William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret
Part 10: How Matthew and Luke changed Mark
Recently, however, I’ve been simultaneously reading or re-reading several works on the problem of the Synoptic Gospels, including E.P. Sanders’ The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, William Farmer’s The Synoptic Problem, and Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q. I’ve learned much from reading each of these authors, but I would like to point out that we often will not necessarily understand what is important or significant until we read a work the second or third time.
Let me explain further. About a month ago I began reading The Synoptic Problem by William Farmer, and much to my surprise I learned quite a bit about how we arrived at the “Two-Source” (Mark and Q) consensus — things I didn’t pick up from reading Streeter or anyone else, for that matter. Farmer’s perspective gave him free rein to look for inconsistencies, bad logic, and questionable motives. I now feel the need to go back and re-read The Four Gospels with this new information in mind.
Reading Sanders and Goodacre (again) helped change my perspective on the problem. And as luck would have it, reading Schmidt’s The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature as well as the later chapters of The Messianic Secret forced me to re-evaluate those thorny questions.
The basic questions we ask ourselves concerning the Synoptic Problem — once we admit that the first three evangelists were somehow copying one another — are:
- Who copied whom?
- Who changed what?
- Why did they change it?
In order to mount a convincing argument as to which gospel came first we need some set of criteria that convincingly explains why an author would change his source material. That is, can we detect any editorial tendencies of an author that caused him to truncate or expand a story? What theological preconceptions might cause a later author to gloss over “difficult” or “uncongenial” passages?
Wrede tackled these sorts of questions in Part Two, “The Later Gospels: Matthew and Luke.”
A primary question will then have to be how the Markan material we have examined is treated in both Gospels.” (p. 152)
He’s referring to the passages in Mark that deal with concealment and misunderstanding. If, in Wrede’s view, both Matthew and Luke recapitulate much of Mark, taking over his historical sequence (such as it is), then we should be able to acquire a “direct insight into the history of the approach, which is of interest to us.” (p. 152)
In his examination of Matthew’s use of Mark, Wrede closely examined several pericopae, identified the differences, and tried to develop a coherent reason or set of reasons for the author to change his source material. We will look at two of those stories now.
Jesus withdraws and heals many
Matthew Mark 12:15a But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. Many followed Him, 3:7 Jesus withdrew to the sea with His disciples; and a great multitude from Galilee followed; and also from Judea, 3:8 and from Jerusalem, and from Idumea, and beyond the Jordan, and the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon, a great number of people heard of all that He was doing and came to Him. 3:9 And He told His disciples that a boat should stand ready for Him because of the crowd, so that they would not crowd Him; 12:15b and He healed them all, 3:10 for He had healed many, with the result that all those who had afflictions pressed around Him in order to touch Him. 3:11 Whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, they would fall down before Him and shout, “You are the Son of God!” 12:16 and warned them not to tell who He was. 3:12 And He earnestly warned them not to tell who He was.
(All quotations from the NASB translation)
In both gospels, the incipient plot on Jesus’ life serves as the impetus for his withdrawal from the area. Since the wording in Greek in the parallel verses is at times almost verbatim, we can logically assume a literary relationship between the two works. Now the question becomes: Did Mark embellish upon Matthew or did Matthew heavily edit Mark?
We may find a clue in the verse that contains Jesus’ warning. The wording in both verses is practically identical except for the extra πολλὰ (polla) in Mark, which the NASB translates as “earnestly.” However, notice that the word “them” (αὐτοῖς/autois) has a different antecedent in Matthew. In Mark, Jesus warns the demons to keep his identity a secret. In Matthew, Jesus warns the crowd of people who had just been healed to keep his identity a secret.
How are we to make sense out of the Matthean account? Anyone reading the NIV would get the impression that Jesus merely shunned publicity.
Matt. 12:16 He warned them not to tell others about him. (NIV)
That interpretation is simply inaccurate. The NIV translators stick to the same false impression for the Markan account.
