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In a number of places in the Gospel accounts, Jesus performs a miracle and then tells the healed person and others who witnessed it not to spread the word. For example,

  • After healing a leper,

    And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” (Mark 1:43-44, ESV)

  • After curing a death and dumb man,

    And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. (Mark 7:36)

  • After curing two blind men,

    And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, “See that no one knows about it. (Matthew 9:30)

Likewise, in several places Jesus tells people, especially his disciples, not the share that he is the Messiah. For example,

  • After Peter's declaration,

    Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:20)

  • After the transfiguration,

    And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:9)

What is an overview of explanations offered for these passages? That is, why does Jesus make these commands according to notable scholars and Biblical commentators?

(Note: I have purposely left aside a third class of secrecy commands - those made to demons, since at least in principle these passage could have a different explanation. See this question for those cases.)

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This question arose out of this meta post. Although I posted my own answer, I welcome others. – ThaddeusB Aug 19 '15 at 4:05
    
You might also be interested in my post to that meta question, for whatever it's worth. – Dick Harfield Aug 19 '15 at 7:12
    
This question has been asked before... christianity.stackexchange.com/q/1102/84 – Richard Aug 19 '15 at 15:41
3  
@warren My reasoning was that the existing questions had answers with existing votes, but those answers were on the whole personal interpretations, and not an overview of widely held positions. So that new overview answers wouldn't have to compete with the existing answers (including the accepted answer) I thought a new question would be best. – curiousdannii Aug 20 '15 at 22:14
1  
Would it make sense to update this question to include the "demons" passages as well, now that the question linked has been closed as a duplicate? – Nathaniel Jan 28 at 15:33
up vote 13 down vote accepted

Logically, there are two possibilities: either Jesus himself said such things or they were added to the tradition at a later date. Neither view offers a clear-cut explanation, so a wide variety of ideas for the "secretive" passages have been offered by Christian commentators and Bible scholars over the years.

Jesus did not tell anyone to remain quiet

Wrede's theory

In 1901, William Wrede was the first modern scholar to tackle the question. He decided the words, couldn't have come from Jesus because it was unreasonable to expect people to keep quiet and thus a historical Jesus couldn't have made the command. Observing that the secrecy theme occurs primarily in Mark, he hypothesized that the passages were written to explain why Jesus had not been recognized as the Messiah during his life. (The lead to explain this was based on the supposition that the earliest belief in Jesus' Messiahship began after his death.)1

Although Wrede's paper was a landmark in Biblical scholarship (the translated name of the paper gives us the "Messianic secret" name by which the passage are still described in scholarship), the ideas were attacked pretty much from their proposal.1 The idea gained currency in the 1920s, but has steadily fallen out of favor among Biblical scholars since then. By the 1970s, the theory was essentially dead, as it raised many more problems than it solved. In the words of G. E. Ladd, it "is a clever theory, but utterly lacking in evidence."2

Other historical explanations

Since Wrede, a number of other redactional explanations have been offered. In the view of Ulrich Lutz, Mark is using the motif to redefine what the Messiah is, by tying it to the cross & resurrection instead of the life of Jesus. Eugene Boring proposed that the motif grew out of an attempt to combine views that emphasized Jesus' power with views that emphasized his suffering and death.1

Literary explanations

Others have suggested it is some sort of literary device, perhaps to let readers understand that God's revelation is a secret reserved for the elect, or to explain why many Jews rejected Jesus and the Gospel message was then spread to Gentiles instead.1

Jesus did sometimes tell people to remain quiet

Avoid hindrances

Among those who see the words as coming from Jesus, a popular explanation is that public disclosure would hinder Jesus' mission. Large crowds, for example, would inhibit his ability to move about from town to town. Too much attention would attract the attention of authority figures - Jewish and/or Roman - and cause a confrontation before the time was right.1

Mold the 12

A related idea is the Jesus wanted to mold the 12 primarily through his teaching, allowing them to gradually come to accept him as Messiah. His primary mission was not to teach the public, but rather to teach the future leaders of the new Church.

The Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary takes this view, saying that Matt 12:18-21, which quotes Isaiah 42:14, is perhaps "the best explanation of Jesus' secrecy:

Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (ESV)

In other words, Jesus' secrecy is part of his "gentle teaching" that will mold the minds of his disciples as Jesus moved "toward the cross and avoided the kind of public presence that would be more suitable to building an earthly kingdom."3

Avoid misconceptions

Other scholars such as Albert Schweitzer and James Dunn see the secrecy as an attempt to avoid Jewish preconceptions of what the Messiah was going to be. One of the most common expectations was that the Messiah would be a political and/or military leader. Jesus did not want to be that kind of Messiah and so didn't want people following him with that expectation only to be disappointed later. Dunn further states that Jesus was avoiding the temptation of taking that power and disavowing the false view of Messiahship.1 Zondervan's Exegetical Commentary also supports this view.4

Delay death

Another possibility is that Jesus asked people to remain quiet in an effort to delay his own death. Messianic claims could cause the authorities to classify Jesus as revolutionary and execute him. In this view, Jesus had to wait until it was the "right time" to die and thus sought to reduce publicity (not just through the secrecy requests but also in various other ways). This view has the benefit of explaining why, in the climatic chapters of Mark's Gospel, Jesus directly declares his Messiahship for the first time - death is imminent.5

An element of both?

Despite the seemingly contradictory nature, some scholars have argued that both views ave an element of truth. Robert Stein, for instance, argued that Jesus did try to maintain a level of secrecy to avoid confrontation with the Romans. However, Mark then used these commands to show that the secret could not really be kept - the Messiah and Son of God titles of Jesus cannot be hidden, they are inescapable.1

Analysis

The historical apologetic reasons, such as Werde's theory, seem implausible. Other historical-critical methods, while better than Werde's idea, generally suffer from the same problem - they disregard too much of the data. Quite often Mark follows the command to keep silent directly by a statement that the person did not do so. For example, 1:43-44 is followed by:

But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news (ESV)

If Mark is responding to a critique that people didn't recognize Jesus as the Messiah during his lifetime, then it doesn't make much sense that he would also say people disobeyed the command.

Larry Richards further notes that in Mark 5:19, Jesus does tell a man he healed to "Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you" (ESV). The difference between the this instance and other can perhaps give us some insight on Jesus/Mark's reason for secrecy: in Mark 5:1-20, Jesus is in "the country of the Gerasenes," a pagan land. This difference could support a "redefining the Messiah" type theory (the people here not sharing the Jewish expectations) or could support views related to delaying Jesus death (there would be minimal threat of a Messianic insurrection in the foreign land, as compared to in Israel.)6

In has been suggestion that Mark himself provides a partial explanation in 8:27-33. In this passage Jesus first asks the 12 what people are saying about him, to which they offer various ideas - John the Baptist, a prophet, etc. He then asks who they say He is and Peter replies "You are the Christ." Jesus tells them tell no one about this, and then starts teaching that he must suffer and die. Peter rebukes Jesus, to which Jesus replies:

Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man. (Mark 8:33, ESV)

This could play into several theories - the expectation of man (earthly leader) is not a "thing of God"; the disciples learned his destiny so they could later comprehend what had happened (i.e. part of a teaching scheme); when the time was right, Jesus would reveal his Messiahship and die, but that time hadn't yet arrived. The Tyndale Commentary as this passage remarks:3

His destiny to die was revealed to them that they might understand the significance. The unveiling of the secret of Jesus' identity as the Messiah paved the way for the unveiling of the mystery of his destiny to die on the cross. The death of Jesus, which Peter so adamantly rejected, the church was called on the embrace.

Conclusion

Historical-critical explanations inadequately explain the data and can be dismissed. The literary device vs. actual words of Jesus distinction is generally harder to decide. In principle, most of the explanations could originate with Jesus to actually accomplish said aim; or they could originate with Mark to make the same point. To me, it seems that the "creation" of secrecy passages would be more likely to cause problems for the church than help it. A guy who is always telling people not to reveal his Messianic identity allows critics to say "even Jesus didn't claim to be the Messiah." Thus by the criterion of embarrassment I am inclined to think the words more likely originate with Jesus than the Gospel writers. Furthermore, if Mark was employing a literary device, he certainly didn't make it obvious (hence the large amount of debate on the subject).

