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
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.
Interesting indeed. I have often asked the same question, "OK, Is there more?"
A very challenging essay, indeed. Although I’ve seen the passages which you comment on treated individually, I don’t remember ever seeing this type of comprehensive analysis that might identify Mark as a type of Greco-Roman “mystery religion gospel.” Other possibilities for some of the passages include:
On "silencing directives": “Mark repetitively portrays Jesus as acting in ways that subvert traditional understandings of the components of honor.” Jesus also reshapes honor in the following teachings: greatness and service, carrying the cross, wealth, being a child, etc. (David Watson, ‘The Messianic Secret’, Journal of Theology: United Theological Seminary: Summer 2006, Vol. CVV, 38-39, 42). Watson’s book: Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, 2010.
On the matter of the loaves miracles: the parable of the Leaven does not appear in Mark, but we have these two stories, which I call action parables, indicating that Mark was aware of Leaven teaching in the Jesus traditions. It is somewhat self-evident (8:15) that the stories are meant to show that Jesus’ Leaven is stronger than that of Herod and the Pharisees. This, of course, would not have become fully apparent until the resurrection.
The young man in the linen cloth who escaped when Jesus was arrested is likely meant to be understood as the same young man dressed in a white robe who told the women at the tomb that Jesus would meet his followers in Galilee. It seems that he is thought of as the initiate who at first flees identifying with Jesus but then completes association with Jesus by announcing his resurrection.
Why didn’t the women tell anyone of their experience at the empty tomb? Short answer: “The empty tomb is a later legend.” The women’s silence “gives an answer to the question why the women’s story of the empty tomb remained unknown for so long.” (Kris Komarnitsky, Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?, 2009, 16, 153; citing Bousset, Bultmann, Ludemann, Cook).
I think the more one reads Mark without presumptions, external information and assumptions of what Mark was aware of or not aware of, the less sense Mark makes and, accordingly, the less sense the Markan Jesus makes. Two examples:
First, the Kingdom of God, which is probably a principal theme of Jesus' teaching in Mark's Gospel, is never defined even as to whether it exists here, or somewhere else, or now or at some other time, or both at once or neither. The Kingdom is for children. Why? It is not for the rich. Why not? And so forth.
Second, if you note that Mark's Gospel's central section, wherein Jesus three separate times reveals why the son of man has come, begins after a blind-man-sees story with 8:27 and ends at 10:45 before a blind-man-sees story. Thus 10:45 is the culminating climax of that section of the Gospel if not of the Gospel as a whole. We have been hearing throughout the central section that the son of man will be killed. Now we hear that the son of man will give his life as a ransom for many. That absolutely key phrase is meaningless if you do not know what the ransom is and why it is required and who this giving of life is a ransom paid to, and who the people are who constitute the many. And you know none of those things from the Gospel of Mark. You can drag in Paul, and the other Evangelists, and the shining history of Christian theologizing for 2,000 years to answer those questions… but you won’t find the answers in Mark.
So I'd say that the kingdom of God is undefined and incomprehensible as presented in Mark's Gospel (possibly quite deliberately cf. 4:11-12) and that the single most crucial line is incomprehensible as well. Unless... of course... you import whatever ideas you picked up in Sunday School or Seminary study that leave you convinced that you are entitled to import notions of what Jesus must have been aware of or what is likely to be meant to be understood and so on. I suppose it is not unreasonable wishfully to assume that Mark’s audience was so familiar with ideas of kingdom and ransom that the Gospel can just allude to them with the expectation that they would be immediately understood. But it is clear in the Gospel of Mark that those who did receive the secret, which we blithely assume was the correct understanding of the Kingdom wound up, all of them, having betrayed Jesus or denied Jesus or run off deserting Jesus and showing no sign of having advanced beyond the dead ignorance Jesus noted at 8:17-21. The secret of the Kingdom didn’t do the intimate followers much good and everybody else gets parables to keep them in the dark.
I think that the more one ponders Mark's gospel as it stands without importing clarifying presumptions and wishes into it, the more one understands why Matthew and Luke felt compelled to produce revised and clarified versions of it.
Good Morning Gene,
Second Paragraph: I will check out Watson's book. On their face however what you describe in the paragraph appear to be reversals of social values.
Third paragraph: AS I read the narrative today Mark 8:15 appears to be nonessential to the narrative Mark 8:14-21. Could it be a gloss?
Fourth paragraph: I agree that the two figures are the same and that is a point made by Marvin Meyer in several articles.
Good rainy morning Steve,
Your two points are cogently and convincingly made. I agree that there are more deliberate obscurities (or sloppy writing) in Mark's narrative.
Thanks for posting.
Steve and Charlie.
Are you ruling out multiple authorship as a possible reason for at least some of the inconsistency in Mark? For example: Mark 4:11-12, 34 cf. 4:33, these say opposite things about clarity for the public. Also, how about "who believe in me" (9:42) which seems to change an original message about child abuse to spiritually misleading others.
Good Morning Gene,
I think that convincing evidence for multiple authorship (i.e., for large chunks of text like Pentateuchal criticism, for example) would be difficult to establish, but it is clear to me that Mark has been edited in several obvious places--particularly if one allows the evidence from Secret Mark (or as Scott Brown insists "the Longer Gospel of Mark").
What you point out in Mark four may be (arguably) editorial emendations from a later hand on the basis of literary critical principles for which there is no manuscript evidence, however--similar to what I have argued for the Gospel of John.
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