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A Brief Summary of “The Messianic Secret” by William Wrede


Wrede addresses two decisive questions regarding Jesus’ life: “What do we know of Jesus’ life?” and “What do we know of the history of the oldest views and representation of Jesus’ life?” (4) In addressing these questions, Wrede makes three points pertaining to historical criticism and critical method. First, Wrede notes that the writers of the Gospels were not actually writing eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life. He says that this  is widely accepted in historical criticism. Wrede describes this further in detailing the evangelists’ influence from their own community of faith’s needs and beliefs in their accounts of the life of Jesus. Second, Wrede notes that historical critics are too quick to leave the life circumstances in which the evangelists wrote in order to appropriate them as the history of Jesus. Wrede argues that the first task of the historical critic is to develop an understanding of the spirit and intention of the evangelists’ writing to their readers during their time. Third, Wrede refers to psychology. According to Wrede, psychology alone does not produce good historical critical work because most of the work is not based on facts and even if they were facts the results would still be suppositions. Wrede considers these points a foundation that he utilizes in his research throughout his investigation. The aim of Wrede’s investigations into Mark’s Gospel is to determine when Jesus was acknowledged as or revealed himself to be Messiah. (7)


Part One: Some Preliminaries on the General Picture of the Messianic history of Jesus:

In order to establish the direction of his investigations, Wrede traces the Messianic revelation of Jesus to the people according to the outline of Mark’s Gospel. Wrede poses the question, “Did Mark intend to represent the supposed development in Jesus messianic life, or did he describe it unconsciously and yet faithfully?” (14) Certain arguments have been made concerning Mark’s revealing Jesus as Messiah through Peter’s confession in 8:29. In establishing his own answer to this question, Wrede claims that “the narrative does not look like an intentional record of messianic development” (16) and follows this statement by making four positive points.

First, Wrede observes that Jesus heals many sick people and follows their healing with a command for secrecy, but Jesus performs many miracles in the public’s view. Even when certain miracles were performed in private, those who were healed did not follow the command to keep their healing secret. Second, Wrede says that Jesus is revealing himself as Messiah to his confidants in the raising of Jairus’ daughter. According to Wrede, this story portrays Jesus doing everything he can to call forth the knowledge of his Messiahship for his confidants. Third, Wrede says that Jesus is calling himself “Son of Man” in 2:10 and 2:28. Wrede says, “If “Son of man means the Messiah, then according to Mark Jesus designated himself as such long before Peter’s confession, and in full glare of publicity at that.” (18) Fourth, Wrede observes Mark’s use of the “bridgroom” statement in 2:19-20. Wrede says that for Mark this statement necessarily has a messianic tone, and points out Mark’s use of this passage as a prophecy of the Passion.

By making these points, Wrede establishes the basis for his investigation regarding the secrecy of Jesus’ Messiahship. The question posed by Wrede is whether or not Peter’s confession cancels the other reports that could be considered in Jesus’ self-proclamation or Jesus being proclaimed Messiah. Wrede follows with the conclusion that a thorough critical examination of Mark’s data is needed.


The Self-Concealment of the Messiah

The Demons’ Recognitions of the Messiah

Wrede argues the point that in Mark Jesus is recognized as the Messiah by the demons, but not by the demoniacs. (25) The demons, as supernatural spirits, recognize the supernatural spirit in Jesus. Wrede makes the observation that when Jesus confronts a demoniac he speaks to the demon and not to the person who is sick.  However, Wrede does note the necessary presupposition that “the expectation of the Messiah was in the air.”(30) This could provide some clarity to each of the accounts concluding with the same judgment that Jesus is the Messiah.

Wrede questions the historicity of these accounts, yet combats the desire to reduce the number of cases found in the Gospel because he recognizes the accounts as part of an important motif for Mark. Wrede makes the argument that an historical account of the life of Jesus was not Mark’s goal. He says, “If we give up the history we leave the account entirely as it stands and find in the supernatural view of the author—which indeed amounts to what is historically impossible—a direct way of understanding the whole.” (33)

The Injunction to keep the Messianic Secret

In this section, Wrede organizes Jesus’ prohibitions into five sections: prohibitions addressed to the demons, prohibitions following other miracles, prohibitions after Peter’s confession, intentional preservation of his incognito, and a prohibition to speak which did not originate with Jesus. Wrede argues for the extreme probability that the various commands in Mark share the same sense. He says, “The continuous repetition of the feature is by itself enough to press this upon one, but the lack of a motivation intensifies it.” (37) Wrede also argues that the two passages in which Jesus is incognito (7:24; 9:30) are related to the prohibition passages, because they indicate a preservation of the messianic secret.

On the idea of a suffering Messiah, Wrede indicates that Mark is not portraying Jesus as an unpolitical Messiah, but rather as the Son of God who is the Messiah revealed as a result of his suffering. Wrede expounds upon the fulfillment of the prophecy, Jesus riding on the donkey and Jesus being hailed as the one to restore David’s kingdom, in making the point that Mark presents a contrast with the Jewish view of the Messiah. The contrast for Mark is not between a spiritual and a national political view of the Messiah, but rather a non-suffering Messiah and a Messiah as a result of suffering. (47)

Cryptic Speech as a Mode of Concealment

In this section Wrede notes that in the Gospel of Mark there are two closely related ideas: “(1) that Jesus spoke in parables, i.e. veiling his meaning to the people, but openly to the disciples, and (2) that the parables remained obscure to the people but were explained to the disciples.” (65) Wrede explains that, “the idea of the messianic secret goes beyond the miracles and the messianic apostrophes by demons or disciples.” (66) By using parables, Jesus concealed the meaning of the parables from the crowd and interpreted them to the disciples when Jesus was alone with them, however, the disciples did not always understand the interpretation that Jesus provided.


