Messianic Secret: The New Testament Quandary

Some of my readers may remember the series about Hidden Messiah that I presented on this blog some time ago. At that time I was working on a book about the Hidden Messiah, and therefore it was only natural that I would write on this topic. However, there were things that I didn’t write about on the blog at that time. The book has since been published, so now I can reveal here something that, for me personally, was the most surprising discovery on this journey—and that will be the subject of my next few posts. Before I do that however, I would like to remind those readers who did read the series, what the “messianic secret” was about—and for those who didn’t read it, this will be an introduction to the coming posts.

***

“Any discussion of… Messianism is a delicate matter, for it is here that the essential conflict between Judaism and Christianity has developed and continues to exist.”[1] In the light of these essential differences, a consensus between Jewish and Christian scholars regarding the so-called “Messianic Secret” appears all the more striking. Scholars from both sides recognize the fact that in the Gospels Jesus is frequently portrayed as seeking to maintain an element of secrecy about his own person and work throughout the length of his public ministry (sometimes even openly discouraging use of the title “Messiah”). This feature of the Gospels is well-known and widely acknowledged; it is known today as the “Messianic Secret” – a term which derives from a classic study by William Wrede on the Gospel of Mark.

Indeed, the unbiased reader would not fail to see one of the most perplexing things in the Gospel narratives: while the believing readers call Jesus the Messiah of Israel, He Himself continuously discouraged the use of the title “Messiah” throughout the length of his public ministry. Let us have a look at some scriptures where Jesus directly forbade others to speak of Him as Messiah: He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered and said, “The Christ [Messiah] of God.” And He strictly warned and commanded them to tell this to no one.[2] A similar ban accompanies all His healings of Israelites: the cleansing of the leper, the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead, and the healing of the two blind men, to name a few. These and many other stories are almost unavoidably accompanied by a concluding commentary: and He strictly warned him… and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone”;[3] but He commanded them strictly that no one should know it;[4] and Jesus sternly warned them, saying, “See that no one knows it.”[5] He didn’t just recommend that they say nothing, but He forbade them to talk about it, and almost always strictly or sternly.

Actually, the only thing in the Gospels that Jesus did sternly was to forbid people to discuss His messianic identity and miracles. The only time in the entire New Testament that He reveals his messianic identity is in the scene with the Samaritan woman in John 4. Just think of that! The only time when He speaks of it, He isn’t speaking to a Jewish person, but to a Samaritan woman. Moreover, we have this strange remark in the text, that His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food,[6] and we might wonder why we need to know that; why does the Scripture inform us about his disciples being gone to the city. However, if we understand that Jesus was supposed to “hide His face”—His Messianic status—from Israel, then we can see this episode as a very logical one: the only time in all the Gospels that He reveals his Messianic identity is in the scene with the Samaritan woman and even then, only at a time when His disciples had gone away into the city—that is, when there was not a single Jewish person in sight! In the same way, the healing of the demon-possessed man from the Gentile country of the Gadarenes also presents a striking contrast to all the stories quoted above: In answer to his request to follow Him, Yeshua tells the healed man, “Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.”[7] Thus, Yeshua was ready to reveal His identity to the Gentiles, but was very careful not to reveal it to the Jews—an additional confirmation of the words of Paul about the difference between how Jesus revealed Himself to the Jews and to the gentiles?

This Messianic Secret, this contrast between the messiahship of Jesus and his injunctions to secrecy in the Gospels, undoubtedly requires some explanation, and the explanation of this puzzling feature can be found in the Jewish thought of the time. The manner of referring to the coming of the Messiah as hidden and revealed may be taken as representative of I A.D. Palestinian Judaism. “…all Jewish groups assumed, … that the Messiah, when he first came, would be hard to identify, … that the Messiah would have to suffer persecution and ignominy”[8]. For instance, Hidden Messiah occurs many times in Pseudoepigrapha, an important trend of the intertestamental Hebrew literature, especially in the book of Enoch, where we see the heavenly Son of Man being hidden in Heaven till the appointed time comes. Targums, the Aramaic translations of the Scriptures, used in  synagogues at the time of Jesus, when referring to the Advent of the Messiah, often speak of him as being “revealed” (אתגלי), while  in later Rabbinic writings we read mostly of the “coming” (בוא) of the Messiah.  Even the earliest Christian sources, starting from the New Testament itself, are full of passages that “bear simple witness to the common assumption that the Messiah’s coming would be the coming of someone who had to be identified as such, not the coming of an obvious king[9]: “but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from”[10]; “I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel therefore I came…[11]. In accordance with the same belief, Trypho the Jew argued against Jesus as messiah in the work of Justin Martyr:  “The messiah, if he had been born and was anywhere, would be unknown. Even he would not know for certain that he was himself the messiah until Elijah should come, anoint him and make him manifest to everyone.”[12]

