Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (9)

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by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 9: Concealment Despite Revelation

This unit continues with the section of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret (1971 English translation) from pp. 82 through 114, which focuses on the phenomenon of the disciples (and others) seeing or hearing the truth about Jesus but failing to understand that truth.

Jesus with the Twelve(Duccio di Buoninsegna)
Jesus with the Twelve
“Are you guys even paying attention?”
(Duccio di Buoninsegna)

Where MacDonald went wrong

Somewhat coincidentally, Neil recently posted a piece called “Where Wrede Went Wrong? MacDonald vs Wrede on Why Jesus Tried to Hide His Identity.” In it, he discussed Dennis MacDonald’s contention that the Gospel of Mark at least in part draws upon narrative motifs from the Odyssey, including the necessity of secrecy as the travel-weary protagonist plots to take revenge against “the Suitors.”

According to MacDonald (see Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative), Wrede mistakenly placed the revelation of messiahship at the resurrection, when the actual revelation occurred earlier. He writes:

This understanding of secrecy [i.e., the one for which MacDonald is arguing] deviates from most other interpretations, including Wrede’s, by proposing that the disclosure of the secret takes place not at the empty tomb but at the Sanhedrin trial. (p. 142, emphasis mine)

While I am amenable to his proposal that Mark at times imitates Homer, MacDonald has failed to understand one of the enigmatic features of the messianic secret. For while self-concealment is a core component of the motif, Mark’s gospel also contains a number of instances in which the true identity of Jesus is plainly revealed to the people around him, and yet the secret remains intact.

By that I don’t mean that certain people “in the know” keep his secret. They hear all, but understand nothing. Only the demons seem to understand the full implications of the true nature of Jesus, and they weren’t told, but already knew it, owing to their supernatural existence.

MacDonald is correct about the disclosure of the secret at the Sanhedrin trial. In fact, from a narrative perspective, it is the turning point that inexorably sends Jesus down the path toward crucifixion. However, as we will see, this instance of disclosure resembles previous occurrences in that understanding does not follow revelation.

Scenes of recognition

The scene in the Odyssey in which Telemachus recognizes his father, MacDonald says, bears a strong resemblance to the scene in Mark wherein Peter “recognizes” that Jesus is the Christ. Interestingly, Telemachus first believes he is in the presence of a god and is frightened nearly out of his wits. At the close of both scenes, the protagonist orders silence. MacDonald writes:

Telemachus must be certain to tell no one that his father has returned, not even family members. Similarly, Jesus told Peter, James, and John to tell no one, not even the other disciples. (p. 152)

For MacDonald, the two scenes parallel each other, with the recognition by Telemachus helping us to understand the recognition by Peter. The coherent narrative reason, he would argue, must be the need for the protagonist to protect his identity until the right time. Jesus, like Odysseus, had to exercise caution, because his mission could be put in danger. In other words:

. . . Jesus avoided publicity because the authorities would have dispatched him out of jealousy as soon as they suspected that he claimed to be the Messiah or Son of God. (p. 153)

Here is where MacDonald and I must part company. He tries to make logical, narrative sense out of the messianic secret, when (as we’ve discussed in earlier posts) it can really only be understood as a literary, theological motif.

One glaring difference between Telemachus and Simon Peter is that the former, upon recognizing his father, fully understands the implications of his return. It means the suitors’ days are numbered. His mother is finally safe. More than that, he knows precisely why he must keep his father’s secret.

On the other hand, Peter seems to have merely stumbled onto the truth. In fact, Matthew’s editorial addition makes sense (I’m paraphrasing here): “Peter, you’ve got rocks in your head; God has revealed this to you.” Yes, Jesus did tell Peter, James, and John to keep all they have seen a secret, but he didn’t have to tell them to keep its meaning a secret, because they didn’t have a clue.

“That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand . . .”

That’s exactly Wrede’s point. Not a solitary soul understood the meaning of Jesus’ secret until after he rose from the dead. We should not be tempted into assuming that the disciples were simply slow to catch on, that they had “the wrong idea” about Jesus and progressively, albeit slowly, understood the truth. Not at all. Mark’s gospel is clear on the matter:

They understood nothing.

MacDonald comes very close to catching on when he discusses his “Thesis One” — i.e., when Jesus is with his disciples, “he seldom insisted on secrecy.” He concludes that Jesus could speak and act freely among his close associates because he felt safe among them. The only reason he commanded secrecy with respect to his messiahship, he argues, is that disclosure would put him at risk with the authorities. Wrede’s analysis shows this conclusion makes no sense. (See the previous posts in this series.)

As I said, MacDonald almost gets the point at the end of Thesis One. After the Transfiguration, Jesus commands silence until after the resurrection. He writes:

This statement need not mean that the empty tomb was the revelation of Jesus’ secret. It could also mean that only after the resurrection would the disciples have understood Jesus’ Transfiguration; only then would they comprehend “what this rising of the dead could mean.” [Mark 9:10] (pp. 143-144, emphasis mine)

That’s exactly Wrede’s point. Not a solitary soul understood the meaning of Jesus’ secret until after he rose from the dead. We should not be tempted into assuming that the disciples were simply slow to catch on, that they had “the wrong idea” about Jesus and progressively, albeit slowly, understood the truth. Not at all. Mark’s gospel is clear on the matter: They understood nothing.