Why, exactly, Jesus asked people to keep quiet (knowing full well they wouldn't) is hard to say. "To delay His death", "to teach to disciples", or "to redefine the Messiah" all make sense, but none provide a completely satisfactory explanation. Perhaps the best explanation is then that it was done for a combination of all three.


1Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret by David F. Watson

2A Theology of the New Testament by George Eldon Ladd, via Wikipedia.

3Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary by Robert B. Hughes & J. Carl Laney

4Matthew (Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series) by Grant R. Osborne & Clinton E. Arnol

5A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew by Craig S. Keener

6Baffling Bible Questions Answered by Larry Richards

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The most commonsensical explanation of the Messianic Secret is simple self preservation - not necessarily self preservation in the literal sense, but in terms of the mission of Jesus. He couldn't do what he was trying to do if it became well known that he was the messiah.

In the time in which Jesus lived, Palestine was under Roman occupation. Jesus was born just before Rome formally annexed Judæa as a province of the Roman Empire. In the year 63 BCE, Rome conquered the Pontic Kingdom, and annexed Syria, which included Palestine, as a province of the Roman Empire. In the year 40 BCE, the Roman Senate declared Herod (later known as Herod the Great) as "King of the Jews", and installed him as the client King of Judæa, Galilee, and Peræa.

When Herod died in 4 BCE, Palestine was divided amongst his sons, each of whom ruled a much smaller territory. Herod Antipas ruled Galilee, where Jesus lived, and Judæa was allotted to Herod Archelaus. Archelaus was so incompetent that only ten years later, the Romans deposed him and formally annexed Judæa directly, after which it was a formal province of the Roman Empire. The title "King of the Jews" was never granted to anyone again. The province of Judæa was placed under the authority of a proconsul, or more technically, a prefect. This was the office famously held by Pontius Pilate at the time of the crucifixion.

Enter Jesus. According to Mark, Jesus reluctantly admitted that he was the messiah, but he showed extreme caution in who he allowed to know of his messianic status. The disciples were obviously let in on the secret, but the general public was largely kept in the dark. The clear explanation for this secrecy is related to the Jewish conception of what the word "messiah" means.

Most Christians today know that "messiah" is literally translated as "anointed one", but many of them don't understand what this really means to Jews. The title "anointed one" is a reference to the ceremonial act of anointing the head of the King of Israel with holy oil (incidentally, the messiah is not supposed to be the son of god). Thus, if one claims to be the messiah, one is claiming to be the rightful king of Israel, or in simpler terms, the King of the Jews.

The problem with this is that the Jews in the region, especially in Judæa and Galilee, were subjects of the Roman Emperor, and only he, and the Roman Senate, could crown someone as "King of the Jews". Anyone else who claimed this title was rebelling against the Roman Empire, and the Romans didn't like it when people rebelled. Therefore, claiming that you were the messiah was a crime against the state, and a capital offense - in other words, anyone who claimed to be the messiah, or even allowed others to call him the messiah, was subject to the death penalty.

The Romans executed Jesus on the charge of being "king of the Jews," according to Mk. 15:26. Pontius Pilate, however, was not the only Roman official in Palestine to deal with a popular Jewish leader who was viewed as king of the Jews. Both before and after Jesus of Nazareth (who is usually put in this category), there were several popular Jewish leaders, almost all of them from the peasantry, who, in the words of Josephus, "laid claim to the kingdom," "donned the dia­dem," or were "proclaimed king" by their followers. It thus appears that one of the concrete forms which social unrest took in the late second temple period was that of a group of followers gathered around a leader they had acclaimed as King.
- Richard Horsely, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs

The Romans didn't just control who became a King in Palestine, they also controlled the Temple Priesthood. Under Roman rule, the High Priest was appointed by the Roman prefect, and the appointment was made on the basis of bribery and political maneuvering. The priests enjoyed a very comfortable position, and they were very protective of their privileged status. Any self described messiahs were not only a threat to Roman rule, they were also a threat to the cushy position occupied by the priests. Thus, it was in the best interests of both the prefects and the priests to quickly quash any talk of messiahs.

