The Secretive Messiah
The gospel attributed to Mark (hereafter referred to as “Mark”) purposely perpetuates a distinctly secret nature to Jesus’ life. This concept of the Messianic secret is beyond dispute, yet the explanations of the secrecy drastically differ on several grounds. Although William Wrede coined the term “the Messianic secret” in his 1901 publication of the same name, the notion of the secrecy was probably realized as early as the writers of the gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke. The Messianic secret, as defined by Wrede, is an idiom meant to describe the commandments by Jesus to followers and demons not to reveal the secret of his Messiahship.1
Elements of Jesus’ secrecy are still prevalent in the other synoptic gospels but are given internal explanations based on the author’s purpose. Matthew, for example, whose audience was probably Jewish, explains Mark’s prevailing propensity to Messianic secrecy by using Jewish scriptures, such as in Mt. 12:16 and 13:11: the gospel writer recalls passages from Isaiah, not only reduce the significant of the secrecy, but also to highlight the prophetic fulfillments of Jesus. Yet looking at the earlier Markan source, we do not have such explanations of fulfillment of scripture. Contrarily, Mark does not give many explanations to any of the references to Jesus’ secret nature apart from the obvious references to basic privacy.
Three different types of secretive references are made in Mark’s gospel: avoidance, prohibitions, and revelations. Emic explanations often result in the dismantling of all three separately, refusing to recognize that Mark intermingled an underlying theme. It is important to note that, in all likeliness, the entire concept of Jesus’ Messianic secret was a Markan invention, leaving much scholarship to ask why Mark invoked such a notion, most like an additive to the historical Jesus.2
For the sake of space I will merely state that the differences between the secretive references are merely categorical, each involving their own set of argumentation. Yet, most discourse concerning the Messianic secret is limited to the prohibitive aspect of Jesus’ ministry, in which he demands demonic entities to keep quiet concerning his Messiahship (1:25, 1:34, and 3:12), as well as commanding the healed to keep silent about his deeds (1:43-45, 5:43, 7:36, and 8:26). Scholars have not much concerned themselves with the avoidance aspect, and probably rightly so, since they can be explained away quite easily (1:35, 7:24 and 9:30). Although both of these secretive aspects would certainly support the Messianic secret thesis, Gnostic Christians are more indebted by the revelatory material in Mark (3:13, 4:11, 4:34, and 9:2ff), as well as some fairly cryptic passages that are not easily explicated (12:35-37 and 13:32ff), and are more or less futile to attempt any meaningful interpretation.
The secretive revelatory material in Mark differs in nature from the other two aspects, since it does not strictly concern the Messiahship as such, but rather to the secretive or cryptic nature of Jesus’ teachings. Hence, the revelatory or teaching material does not strongly attribute to the argument that the Messianic secret points solely to the failure of the Jewish people to recognize the Messiah, as T.A. Burkill argues3 , or that the true Messianic secret culminates at the resurrection of Christ as others have argued.4 If, however, any of those explanations are correct, it does not take away from the possibility from deviant explanations such as those presented by the Gnostics.
It is not difficult to comprehend how Mark may have attributed to the application of the Gnostic principle of gnosis to early Christian groups. Mark repeatedly separates the disciples from other listeners: at times this separation is physical, such as the appointment of the disciples (3:13) and the transfiguration (9:2ff) – both of which happen on a mountain. Additionally, the transfiguration distinguishes a core within the disciples themselves, setting apart Peter, James, and John. More importantly, however, the separation of disciples from other followers frequently concerns the explanation of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven such as in 4:34, stating that Jesus would only speak in parables to the crowds, yet explained the meanings to the disciples in private. Wrede replies that elevating the idea of separate education of the disciples is only intelligible for “modern eyes”, only to fill subjective gaps.5 Wrede, however unfortunate, is at a disadvantage in his explication due to his lack of awareness of the Gnostic text that would not be discovered for another half-century.
