Saturday, November 11, 2017

What about the Loaves? Secrecy and Mystery in the Gospel of Mark

A well-known secrecy motif in Mark features Jesus regularly silencing the demons he exorcises (1:24-25, 34; 3:11-12), people he heals (1:43-45; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26), and his own disciples (8:30; 9:9).The reason he does these things is to keep his identity as the Christ concealed (8:27-30) and his activities from becoming public knowledge. But the secret leaks out anyway (1:44-45; 7:36), and at the end of the gospel Jesus admits his identity (14:61-62). In 1901 a German scholar (William Wrede) argued that the historical figure Jesus was not responsible for these attempts at secrecy, rather it was the historical author of Mark who traced back into the life of Jesus the idea that he was messiah, in the face of a post-resurrection idea that Jesus had become Son of God at the resurrection (Rom 1:3-4).1 The "messianic secret" was the author's attempt to explain why Jesus was not recognized as messiah during his life.
            To these well-known secrecy motifs should be added several other mysterious features in Mark. Taken together with the messianic secret, they create an aura of mystery about a gospel that is supposed to announce "good news" (1:1) about the kingdom of God (1:14-15). Why would Mark represent Jesus as telling enigmatic stories (parables) for the purpose of keeping the masses in the dark about the "secret" of the kingdom (Mark 4:10-12)? The secret was apparently only for insiders, that is, those who were the elect (13:20. 22, 27). So he explained his stories to the disciples privately (4:13-20, 34).

            Another aspect of the mystery is the author's own deliberate attempt to obfuscate the narrative, that is, to conceal information—a kind of dissembling. For example, Mark never tells the reader what the disciples failed to understand about the loaves. Jesus feeds 5000 people with five loaves and two fish (6:35-44); later Mark tells the reader that the disciples "did not understand about the loaves" (6:51-52), but Mark never tells the reader what they should have understood. After a second feeding of 4000 people with seven loaves and a few fish (8:1-10), the disciples discuss that they had forgotten to bring bread, having only one loaf in the boat (8:14-21). Jesus said to them "why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand?" What is it that the disciples failed to understand about the loaves, and Mark does not disclose to the reader?
            On another occasion after the disciples had failed in an attempt to heal a demon-possessed boy, the father asked if Jesus could do anything for the boy (9:14-29): Jesus said to him, "All things are possible to him who believes," to which the father replies "I believe; help my unbelief" (9:22-24; as also appears in 5:36). What was it that the father should believe and how much of it did he believe? But Mark never discloses this information. Following the mention of a "desolating sacrilege" Mark suspends narration to address the reader directly in an aside: "Let the reader understand," he says (13:14). Yet Mark never tells the reader what s/he should have understood about the desolating sacrilege. In all of these instances Mark dissembles in the sense that he obviously has something specific in mind but does not disclose it.
            Mark 10:46 seems to have left a gap in the narrative, with two dangling ends of text before and after some missing event occurring between Jesus entering and leaving Jericho: Mark writes: "And they came to Jericho; and as he was leaving Jericho…"2 What transpired in Jericho? If nothing happened, why show Jesus entering and leaving the village?
            As Jesus takes his last breath (15:37), Mark tells the reader that "The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from the top to bottom" (15:38), but he does not disclose what the tearing of the curtain signified with regard to the death of Jesus. At the end of the gospel some women went to the tomb and found only a young man sitting inside. The youth informed them that Jesus had risen from the dead and they should go and tell the glad tidings to the disciples that they would find him in Galilee (16:5-7). But the women were afraid; they said nothing to no one and fled from the tomb (16:7-8). Who was the youth and why didn't the women spread the word about the risen Christ? Mark did not say. Earlier a young man, wearing nothing but a linen cloth over his naked body, was with Jesus at his arrest. He was seized by members of the arresting crowd, and leaving his linen cloth behind, he ran away naked (14:51-52). Who was he, and what was he doing at Gethsemane naked and wearing only a linen cloth to cover himself?3
            If Jesus did tell the disciples "all things beforehand" (13:23), why should Mark see fit to conceal aspects of the story? These mysterious features in the Gospel of Mark, if not simply careless writing, associate the gospel with the "mystery religions" cults that flourished in the Graeco-Roman period.4 The characteristic feature of a mystery cult was that the mystery remain concealed. Although they conducted public processions and celebrations, their secret ceremonies still today remain largely unknown. The mysteries were closely guarded and revealed only to initiates. One ancient writer, an initiate into the mysteries of the Goddess Isis, described an initiation with such oblique language that after the description he could still say: "See I have told you things which, though you have heard them, you still must know nothing about."5 And apparently that can also be claimed with regard to the Gospel of Mark. Is the Gospel of Mark a deliberately coded text?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1Wrede, The Messianic Secret, 228 (225-230).
2See Scott Brown, Mark's Other Gospel, xxii. The Secret Gospel of Mark, or the Mystic Gospel of Mark, adds the missing text supposedly omitted from Mark at 3:14-16.
3See Brown, Mark's Other Gospel, xxii. The Secret Gospel describes him as a youth whom Jesus raised from the dead, who was apparently there for a mystery religions initiation (SGM 3:6-10).
4See Marvin Meyer, "Mystery Religions" Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:944.
5Apuleius, "Metamorphoses," XI, 1-25; in F. C. Grant, ed., Hellenistic Religions. Age of Syncretism. Library of Liberal Arts, Bobbs-Merrill, 1953. The best source for the original texts of the Mystery Religions in English translation is Marvin Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries. A Sourcebook. Harper and Row, 1987.