Mark 3:12 But he gave them strict orders not to tell others about him. (NIV)
The NASB’s translation of φανερὸν αὐτὸν ποιήσωσιν (phaneron auton poiēsōsin) as “tell who He was” closely approximates the original meaning. What we need is an English equivalent of a phrase that encompasses the idea of making Jesus’ true identity “known,” “manifest,” or “conspicuous.” The phrase “telling others about him” is misleading, because the reader could infer that it means telling other people (somewhere else) what Jesus did, not who he is. The simplest reading of Mark is that the demons knew who Jesus really was, shouted out the truth, and were ordered (threatened) to shut up.
At least the NIV didn’t follow the example of Jerome, who translated the Markan account fairly accurately but fudged the Matthean parallel.
Mark 3:12 tu es Filius Dei et vehementer comminabatur eis ne manifestarent illum (Vulgate)
Here he expressed the Greek word ἐπετίμα (epetima) as comminabatur, which captures the forcefulness of Jesus’ words. He didn’t just warn them (either the demons or the people); he threatened (with consequences) or menaced them. These are not the words of a gentle physician who shies away from the public spotlight.
But when Jerome saw a form of the same word (ἐπετίμησεν/epetimēsen) in Matthew, he realized that the context rendered Jesus’ harangue rather problematic. So he translated it like this:
Matt 12:16 et praecepit eis ne manifestum eum facerent (Vulgate)
Rather than threatening or menacing the people he just healed, Jesus in the Vulgate merely orders them or perhaps advises them to keep mum.
It seems highly unlikely that Matthew is original here, given the actual meaning of verse 16. Matthean priority is hard to defend in this pericope for the following reasons.
- At no point are we led to understand that the crowd has discovered Jesus’ true nature. Note that Jesus does not tell them to keep the healings a secret, but rather “who he is.”
- It is difficult to make sense of a story in which a large crowd, gathering in public, witnesses healings on a massive scale, but then is told to keep it a secret. However, see point one above. They are not told to keep the fact that he healed many a secret but rather “not to tell who he was.”
- If Jesus is talking to the people and not the demons, then why is he threatening them? Why would he use such harsh and menacing language on a group of people to whom he has just shown kindness and mercy?
I’m sure that those who follow Griesbach and Farmer can come up with interesting and clever explanations. Perhaps, they might argue, Jesus was aware of the Pharisees’ plot mentioned in the preceding verses and he was protecting himself. But then if he had intended to keep a low profile, we have to explain why he would perform mass healings in front of a large crowd.
We aren’t alone in wondering why Jesus rebuked the crowd. Matthew himself appears to have recognized the jarring discontinuity and felt the need to explain it. And what better way to explain your way out of a jam than with a quote from the OT? Matthew explains:
This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
(Matt. 12:17-21, ESV)
So for Matthew, Jesus’ reticent nature can be explained away by prophecy. By the way, Luke handles the problem by omitting the troubling parts altogether. (See Luke 6:17-19.)
Wrede’s assessment is succinct:
The proof from scripture is, however, so artificial and forced that one might suppose it would not have occurred to the author had he not already understood the prohibition as a mode of thinking opposed to all vainglory. At all events, here the meaning of the prohibition has been transformed over against its Markan sense and amounts to an abandonment of the original meaning. . . . Mark’s idea has already become strange to Matthew. (p. 156, emphasis mine)
If, as it seems likely, Matthew copied Mark, then we see a clear recession of the prohibitions — those blistering demands of silence Jesus doled out to demons (or demoniacs), healed lepers, and raised corpses (and their thankful kinfolk). What about other features of the Messianic Secret, such as the poor understanding of the disciples?
