Looking at the Messianic Secret

In the Gospel of Mark, we read about an event wherein Jesus commands a leper to keep the identity of his healer a secret, so to speak. If Jesus was sure of His identity as the Son of God, what’s with the secrecy here?

What is the Messianic Secret? The passage where this strange occurrence can be found is at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. At the close of the first chapter, wherein Jesus is moved by compassion to heal a leper, Jesus commands the leper to tell no one but to show the priests that he was clean.

And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean. And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed. And he straitly charged him, and forthwith sent him away; And saith unto him, See thou say nothing to any man: but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. (Mark 1:41-44 bold mine).

If Jesus was sure of His identity as the Son of God, why do we see Him urging the leper to keep it a secret? Could Jesus have been a victim of doubt? Perhaps He was mentally ill after all?

The most popular answer to this passage comes from a German theologian named Wilhelm Wrede, who formed the criticism in 1901. He stated that the purpose of this passage was to keep Jesus’ mission and identity a secret. This, he says, goes to explain why no one had ever seen or heard of Him. We should also note that Wrede did not believe that Jesus thought of Himself as divine but instead believed that the Christology we see in Mark and the rest of the New Testament was a sensationalized version of history. Is Wrede’s theory correct or is there another detail that he did not take into account?

What Wrede failed to address in his theory was the cultural climate of the time period. There are three notable values inherent in the Bible’s culture to take into account when we address this passage. The three values and perceptions that arise here are:

  1. Envy
  2. Limited Good
  3. Honour

Malina in his Handbook of Biblical Social Values notes on envy,

Envy is a value which directs one to begrudge another the possession of some singular quality, object, or relationship. It is the limited nature of the quality, object, or relationship in question and the social status of the possessor that trigger envy. The social deviance involved in possessing something perceived as singular is that the one possessing the unique item stands out or stands above his or her proper social status and/or the group in general. The one who is envious becomes negatively disposed towards the person with the singular possession and is often seized by the desire to deprive the other person of that possession—often in the name of the group.

Pilch, John J.. Handbook of Biblical Social Values, Third Edition (Matrix: The Bible in Mediterranean Context 10) . Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition (bold mine).

Unlike the culture of today and in Wrede’s day, where we have a seemingly limitless amount of good, people in the ancient world thought quite differently,

The perception of limited good is the socially shared conviction that the resources enabling a community to support itself are in finite supply and that any disruption of the social equilibrium can only be detrimental to community survival. Persons believe that in their social, economic, and natural universe—in sum, in their total environment—all goods exist in finite, limited quantity and are always in short supply. This literally includes all desired goods in life: land, wealth, prestige, blood, health, semen, friendship and love, manliness, honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety.

Pilch, John J.. Handbook of Biblical Social Values, Third Edition (Matrix: The Bible in Mediterranean Context 10) . Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition (bold mine).

This concept of limited good covers all things, including one’s honour and social status. In the Biblical world, honour and shame were held in the highest regard. It wasn’t merely a matter of perception, it was something that involved life or death, in both the figurative and the literal sense (the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” was a common response to people who were publically shamed and stripped of their honour).

We can imagine just how much honour Jesus would be placing upon Himself had He, in this instance, told the leper to freely tell everyone of His miracles and divine identity. Jesus would be taking the place of highest honour, and because honour was a limited good in the ancient world, He would have been accused of stealing honour from others, thus creating a seething and envious opposition towards Him and His followers. By telling the leper to keep quiet, Jesus would have been doing the honourable thing in that culture.

In instances like this, Jesus had to be careful when and where to openly proclaim His divine identity and one ship with God. When Jesus does openly share His identity He does so in environments where it is appropriate, such as when He was alone with His disciples or during His trial before the Sanhedrin. This is because Christ understood what His claims meant and how the community would respond. This is why He states, “…..that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).

The Messianic Secret is not evidence of doubt or mental illness but of Jesus simply doing what was right and honourable and holding off on His claims until the time was right.