Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (11)

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by Tim Widowfield

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 11: Luke Abandons the Secrecy Motif

While we may have had to wait until the end of Mark’s story for the denouement of the secrecy gospel, Luke removes all suspense early on with the scene in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-30). In The Messianic Secret, William Wrede writes:

Here Jesus reads out the words of Isaiah 61.1f. regarding the anointing for messianic vocation and then goes on to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. But this is nothing other than a messianic self-proclamation, and if Luke in all probability made up this scene himself in so far as it is at variance with Mark, and certainly thought of it as an introduction determining the character of the presentation of the story which follows, yet one gains the impression that here he is doing something which Mark would hardly have done. However many contradictions may be found in Mark along with the idea of secret messiahship, this is on a different footing. It looks like a denial of the idea itself. (Wrede, 1901/1971, p. 178, emphasis mine)

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...
The Sermon on the Mount (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is the Sermon on the Mount private instruction?

Luke’s Jesus does not hide his light under a bushel. He lets everyone know who he is. We can see the extent to which Luke has embraced this public, openly messianic Jesus even in the way he teaches the crowd.

Wrede makes the point that in Matthew, much of the instruction Jesus imparts to his disciples remains private. The Transfiguration, the prophecy of the passion, the meaning of parables, the “question about the last things,” etc. happen away from the crowds and sometimes away from the majority of the disciples. But that’s not all.

We may also mention that even the Sermon on the Mount is regarded as instruction of the disciples. For according to 5.1, when Jesus sees the crowds, he goes up the mountain and then the disciples approach him[*] in order to receive his teaching. This, of course, is again forgotten at the end of the sermon in 7.28.

[*] prosēlthan autō hoi mathētai, Matthew is very willing to say, even although they were already together with Jesus. Proserchesthai [coming near to, approaching] is generally used by him more often than in all the other New Testament writings put together. (Wrede, 1901/1971, p. 178)

In other words, Jesus is moving away from the crowd and up the mountain where he will give private (secret?) instruction. Apologetic and traditional commentators haven’t seen it that way, of course. Instead of retreating, they imagine that Jesus is simply getting a better vantage point from which to address the crowd. But the text is quite clear.

Matt. 5:1  Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. (ESV, emphasis mine)

R. T. France in his commentary on Matthew explains.

But the teaching is addressed, initially at least, not to the crowds, but rather to the narrower circle of his committed disciples, to whom we have been introduced in 4:18-22, and who are now taken apart from the crowds to be instructed on what their new commitment involves. The focus of these chapters is not then the wider proclamation of the “good news of the kingdom” (4:23), but the instruction of those who have already responded to that proclamation and now need to learn what life in the “kingdom of heaven” is really about. The teaching will frequently describe them as a special group who stand over against, and indeed are persecuted by, people in general. (France, 2007, p. 153, emphasis mine)

In fact, we have two good clues to Matthew’s intent. Jesus sees a crowd [ὄχλους (ochlous)] and retreats up a mountain [ὄρος (oros)]. We will recall a similar theme later in Matthew.

Matt. 14:23a  And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. (ESV, emphasis mine)

We take it, then, that when Jesus wishes to avoid the crowds, he climbs a mountain. Matthew is not concerned with the particular mountain upon which Jesus will impart his private teaching. The where and when are not important to the narrative; we need only know that it is away from the crowds.

Jesus embraces the multitudes on the plain

One could argue that no other NT author needed to express the idea of a “flat” place, but I think the evidence taken together indicates that Luke specifically intended to contradict Matthew’s entire opening setting.

Luke’s setting for the Sermon on the Plain, by contrast, is public. Jesus moves down from the mountain to preach to the crowd.

Luke 6:17,18  Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place; and there was a large crowd of His disciples, and a great throng of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were being cured. (NASB)

Note that just before the sermons in Matthew and Luke, we have passages concerning the calling of the Twelve. So we’re essentially at the same point in the gospel narratives. However, Luke appears to be emphatically telling us that Jesus did the opposite of what Matthew told us. In fact, he tells us that there was a large crowd of disciples augmented by a huge multitude (πλῆθος πολὺ/plēthos poly) of people from all over.