The essence of Roman rule lay in delegation and, if a province remained calm, was seldom obtrusive. Among the governor of Judaea’s responsibilities was the appointment of the high priest from among the Jewish elders. The high priest would run the affairs of the province on a daily basis and this was why the job was difficult. His traditional role of upholding the rituals and customs of his people did not fit easily with his new role of meeting the needs of his imperial overlords. In practice high priests came and went as they fell out with the governors. Pilate’s predecessor, Valerius Gratus, had soon got rid of the high priest Annas on his arrival in AD 15 and then seems to have worked through another three before he appointed Annas’ son-in-law, Caiaphas, in AD 18.
- Charles Freeman, A New History of Early Christianity

And:

We have no information concerning the regular income of the high priest. Josephus reports, however, that during the unsettled years before the outbreak of the Jewish war in AD 66, 'such was the shamelessness and effrontery which possessed the high priests, that they were actually so brazen as to send their servants to the threshing floors to receive the tithes due to the priests' (Ant. 20.181, cf. 206), 'so it happened at that time that those of the priests who in olden days were maintained by the tithes now starved to death' (Ant. 20.207, cf. 181). This agrees with the Tannaitic report (b. Pes. 57a Bar.) that the priests originally stored the hides from the sacrificial victims, which were their perquisites, in the Parwah Chamber in the Temple; and each evening shared them out among the course of priests who had undertaken the Temple services that day (there were twenty- four such courses who each served for a week at a time). Later, these hides were plundered by the 'men of violence', 'the big men of the priesthood', i.e. the agents of members of the high-priestly families.
- Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus

He was on a self appointed mission, and he knew that he had to do a lot of work before the end, because being killed too soon would have meant failure. If the authorities heard that someone was going around calling himself the messiah, he would immediately be killed, and his mission would be incomplete. Therefore, he had to keep his messianic identity under wraps for as long as possible.

In the Gospel of Mark, the first time Jesus really allows people to call him the messiah is on his final entry into Jerusalem. At this point, he was well aware that he was going to die very soon. This was the ideal time to reveal himself to the authorities. In a very real sense, he now had to let it be known that he was the messiah. The crucifixion was his ultimate goal, and the means by which he would have his triumph over sin and death. In other words, the time had come to die.

With the backdrop now in place, we can turn to the scholars to say the rest.

The Gospels are unified in claiming that Jesus was executed for calling himself the King of the Jews. This is the charge leveled against Jesus in both Mark and John (independently of one another) and it is independently attested as the charge placed on the placard at his crucifixion. And there is a very good reason for thinking that later Christian story tellers did not come up with the idea that Jesus was crucified for calling himself the King of the Jews (i.e. a good reason for thinking they didn’t make it up). The title “King of the Jews” is not a title ever used by the early Christians for Jesus, so far as we know. They called him messiah, Lord, son of God, son of Man, and other things. But so far as we can tell, not by the specific title “king of the Jews.” If this is not a favored title for Christians, then it is unlikely that they made it up as the key title leading to his death. Conclusion? Since it is independently attested and passes the criterion of dissimilarity, Jesus probably really was executed for calling himself King of the Jews.

That explains why he was crucified for calling himself the King of the Jews. He really believed he was the (future, apocalyptic) King of the Jews. He obviously wasn’t the king yet, but when the kingdom came with the destruction brought by the Son of Man, Jesus would be made the ruler. And so when Pilate asked him if he really thought he was the king of the Jews, how could Jesus deny it? Pilate wasn’t interested in the niceties of Jesus’ apocalyptic theology. Jesus thought he was going to be king. Only the Romans could appoint a king. They certainly weren’t going to appoint him. This was a claim of political insurgency in Pilate’s eyes. And so he ordered him crucified.
- Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, What Judas Betrayed

There are many scholars who don't agree with the claim that Jesus was killed for calling himself the messiah, or "King of the Jews" - in fact, a large part of the academic community suggests that he was actually executed as a public nuisance. This isn't strictly germane to our purposes here, so we can take the position that he really was killed for claiming to be the messiah.

