Tag Archives: William Wrede

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (5)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Devil medium
Image via Wikipedia -- A picture of the Devil from Codex Gigas (1204-1230 CE)

Part 5: “The Self-Concealment of the Messiah” — Demons

This unit begins Part 1, Section 2 of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret.

Patterns of concealment or the “Shrouded Savior”

In this section Wrede lays out the various ways in which Jesus hides his true nature from the public, and at times even from his own disciples. It’s worth mentioning again that the author of Mark and the readers of his gospel have no doubts about who Jesus is. The narrator tells us from the very start that he is the Christ, the beloved Son of God. However, Mark keeps us in suspense while we wonder at the inability of everyone around him to see the obvious.

“I know who you are!”

Now that Jesus has been possessed by the Holy Spirit (as Wrede puts it, “equipped with the pneuma“), the other actors in the supernatural dimension, the demons, become acutely aware of his presence. They tremble in fear for their lives. They beg not to be disturbed. It would seem they fear not just simple eviction, but that the Son of God’s presence on earth signals the imminent eschaton, in which they will meet their doom.

While reading the gospel, we cannot help noticing that the exorcisms in Mark follow a recurring pattern. The presence of Jesus agitates them. They cry out to be left alone, often throwing the demoniac to the ground. Jesus commands them to be silent and casts them out. The ex-demoniac is cured and “in his right mind.”

Why does Jesus order the demons to shut up?

The name of this section gives away the answer to that question. According to Wrede, Jesus commands their silence in order to keep the Messianic Secret. Is his conclusion justified? Craig A. Evans thinks not. read more »

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (4)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

English: A layered pound cake, with alternatin...
Image via Wikipedia -- A layered pound cake, with alternating interstitial spaces filled with raspberry jam and lemon curd, finished with buttercream frosting.

Part 4:  Mark — “Some Preliminaries on the General Picture of the Messianic History of Jesus.”

This unit covers Part 1, Section 1 of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret.

Layers upon layers

One of the things that struck me while reading this section is Wrede’s clarity of thinking, especially when it comes to making judgments about what the text of Mark means. In each case we have to try to come to terms with several distinct layers. I would include among them:

  1. The text as we interpret it today.
  2. The text as the early church fathers understood it.
  3. The text itself. (Often ambiguous.)
  4. The author’s intended meaning. (And what the first audience would have inferred.)
  5. The tradition as it came down to the author. (Whether it came from the first Christian communities or from Jesus himself.)
  6. What Jesus actually did, said, and thought.

The Son of Man sayings

I’m jumping ahead a bit, but I think this is a crucial matter, and one that is sometimes ignored in current scholarship. Wrede cites Mark’s use of the term “Son of Man” as a probable indicator of messiahship. Many modern scholars would likely dismiss that characterization out of hand, because we know so much more now about bar nasha, thanks in part to works like Maurice Casey’s The Solution to the Son of Man Problem. Presuming Jesus did exist, he likely spoke in Aramaic. Hence, his pronouncements such as “The son of man is lord also of the Sabbath” probably meant “Man is master of the Sabbath” (i.e., the Sabbath was made for human beings and not vice versa).

But Wrede knew that. It was already well known in his day that bar nasha is an Aramaic idiomatic expression for “the man” (or “a man” or “a guy”). He writes:

This would naturally make the passages no longer usable as proofs for an earlier use of the messianic title by Jesus. But this judgement is premature. Our primary concern is with Mark, not with Jesus. The original sense of the passage is completely immaterial here. The one thing that remains established is that Mark is here speaking of the “Son of man” in the same sense as he is everywhere. [p. 19, emphasis mine]

read more »

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (3)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 3:  Introduction

Gospels are stories

Illuminated Manuscript, Ethiopian Gospels, Eva...
Illuminated Manuscript, Ethiopian Gospels, Evangelist portrait of Mark, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.850, fol. 60v (Photo credit: Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts)

In the previous installment, we read through the front matter of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret. This time, we’re going to look at the Introduction, which while technically part of the front matter, is a meaty chapter unto itself.

Quite recently, Neil remarked on this blog:

The most striking thing that hit me in Richard Carrier’s online discussions or articles on Bayes’ theorem was the point that one needs to stop and distinguish between whether we know X happened (e.g. someone saw an empty tomb) or whether what we know is that we have A STORY THAT SAYS X happened.

Apparently, we’re still re-learning the things that Wrede said over a century ago. Indicting the current “defective critical method,” he wrote:

First of all, it is indeed an axiom of historical criticism in general that what we have before us is actually just a later narrator’s conception of Jesus’ life and that this conception is not identical with the thing itself. But the axiom exercises much too little influence. (p. 5, emphasis original)

The story is not the event. The map is not the territory. He then drives the point home even harder, declaring: read more »

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (2)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

English: William Wrede (1859-1906) Deutsch: Wi...
Image via Wikipedia

Part 2: Front Matter

A turning point in the quest

In the first installment, we introduced Wrede’s watershed book on the Gospel of Mark. And watershed is a fairly apt description of The Messianic Secret, since for many scholars it marks a turning point in The Quest of the Historical Jesus. In fact, as you may recall, Albert Schweitzer subtitled his classic work on the quest: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. For Schweitzer (and many others), Wrede signaled the end of the first quest.

If Wrede’s contributions to New Testament studies had such an impact, you would think today’s scholars wouldn’t simply skim over the Messianic Secret, concluding with a dismissive “Nobody believes that anymore.” Even if that were true, we should still like to know why he made such an impact in his day. What was it about the book that caused such a stir when it was published? Why did it have such a lasting effect on NT studies through most of the 20th century? The only way to be sure, I think, is to read Wrede’s work for ourselves. read more »

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (1)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

A four rotor Enigma machine.
Image via Wikipedia -- Enigma

Part 1:  Preface


A handful of works in the field of Biblical studies have the reputation of revolutionizing the field.  Later scholars refer to them as ground-breaking, game-changing, or seminal.  These works arrive on the scene and immediately change the nature of the debate, often providing an entirely new thought framework.  More than that, they supply scholars with fuel for generations to come as the original work is reinterpreted, recast, and re-imagined.

Some examples come to mind immediately:  Wellhausen′s Prolegomena, D.F. Strauss′s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, and Bultmann′s History of the Synoptic Tradition.  These important works in the tradition of historical-critical scholarship have much in common besides being seminal works.  First, they often unwittingly create a cottage industry for apologetic rebuttals. Dreadful little pamphlets and books hit the street almost immediately that attempt to debunk the new perspectives. These rebuttals, written by people who clearly aren’t up to the task, appear like mayflies: they burst forth, have their day in the sun, and then are entirely forgotten.

The unread classics

Among the common traits these ground-breaking classics share, we would have to include the way in which they become known to modern scholars and students.  They are not so much read as “absorbed” through the membrane of other scholars.  That is, students read what other scholars think the original work said, or they come across a synopsis of the work, and this serves a stand-in for actually reading it and understanding it on its own merits.  The original tract is reduced to footnote fodder with writers pretending to have read the work, when really all they’ve done is skimmed a summary, a passing reference, or an interpretation.

You’d have to look long and hard to find a better example of an unread classic than William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret (1901).  Unavailable in English until 1971, Wrede’s book was at first largely ignored in the US and UK (see J.D.G Dunn’s “The Messianic Secret in Mark,” (warning: link leads to PDF) Tyndale Bulletin 21 (1970) 92-117).  Apparently, by the time the English-speaking world took notice of it, so much had been written on the subject that scholars began to lose sight of the original thesis, while others simply misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented Wrede’s very description of the problem. read more »