In fact, the Gnostics did, as we will later examine, elevate and utilize the idea of special education to the disciples. Whether one believes this to be Mark’s intention or not is a matter of faith, and it is impossible to solidify with any amount of certainty. The teachings of Jesus according to Mark allow for esoteric interpretations, if one so choses. In 4:11, Jesus says, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables…” Hence, Jesus continually taught in parables, often leaving many in amazement and, as noted above, only explained the true meanings to his apostolic initiates.
As noted in most Bibles, the ending of Mark is under some controversy, with some important early manuscripts ending at 16:8, whereas others include twelve extra verses. It is probable that the twelve verses were not the original ending, but it is as of yet uncertain whether the authentic ending was lost or if it ended at 16:8. My own interpretation is that the current ending is either similar to the original or was added very early. The longer ending does not appear to be very congruent with later orthodox traditions, and seems favourable to a Gnostic interpretation. In this ending, Jesus specifically appears first to Mary Magdalene, unlike the ambiguity of Matthew (28:1-10) or the completely contrary account in Luke (24:1-40). Secondly, Mark refers to Jesus appearing “in another form” (16:12), certainly not a phrase that would be invented by orthodox Christians in the 2nd century combating the Gnostic idea of docetism.
The significance of the presentation of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel as offered above is that Jesus was, in the very least, misunderstood and/or he was purposely cryptic. The former idea would be used to explain the veiled Messiahship, perpetuating the idea that Jesus purposely did not want to reveal himself before its time. Many have interpreted the historicity as an explanation for why Jesus was not immediately recognized as the Messiah.6 The latter idea would be advanced by adherence to Gnostic Christianity. Debate continues about the dating and authenticity of early gospels, but most scholars accept an early dating of some Pauline writings, the precedence of Mark (as compared to the other canonical gospels), and a relatively early dating of the Gospel of Thomas (as early as 50 CE, but at late as 140 CE).
The certainty of the relationship between Mark’s Gospel and Paul’s letters is dubious, but it is fair to say that the majority of evangelion was spread through oral tradition in the combination form of chreia (providing a brief narrative frame for a saying of Jesus7) and adage. Paul likely had access to such oral traditions, and the Gospel of Thomas appears to be a document based entirely on this method of oral tradition, often encapsulated simply by “Jesus said, [then an adage of Jesus].” This use of chreia is important because the narrative frame is often more prominent than the saying itself – many of the differences among the gospels, especially Thomas, are not the sayings, but the frame in which they are said.
In the time between the writing of Mark’s Gospel, between 65 and 80 CE (I tend to favour the 70-73 CE dating due to Mark’s ‘mini-apocalypse’), and the surge of Gnostic Christian writings, in the mid to late 2nd century, there was likely an explosion of diverse teachings and traditions concerning the personage of Jesus in order to account for the vast assortment of writings that have been made reference to in orthodox writings as well as those of which we have found in the 20th century. The vastly different perspectives of Jesus were often resultants of the placement of his attributed sayings in contrasting situations. Some Biblical scholars note at least three different trajectories from the time of Mark onward, each with their own texts, traditions, theologies, and internal diversities.8
The Gnostic Christians arguably gained root around the time of Mark and has captured much attention in the 20th century, especially since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts. The comparatively radical Gnostic Christians competed as a trajectory alongside what would become orthodox Christianity, as well as different forms of Jewish Christianity, and was eventually forced underground when it was declared heretical by an ever-increasingly hierarchal and relatively unified church in Rome.
Gnostic Christianity is best represented by a theology of material dualism amalgamated with cosmological myths drastically opposed to the Judeo-Christian worldview; Jesus was not a Saviour of the sinful, but rather a divine transmitter of special knowledge – delivering the Truth to those whom were worthy.9 This view is portrayed in Gnostic Gospels ranging from the Gospel of Thomas (50-140 CE) through to the Gospels of Peter (70-160 CE), Judas (130-170 CE), Mary (130-200 CE) and Philip (200-250 CE), just to name a few. There are many prevailing features in these Gnostic Gospels that appear to be borrowed from the tradition of Mark: the disclosure of teachings to certain persons, the enigmatic nature of the teachings, and the nature of Jesus’ appearance.
