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Irony and Secrecy in Mark's Gospel

Why does Jesus tell some people in Mark to keep quiet about what he does and who he is?

This has been a major question in Markan studies for a hundred years!  An initial answer was given from a liberal perspective by William Wrede.  Wrede said that the 'Messianic Secret' (the title of his book, published in German in 1901) was invented after Jesus.  His idea was that nobody claimed he was Messiah, including Jesus himself, during his lifetime and so the notion that he was Messiah was read back into his life and ministry.  This notion in its various forms has dogged Markan studies ever since.  

N. T. Wright argued decisively, in my view, that Jesus knew he was Messiah and intended for people to understand him as such during his ministry (see Jesus and the Victory of God).  Yet the so-called 'Messianic Secret' actually has various dimensions to it--it is not just about Jesus being Messiah. Jesus teaches in parables ('riddles'), he tells people not to announce that he performed a healing, he silences the demons declaring him 'Son of God', and his disciples do not completely understand his messiahship.  There may well be a variety of answers to any 'secrecy' motif in Mark's Gospel and not simply one about his messiahship.

Mark, though, tells the reader who Jesus was in Mk. 1.1!  So, the reader 'watches' people trying to understand who Jesus is throughout his Gospel.  We can say some brief things about all this.  First, there is more than one so-called 'secret'.  Jesus seems to have a challenge with authorities (his relative, John the Baptist, was beheaded!): it was advisable not to get publicity for amazing miracles if he wanted more time before his arrest to accomplish a teaching ministry.  Thus, there is a very practical reason for this part of secrecy, including his ministry in the countryside, in the border region of Galilee, on boats, to the average people, etc.

His silencing the demons could include the same reason, but also, who would want even a correct identification to come from demons?!  Jesus wanted people to come to understand who he was; he was not interested in getting endorsements as to his identity from any group--least of all demons!

His teaching in parables is a matter of hearers' hearts: to understand Jesus, one's heart has to be right.  It is not just a matter of intellectual understanding.  Isaiah 6.9-10 is offered as an explanation for Jesus' teaching in parables, as is the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4.  You know who Jesus is because of your heart, not because of what you know.  This relates to the idea of 'faith': knowing Jesus is a matter of belief and putting your faith in him.

This is different for the reader of Mark's Gospel, however.  Mark helps the reader to hear the truth about Jesus.  Mark 1.1 identifies Jesus first as 'Messiah' (Christ)--a realization that comes to Peter in Mark 8, midway through the Gospel.  (See Mark 8.27-30).  From that time on (Mark 8.31), Jesus began to unfold the greater truth of this identification: the Messiah would go to Jerusalem to suffer and die and be raised again.  The whole story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, his cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11), and his being crowned with thorns (Mark 15.17) is about Jesus' being Messiah--but in an ironic, surprising way that people cannot understand at the time.  How could the Son of David, Israel's king, arrive in Jerusalem only to be put to death by the reigning authorities--including the foreign, occupying authority of Rome?  

Mark 1.1 also identifies Jesus as 'Son of God'--a title used of national leaders, particularly of the Roman emperor, in Jesus' day.  It also had a wider meaning to Jews (Israel, e.g., is God's 'son').  But, in Mark 15.39, the centurion overseeing Jesus' crucifixion declares at the point of Jesus' death that Jesus was, indeed, a/the Son of God.  That Jesus' identity as 'Son of God' would be revealed by his executioner, by a Roman, and at the time of his death is also ironic.  This irony of Jesus' identity seems to be related to how it is revealed: as with the parables, people have to come to understand who Jesus is despite the situation rather than because Jesus tells them outright.  Thus, Mark's Gospel takes the reader through the story of Jesus to discover that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God in ways they never would have expected and through a faith in him despite the circumstances.

Some believe that Mark's Gospel ends in irony.  After keeping Jesus' identity secretive throughout the Gospel, when the risen Jesus now tells the women to go tell his disciples to meet him in Galilee, they say nothing to anyone out of fear (Mark 16.7-8; this is the actual end of the Gospel as vv. 9-20 were a later addition trying to resolve this surprising ending).  Andrew Lincoln has argued that this surprising ending may fit the context of Mark's Gospel being written in Rome during the time of Nero's persecution of Christians.  If so, the Gospel ends as a challenge to Christians not to be silent but to witness to who Jesus is.  Another way to understand this ending is that the women's response could be understood to mean that they did tell the disciples but did not broadcast Jesus' resurrection in Jerusalem (surely this is what happened!).  Thus, v. 7 is the key: the risen Jesus would now reveal himself fully to his disciples back in Galilee (a safer place for them than Jerusalem).  They would be able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together in their post-resurrection meeting of Jesus; they would understand how he was both Messiah of the Jews and 'Son of God' for Jews and Gentiles.