence when the authorities were present, because they had seen everything for themselves. Once they cornered him into claiming to be the Messiah/Son of God, they wasted no time in seeing to his destruction on the charge of blasphemy. (p. 153)

Wrede points out that even as early as the opening chapters Mark conveys to readers his belief in Jesus as the Messiah/Son of God/Son of Man by placing such words and meanings into his mouth. Of course scholars discount the way Mark makes Jesus present himself as this Messiah from the start and attempt to re-write the Gospel to make it more historically plausible. But Wrede’s point is that the Gospel of Mark is not plausible as history and was never intended to be read like that. MacDonald is trying to find a consistently plausible story line where Wrede insists there is none.

I thank Tim Widowfield for his series on Wrede. It has led me to read Wrede with more attention and thought. I’d like to post something on the way Wrede shows that the Gospel of Mark is just as historically implausible and just as theological in all its sequences and scenes as is the Gospel of John. I’m beginning to wonder — probably way behind Tim on this point — that Wrede comes very close to explaining how a heavenly Christ of Paul came to find a life on earth in the Gospels. (Not that Wrede was a mythicist, of course.)

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8 thoughts on “Where Wrede Went Wrong? MacDonald vs Wrede on Why Jesus Tried to Hide His Identity”

  1. No need to thank me, Neil. It’s a labor of love.

    Regarding MacDonald’s treatment, I’m still not exactly clear on where he thinks the Secret Motif came from: the varied tradition to which Mark had access, Mark himself, or the historical Jesus. However, it seems that he’s arguing that it’s completely a Markan narrative creation.

    As you rightly point out, there are lots of problems with that idea. One interesting point that Wrede brings up with respect to apologists’ claims that the HJ worried people would get the “wrong idea” about “what kind of Messiah” people would take him for is the fact (at least a “fact” in the story of Mark) that nobody guesses he’s the Messiah.

    When the disciples are asked who men say that he is, they say John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. Mark also tells us that Herod frets: “It is John whom I beheaded!” So the evidence within the narrative itself is that even though word has leaked out that he performs all kinds of miracles, it does not lead people to guess that he is the Messiah. Hence, there is contrary evidence that Jesus would be in danger if (when!) his works became public knowledge.

    And as far as this “wrong sort of Messiah” goes (i.e., not a “political” Messiah), this idea is not found in Mark. It exists only in the minds of scholars who desperately want to make logical sense of Mark’s chaotic narrative, because they want it to be authentic history.

    I’ve just ordered Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative. I’m now possessed by a demon that makes me buy any work that mentions the Messianic Secret.

  2. Neil wrote: “I’m beginning to wonder — probably way behind Tim on this point — that Wrede comes very close to explaining how a heavenly Christ of Paul came to find a life on earth in the Gospels. ”

    I’m strongly persuaded that the reason Wrede’s book wasn’t translated into English until 1971 was the nasty backlash from Christian scholars who resented being shown the rotten foundation of their life’s work. Schweitzer chastised his “thoroughgoing skepticism,” as if Wrede’s problem was a matter of disposition rather than scholarly findings.

    As soon as you acknowledge that Mark’s gospel is every bit as much a theological work as the other gospels, you lose any claim to its historical authenticity. Source criticism might tell us Mark is earlier, but it cannot differentiate among authentic material, sayings received from the risen Lord, midrash of the OT, etc.

    As far as mythicism goes, his view of the trajectory of Christology is probably not too different from Earl’s. But I think Wrede’s view of the HJ would probably be similar to mine and Vinny’s: If there was a historical Jesus, we can’t really know anything about him. Too many layers of tradition, myth, reworked tradition, and recycled myth have piled up.

    1. The major thing reading Wrede has done for me is to bring me back to where I started reading the Gospel of Mark before I delved into so many scholarly studies about that Gospel. As Wrede says, it is a scholarly habit of mind rather than any quality of the Gospel itself that has led us to read it as a historical source for a real Jesus. Wrede reminds us that it is nothing like a historical narrative that has been overlaid with myth and theology, but that it is theology through and through. Scholars have been so intent on trying to use it to divine the mind of Jesus the way others might use tea-leaves (my analogy, not Wrede’s) and forget to read it through the eyes of the author — as a literary work. Again to repeat Wrede, if the Gospel of Mark were discovered for the first time today it would be seen immediately for what it is — a bizarre collation of theological tales no more like history than the Gospel of John.

  3. I view the disciples in g”Mark” as essentially a multi-function plot device.

    Hitchcock would use them similarly to the way he uses his ‘McGuffin’ plot devices in his movies, a handy but otherwise meaningless artifact, person or concept to advance the story the story teller wishes to narrate.
    Author “Mark” utilises the disciples as convenient props who he can have his lead character explain things to so the reader
    gets the message’.
    The disciples ask, JC explains, doesn’t matter whether they understand or not because they are serving the purpose of providing a rationale for JC to explain to the readers.
    In fact if the disciples did understand from the word ‘go’ then explanation would be unnecessary and so they have to be a bit thick so “Mark” can have JC patiently explain his theology to them, repeatedly if necessary eg feeding 5000.
    The priests, scribes, Pharisees, covenient appearing mob who usually, as in Life of Brian, speak with one voice, provide a similar function but the disciples have the advantage of credibly being in the same vicinity as JC at all times rather than having, for example, Pharisees popping up in unexpected places so they can be set straight.