If messiah is not supposed to be recognized, he must keep silent about his messiahship. In effect, it means that the idea that when the Messiah comes, he would keep silence concerning his messianic status and would go unrecognized until God makes him manifest, becomes a current idea of Jewish religious thought at the turn of the era. The Messiah needed to remain hidden and could not reveal who he was. Thus, we arrive to a new and deeper understanding of the messianic secret of the Gospels: we understand that the silence of Jesus of the Gospels about his messiahship was precisely what was expected of the Messiah when he should come. And next time, we are going to discover  the  “Hidden Prophecy” that Jesus’ silence was based on (if you don’t want to wait for a week, you can read about it in my new book “As though hiding his face” ; (click here for my books:  https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/.)

 

[1] Gershom Sholem, Messianic Idea in Judaism, p.1

[2] Luke 9:20-21

[3] Mark 1:43-44

[4] Mark 5:43

[5] Matt 9:30

[6] John 4:8

[7] Mark 5:19

[8] O’Neill, J. C. Who Did Jesus Think He Was? (Biblical Interpretation Series, Vol 11), Brill Academic Publishers, 1995, p.42

[9] O’Neill, 43

[10] John 7.27

[11] John 1.31

[12] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho,  8.4

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Deborah

    Shalom Professor Julia,

    That is an important concept that possibly Jesus didn’t intend for the people of Israel to know about His messianic status during His earthly ministry due to prophetic timing as Jesus seemed to be insistent on timing during His ministry. He mentioned timing when His mother, Mary, wanted Him to perform the miracle of turning water into wine before the appointed time of public demonstration.

  2. felipe

    Admirada Julia. Leo todo lo que escribes y tengo noticia de ello. Nunca he conseguido averiguar por qué el cristianismo, que en definitiva era una secta más del judaísmo, entró tan pronto en violento enfrentamiento con él. He estado dos veces en Israel.amo esa tierra.
    Creo que el mesianismo de Jesús comenzó precisamente en el bautismo, cuando recibe la íntima convicción de que ha sido elegido como tal, la “voz” que le dice “tu” eres mi hijo. Y atención, según Lucas, 3,22 (Codex Beza, Do5) “tú eres mi hijo yo te he engendrado hoy”.. Esta ‘revelación’ o como quieras llamarla es absolutamente personal de Jesús: “tú eres mi hijo”. Jesús acepta su misión de Mesías que no era la de un caudillo contra Roma.
    No puedo abusar más de tu paciencia. Gracias por haberlo leído y gracias por tus siempre acertadísimos comentarios.
    Shalom.
    Felipe.

  3. […] Also see “The New Testament Quandary” […]

  4. Fred Aguelo

    Dear Prof Julia,

    It’s always refreshing to read your insights. G-d bless you with more wisdom!

    Shalom!

    Fred

  5. Simon

    Thank you Julia, I do enjoy your contributions…….Hoping to Not come across as too simple, obvious, or obtuse……….. But.

    The Messiah was not for the house of Judah alone, He was to become the “future” King of all Israel, past future and present! If He became too important to the present Jewish world, He would have had trouble completing His mission to become the New blood Covenant, the New Passover Lamb …… which is the whole purpose of His “foreordained” mission!

    Jews of the time, much like all in all times, are concerned with their own reality, and would want to make Him into a King to rule them then and there!
    His Kingdom was and is far away from this flesh world, which is something He had to yet accomplish by dying on the Cross.

    To be elevated to an earthly “King” was the opposite of His purpose as the savior of “all nations” and re pointing The Way to the Father for to All who would choose to believe in Him!

    So; His choosing to Not advertise Himself,………….. to me… is an ……. obvious choice.

