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Wrede’s Revolutionary Claim about the “Messianic Secret”

Yesterday I pointed out all the passages in the Gospel of Mark that repeat, time and again, the idea that Jesus tried to keep his messiahship a secret.  He doesn’t allow the demons to identify him when he casts them out; when he heals people he strictly instructs them not to tell anyone; he teaches his disciples the “secret of the Kingdom” privately when no one else is around; he teaches the crowds only using parables precisely (Mark indicates) so no one can understand what he means.  And he never publicly teaches about his own identity.

This last point should be emphasized.  Unlike other Gospels (see John 4:25-26!) Jesus never tells anyone publicly that he is the messiah.  When he is acknowledged as the messiah by Peter in a private conversation with the disciples in Mark 8:29-30, Jesus orders them not to let anyone know.  And then he starts teaching that as the messiah he has to be rejected and executed.  That seems to be a complete contradiction of terms for Peter, who has just made the acknowledgment; Peter rebukes him for thinking so.  Obviously the messiah doesn’t face rejection and execution – the messiah is supposed to rule Israel as the powerful leader sent from God!  Jesus in turn rebukes Peter and calls him Satan.  For Jesus (and Mark) Peter understands only in part.  Yes Jesus is the messiah, but not the one anyone expects.  So he keeps it secret.

But William Wrede, in his classic The Messianic Secret, did not think that this could be a historical reality.  It’s not really what happened in the life of Jesus.  As I pointed out yesterday, the “secrecy” actually doesn’t make any good sense in a number of ways, even in Mark’s Gospel, as a plausible historical event.  So what’s going on?

Wrede devised the idea …

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The Death Knell for the Study of the Historical Jesus
Is It Plausible that Jesus Kept the Whole Thing a Secret??



  1. Avatar
    Eric  February 20, 2019

    ” a few places in Matthew and Luke where Mark’s version has not been fully altered by these later editor/authors. But they get rid of most of the secrecy motif, and it’s completely gone in John.”

    Just a technicality based on what I’ve learned from this blog! ->

    Better to say “completely absent from John”.

    Your wording suggests John is derivative of Mark (although more attenuated than either Mathew or Luke), whereas
    I understand you do not mean that.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      You’re right, I don’t mean that! I mean that John has a different view from Mark.

  2. Avatar
    swaffbls  February 20, 2019

    I can see where Wrede is coming from but I the thing that gives me hesitation is the fact that the secret is not actually kept a secret in Mark despite Jesus’ best attempts to keep it so. “[Wrede argues that] No one in Jesus’ own time knew that he was a messiah – Mark’s community explained – because he hushed it up.” But he didn’t hush it up – he tried to but failed. For example, Mark says that “the more he charged them [to keep quiet], the more zealously they proclaimed it” (7:36, also see 1:45). How does Wrede fit these passages into his theory?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      Yup, these are often seen as problematic for his specific thesis — but not for the notion that Mark is recording something other than straightforward history.

  3. Avatar
    ericstaud  February 21, 2019

    Hi Professor Ehrman, I had a question about Mark but not related to the messianic secret. Apologies if this isn’t the right post to ask on.

    Why, if Mark was a Christian, did he quote Jesus about returning before any standing before him would pass?

    Did he think that they were still alive at the time of his writing?
    Did he have a different understanding like apologists will say he had?
    Or did he know it was a failed prophecy but reported it anyway?


    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      He didn’t say “anyone,” but “some.” Mark seems to have thought that some disciples had died, but that Jesus would return before all of them had.

  4. Avatar
    dankoh  February 22, 2019

    How does Paul fit into this scenario? Granted that the first time we hear from him, around 50 CE with 1 Thessalonians, he is already talking about Jesus as messiah (christos). Would this mean (as I think) that the first followers worked this very early on, shortly after the crucifixion, as they grappled with what had happened? Is there any way (which I doubt) to argue that this is an idea Paul came up with?

    Along those lines, is Mark basing any of his writing on Paul; that is, is his “messianic secret” an attempt to provide support for Paul in response to questions why had no one in Jesus’s day heard of him being the messiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2019

      Do you mean how did it happen historically? My sense is that the disciples of Jesus thought he might be the messiah during his life; they realized he absolutely wasn’t when he got crucified; and then started to think he really was, in a different way, when they believed he had been raised.

  5. Avatar
    john76  March 12, 2019

    An alternative explanation for the Messianic Secret theme could be Mark was modelling his portrayal of Jesus on Plato’s ethical paradigm of the impaled, just man, and so Jesus had to avoid even the appearance of reward from his just life, be it money, glory, honor, or whatever. See my blog post here: http://palpatinesway.blogspot.com/2019/03/update-new-thoughts-on-jesus-and.html

  6. fefferdan
    fefferdan  March 14, 2019

    I’m coming to this discussion late, but I’d like to add my two cents.
    First, about the Sadducees and messianism it makes sense that during this period they would at least not emphasize the idea of a messiah if they were satisfied with the current political arrangement with Rome. The Jewish Encyclopedia article on ‘Sadducees’ affirms that they didn’t share the messianic hope. Also they focused more on the Torah and less on the prophets, and the Torah doesn’t speak of a Messiah directly.
    Second, about the Messianic secret, it makes sense to me that Jesus would want to keep the secret at least temporarily, even if he did think he was the Messiah in the traditional Jewish sense. I think this was the actual case BTW. He needed to keep the secret because it was dangerous to claim that title publicly without substantial support for it. If the story of the triumphal entry is historical, this would have been his “coming out party.” In Mark though, the party fizzles. No one pays attention; he just looks around and leaves because it’s getting late in the day. [Mark 11.11]. Then he comes back the next day in a bad mood and attacks the money changers. This resulted in his arrest and crucifixion. So much for the secret, and so much for fulfilling any sense of the traditional Jewish messianic role. It would be up to Paul, Mark and the others to explain that he really meant to be crucified after all.

  7. Avatar
    evanball  April 4, 2019

    If Jesus taught that he would be king of the Jews, would “lunatic” be a reasonable answer to the Trilemma?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2019

      If he did it in 21st c. America, probably yes. But I’d say no in the very different time and place of 1st c. Palestine.

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