The relative dating between Mark and the Gospel of Thomas is unknown, but there is no mistake that Thomas accentuates the notion of secrecy. The Gnostic gospel even begins, “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke…;” the first verse following the introduction is just as arcane: “”Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.” Thomas already diverges towards a strictly Gnostic interpretation by insinuating that salvation comes solely from knowledge, a soteriological argument that is silent in Mark.
The revelation of special teachings to exclusive persons is present, just as in fourth chapter of Mark, except for in this case the teaching is revealed only to one disciple – Thomas. Unlike the Gospel of Mark, which makes vague references to the explanation of parables, the Gospel of Thomas, in saying 13, explicitly states that Jesus gave Thomas three secrets, none of which were to be disclosed to the other disciples nor are they written in the text. Not only does this secret revelation carry on a tradition of esoteric teachings, but also disseminates the convention of restricted worthiness. The same principle will be used in the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, even though the recipient changes to Judas rather than Thomas; the idea is the same as Jesus whispers to Judas, “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom.”10 We see the same attitude again in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary; after Peter requests Mary to teach, she replies “I will teach you about what is hidden from you.”11
Not only is this a continuation of exclusive revelation, but also appears to be taking some literary freedom and filling in a narrative gap in Mark 16:9-11. The passage in Mark informed readers that Mary had indeed seen the resurrected Christ first, as previously mentioned, and then followed Jesus’ instructions to tell the other disciples, yet they did not believe her. The Mary gospel plays on this narration, stating that she saw Jesus in a vision, yet the disciples did not believe her.12 It is evident that the Gnostic gospels were stressing the secretive nature through extremely limited revelation, much more so than Mark’s gospel.
Mark usually limited his revelation to the twelve apostles, and at the very most to the three most intimate disciples, yet each of the Gnostic Gospels purposely restrict the special teaching to one, emphasizing the esoteric nature of Christ. An additional argument could be made that the disciples that did not receive “the mysteries of the kingdom” or “the special knowledge” were literary devices meant to contrast the writer’s purpose with that of opposing viewpoints at the time.
While the exclusivity of revelation radically re-interprets Mark, the teachings themselves are much more subtle, yet equally powerful. Mark is a short, concise, and often theologically primitive. Because of this fact, other Gospels, both Gnostic and those that became known as canonical and orthodox, could add what was felt necessary to advocate a certain theological or philosophical idea (or ideal), without radically perverting the original source. Deducing from the two-source hypothesis, this is exactly what the writers of Matthew and Luke did.
As mentioned earlier, Mark makes vague references to the secrets of the kingdom of heaven and then makes use of parables to explicate this nature of this kingdom, only to reveal their true meanings to the disciples. One can only speculate on the criticisms the Gnostics must have had towards those who would argue that the secrets of the kingdom of heaven was actually the secret of the redeeming Messiah; we know that the Gnostics ridiculed Luke’s literal resurrection, harshly pronouncing it a “faith of fools.”13 Even the idea that the disciples, who were apparently given the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, continually misunderstood the teachings of Jesus, even after the resurrection, as their disbelief is illustrated in the last chapter of Mark: this in itself is an argument for the reduction of twelve (or three) recipients of the secrets in the canonical gospels to one in the Gnostics.
The problem with trying to explicate the comparisons or contrasts of Mark and the Gnostic gospels in reference to the teachings themselves is the limited narrative of the former and the esoteric quality of the latter. In the Gospel of Thomas, in saying 13 after the disclosure of the secrets to Thomas, the other disciples inquire into the aside, only to receive the response that the revelation of those secrets would surely cause the other disciples to stone Thomas and then they themselves would be destroyed; afterwards, in saying 62, Jesus asserts that the mysteries are told to only those who are worthy.
