What is the Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark?

The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark concerns Jesus’ repeated instruction to keep silent about his messianic identity. Jesus instructs various individuals and groups to keep his identity secret.

We find that Jesus admonishes the demons to “keep quiet” when they mention his identity as “the Holy One of God” (1:24-25). A few verses later we are told that “Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was” (1:34). In Mark 3:11-12, whenever the impure spirits saw Jesus, “they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” But he gave them strict orders not to tell others about him.”

Jesus also instructs those he heals to keep his identity secret: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them” (1:44). In another story, Jesus raises a child from the dead but then “gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat” (5:41-43). After successfully healing a deaf and mute man, Jesus “commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it” (7:36).

In a few instances, Jesus also instructs his disciples to keep his identity a secret. When Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus accepts the title and then “warned them not to tell anyone about him” (8:30). After the transfiguration where Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white and there appeared Elijah and Moses, Jesus “gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (9:9).

What explains Jesus’ intent to keep his identity secret? One answer is that it served a practical benefit. Jesus did not wish to draw such large crowds that he “could no longer openly enter a town” (1:45). This is also suggested by Mark 7:24 where “He entered a house, and would not have any one know it; yet he could not be hid”.  Another reason for keeping his identity hidden is that Jesus did not want to inflame messianic expectations among the masses, especially since their hopes were tied to a militant and triumphant Messiah. We find clear signs of this expectation in the Gospel of John. In John, after Jesus feeds the five thousand the crowd wanted to “take him by force to make him king” (6:15). The messianic secret is thus Jesus’ attempt to avoid people thinking that he is the kind of Messiah who will become king of Israel and eliminate the rule of the Romans. Rather, Jesus’ mission as the Messiah could only be accomplished by dying a painful death on the cross. The closer we get to the Passion itself, we find that the secrecy motif disappears because it is no longer relevant.

References and Recommended Readings

Aune, David. 1969. “The Problem of the Messianic Secret.” Novum Testamentum 11:1-31.

Hagner, Donald. 2012. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Baker Books. p. 313-317 (Scribd ebook format)

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