There Is No Messianic Secret: Studies in Mark, Pt. 20

For many years now, scholars have tried to make sense out of silence mandate that Jesus places on many of the persons He encounters at various points throughout His mission. It is nearly impossible today to pick up a serious study or commentary on Mark’s Gospel account that does not talk about “the messianic secret.”

Basically, for those who might not be familiar with this theory, it suggests that the best explanation for Jesus’ command of persons (or spiritual entities) to keep quiet about Him, is pretty much 1 of 2 things: 1) Either Mark totally made these words up and put them on the lips of Jesus and is using them as a type of literary foil, or 2) Jesus actually said them and wanted people to keep quiet about His identity because they just didn’t get what Jesus was about or because the time had not yet come where people were supposed to know about His mission and identity. These are the base theories; others have been developed or stemmed from them in some way.

While I am treading into foreign territory alone and am going against the grain of the bulk of critical scholarship, I want to argue something that, to the best of my knowledge, has yet to be argued: There is no “messianic secret!” The theory (and that’s what it is, a theory) has monopolized the study of Mark’s account and in my opinion, has failed to accurately take into account what Mark reports. Let me explain.

In the opening 15 verses of Mark’s account, indeed, in the very first verse, the identity of Jesus is referred to: He is “The Messiah.” If Mark wanted to create a literary foil, He certainly would not have started out by giving this information. I do not buy into the argument that in the opening of his work, he was giving the readers inside information so that they could be insiders throughout, while the characters were all portrayed as outsiders. This claim is just not true. In fact, all throughout the account, there are frequent insiders! Only a few verses into the chapter Jesus calls four insiders to follow Him (1.16-20). Furthermore, masses of people attend Jesus’ baptism and they see and hear John’s proclamation about the identity and mission of Jesus. Even more, in 1.14-5, Jesus’ mission and identity are spoken of again. From the beginning there are insider and outsider characters. Sure, Mark wants the reader to be an insider but he does not assume that everyone who hears or reads this account is (he's writing to a predominantly Gentile audience after all)!!! If so, what is the point in writing a Gospel or spreading the “Good News” about Jesus, there is no need for people to convert?

Actually, we encounter outsider characters in the first chapter. The first one is satan (1.13). The second ones are satan’s demons (1.21-28). In the first encounter with demons, the reader also encounters the first “silence command.” Jesus tells the demons, who have just spoken, to “Be quiet!” It is incredibly important to note that prior to meeting satan, the mission and identity of Jesus were already spoken of. It is just as important to note that prior to His encounter with the demons, so too were His mission and identity already spoken of. Thus, Jesus silences the demons after His identity and mission were announced, after it has already been made clear who He is! The question, then, is: Why, if they were speaking the truth about Him, did Jesus silence them? Moreover, why does this keep happening in Mark’s account?

I could deal with every occurrence of this in detail here but I’m not going to, it just isn’t necessary. For those interested, though, check out the following passages: 1.25, 1.40-5, 3.7-12, 7.36 and 8.23 (maybe). If you don’t have time to read those, here is a brief synopsis of who Jesus tells to be silent: 1.25/ demons; 1.40-5/ leper; 3.7-12/ demons; 7.36/ deaf and mute men; 8.23/ healed blind man (maybe).

What is important to notice is that throughout, Jesus only tells demons or persons He occasionally healed not to tell about Him. However, there are cases where He does tell persons He has healed, to go share the good news about Him, for example, the demoniac in 5.19. Actually, though He has already taken the disciples with Him while He preached and has already called them to preach, this is the first occurrence where Jesus tells someone to go out and do it on their own. Not too much later, He sends the disciples out on their own (6.7ff).

What I have been trying to show (and there is more evidence for this all over the place) is that because Jesus has revealed His identity and His mission repeatedly and because Mark (as narrator) has revealed those things too, is that the arguments for the “messianic secret” that have been given, just do not work. So, what I want to do is give an alternative suggestion, one that seems more textually and contextually based, one that argues that there is no “secret” theory going on.

I want to deal with the demons being silenced first. Because the majority of commentators realize that in the ancient world, saying someone’s name was often a way of casting a spell on them to gain power over them and the commentators make note of this in the exorcism stories, I am shocked that they can still argue for a messianic secret. When Jesus tells the demons to be quiet, it is not because He wants the secret kept. Again, from the start, Mark and Jesus want Jesus’ mission and identity to be known and to be successful. So, when the demons speak Jesus’ name, they are trying to hinder that success. By speaking His name (casting a spell on Him), they are trying to get power over Him but it doesn’t work. So, when they try to hinder Him, He tells them to stop, not to say anything else. Anyone familiar with spells or cadences used to drive out evil spirits in the ancient world is aware of this practice. As I noted, a lot of commentators speak about this issue and give extra-biblical examples, see those resources for more on this subject.

So, that takes care of a few of the demon silence passages. What about the others? Why does Jesus not want those He has healed to go and tell about Him? It could possibly be that Jesus, who came to preach, whenever He went into a town rarely got the chance because the people wanted Him to heal. So, He wanted to be known as the preacher (of repentance and good news) more than He did the miracle worker. Though that answer of mine works, there might be another one. If you look at Mark’s account closely, Jesus is selective about who He wants to preach; He commissions those He wants to preach. He even commissioned the demoniac; He told him to preach. However, He never told these others to preach, He did not commission them. So, all the “silencing” denotes is that Jesus is selective in who He commissions to preach. When one compares the commissioning of the demoniac to the persons who were healed, they realize that there is a difference: the demoniac had a conversion experience, the others necessarily did not. This could be an important factor.

