Tag Archives: William Sanday

The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (2)

In the first part of this post, we examined some instances of New Testament scholars employing historical criteria before the advent of Formgeschichte, demonstrating that these criteria and methods did not differ significantly from what we would later call criteria of authenticity. In this post, we’ll look more closely at the ways source critics argued for the “genuineness” of passages, insisting that some terms, concepts, and sayings in the NT “must have” come from the historical Jesus himself.

Christ before the High Priest — Gerrit van Honthorst

Big Questions

Historical Jesus studies, like many historical endeavors, has several “big questions.” For example, Did Jesus think he was the messiah? Even the painfully pious Anglo-American scholars of the early twentieth century, who took as much as possible in the NT to be true, asked such questions. Granted, in most cases German (or perhaps Dutch or French) scholars spurred them to write what were essentially apologetic rebuttals; nevertheless, they dared to ask the questions.

Regarding the question: Did Jesus use the term “Son of Man”? Julius Wellhausen in Das Evangelium Marci, had said, “Er ist gleichzeitig mit der Erwartung der Parusie Jesu entstanden.” (It emerged simultaneously with the expectation of the parousia of Jesus.) In other words, only later in the church did the belief arise that Jesus must have foreseen his suffering and death, and that he predicted his return when he will “appear in the clouds of heaven.” (Wellhausen 1903, pp. 65-69)

But Willoughby Charles Allen disagreed.

Wellhausen, for example, argues . . . [The Church] put into His mouth the words, “The Man of whom Daniel spoke will appear in the clouds of the heaven.” This was soon interpreted as equivalent to “I will return.” The next stage was to make the Son of Man the subject in the prophecies of death and resurrection where it becomes necessarily a designation of Christ Himself. Finally, the phrase was introduced into non-eschatological sayings, where it becomes equivalent simply to “I.”

Now Wellhausen is a brilliant philologist, but he is often a very bad interpreter, and his exposition of the development of this phrase in the Church is contrary to all the evidence. (Allen 1911, p. 309)

In a footnote, Allen said he was happy to discover Adolf von Harnack believed the phrase was genuine and that its use by Jesus himself was a secure fact. We may note here that, despite what some Memory Mavens suggest, discussions about which traditions were authentic and which were apocryphal or secondary did not start with the form critics.

How should we evaluate the evidence in the New Testament to determine whether Jesus used the term Son of Man? And if we decide that he did, how do we know what he meant by it? Simply by asking these questions, we have admitted that what Jesus actually said and what the gospels have recorded might not be the same.

What we’re looking for, then, is the truth behind the text. read more »

What Is the Messianic Secret?

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.

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