Categories: The Gospels
I have heard people say that the reason the Jews didn't accept Jesus as the Messiah is due to the fact that he didn't want them to know. That becomes apparent in passages in Mark where Jesus commands silence of demons (usually right after they have called him the Son of God), people that he healed, disciples, etc. Why would Jesus not want people to know who he was? And is there such a thing as a "messianic secret" in Mark?
The concept of a Messianic Secret was an invention of William Wrede back in 1901. He was musing about the passages (especially in Mark) where Jesus commands his followers (and demons) to silence—to not tell people about his messianic mission. It was a very popular notion for decades. This, then, was supposed to explain why people who were widely anticipating a Messiah didn't flock to Jesus in droves – because he didn't want them to know!
By the 1970s, however, the theory had fallen out of favor, in part because Wrede considered all the commands under one umbrella. He made no distinction between commands to demons, disciples, or recipients of healing. With the advance of literary studies of biblical texts, such a theory was no longer sustainable, especially in light of the fact that Mark was written first and Matthew and Luke did nothing to carry that idea forward.
Still, it is true that Jesus told people/demons to be silent. Why did he do that? There are several possible explanations. The most common one (a holdover from Wrede) is that it simply wasn't time to make himself known. Jesus did not come as a conquering Messiah, the one that would deliver the Jews from their oppressors. Instead, Jesus came to suffer and die (and then be resurrected) in order to atone for the people's sins. Proponents of this theory have developed what is called a Theology of the Cross, which states that Jesus became the Messiah through his suffering and death.
Others suggest Jesus simply didn't want to be a "celebrity" and have people following him wherever he went (like the paparazzi follow celebrities today). Yet, we constantly read about huge crowds following him, and he doesn't seem to be too upset by it.
Others think this was primarily a narrative device employed by Mark when he wanted to draw the readers' attention to what was really going on in the story. Jesus always acted authoritatively, yet claimed no authority for himself. His message was always centered on God, on His kingdom, not on himself.
The explanation from literary experts is that Mark identified Jesus with Odysseus, a Greek hero who had to disguise himself from his enemies (and Jesus certainly had plenty of those). Yet, that idea raises uncomfortable connections. Since Odysseus was a mostly fictional character in the Odyssey, scholars do not want to suggest that Jesus was a mostly fictional character in Mark's Gospel.
Others have raised social reasons. The first is that Jesus lived in an honor/shame society. It would not have been honorable to make such claims about himself. Not only would others be envious, but his higher standing would also have diminished them. Plus, many apocryphal texts said that only God could declare who was the Messiah. So if Jesus had made such a statement, by default, he would not have been the Messiah. By not making this statement, he was indicating that he was. Moreover, identifying himself as the Messiah could also have been seen as a provocative military statement against the government.
Jesus' commands to the demons usually occurred after they had publicly identified him. One thought is that by shouting his identity, they were trying to exert their control over him. Time after time, however, they were expelled or silenced against their will, showing just how little control they had. But another aspect is that by shouting his name, they were really witnessing to him. Who wants a demon for a witness? Telling them to be silent seems completely appropriate!
Scholars may never know why Mark wrote his account in this manner. But we have to remember that he told us, the reader, who Jesus was in the very first line – the Messiah, the Son of God. As we read through his gospel, we know what the characters in the book are trying to figure out. We may not fully understand what those titles actually mean, but that information has been given to us. It's a bit like going to a movie and seeing a scene; then the whole movie is a flashback that will eventually get back to that scene. That's what Mark does for the reader. He gave us the ending before barely even getting started. So as we watch the people of the story wrestle over Jesus' identity, we will always have an advantage over them. We already know what they have to find out. Secrecy and disclosure will be in constant tension in the book, but there is no secret for us.