With this in mind, we can hear what one scholar said regarding the Messianic Secret:

It is not, as Wrede considered, a dogmatic conviction of the Church to turn the defeated life and ministry of Jesus, a preacher of righteousness, into a triumphant Messiah, as vindicated in His resurrection. It is rather that the letting out of the Messianic Secret will lead to the destruction of His programme prematurely by encountering the opposition of the Jews and the Roman Government. In conclusion we may say that surely there is· a Messianic. Secret in Mark's Gospel and Wrede needs to be credited for bringing this to light, though we need not accept the views he expressed in terms of his basic theory of the development of the Gospel tradition.
- O.M. Rao, The Messianic Secret and the Resurrection, 1964

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Thanks for taking the time to thoroughly defend one of the options. Based on Bible commentaries, a majority of theologians would offer the same explanation, albeit for a slightly different reason - the time wasn't yet right.... – ThaddeusB Aug 22 '15 at 2:48

The Messianic Secret refers to a motif primarily in the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus is portrayed as commanding his followers to silence about his Messianic mission. The Messianic Secret belongs in Mark's Gospel, but elements of it have been copied into the later synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke) but not into John, which takes a very contrary view of Jesus. If it were found significantly in material believed to be sourced independent from Mark (particularly 'Q'), then the words of the Messianic Secret were probably those of Jesus, but this is not so.

Most explanations fall into two main categories - that Mark's reports of Jesus' commands to silence are historically true, or that they were a literary creation by Mark's author, perhaps being intended to draw attention to Jesus' Messianic mission by the repeated commands to silence on the issue.


Brennan Reed Hamil discusses the Messianic Secret at some length in a student paper written at the Lubbock Christian University. Firstly, he says, there have been historical explanations. In line with this approach, the motive of concealment has been seen as a facet of historical Jesus’ own behaviour and teaching, a characteristic of his, in other words, which is correctly reported by Mark.

Secondly, there have been literary or theological explanations. The basic thrust of this approach is to view the secrecy motif as a literary or theological device (or perhaps better, a literary device with a theological import) whereby various traditions about the historical Jesus have been presented to the reader within the overall perspective of the Christology (and soteriology) adopted within the Markan community some time after Jesus’ death and the rise of the Easter-belief in his resurrection.

Hamil says there remain many legitimate questions to consider, none of which seem to have definitive answers. This device of the author of Mark perhaps shall never be fully understood. Regardless of — perhaps because of — the curious and mysterious nature of the secrecy motif, it persists in the minds of Markan scholars.

Oxbridge Notes (Is There A Messianic Secret In Mark Notes) looks at whether the Messianic Secret can be explained historically and puts forward the contention that Jesus wished to conceal his messiahship from men and women during his ministry for fear that it would have been misunderstood as a claim to political kingship, thus choosing the title ‘Son of Man’. The explanation is then criticised, in part because it leaves unresolved the problems of how the bystanders could ignore the confessions of Jesus’s identity made by the men and women who were possessed by these spirits.

I will not repeat explanations provided in his own answer by ThaddeusB, but signify my concurrence. Each of these explanations has been put forward by respected scholars although, as noted, Wrede's original hypothesis no longer has significant support. Wrede himself said that his hypothesis would be stronger if Mark's Gospel were not the first New Testament gospel, but nearly all scholars now say that it clearly was the first New Testament gospel.

The Messianic Secret article at Wikipedia, cited in the previous answer, has one further important explanation, proposed by Dennis R. MacDonald in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark:

The literary explanation theory has it that Mark made a conscious effort to identify Jesus with Odysseus, a Greek hero with whom Mark's gentile audience would certainly have been familiar. Odysseus, on his return home, has to disguise his identity to avoid his enemies, and in Mark the messianic secret could serve the same purpose for Jesus.

MacDonald's hypothesis would be easy to dismiss except that he has built a sound reputation among biblical scholars, and the reviews that I have read for The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark describe his hypothesis as sound, although sometimes overstated.

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One of the reasons is plainly given in scripture in the context to an occurrence of keeping the messianic secret

Mar 1:43-45 (NIV) Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “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.” Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

The final verse gives us the explanation as to why

As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

We must remember that Jesus Christ had an in depth spiritual connection with His Father and was able to hear His promptings (John 5:30) and, better yet, he obeyed them (John 8:29)! Jesus most likely received revelation to tell the man to not say anything so that he would be able to continue to "enter towns openly" instead of having to remain in lonely places.

I believe this passage provides at least one clear proof that Jesus did instruct people not to tell about the miracles for specific reasons (contrary to Wrede's theory).

Note that this is covered in ThaddeusB's answer under "Avoid Hindrances" but he doesn't include the scripture reference.

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