Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Pondering the "Messianic Secret" in the Gospel of Mark

In 1901 Wilhelm Wrede published Das Messiasgeheimnis in Den Evangelien (The Messianic Secret in the Gospels).1 He argued that Mark’s attempts to conceal the identity of Jesus of Nazareth was Mark’s own design superimposed on the Jesus traditions that he received. Wrede called the concealment of Jesus’ identity the “Messianic Secret.” I tend to think of it as an incognito motif or the motif of the concealed king. C. M. Tuckett has summarized features of the Messianic Secret in the gospel as follows:

(1) Jesus explicitly commands the demons to be silent about his identity after exorcisms (1:25, 34; 3:11-12); (2) Jesus gives orders that his miracles are not to be publicized (1:43-44; 5:43; 7:36); (3) Jesus commands the disciples to be quiet about him (8:30; 9:9); (4) Jesus tries to keep his whereabouts a secret (7:24; 9:30); (5) Jesus gives private instructions only to a chosen few (7:17; 10:10); (6) the so-called “theory of parables (4:11-12) shows that in Mark, Jesus teaches in parables in order deliberately to hide his intent from the crowds; and (7) despite their privileged position the disciples in Mark regularly fail to understand Jesus (6:52; 8:17-21).2

Nevertheless, the secret is broken in Mark’s narrative at 1:44-45.

To these features must now be added an additional feature: Mark’s omission in chapters 1-14 of Jesus’ identity as son of David and legitimate heir as King of Israel, which appears as a standard element of early “Christian” beliefs about Jesus in the later gospels.3 Recognition of the Messianic Secret has endured as one of the most successful achievements of critical New Testament scholarship.

The motif that Jesus was a king in disguise, which Mark uses, is known elsewhere in ancient literature. For example, Julius Caesar disguises himself in a Wild beast’s skin and wanders among his troops observing and listening to them.4 Nero in a slave’s disguise (so as to be incognito) wandered the streets of Rome to brothels and taverns with his comrades.5 Odysseus, King of Ithaca, was changed beyond recognition by Athena to return home and rescue his palace from the profligates who had been courting his wife Penelope. Athena changed his physical appearance so that he appeared as an aged disreputable vagabond clothed in disgusting rags.6 Zeus was King of the Graeco-Roman Gods. He frequently disguised himself to consort incognito among human beings by changing his appearance. His two most famous liaisons were with Leda, where he changed himself into a swan,7 and with Europa, where he changed himself into a tame bull.8 Of these examples, mentioned just above, Mark, writing in the late 60s/early 70s of the first century, would most likely have been familiar with the latter two. Attesting to the popularity of the myth of Europa, in his novel, Leucippe and Clitophon, Achilles Tatius (2nd century) describes his hero seeing a painting of Europa and the Bull, which is described in the novel in great detail.9

The images of Leda and the swan and Europa and the bull were ubiquitous in the ancient world. They appear on ancient coins, statuary, pottery, mosaics, wall frescos, paintings, objects of art etc. For example, Sidonian and Roman coins depicted an image of Europa and the Bull.10 Mark could scarcely help from being aware of the myths and the images. If Mark were aware of the myths and images, he was also aware of the incognito motif. In other words, the incognito motif, or the motif of the disguised king, in Mark may well be simply a literary feature inspired by Graeco-Roman myths.

Guessing at motives is always a risky business, but were I to hazard a guess about Mark’s motives in applying the incognito motif to the Jesus traditions, I would think that he likely did it out of a sensitivity for the political situation in Judea 66-73 CE. These were simultaneously the dates for the composition of the Gospel of Mark, the time of the first Jewish war prompted by the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, and the subsequent Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.11 During such a tumultuous time in Judea, Jewish followers of Jesus would scarcely need any additional reasons for Rome to notice them. There is a later tradition that they fled the city before the war to the nearby city of Pella in the Decapolis (compare Mark 13:14).12

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1William Wrede, The Messianic Secret (Greenwood, SC: Attic Press, 1971).

2C. M. Tuckett, “Messianic Secret” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 4.797.

3Hedrick, “Did Jesus Claim to be King of Israel?” Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, April 19, 2021: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/

4Tacitus, The Annals, 2:13.

5Tacitus, The Annals, 13:25

6Homer, Odyssey, 13.363-434.

7Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (2 vols. in 1; New York: George Braziller, 1959), 1.206-207 (62a).

8Graves, Greek Myths, 194-195 (58b-c).

9S. Gaselee, ed., Achilles Tatius (Cambridge and London: Harvard and William Heinemann, 1961), 1.1-2 (pp. 3-9).

10For images of such a coin see: https://www.google.com/search?source=univ&tbm=isch&q=sidon+coin+image+with+Europa&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj-gYepjpXwAhUBHM0KHfWaDSYQjJkEegQICBAB&biw=1458&bih=675 Here are also two from the period of the Roman Republic: https://www.coinarchives.com/a/results.php?results=1000&search=europa+and+bull

11L. I. Levine, “Jewish War (66-73 C. E.)” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 3.839-45.

12Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 1.3.5.


  1. Hi Charlie,

    Thanks for all those resources!

    I notice that you did not include an alternative theory to the Messianic Secret put forward by David Watson, Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Trotwood, Ohio. In the summer of 2006, in that school's Journal of Theology, he published an article: "The 'Messianic Secret'": Demythologizing a Non-Existent Markan Theme."

    He writes, "...the main issue in these passages was not a secret regarding Jesus' messiahship, but a refashioning of the way in which honor was reckoned... these passages played into a larger theme that redefined the criteria for honorable actions and attitudes."(33)

    Examples of reversing the accepted definition of honor: "those who lose their life ( in crucifixion) will save it," "Whoever wishes to be first must be last of all," "Whoever wishes to become great must be your servant," "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God," "let the children come to me, theirs is the kingdom." (37-40)

    Why is "secrecy an insufficient model for Jesus' behavior"? "Jesus is not always concealing, and when he is concealing he is not always concerned to keep information within his in-group." (41)

    "Mark's Jesus is not keeping a secret regarding his Messiahship, but demonstrating the standards for establishing honor within the new family of faith." (44)

    Watson subsequently wrote a book about the subject which I have not read: Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret. Fortress Press, 2010.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Thanks Gene,
      I have not read his book but will seek out a copy.