The Zebedee brothers or their mother asks a favor of Jesus
Matthew Mark 20:20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him. 10:35 James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” 20:21a And He said to her, “What do you wish?” 10:36 And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” 20:21b She said to Him, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left.” 10:37 They said to Him, “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.” 20:22a Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” 10:38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 20:22b They said to him, “We are able.” 10:39a They said to Him, “We are able.” 20:23a He said to them, “My cup you shall drink; 10:39b And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized. 20:23b but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.” 10:40 “But to sit on My right or on My left, this is not Mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
(All quotations from the NASB translation)
Matthew’s gospel does not portray the Twelve as colossally bumbling fools. When Mark’s Jesus rants about the leaven of the Pharisees and then asks the disciples if they understand what he’s talking about, they remain silent and confused. But in Matthew, they’re right on the ball:
Matt. 16:12 Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (NASB)
Matthew’s Twelve aren’t groping in the dark, looking for clues. They don’t have to wait for the Resurrection to understand the hidden teachings of Jesus. In fact, when asked directly if they understand, they answer quickly and affirmatively:
Matt. 13:51 “Do you understand all these things?” They told him, “Yes.” (NASB)
But in Mark’s gospel they remain foolish and feckless to the bitter end. In Mark, James’ and John’s question is doubly foolish, because it’s an open-ended request. They’re asking for a blank check.
When Matthew reaches the point in Mark’s gospel in which the sons of Zebedee make their absurd request, he has a problem. How can two of his rehabilitated disciples act in such a clueless manner? Answer: Blame it on their mother. (Note that she remains nameless, even when inserted into the Passion narrative.)
An interesting problem happens as a result of Matthew’s invention of a new character. You can’t see it in modern English, but Matthew has to change the “you” to singular in his question, “What do you want?” Jesus asks, “Τί θέλεις;” (Ti theleis? — second-person singular) In the original Markan passage he asks, “Τί θέλετε;” (Ti thelete? — second-person plural)
However, once asked the question, Jesus’ response is rendered in the same words.
You (plural) don’t know what you’re asking for
Οὐκ οἴδατε τί αἰτεῖσθε
Ouk oidate ti aitesthe
Matthew removed Mark’s introductory phrase — “Jesus said to them” — but he left the verb in the plural form. The mother of the sons of Zebedee has served her narrative purpose, and Jesus now addresses the men (as if they had asked the question), while she recedes into the background until verse 27:55.
Matthew’s gospel shifts the responsibility from James and John to their mother. Yet she at least approaches her Lord with proper deference, and does not ask for “whatever” she might ask of him. The Matthean rewrite provides a less jarring way for Matthew to recapitulate Mark’s story with its foreshadowing of the crucifixion.
Selective tradition or creative invention?
The request is too foolish for the two apostles themselves. That Matthew has consciously altered the text here also emerges from the fact that he does not carry out the alteration to its logical conclusion. (In German: “. . . er die Anderung nicht durchführt.” (p. 159, emphasis mine)N.B., Wrede didn’t call Mrs. Zebedee a literary invention, as I do. However, he did point out that Matthew’s text is obviously secondary because:
One Matthean addition that Wrede did call an invention was Jesus’ praise of Peter following his confession. We should pay close attention, because Wrede explains here why at certain points we can dispense with the idea that the evangelists, when adding material, were always “referring to another tradition.” He explains:
. . . I consider it probable that Matthew himself made the addition. This is what most obviously comes to mind. An actual source does not seem to be a probability because it would be remarkable — this we can certainly say — that the entire scene should be told in the Markan fashion, and only a single word adopted from the second prototype. And at least without the Confession the blessing cannot have existed. (p. 162, emphasis mine)
Reaching such commonsense conclusions helped cement Wrede’s reputation as a “thoroughgoing skeptic.” Unlike the majority of today’s scholars, he would right walk up to the line, and then cheerfully step right over it.
Inconcinnities, editorial fatigue, or “not carrying out the alteration to its logical conclusion”
Mark Goodacre has recently popularized what he calls “editorial fatigue” — that is, the fact that we can detect later writers’ redactions of their sources by the incongruities they inadvertently introduce. In “Fatigue in the Synoptics,” he writes:
Editorial fatigue is a phenomenon that will inevitably occur when a writer is heavily dependent on another’s work. In telling the same story as his predecessor, a writer makes changes in the early stages which he is unable to sustain throughout.