    Yours,

    Simon Zelikman

    1. Julia Blum

      Shalom Simon, thank you for your comment. I just replied to Donald who commented along the same lines, but I would repeat my answer here as well. Of course, you are right: Israel was looking for a King-Messiah who would ascend the throne, not for a sacrificial Suffering servant who would ascend the altar. However, it is very important that we understand the simple logic of this argument: if, in all four Gospels, not once does Jesus reveal Himself as Messiah to His fellow-countrymen; if, in all four Gospels, the Jewish people He heals are not allowed to tell about the miracles done for them, – is it not logical to conclude that He did not intend to reveal the fact of His Messianic identity to His people, in the first place? If we decide that Jesus wanted the people of Israel to accept and recognize him as Messiah, then we must admit that he was acting rather strange, doing all he could in order to lead Israel into error and hide this secret from them. You must agree that such a conclusion is hardly acceptable, and consequently we are left with only one possibility: that Jesus didn’t intend the people of Israel to know about his messianic status.
      Why is it important? Because, as you know very well, the main accusation of the Church against Israel,- the accusation lying at the foundation of all other reproaches and rebukes,- is that the Jewish people did not recognize their Messiah. For two thousand years, Israel has been blamed for this. It’s time to remove this charge, it’s time to heal the wounds – and I would like to believe that my writings (not only my posts, but my books as well) make little steps toward this healing process. Thank you for reading them – and therefore, being part of this process!

      1. Simon

        Dear Julia,

        “His people” were Israel, both houses, Ephraim and Judah! He was to become the Messiah to all the nations! He was to become the Passover Lamb to all nations, The Way of “grafting into the One nation/Israel”, just as Abraham was foretold! The Way back to the Father!
        He became the Passover Lamb on Passover, and the first fruit on the first fruit day!

        Just as He grated in multitudes of “strangers” in Egypt, He provided The Way to graft in all nations/goy into His Kingdom! This was a far greater “grafting in”! ….. A point seemingly lost on both houses of IsraEl today!
        I have been busy arguing this “simple” point for years now!
        Please say hello to Dr. Eli, he should remember me and my Christian Israelites group from years ago …..

        Shalom,

        God bless,

        Yours,

        Simeon Zelikman

  6. James Bridges

    What is the O’Neill reference?

    1. Julia Blum

      My mistake, sorry. Thank you, James. I fixed the reference.

  7. Emunah

    Shalom, dear prof. Julia ! Again – todah rabah !

  8. VICTOR MARRERO

    Saludos; Para comprarl libros por favor traduccion en espanol

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for the suggestion, Victor. The translation of one of my books (Abraham had two sons) has been almost completed, I am looking for a publisher and hope it will be published soon. I am looking for a translator for my last book, about Hidden Messiah (As though hiding his face), please send me an email if you know somebody who might be interested.

  9. Donald Ashton

    Julia,
    Thank you Julia for such a thought provoking article, which I have brought up several times in our Work’s Christian Fellowship. meetings.

    (I hope this comment is not stealing your thunder for a forthcoming article)

    You rightly point out that the only explicit case of Yeshua using the word Messiah of himself is in the Gospel of John not only to a Samaritan, but to a Woman. (What greater offence could this be to a Jew of the time reading this gospel)..

    We then need to understand this issue in terms of the understanding of both the Jews and the Samaritans at the time.

    The Jewish teachers of the time had, quite rightly, studied the Tanak (OT) and realised there were two strands of messianic prophecy – one related to the servant messiah and the other to the king messiah. The attempt to reconcile these two, seemingly contradictory threads created the concept of two messiahs. (the idea of the servant messiah dying, being resurrected and then coming in power was never considered)
    One problem with having two messiahs is to distinguish them by a short phrase. This was done by using famous historical figures who exhibited the necessary characteristics. Hence the conquering kingly messiah was typified by the greatest Hebrew king – David – and hence referred to as Messiah ben (son of) David. (how many times in the gospels do we read the phrase Son of David)
    Similarly the suffering servant messiah was typified by Joseph – hence referred to as Messiah ben Joseph. (The only explicit reference I know to this is John 1:45)

    To just use the term messiah to the Jews with such a background would lead people to immediately want to proclaim Yeshua as the conquering king and expect him to defeat their Roman overlords and restore the kingdom. No-one would want a suffering servant in the political climate of the time.
    Hence he would never use this title of himself.

    The Samaritans, however, with their history not only despised the Jerusalem leadership, but only accepted Torah. They did not have the concept of two messiahs. Hence the use of this term to a Samaritan would not raise the expectations of a conquering king. The response he received does clearly show that Messiah was expected to restore true teaching and holiness to the nation.

    Since each gospel is written primarily with a different audiences in mind (Matthew and Mark to the Jews, Luke to the Goyim and John to the Samaritans) is it not surprising that we see different approaches to the use of the term Messiah.