Essentially, during the life of Jesus the disciples are mere containers of knowledge that they do not comprehend. They carry the revelations with them until such time as the truth dawns upon them. Wrede writes:

To a degree they [the revelations] do become objectively their property and have a sort of latent existence with them till the time comes when the scales fall from their eyes — that is, till the resurrection. At this moment the entire self-presentation of Jesus becomes effective â posteriori. What could not be understood is now known, and the knowledge is now spread and must be spread. (p. 112, bold emphasis mine)

Other revelations

The revelation at Caesarea Philippi wasn’t the first time the identity of Jesus was revealed. Wrede reminds us that the prophetic allusions to the bridegroom (Mark 2:18ff.) have clear messianic overtones (see especially Mark 2:20). And have we forgotten the demons who cried out? Surely everyone within earshot must have heard them blurting out the secret.

Moreover, Wrede, unlike other scholars who find it inconvenient, believed that Mark’s story of the baptism recounts a public revelation of the sonship of Jesus. Modern critics would rather interpret the booming voice, cracking sky, and descending spirit as some sort of private, inner, psychological event that only Jesus witnessed. But that isn’t the way Mark tells the story.

Hence, we see continual revelation of the identity of Jesus throughout the gospel — at the baptism, at the exorcisms, at the miracles, at the Transfiguration, at the trial, and finally at the cross. Yet despite these revelations, his identity remains concealed, because full understanding is impossible until after the resurrection.

Of course, the Sanhedrin doesn’t get it either. As with everyone else who has been privy to the secret, the council interrogating Jesus has no idea what to make of him. Upon hearing Jesus admit he is the Son of “the Blessed” and prophesy about the Son of Man descending on a cloud, they accuse him of blasphemy and deliver him to Pilate.

So again, MacDonald is right that the trial scene is a kind of dramatic denouement, but it is not the point at which people begin finally to understand the secret. It is, paradoxically, another case of concealment despite revelation. The secret is revealed, but stays hidden.

Quoting Wrede:

Our conclusion is that during his earthly life Jesus’ messiahship is absolutely a secret and is supposed to be such; no one apart from the confidants of Jesus is supposed to learn about it; with the resurrection its disclosure [note: the German here is “Entschleierung” or “unveiling“] ensues.

This is in fact the crucial idea, the underlying point of Mark’s entire approach. (p. 68, italics original to Wrede)

Who really acts like this?

Wrede reminds us again how dim-witted the disciples appear in Mark’s gospel. They’ve witnessed healings, excorcisms, and nature miracles. Jesus has provided special, secret teaching in which he explained the parables. They remain “completely at a loss” (p. 102). They show by their lack of faith, their fear, and their astonishment that they have no idea what’s going on. Is it possible that any twelve random guys at any time in history could be so thick-headed? In a word: “No.”

Wrede writes:

To my mind it must be clear to all without any special explanation that disciples of the kind presented to us here by Mark are not real figures — disciples who never become any wiser about Jesus after all the wonderful things they see about him — confidants who have no confidence in him and who stand over against him fearfully as before an uncanny enigma and apprehensively discuss his nature among themselves behind his back. (p. 103, emphasis mine)

We are not dealing with history but with theological ideas from the mind of Mark. The author is “making history out of his ideas.” (p. 103)

Addendum: Expunging Wrede

A funny thing happened when MacDonald repackaged his comparative studies into the book,  The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. The chapter that once bore the title “Where Wrede Went Wrong” became simply “Recognitions.” In fact, neither William Wrede nor any reference to his book, The Messianic Secret, appears anywhere in the new work.

Did something happen between 1998 and 2000? Perhaps it’s simply a matter of modified focus, but for whatever reason we’re left with an essay that prominently features the concept of the messianic secret but which has lost all references to the scholar who first brought it to light or to the work that first explained it and defined its contours.

The revised chapter “Recognitions” begins:

Few aspects of the Gospel of Mark have proved more controversial than its so-called messianic secret, or better, its Son of God secret. (p. 44, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark)

Surely it cannot be so controversial that all references to Wrede needed to be suppressed. I would rather believe that peer review somehow worked its magic, and a knowledgeable, anonymous scholar convinced MacDonald that this sentence from the original first paragraph lacks the proper nuance —

William Wrede considered it damage control to explain why Jesus himself had never claimed to be the Messiah. (p. 139, Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative)

— and that the footnote reference that cited Wrede’s entire book rather than a specific set of pages within that work was not quite kosher.

And I’d like to think that after reading this sentence in the original essay —

This understanding of secrecy deviates from most other interpretations, including Wrede’s, by proposing that the disclosure of the secret takes place not at the empty tomb but at the Sanhedrin trial. (p. 142, emphasis mine)

— caused our concerned scholar to ask MacDonald to read Wrede again and reconsider that statement, because it’s more complicated than that.

Unfortunately, the X-Acto Knife changes to the chapter leave us with an odd feeling that there’s an elephant in the room that MacDonald won’t talk about. And in the final analysis, we’re still left with a discussion of the messianic secret as if it were merely a narrative feature, instead of what it actually is — a theologically driven literary motif — which was amply demonstrated by the airbrushed Wrede.

Airbrushed Cosmonaut
An Inconvenient Cosmonaut
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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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