Frequently in Mark’s Gospel, we see that after Yeshua performs a miracle, a healing, or an exorcism he implores those present to abstain from revealing his identity to anyone else. Rather, he demands their silence on the matter (see Mk. 1:44; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26). We see him hush Peter after his profound confession in 8:30. We see him command the silence of the disciples after the transfiguration experience in 9:9. And even with the interpretations of the parables, the “outsiders” were not to hear the insight (4:10-12). This strong feature of secrecy within Mark’s Gospel has earned the name “the messianic secret” and has elicited questions of its purpose and place within the writing. So, what’s the deal? Wouldn’t he want everyone to know that he is Messiah? Why is there such an undercurrent of secrecy surrounding Yeshua’s ministry in Mark’s Gospel?
Well, I’m glad you asked. Elwell and Yarbrough suggest a three-fold division of the specific instances of Yeshua’s calls for silence. First, in exorcism occurrences Yeshua is seen silencing the demons because he did not want them testifying to the truth of who he was (1:32-34; 3:11-12). However, when a demon-possessed man is healed he is told to go and testify to the healing (5:19). Apparently it was acceptable for the healed man to testify, but the cast-out demons were to be silenced. Second, some people who were healed were told to remain silent in order to “relieve the pressure of the crowds” from seeking Yeshua. Lastly, and this is probably the most significant for what we will look at here, Yeshua often silenced his disciples because they did not fully understand his messianic office and would not until after the resurrection.
Some have interpreted this feature through the lens of form criticism and see it as Mark’s attempt to justify his own belief in the deity and messianic role of Yeshua despite Yeshua’s lack of messianic profession and the early believing community’s lack of attributing the title of “Messiah” to Yeshua. At the turn of the 20th century William Wrede popularized this view by suggesting that the “messianic secret” motif was Mark’s attempt at redacting the life of Yeshua, and using the theme as an excuse for why Yeshua supposedly did not claim the title of Messiah. It has also been suggested that the use of the messianic secret by Mark was intended to “soften the political offensiveness to Roman authorities of a ministry that was overly messianic.” Both of these views take much liberty with the text and its context and assume that Mark’s account is inaccurate and shaped more by the world around him, rather than intended to change the world.
It is more likely, however, that Yeshua was aware of his role as Messiah and that the explanation for the messianic secret was his desire to prevent political fervor among the Jewish community. While there were certainly diverse messianic expectations among the first century Jewish communities, it is evident that many were expecting a great religious and political messiah figure to rise up as the conquering King of Israel, freeing the people and the Land from Gentile domination and restoring the Davidic Kingdom and throne to Jerusalem. Even looking at the various reactions of the disciples in the Gospels and Acts, the prevalent expectation of the people is evident. Acts 1:6 records the disciples asking the risen Yeshua if he was now going to “restore the kingdom to Israel,” showing their pre-understanding of the political ramifications of the Messiah’s arrival. Even more, looking to Mark 9:9 and the Transfiguration event, Peter’s interpretation of the timing and unfolding of events in God’s plan reveals his messianic anticipation. His initial response to receiving a glimpse of the full glory of Yeshua, along with the presence of Moses and Elijah, was to build sukkot (booths) and begin the time of rejoicing that will one day become an eternal Kingdom reality. Peter’s is just such a reaction that Yeshua likely wanted to avoid as he encouraged the silence of the people.
As we see throughout the Gospels when it comes to Yeshua’s identity being revealed, timing is everything. And it’s no different with comprehending where the messianic secret fits in. To understand this we must consider another major theme of Mark’s Gospel—the suffering that Yeshua, as Messiah, would endure. Before he would achieve all that was written concerning the full realization of the Kingdom promises, Yeshua first had to achieve all that was written concerning the suffering and servanthood of the Messiah. It is not inconsistent to see why Mark would highlight Yeshua’s desire to keep his presence a secret and thus keep the fervor of the people for their King at bay—timing was everything. He first had to die.
Blomberg points out the strong connection that is made between the two themes of the messianic secret and the suffering servant within Mark’s Gospel, especially in what is considered the capstone verse of the entire Gospel, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Blomberg states:
The term “ransom” calls to mind the redemption of slaves in the marketplace and highlights the need for Jesus to die a substitutionary, atoning death. . . Although Mark never uses the exact expression, the concept of suffering servant (as in Isa. 52:13-53:12) perhaps best encapsulates this very human side of Jesus’ nature and mission.
Indeed the overarching theme of the suffering of the Messiah appears to go hand-in-hand with the inclusion of the messianic secret. Rather than redacting the events and circumstances of Yeshua’s life and ministry, Mark sought to use this motif to magnify the identity of Yeshua as the suffering servant Messiah, a concept that we see brought out more in later rabbinic literature. Next post, we will take a closer look at one of these specific examples in Mark. Blessings.
 Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament: a Historical and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 1998), 95-96.
 William Wrede, The Messianic Secret, (London: J. Clarke, 1971 [Ger. orig. 1901]).
 Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2003), 127.
 Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: an Introduction and Survey (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 1997), 119.