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.

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“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. Robert Berentz

    Can you tell me where I can purchase a Hebrew New Testament sg

  2. 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.

  3. 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.