Not only is Jesus departing from the mountain to meet a friendly crowd of his own followers, but he’s moving to a level place (τόπου πεδινοῦ/topou pedinou). Luke has chosen a word here — pedinou — that occurs once in the entire New Testament. One could argue that no other NT author needed to express the idea of a “flat” place, but I think the evidence taken together indicates that Luke specifically intended to contradict Matthew’s entire opening setting.

Matthew and Luke both begin their “sermons” with the Beatitudes. Matthew is telling his inner circle that the “poor in spirit” are blessed. Luke, by contrast, looks directly at his disciples while the multitude listens in and says: “Blessed are you poor.” From a narrative perspective, something different is happening in Luke.

As Mark Goodacre pointed out in The Case Against Q, Jesus isn’t just talking about the poor; he’s talking to the poor — viz., his chosen disciples who have just given up all that they have to follow him.

In other words, the Sermon on the Plain is apparently addressed not simply to “the poor” in general, but it also has, at the same time, a targeted, specific message to the community of disciples who, as one of the major elements in their decision to follow Jesus, have abandoned everything.

As we saw above in relation to Luke 12:22-34, the theme of the poverty that accompanies discipleship surfaces at key moments in Luke’s narrative. (Goodacre, 2002, p. 140)

The conclusions, if we’re correct here, are obvious. It means that Luke knew Matthew, and deliberately contradicted him at crucial points. It also means that we can take the semi-consensus among Q scholars that Luke’s version of Q sayings is typically more original and throw it out the window.

Who persecuted the prophets?

In Matthew’s gospel, we have another clue that this instruction was meant for the disciples.

Matt 5:12  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (ESV, emphasis mine)

At the narrative layer, that’s a message to the followers of Jesus who are proclaiming his message. I would argue that it’s a message to the readers of the gospel who are probably facing rejection in the synagogues. Who are “they”? They are the Jews who will not accept the new teaching of the Christ. In the present narration, it would appear that they are the crowds that Jesus has avoided by climbing up the mountain.

Luke changes this verse slightly.

Luke 6:23  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. (ESV, emphasis mine)

He has softened the accusation somewhat by telling the disciples that the ancestors of the crowd persecuted the prophets of old.


Luke still maintains some stories in which outsiders do not understand his message; however it isn’t because of secrecy, but because they choose not to accept his message. Those who do not follow Jesus do so out of their own accord. That lesson reaches its climax with the two thieves on the cross, one who mocks Jesus, the other who asks to be remembered when he comes into his kingdom.

Each choice has its own consequences.

France, R. T.

The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament), Eerdmans, 2007

Goodacre, Mark S.

The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem, Trinity, 2002

Wrede, William

The Messianic Secret, Cambridge, 1901/1971 (Translated by J. C. G. Greig)

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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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17 thoughts on “Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (11)”

    1. See Wrede’s quote above where he concludes:

      This, of course, is again forgotten at the end of the sermon in 7.28.

      The structure of the entire sermon in Matthew complex, and bears the unmistakable marks of redaction upon redaction. So, presumably, the evangelist has pasted together lots of traditions into one mega-sermon. And at the end, he (apparently) lost track of the fact that the initial parts were private teaching.

      You’ll recall as well that he forgets the crowd (they come, they go) when he heals the leper in Matt. 8:4. We’re told that a great crowd (ὄχλοι πολλοί) had followed Jesus down the mountain, but then he told the healed leper to keep it a secret. (Editorial fatigue?)

        1. Of course, I expect I would be considered “hyper-skeptical” in some circles, but the crowd for the evangelists is just another character. It’s odd now to read apologists and crypto-apologists who think of them as historically authentic.

  1. Dale Allison in The New Moses: A Matthean Typology lists several reasons to believe that Matthew was drawing specific parallels between Jesus and the SM and Moses ascending Sinai to receive the law.

    One of his points is that Jesus “sits” on the mountain while in Deuteronomy 9:9 Moses says he “sat” on the mountain 40 days and nights to receive the law. Deut.9:9 is mostly translated as “I remained in the mountain” but the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon lists the meaning of “sit” as the first option for the Hebrew.