Having said that, the commissioning might have to do something with those upon whom the Spirit has begun to work. Could it be that those whom the Spirit has touched are the ones Jesus sends out? In fact, Jesus Himself doesn’t even begin His mission until this point, why should it be any different for His followers? In 13.11 (and I realize that there is a very specific context to this statement) Jesus tells His followers that the Spirit will give them words to speak when they face hardship because of their preaching. Could this be a clue? I think so. Even in the ending (if you take it as a Marcan ending), Jesus gives those who truly have the Spirit “in” them (16.17) to go out and preach to the world.

It is also worth pointing out that while Jesus tells the demons and some of His healees (did I just coin a word?) to keep quiet at points, He Himself keeps quiet sometimes too, before Pilate (14.61; 15.5). We are surely not meant to take this, coming so late in the account, as Jesus trying to keep a secret. By now, tons of people know about Jesus and His mission. Silence plays an entirely different role here. I would venture to say that Jesus does not speak because the Holy Spirit does not prompt Him to (see again, 13.11). Perhaps this is Mark’s way of showing how intent Jesus was on making sure His suffering mission was fulfilled. Maybe if Jesus had dialogued with Pilate, He would have never been lead to His death!

What I have shown here is that the scholarly developed “secrecy theory” is an unnecessary theory. The silence passages in Mark make total sense in their narrative and contextual settings. To summarize, there are a few different reasons in Mark’s account as to why persons (human or spiritual) are commanded by Jesus to keep silent. 1. The demons are trying to gain power over Him and hinder His mission and so, He just tells them to stop it (by the way, notice that He doesn’t even call them by name and one time, He even coaxes them into saying who they are!), 2. Jesus commissions those whom He wants to preach, those upon whom the Spirit has worked, and 3. Jesus is silent Himself because He does not want His mission to get sidetracked or aborted.

One last thing, if you read Mk. 4.1-20 (which I am becoming more and more convinced that this is a key to the entirety of Mark's account), you will notice that in verse 11, Jesus says clearly, "The secret of the Kingdom has been given to you but to those on the outside everything is said in parables..." Of course, the "secret" is the Gospel truth concerning Jesus' identity and mission. As for those who don't understand, well it is because they choose not to! They are simply against Jesus and want nothing to do with what He has to say. Therefore, when Jesus speaks about His identity or mission, they don't even consider it, no, it is like the seed that falls on the path and immediately gets swallowed up, there isn't a chance for it to be considered or to blossom or take root. So, they will not understand His riddles or parables either, which, this one parable, according to Mark, is the key to understanding every parable; if they don't get it, they won't get anything He says (I've written about this in previous posts). Nonetheless, the message has not actually been kept "secret." In the Greek, the word could be rendered "mystery." So, we could even say, though the message has not been kept secret, to those who reject, well, it is still a mystery to them!

As I said, I know that I am in lonely territory here and that my argument goes against the grain of the majority of scholarship but I think my arguments have some merit. Do you agree or disagree?


  1. Good stuff.

    You wrote, "Why does Jesus not want those He has healed to go and tell about Him?"

    Could it be that His definition of "Messiah" as sufferer [Isa 40-55, etc...] was so radically different from others' that He reasoned that if too many people caught word of this, they might try and protect Jesus from His death?

    You mentioned 5.19...one could argue that Jesus said, "Go tell what YHWH did for you", but, I think the purpose of that text is to say that Jesus is YHWH in person. Yes?

  2. jacob,
    protecting JC from His death? yes! this is the 3rd type of soil in the parable of the soils, those who are close to JC (or somehow on His side or affiliated w/Him) who try in all of their help, actually hinder His ministry. Peter become this at one point!

    as for JC being YHWH in person in this passage, yes, this happens all over the place throughout Mk; Mk clearly wants to show the humanity/divinity of JC.

  3. I think you have merit to your arguments.

  4. Michael, you probably wouldn't agree with this, given the article above, but I have a thought about these silence commands. I am thinking about it in the context of Mark being a performed piece. What if the silences are a comical running gag? They start out as a note of humility (?) or timing (?) or choosy apostolic authorization (?) on Jesus' part. But from the first they are disobeyed, and Jesus' fame spreads. Each time, Jesus says "keep this between me and you", but it leaks. The audience starts to expect this. It's funny. Finally in 8:23, Jesus heals the blind man, and the punch of the running gag is "Don't even go into the village"... Hilarious, if you look at it from a particular angle. What do you think? Possibility?

  5. Tim, that's brilliant!  Hadn't considered it but I really like the thought.  Lately, I have been thinking about the "silence" aspect of Jesus' baptism, you know, how only He sees and hears it in Mark's account (while in Mt. it's open to all).  How would that factor into what you're suggesting?

  6. Sometimes I wonder whether Mark was pleased to include the messianic secret in his writings because they would have provided his persecuted readers a rationale for at times silencing their proclamation - just like Jesus, the prime example: there's a time for proclamation and there's a time for silence (in the face of danger). A good lesson for Mark's audience. (Similarly in re. to the 'stumbling, bumbling' disciples theme, particularly in re. to persecution: even Jesus' first disciples could stumble, it's part of life - and then there was still acceptance (16:7). A helpful lesson for Mark's audience.

    These ideas have nothing to say re. the historicity of the m.s., etc., but I think, if u will, r a secondary level consideration.