Later, there is a reference to the Jewish-Christian trajectory in saying 39, stating that the Pharisees have hidden the keys of gnosis, not only had they not let anyone attain gnosis, but they themselves have not. Mark 4:11’s revealing of secrets is expanded and prioritized in the Gospel of Thomas, becoming a foundation for Gnostic Christian gospels. In the Gospel of Judas, the secrets revealed are those of the Gnostic cosmology, similar to that found in the Pistis Sophia. In the Gospel of Mary, the secret is the adultery of dualism, borrowing ideas similar to Platonic Idealism.
Because of the uncertainty of the historical relationship between the Gospels of Thomas and Mark, the only claim that can be made with any certainty is that a tradition of withholding certain knowledge had developed between the time of Jesus and the writings of the gospels, with Mark taking a looser, cautious approach and Thomas promoting a much more radical perspective. I personally doubt the earliest datings of the Gospel of Thomas that would admit a precedence of Thomas before Mark or two competing independent traditions. The overlapping sayings that are found in Thomas and the synoptic gospels point more convincingly to fracturing of trajectories, especially if there was a so-called later “gnosticizing redactor”, after Mark rather than a Thomasine precedence or a dual primacy of Mark and Thomas.14 The writers of the Gnostic gospels, at least after the Gospel of Thomas, certainly had access to the Markan text whether they extensively used it or not.
The most conclusive argument concerning the relationship between Mark and the later Gnostic Gospels is that the ambiguous and seemingly unexplained references to secretive acts and teachings in Mark’s Gospel was exploited and advanced by future works. To claim that the canonical gospels are of much more authority solely because of the reliability of their dating could possibly be erroneous; not only is there is reason to believe a relatively early dating of Thomas, it is also possible that the Gospels of Judas and Mary were written shortly after the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Messianic secret in Mark’s Gospel, later reduced in Matthew and Luke, may have simply been a way to explain why Jesus was not recognized as the Messiah, but the tradition that developed in Gnostic trajectory did not interpret it as such. Rather, the secretive nature of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark allowed an opportunity to present the Gnostic Saviour, a source of divine knowledge, ready to bestow the secrets of the kingdom of haven upon those select few who were worthy.
Note: This paper is a sketch of a larger piece I am currently working on. The underlying arguments remain, but I am constructing a 30+ page article which will offer much more discussion on many of the assumptions I had to take for granted in this smaller paper. Any criticism is beneficial and is greatly appreciated.
- The Apostate
1 Wrede, William. The Messianic Secret. Trans. J.C.G. Greig. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1971. p. 11.
2 Ibid., p. 33.
3 Burkill, T.A. New Light on the Earliest Gospel. New York: Cornell, 1972. p. 5. Also Burkill, T.A. Mysterious Revelation. New York: Cornell, 1963. p. 319.
4 Helms, Randel McCraw. Who Wrote the Gospels. Altadena: Millennium Press, 1997. p. 12.
5 Wrede, p. 44.
6 Helms, p. 12.
7 Arnel, William. Relig 211 Handout. A Glossary of Technical Terms. “Chreia”. University of Alberta. July 24, 2006.
8 Litke, Wayne. Relig 313 Lecture. University of Alberta. October 3, 2006.
9 Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979. Vintage, 1981. p. 17.
10 Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst. Eds. The Gospel of Thomas. Washington: National Geographic, 2006. p. 23.
11 Gospel of Mary. BG 8502. 6:3.
12 Ibid., BG 8502. 7:1-2 and 10:1-2, 3.
13 Origen, “Commentarium in 1 Corinthians.” Journal of Theological Studies 10 (1909): 46-47.
14 Quispel, Gilles. “The Gospel of Thomas and the New Testament.” Gnostic Studies. Vol II. Leiden: Netherlands Institute for the Near East, 1975. p. 16.