    תוֹדָה רָבָּה

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Donald, for your well thought and detailed comment. Of course, you are right: Israel was looking for a King-Messiah who would ascend the throne, not for a sacrificial Suffering servant who would ascend the altar. However, it
      is very important that we understand the simple logic of this argument: if, in all four Gospels, not once does Jesus reveal Himself as Messiah to His fellow-countrymen; if, in all four Gospels, the Jewish people He heals are not allowed to tell about the miracles done for them, – is it not logical to conclude that He did not intend to reveal the fact of His Messianic identity to His people, in the first place? If we decide that Jesus wanted the people of Israel to accept and recognize him as Messiah, then we must admit that he was acting rather strange, doing all he could in order to lead Israel into error and hide this secret from them. You must agree that such a conclusion is hardly acceptable, and consequently we are left with only one possibility: that Jesus didn’t intend the people of Israel to know about his messianic status.
      It is very important – because, as you know, the main accusation of the Church against Israel,- the accusation lying at the foundation of all other reproaches and rebukes,- is that the Jewish people did not recognize their Messiah. For two thousand years, Israel has been blamed for this. It’s time to remove this charge, it’s time to heal the wounds – and I would like to believe that my writings (not only my posts, but my books as well) make little steps toward this healing process. And I so appreciate all my readers because you are willing to be a part of this healing! Thank you!

      1. Donald Ashton

        Julia,
        I do not wish to even start to defend the Church’s indefensible stand against Israel (here in the UK it still is barely acceptable, in some places, to state that Yeshua is Jewish), nor to argue whether the Christ of many churches is actually the Jewish Messiah revealed from Heaven.
        But enough of that and down to the real study:

        As you have rightly stated, there is no example in any of the Gospels when Yeshua used the term Messiah of himself when speaking to a Jewish audience, although he did confirm such a title when challenged by the Cohen Gadol at his trial. Although some would read his response as a tacit acceptance (by our current day standards) the response from the Sanhedrin clearly accepted the response as a very positive affirmation of his messianic position.
        My understanding of the lack of use of the term messiah is down to two primary points:
        1. It was a heavily loaded, political phrase with insurrectionist overtones. (Not very expedient to use it in the Roman Empire at the time)
        2. Yeshua wanted people to:
        a. examine what he did (the sick were healed, the blind saw, the lame walked, the dead were raised to life);
        b. to interpret what they saw in the light of the teachings in the TaNaK;
        c. to conclude from their knowledge of the scriptures who he was.

        Thus, to those who were prepared to study the evidence and interpret its meaning, the only meaningful conclusion would be that this itinerant, Galilean, Torah observant Rabbi is actually the ‘prophet like me’ (Deut 18:11) with the conclusion ‘You must listen to him’.

  10. Chris

    Looking forward to your expanding analysis. Shalom.

  11. Jo

    Thank you for this! I’m studying Matthew and your quote from Dialogue with Trypho caught my eye, “until Elijah should come, anoint him…” In Matt 3:11 John’s baptism is clearly “for repentance;” which has led myself and other Western Christians to ponder why Jesus was baptized. His answer in 3:15 “to fulfill all righteousness” is cryptic and has created a number of commentaries. Now that I see through the Jewish literature it looks as though John anointed Jesus as messiah by his baptism; John being the one who came “in the spirit of Elijah.” Most Christians already know about John being “Elijah” of course since Jesus makes it clear in Matt 11:14 and 17:12. It’s the explanation of the *reason for his baptism* that is clarified for me.

    This also causes Matt 21:24-27 to come into focus. I always though this was an add question for Jesus to ask the Jewish leaders, but it seems clear now that Jesus is implying that they do not recognize God’s messiah (“by what authority do you do these things?”) because they did not recognize the “Elijah” who anointed him. So this one reference to Trypho made two passages fall into place for me-thank you!

    Peter gave us a hint in Acts 10:37-38. Am I on the right track?

    1. Jo

      Should say *odd* question

    2. Julia Blum

      Thank you Jo! Very interesting thoughts and connections – and somehow, I’ve never seen them before! I’ve never made this connection between Jesus’ baptism and John being “Elijah”. Thank you so much for pointing it out!

      1. JO

        Thank you for the compliment! For the sake of my conscience, allow me to quickly clarify that I believe Jesus was in actuality the messiah from the moment of his conception; I am orthodox on this. I should have said that it appears John anointed Jesus to *inaugurate his public messianic ministry.* I did not mean to imply that Jesus was not the messiah before his baptism. Thanks for allowing me to clarify. Let’s keep thinking!

  12. Mandla

    Shalom, Prof Julia

    Thank you sooo much.

    Much Love