The “Messianic Secret”: Early Fabrication or Historical Reality?

“Don’t tell anyone who I am.”

If this is something that Spiderman says to Mary Jane after she discovers his secret identity, it makes perfect sense. He has to keep his secret to protect his loved ones, and he probably doesn’t want his friends knowing that he spends his evenings prancing around the city in colored spandex. Or, if an undercover cop whispers this to his informant as they slip into the underground hideout of some notorious gang of thugs, everyone understands that he has pretty good reasons for want to hide his true identity.

But Jesus? He’s the Messiah, the one who’s supposed to come and lead God’s people into all the blessings of the kingdom. That’s the best news around. Why would he want to keep that a secret?

He wouldn’t.

At least, that’s what Wilhelm Wrede argued in his The Messianic Secret. According to Wrede, the early church didn’t come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah until after the resurrection. But, once they’d come to believe, the early Christian community needed some explanation for why Jesus wouldn’t have given any overt indication of this  before his crucifixion. So, Wrede argued, the Gospel writers, particularly Mark, invented the “messianic secret” as a way of explaining this inexplicable silence.

But, is that an adequate explanation? Not according to Jesse Richards in the paper that he presented at the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society: “Mark’s Nuance of Wrede’s Messianic Secret: ‘The Messianic Paradox’.” Richards argues that although Wrede’s argument is interesting and provocative, it ultimately fails to convince. Instead, he contends that these sayings manifest the “messianic paradox” of a suffering messiah, not an after-the-fact theological reconstruction fabricated by early Christian leaders.

Here’s the outline of the paper that he provides in his introduction:

First, a brief overview of Wrede’s place in historical Jesus studies, and thesis, will be provided to frame the discussion; second, a critique of Wrede’s thesis will be offered; third, A proposal of how the secrecy theme is historical and stems from the life of Jesus. Fourth the significance of Jesus crucifixion as King of the Jews; finally, literary criticism which has been used to evaluate Mark’s narrative strategy will be shown to support the Messianic paradox, and thus argue against the idea that Mark was concocting a
messianic secret.

After a lengthy summary and critique of three main lines of evidence offered by Wrede in support of his hypothesis (the distinct nature of the messianic motif, the unhistorical nature of exorcisms, and the post-Easter belief in Jesus as Messiah), Richards moves into his argument that a more plausible account of these messianic sayings can be found in the messianic paradox:

From a narrative analysis of Mark it becomes clear that Mark was seeking to emphasize Jesus as the suffering messiah. This is truly the messianic paradox—that Messiah would suffer. Mark uses pacing of his narrative to focus in on the week of Jesus’ death. His use of irony allows the themes of secrecy and messiahship to exist together, without one having to negate the other. Additionally, his irony lets the reader in on the truth of Jesus as Messiah. Mark also highlight’s Jesus’ messiahship through the climax of his narrative—the confession of Peter, and then uses triads to show that Jesus is anointed to be Isaiah’s servant of the Lord who will give his life as a ransom. The gospel is also full of intercalation, which helps to highlight this theme as well. Mark’s plot, including Jesus indictment of the temple cult, the leader’s rejection, and the disciples misunderstanding are intentionally contrasted with the God of Israel, tearing open heaven to declare Jesus his Son at baptism, and tearing the curtain open to declare Jesus his anointed Isaianic servant at death.

So, Richards argues from a variety of angles that the messianic “secret” was not a post-Easter fabrication, but was actually an historical aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry, consistent with the paradoxical reality of the suffering and crucified Messiah.

(This is last part of a series highlighting papers presented by faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on April 21, 2011, in New Testament and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Btw, if Christ or Jesus had to “discover” (Gnostic) that He was the Messiah? Then He was not Messianic, but we know He was! (Luke 2:49)

  2. Jesus knew from birth who he was! The Jewish leadership had their own agenda and would not recognize Jesus as Messiah. The same goes for those who do not today. You have your agenda and will not recognize him for who Jesus said he was. Look it up! Many times Jesus presented himself as Messiah. He mourned for Jerusalem because they were not willing to recognize him and he knew what would happen to them because of their denial.

    Some want to keep him dead. But where is the body? Where is the evidence of his dead body? It was NEVER presented. Why? Because He lives and he presented himself ALIVE to over 500 eye witnesses! None of the Jewish leadership or the Romans could show a body.

    This is why Easter is celebrated! Jesus the Messiah, the Christos, the Christ is ALIVE!

  1. Pingback: Resurrection and Messianism | Stephen C. Rose

  2. Pingback: The Messianic Secret? Jesus, the Suffering King « Anchor for the Soul

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