One clear example Goodacre offers comes from Matt. 8:1-4 and Mark 1:40-45, the Cleansing of the Leper. At the close of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew takes up Mark again, but he runs into problems with “many crowds” not present in the Markan account. Goodacre writes:
As it stands in Matthew this is inexplicable: a miracle that has been witnessed by many crowds is to be kept secret. The parallel in Mark makes it clear how Matthew has become involved in the contradiction: Mark does not have crowds; the leper meets Jesus privately and the command to silence is coherent. That Matthew is involved in docile reproduction here is all the more plausible given the little stress in his Gospel on the secrecy theme that is so prominent a feature of Mark. (emphasis mine)
A century ago Wrede did in fact note that Jesus “enjoins silence on the leper in front of the assembled ὄχλος (ochlos)” in Matt. 8:1, which demonstrates “the secondary nature of the account” with respect to Mark. And he reminds us: “This was already the view of [Carl Gottlob] Wilke and [Bruno] Bauer.” (see footnote 5, p. 155).
We’ve mentioned in earlier posts that among modern scholars, Goodacre stands out as “less wrong” when it comes to explaining Wrede’s contributions on the Messianic Secret. I highly recommend his podcast on the subject (which is actually a recorded classroom session). However, while his treatment is generally correct, he does pass on some erroneous information. For example, in his lecture notes he writes:
- How consistent is Mark? Is Wrede imposing uniformity on Mark where it does not exist, a problem that bedevilled later redaction critics?
- e.g. 5.19-20 a major exception to the rule: Jesus commands the Gerasene Demoniac to share the gospel.
Sadly, the misconception that Wrede imposed uniformity upon the Markan tradition runs rife in NT scholarly circles. As we have pointed out both in this series and the companion piece — “What Is the Messianic Secret?” — Wrede knew very well that in Mark’s gospel the stories of concealment lie side by side with the stories of openness and proclamation. In a nutshell:
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. (from “What Is the Messianic Secret?”)
Getting back to the subject of incongruities arising from the editorial process . . . naturally, Goodacre doesn’t take credit for the concept of editorial fatigue. He cites G.M. Styler from his piece, “The Priority of Mark” in C.F.D. Moule’s The Birth of the New Testament, and notes that Davies and Allison in their commentary on Matthew refer to these editorial goofs “inconcinnities.”
Similarly, Wrede credits Gustav Volkmar (Die Evangelien, p. 239) for pointing out the “auton inaptness” in Matt. 12:16 way back in 1870. While they did not use the term “editorial fatigue,” earlier scholars recognized the phenomenon and wrote about it. You just never know what you might find in these old, unread works from the past.
I do not mean to accuse Styler, Davies, Allison, or Goodacre of not reading Wrede. (Who could blame them for not reading Volkmar?) I presume that all of today’s biblical scholars and their graduate student assistants must have read Wrede, Dibelius, Wellhausen, Bultmann, Bauer, et al., or they would not have earned their degrees. I instead theorize that they all started out intending to mention Wrede, but during the editing process they grew somewhat, shall we say — fatigued — and forgot to mention him.
Wrede wraps up this chapter concluding that Matthew and Luke must have used Mark, a point that he finds especially clear in the former case.
One has only to try to think of Matthew here as a source for Mark and to imagine Mark enlarging upon the fragmentary motifs of the Matthaean account, completing them and transforming them into a self-consistent approach, in order to see the absurdity of the attempt. (p. 180)
We did not fully cover Wrede’s treatment of Luke in this post, but we may return to the other gospel in a future post. Suffice it to say that he believed that “Luke stands decidedly closer to Mark”; however, Wrede’s analysis indicates that like Matthew the third evangelist used Mark as source.
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