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Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (2)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

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

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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.

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Part 1:  Preface

Game-changers

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 »