    This perspective means the SM should be compared with Moses sitting on the mountain receiving the law alone, away from the crowds, from God; that is, not to be compared with God booming the Ten Commandments to the crowds from Sinai.

      1. I have the book but haven’t read, yet. But I believe Q existed and I think Marcion (his gospel) was before Luke and possibly Matthew, still sorting through that though.

        Vridar is the first thing I open in the morning. Thanks for yall’s insights!

        1. I try to keep an open mind on Q, since it’s the consensus. What Markan priority w/o Q has going for it is its simplicity. Because it’s a simpler model (not requiring as many moving parts), it has intrinsic advantages.

          Goodacre asks several questions in The Case Against Q that for me have been like a burr under the saddle. For example, he reminds us the Burton Mack thinks Matthew was written in the 80s, while Luke wasn’t written until about 120. So, somehow, Luke had possession of Q, which was already dying out and would eventually disappear from history, but he never had possession of Matthew, which was already popular among Christians. In Mack’s words, Q was “all but passe in Christian circles.”

          The minor agreements also leave nagging doubts.

          At any rate, at the moment I can see both sides, and can argue both sides. Unfortunately, the evidence is contradictory at many points. It would be nice if a copy of Q popped up someday, or perhaps a hidden library containing Marcion’s canon.

          1. I also try to keep an open mind on Q. However, essential parts in some of the sayings at the Q1 level will go missing if you forget about Q as a document and take either Luke (Marcion) or Matthew as the primary source for the sayings.
            A key Q1 saying like QS65 becomes quite meaningless if you leave out either a unique part remaining in Matthew or another unique part remaining in Luke. Only by combining the two is the full meaning of this Q1-saying restored.

  2. I want to read Markus Vinzent’s Marcion and the dating of the synoptics but don’t want to spend $80 on it. I am also looking forward to Matthias Klinghardt’s book on the same subject but I’m afraid that will be published in German.

    1. Hi David,
      I have read this Vinzent’s book about you talk. In short, I think I’m a little disappointed because I was expecting a full, clear demonstration of the author’s thesis and instead, far from being proven, still he refers to his future commentary on the Gospel of Marcion compared in parallel with the Synoptics (so this now increases just my interest for future publications of Prof, but it nevertheless still makes inconclusive his current case). From this point of view, if only I knew German, I would read Klinghardt rather (as I find him, since his 2008’s article, a priori more analytical).

      However I find very plausible and suggestive the description in the book of the reception of the Gospel of Marcion from his opponents.

      For example, I come to know that a more correct translation of the ”prologue for John” is this:

      The Gospel of John was published and distributed to the churches by John while he was still alive, as the Hieropolitan, called Papias, the beloved disciple of John, has reported in his explications (?), namely the last (?) five books. Marcion, the heretic, however, wrote down a Gospel/described the Gospel [as a false one], while John dictated correctly the true one. Since he [Marcion] has been disapproved by him [John], because he [John] noticed the Antitheses against him, John rebuked him. He [Marcion], indeed, had brought to him writings or letters from the brethren who were in Pontus.

      I this were so, then Papias want us to believe hat John had dictated his Gospel at the same time as Marcion had written down his own Gospel (not that Marcion commented on or wrote down John’s Gospel, as ‘descripsit’ could also mean this).

      I already believe that Matthew and Luke are reactions to Marcion. The real challenge is between Marcion and Mark, but personally, realizing to what measure Mark is obsessed into doing his ”Jesus” Paul, I think that his obsession with Paul betrays the priority of the Gospel of Marcion, i.e. Mark wanted to win Marcion on his own ground: to paulinize his Jesus more than had already done Marcion with his Gospel. With the difference that the Paul of Mark is the proto-orthodox Paul (ergo revealing that between Marcion and Mark there is in middle already the falsification of original pauline, or marcionite, letters).

      1. I like the way you are thinking. I too think Matthew and Luke are easy (almost obvious), Mark is a little more difficult. I, also, agree with your assessment of Vinzent’s writing as I have read his earlier work on the resurrection stories and reception. Andrew Gregory has also done work on Luke-Acts being late. Thanks Giuseppe!

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