    Another facet of the disciples is that they function much as ‘straight men’ in a traditional vaudevillian/music hall comedy duo.
    The straight man is he who sets up the scenario, asks the question, provides the prompt, that the comedian in the duo can utilise to get the laughs or in JC’s case give “Mark” the excuse to tell a parable to the readers whatever.
    Ernie Wise fulfilled a “Markan” disciple role for Eric Morcombe, Bud Abbott for Lou Costello, Stiffy for Roy “Mo” Rene, Dean Martin for Jerry Lewis.

    Unfortunately the author of “Mark” didn’t look down the track far enough and by painting the disciples as a few pennies short of a quid he made it difficult for later gospellers and church bureaucrats to have an unbroken chain of credible authority leading from the master, who the plot dictates must vacate the stage, to the late arivals, the established church.
    Hence the ‘rehabilitation’ of the disciples in later writings when the political need for apostolic succession emerged.

    Similarly I see Cork’s comment on a previous thread as another function of the disciples …”3.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.”

    In summary I see the disciples, and their function within the messianic secret scenario as very convenient literary devices. Very handy critters for the author.

  4. I think it is important to examine the details of these stories and remove some obvious (but minor) embellishments to see what is left.
    •The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law
    BM: Actually, looking at gMark, Jesus somewhat persuades the mother-in-law to get out of bed and then that woman has no fever anymore. Healing by Jesus? Coincidence, or the woman had no fever anymore and still staying in bed. Miracle, probably not, but it can be interpreted that way.
    •The stilling of the storm
    BM: Only a squall according to gMark. This apparently comes and then dissipates quickly on a regular basis on the lake of Tiberias. Miracle here? Maybe not, but Mark made it sound that the squall disappeared following an exorcism by Jesus.
    •Walking on water
    BM: The key word here is Greek ‘epi” which can mean “on”, “upon” or “by” (a bit like the English “on”: “a cottage on the lake”). ‘epi’ the lake in gMark can mean “on” (the water) or “by” (the water) as on the beach. “Mark” likely used this double meaning to evoke a miracle without being too bold. The disciples are said to marvel but only after the wind dies down.
    •Withering the fig tree with a curse
    BM: yes, that probably happened at a different time and a different location. Of course, Mark always played on the timing to invoke an extraordinary miracle. Here the withering happened after only a day, as the so-called leper is immediately cured, so is the woman with issue of blood, the wind dies down right after Jesus got in the boat, etc. My take: story were told without much details, such as duration: “Mark” used that in order to make an extraordinary miracle from either natural atmospheric events, healing through natural cause, withering of a dying tree, a mother-in-law extending her rest in bed, etc.
    •Feeding the multitudes (probably only the disciples knew a miracle had been performed in each case)
    BM: Actually the disciples are said repeatedly they do not know. They only recall having picked up basketful of rests. The crowds are not reacting in any way to any miracle, but they will in gJohn.

    Yes, Jesus gives a gag order not to say anything about the high mountain events, up to “the Son of Man had risen from the dead”. But (even after allegedly seeing Moses alive in a body!), they kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.”. That and 9:31b-32 “he [Jesus] will rise . But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.” and also 16:8, plus other clues in Paul’s letters, James’ epistles, Hegesippus, are very suggestive that the disciples (I rather call them friends) of Jesus never believed in the Resurrection.
    That influenced the making of gMark with the apparent Messianic secret, and that’s what WREDE missed.

    Cordially, Bernard

      1. I read the policy and I do not see where I do not follow the rules. Certainly it says we can disagree with you. And why should I have more “I think this is what happened” than them? More so, according to your own analysis, their theses have many holes in them, which would explain why they are not so sure.
        I reread my last comment, and I found I wrote “I think”, “probably not”, “apparently”, “maybe not”, “likely”, “probably” (twice), “my take”, “suggestive”. OK, I maybe at fault on my last sentence: too positive.

        Another thing I would object with Wrede and McDonald is about all in gMark is literary invention. And from that, at least, Wrede wondered why the messianic secret is missing for, for example, the mother-in-law being healed from a fever.
        I think the mother-in-law story is real (minus a bit of Markan embellishment) and was told, so in no way it was necessary to have Jesus issue a gag order (or any pretext explaining the silence of the eyewitness(es) on the matter). This thinking of mine can be extended to any basic likely true story (minus embellishment) or story (true or not) with little importance (that the witness allegedly would not tell to all communities he visited).
        However it looks to me the Markan messianic secret, in one form or another, is applied on very huge theological & Christological points of great importance for the Christian faith: the disciples not knowing the meaning of rising from the dead & not asking Jesus to explain it; the miraculous feedings not being seen by the disciples; the same ones not saying Jesus as the Christ; the disciples not stating Jairus’ daughter being resurrected; the disciples not made aware of the empty tomb; the disciples not telling about the high mountain events with the transfiguration, God’s voice, Moses & Elijah appearing alive in a body; etc.. All of that for reasons I attempted to explain earlier on another post.

        It seems to me this proposed understanding solves most problems caused by the so-called messianic secret.

        Cordially, Bernard

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