In my previous post I showed how scholars in the 19th century came to think that our shortest and evidently-least-embelished Gospel Mark gave the accurate account of Jesus ‘ life, so that any reconstruction of what Jesus really said and did simply could simply assume that Mark provides the essential information.
But is that right? It eventually came to be seen as wrong. Here’s how I discuss the matter in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016).
The problem with Mark is that it is so terse that there are huge gaps in the narrative. It is hard to determine what is driving Jesus’ action and what his ultimate objective is. To solve that problem 19th-century scholars writing about Jesus filled in the gaps either with inventive narratives they spun out of their own imagination or with psychological analyses about what must have been motivating Jesus at one point of his life or another.
All of these efforts were rooted in the sense that Mark is the earliest and most historical account without any serious theological overlay (or what I have been calling “distorted memories”). That view was demolished in the early 20th century by German scholar William Wrede, in a book he called The Messianic Secret. Wrede engaged in a deep and perceptive analysis of Mark’s Gospel, and showed that one of the overarching organizing principles in the Gospel was not at all historical. It instead represented a theological understanding of Jesus. That was the view that Jesus tried to keep his messianic identity a secret.
Throughout Mark, when someone recognizes that Jesus is the messiah, he