The Meaning of the Secret

Wrede asserts here that a historical motive by Mark detailing the messianic secret is not plausible, but rather Mark’s approach to the messianic secret is theological. Wrede argues that an one of the most important statements in Mark is after the Transfiguration when Jesus’ prohibition is to “tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead. (Mk 9:9)” (67) The implications of this prohibition is that what was seen and heard during the Transfiguration will only be discernable after Jesus’ resurrection. Wrede concludes that “during his earthly life Jesus’ messiahship is absolutely a secret and is supposed to be such; no one apart from the confidants of Jesus is supposed to learn about it; with the resurrection, however, its disclosure ensues. This is in fact the crucial idea, the underlying point of Mark’s entire approach.” (68)


Concealment Despite Revelation

The Prophecies of the Suffering, Dying and Rising of Jesus

Wrede illustrates the necessity of Jesus’ death from the start of Mark’s Gospel. “Jesus’ death, just like his resurrection, is a part, and an essential part, of his messianic work.” (83) According to Wrede, it is Mark’s view that Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem because that is where he wants to die. For Wrede this is how Mark’s community would have viewed Jesus’ death and Jesus’ approach to life. (84) Wrede clarifies this in saying that “without the resurrection the suffering and dying are inconceivable for an early Christian.” (85) Wrede portrays the prophecies of suffering as statements directed from Mark’s community of faith. This could be a clue that Mark’s community was experiencing persecution and suffering.

The Attitude of the Disciples to the Prophecies

Wrede refutes the idea that the disciples are somehow slowly coming to understand Jesus’ prophecy of his suffering through repetition. He notes that despite Jesus’ repetition of the prophecy the disciples arrive at no clearer understanding, and there is no attempt by Jesus to explain the prophecy to them. Wrede says, “Jesus speaks of his passion and resurrection in such plain language that it is incomprehensible how there should be anything incomprehensible in them!” (94)  In a reference to Strauss, Wrede explains the disciples’ lack of understanding as if they were trying to understand a foreign language. “Nevertheless they hold on to it, one might also suppose, in order to preserve it for a time when understanding would dawn.” (94) Hence, understanding will come with Jesus’ resurrection.

The Disciples Understanding in General: Revelation and Secret

Wrede makes the points that throughout Mark’s Gospel the disciples are seen as incapable of understanding Jesus. (101) Their inability to understand extends from divine intention for messianic secrecy until the resurrection. For Wrede, these disciples in Mark are not real figures. They are “disciples who never become any wiser about Jesus after all the wonderful things they see about him.” (103) Jesus keeps the messianic secret while on earth and even though Jesus reveals himself to his disciples, they remain incapable of perceiving his revelation until Jesus resurrection. (113)


The Confession of Peter in the Gospel of Mark

Wrede acknowledges that Mark did not know anything about when Jesus was revealed as Messiah and that historically it was not important to him. Wrede makes two points as to why Mark did not view Peter’s confession as a climax in the revelation of Jesus life. First, he notes that Jesus did not conceal himself from his disciples; rather they were incapable of understanding. Second, the Transfiguration provides another introduction of the secret. (116)


Mark as an Author

Wrede argues that Mark does not have the historical life of Jesus in mind when he is writing his Gospel, rather Mark is writing from convictions of faith. (131) According to Mark, Wrede explains, “the person of Jesus is dogmatically conceived. He is the bearer of the definite dignity bestowed by God.” (131) According to Mark, Jesus’ motives are divine and “his knowledge is such as no man can possess on his own account but he conceals it and conceals his own being because from the beginning his gaze is directed to the point of the whole story, i.e. the resurrection, which is the event that will make manifest for men what is secret.” (131)


Concluding Remarks

Wrede concludes by acknowledging that the notion that Mark invented the messianic secret is quite impossible. Wrede says that in Mark’s Gospel, “the entire life of Jesus is shot through with the various motifs of this idea. The individual conceptions occur in a multiplicity of variants. In them there is much that is unresolved. Material of this kind is not the work of an individual.” (145) Wrede understands Mark’s motifs to be an admixture of Traditional material and Mark’s own contributions. (146)


One thought on “A Brief Summary of “The Messianic Secret” by William Wrede

  1. Rev'd Chigwenembe Moses says:

    The messianic secret is an important virtue that the body of Christ ought to emulate. Looking at the larger picture, Jesus was a man who came on earth because of the mission to save mankind and not a single day did he ever forget that. He work on anything that would bring a diversion in his life and ministry. And for sure he accomplished the mission. The body of Christ has a mission and we are expected for nathing but to do do the mandate of God with great intelligence. We can also appreciate his level of humility, the Children of God should be humble in the ways of their conduct if they are to be effective in the mandate of the Gospel.
    The Messianic Secret is same thing we should emulate.

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