In yesterday’s post I began to address the question: What is the Messianic Secret? This is a term that scholars have applied for over a century to the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus repeatedly tells anyone who suspects his identity not to reveal it. Why? To make sense of this “Secret” of Jesus, it is important for us to have a fuller understanding of Mark’s portrayal of Jesus.
One of Mark’s major themes, quite apart from how one explains the apparent “secret” of Jesus’ messiahship, is that no one in Mark’s Gospel (remember, I’m speaking ONLY of Mark now; not the other Gospels) seems to understand who Jesus is. Here is how I explain that in my discussion of Mark in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.
One way to establish misunderstanding as a Markan theme is to read carefully through the first half of the Gospel and ask, Who realizes that Jesus is the Son of God? The answer may come as a bit of a surprise. Clearly God knows that Jesus is his Son, because he himself declares it at the baptism (1:11). And since this declaration comes directly to Jesus (“You are my beloved Son”), the reader can assume that he knows it as well. In addition, the evil demons recognize Jesus as the Son of God; on several instances they scream it out when they encounter him (3:11; cf. 1:24). Who else knows? Only two other persons: the author of the Gospel, who recounts these various tales, and you, the one who reads them.
Throughout the first half of this Gospel, no one else …
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Throughout the first half of this Gospel, no one else recognizes Jesus’ identity, including even those who are closest to him. Early on, when he comes back to his hometown, his family tries to snatch him from the public eye because they think that he has gone crazy (3:21). Jesus’ own townspeople neither understand nor trust him. When he teaches in their synagogue, they take offense at his words and wonder how he has the ability to do such miraculous deeds, since he is a mere carpenter whose (unremarkable) family they know (6:1–6). The Jewish scholars think they know the source of his power. Refusing to acknowledge the divine authority behind Jesus’ words and deeds—how could one so profane come from God (2:7)?—they claim that he is possessed by Beelzebul, the prince of the demons, and so does miracles through the power of the Devil (3:22).
Perhaps most striking of all, Jesus’ own disciples fail to understand who he is, even though he has specially chosen them to follow him (3:13–19) and given them private instruction (e.g., 4:10–20). When they watch him calm a violent storm at sea with a word, their question is genuine: “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (4:41). When they later behold Jesus walking upon the water, they continue to be mystified: “For they did not understand . . . but their hearts were hardened” (6:51–52). When, later still, Jesus warns them “to beware of the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees” (8:15), they mistake his meaning, thinking he is angry because they have forgotten to bring bread, even though they had seen him miraculously feed thousands of hungry people on two different occasions. Now Jesus expresses his own exasperation: “Do you not yet understand?” (8:21). No, they do not. But they will begin to have an inkling, right here at the midpoint of the Gospel.
One of the keys to understanding Mark’s portrayal of Jesus lies in the sequence of stories that begins immediately after Jesus’ exasperated question of 8:21. The sequence begins with perhaps the most significant healing story of the Gospel, an account that Mark appears to have invested with special symbolic meaning. This is a story of a blind man who gradually regains his sight (8:22–26).
It is striking that the healing takes place in stages. Indeed, it is the only miracle in the Gospel that Jesus does not perform immediately and effortlessly. When he is asked to heal the blind man, he takes him by the hand, leads him out of the village, spits on his eyes, and asks if he can see. The man replies that he can, but only vaguely: people appear like walking trees. Jesus then lays his hands upon his eyes and looks intently at him, and the man begins to see clearly.
A perceptive reader will recognize the symbolism of the account in light of its immediate context. In the very next story, the disciples themselves, who until now have been blind to Jesus’ identity (cf. 8:21), gradually begin to see who he is, in stages. It starts with a question from Jesus: “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27). The disciples reply that some think he is John the Baptist, others Elijah, and yet others a prophet raised from the dead. He then turns the question on them: “But who do you say that I am?” (8:29). Peter, as spokesperson for the group, replies, “You are the Christ.”
This is a climactic moment in the narrative. Up to this point, Jesus has been misunderstood by everyone—by family, neighbors, religious leaders, and followers—and now, halfway through the account, someone finally realizes who he is, at least in part. (The reader knows that Peter’s confession is correct to some extent, since for Mark Jesus is the messiah: recall how he identifies him in the very first verse of the Gospel as “Jesus the Christ.”) Rather than rejecting or repudiating Peter’s confession, Jesus orders the disciples not to spread the word: “And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (8:30).
Still, Peter’s identification of Jesus as the messiah is correct only in part. That is to say, Peter has begun to see who Jesus is, but still perceives him only dimly. The reader knows this because of what happens next. Jesus begins to teach that he “must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise from the dead” (8:31). Jesus is the messiah, but he is the messiah who has to suffer and die. And this makes no sense to Peter. He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him.
But why would Peter reject Jesus’ message of his approaching “Passion” (a term that comes from the Greek word for “suffering”)? Evidently he understands the role of the messiah quite differently from the way Jesus (and Mark) does. The author never delineates Peter’s view for us, but perhaps it is not so difficult to figure out. If Peter uses the term “messiah” in the way most other first-century Jews did, then he understands Jesus to be the future deliverer of Israel, a man of grandeur and power who will usher in God’s kingdom in a mighty way (whether as a warrior-king or as a cosmic judge of the earth). But for Mark, this is only a partial truth, a dim perception of who Jesus is. For him, Jesus is the messiah who must suffer and die to bring about salvation for the world.
Peter’s failure to perceive this truth forces Jesus to turn the rebuke back on him: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33). The idea that the messiah had to suffer may have appeared totally anomalous to most Jews of the first century, including Jesus’ own disciples, but in Mark’s view, to understand Jesus in any other way is to succumb to the temptations of the Devil. Thus Peter has begun to see, but not yet clearly; he is like a blind man who has partially recovered his sight. Perhaps this is better than being totally blind, but in another sense it is worse, because partial perception can lead to misperception: people seem to be trees and Jesus appears to be the messiah of popular expectation. For Mark, however, Jesus is the suffering Son of God.