Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sealed Until the End: The Messianic Secret as Apocalyptic Motif

A paper I wrote for a New Testament class this last semester at the GTU. Unfortunately, I had a maximum of 10 pages to write this in, so I had to leave out a lot of interesting parallels between Mark and Daniel and did not have a lot of space to explain the things I did talk about. But here it is:

In Mark there appears to be a motif or set of motifs involving secrecy – secrecy, for instance, concerning miracles, concerning an aspect (or aspects) of Jesus’ message, and concerning his identity. Such a motif of secrecy in Mark, particularly as it concerns Jesus’ identity, has been dubbed the Messianic Secret. Properly speaking, there are a number of secrecy motifs in Mark, not all of them really concerning Jesus’ identity. But, as Jack Kingsbury puts it, these “may be motifs that can be distinguished from the messianic secret, but it is obvious that they can also enhance and further it.”[1] In other words, the other secrecy motifs may be read as reinforcing the motif concerning the secret of Jesus’ identity and hence examining the latter will likely involve examining at least some aspects of the former as well.

While there are many different ways to go about trying to explain the secrecy motif, the goal of this paper is not to sort through these or to evaluate which does a better job and where. Instead, the goal is to show that we can read the Messianic Secret in Mark as a kind of apocalyptic motif, particularly inspired by the book of Daniel – in particular, one that invites its readers into believing reception of the secrets unveiled to them in the book and a status as a follower of Jesus. This is not meant to forestall other understandings of the Secret nor is it meant to exhaustively explain it in every one of its details – it is simply meant to give us one more interpretive angle by which we can understand the secrecy motif in a better, fuller fashion.

The plan for the rest of this paper, then, is first to take some steps towards establishing echoes and correspondences both between Mark 4:1-20 and Daniel (especially chapter 2) and Mark 13 and Daniel. I then turn to some of the passages in which the Messianic Secret proper might be said to actually pop up and offer a preliminary reading of these within the context of my treatment of Mark 4 and 13. Finally, I will sum up how we can look at the Messianic Secret as a kind of apocalyptic motif based on such a reading.

Let us turn first to Mark 4:1-20 and Daniel 2 and the respective secrets or mysteries displayed therein.[2] Each of these two passages presents us with a riddle, a message hidden in imagistic clothing, in Mark in the form of a parable and in Daniel in the form of a dream. Each, then, gives us a wisdom-riddle which presents us with, as it says in the Greek text of both passages, a musthvrion that is, a secret or mystery (Daniel 2:27 and Mark 4:11).[3] Indeed, later on in the Greek (12:8), Daniel, when inquiring into the meanings of his own visions, asks about parabolaiv or parables.[4] In Mark 4, there is likewise a mystery and it is given in parables.

The mystery, then, in both Daniel and Mark is indeed given, either in the form of dream or of parable, but it still requires explanation – the revelation is there, but it does not automatically generate understanding. Neither the disciples nor Nebuchadnezzar, though already given their respective mysteries, are able on their own to apprehend them. Such understanding must come from some special revelation or explanation. This failure to understand in both books emphasizes the mysteriousness of what is being given and questions may be required to get at the true meaning of what is being communicated. This becomes more apparent later on in Daniel where Daniel, like Nebuchadnezzar’s earlier seeking after the meaning of his dream, needs to ask questions in order to unpack the mysterious revelations he has been given (Daniel 8:27; 12:8).[5] In fact, as Joel Marcus has pointed out, in apocalyptic environments, inquisitiveness was seen as a good and adds that in Mark “it is a sign of serious spiritual impairment when [the disciples] become afraid to ask [questions] (9:32).”[6] The disciples’ questions, then, are not necessarily being cast in a purely negative light but may in fact play a positive function here as in Daniel and other apocalyptic works.

But what is this mystery? In both Mark 4 and Daniel 2, the mystery has something to do with God’s divine actions in history or God’s kingdom (basileiva in both Mark 4 and Daniel 2). In the early chapters of Daniel, for instance, we see God as sovereign even in the midst of the pagan, ungodly rule of foreign powers. In Daniel 2:44-45, God’s eschatological kingdom arrives not with the help of human hands but as an act of God’s perpetual sovereignty, thus emphasizing the theme in Daniel of the faithful suffering patiently through tribulation, awaiting God and God’s actions to bring in the kingdom and their salvation rather than attempting to force it on their own.[7] In Mark, we see that God’s kingdom has already come but not yet in its fullness and is to be followed not by way of military action but through taking up one’s cross and following Jesus – it does not yet overtake all other kingdoms but rather has come in their midst as an act of God in the person of Jesus, proceeding by the preaching of God’s word and not by the sword – despite what many Jews of his time may have wanted.[8]

As these mysteries concerning God’s kingdom are given veiled in imagery, someone else must help others to understand them. In Daniel, it is God who gives the mystery (e.g., Daniel 2:28) and Daniel who explains to the inquiring Nebuchadnezzar the content of the mystery already given. And in Mark, it is Jesus who both gives and explains the mystery to his inquiring disciples. Jesus (see, for instance, the many passages in which he teaches or is called teacher or rabbi[9]) and Daniel (see, for instance, Daniel 1:17) are both presented as wisdom figures, where wisdom is understood here as insight from God. With Daniel and Jesus we variously have such insight granted or communicated to others, thus being or making others wise in virtue of the possession of such revelatory insight.[10]

In Daniel, what is revealed in particular through Daniel is what must happen according to God’s plan for history leading up to his kingdom. In the Greek version of 2:28-29, the phrase for “it must happen” is dei: genevsqai, which does not occur in Mark 4 but does occur later in the apocalyptic discourse of Mark 13 in verse 7.[11] Such a deterministic air, however, so common in apocalyptic literature, also appears in Mark 4, particularly in verses 11 and 12, where the purpose of giving the mystery of the kingdom in parable form is, in effect, to illuminate “those inside” but to harden the already unbelieving hearts of “those outside”.[12] In the context of Mark 3, it may very well be that the insiders are those who “do God’s will” (3:35) and outsiders those who directly oppose Jesus’ ministry, such as the religious authorities (3:22 – cf. 3:28-29).[13] While the crowds are invited in, these religious authorities have shut themselves out and are confirmed in their opposition by Jesus’ own preaching. In a pattern reminiscent of Pharaoh before Moses or the Israelites before Isaiah (in the Isaiah 6 passage quoted in Mark), their own hardness of heart and stubborn unbelief, their resistance against God and his prophet, results in a punitive further hardening. As Joel Marcus puts it, “in a way their condemnation to blindness and obduracy in 4:12 is just a ratification of a process already in motion.”[14]

The hardening of Jesus’ opponents, however, according to many scholars has the specific goal of guaranteeing Jesus’ death by provoking such opponents into escalating their opposition. His crucifixion is not a failure of his ministry, but a crucial part of its success.[15] Speaking of much of the secrecy in Mark in general (cf. Mark 4:21-25), Marcus writes, “Jesus […] must hide his lamp under a bushel […] in order that he may be opposed and, ultimately, killed – in order that he may ‘give his life as a ransom for many’ (10:45).”[16] The crucifixion is therefore part of God’s predetermined plan, enacted partly through the God-ordained means of Jesus’ own preaching of the mystery of the kingdom in parable form. As Mark progresses towards the crucifixion, the apocalyptic overtones echoed in the modal verb deiv start to pile up, the majority coming in the apocalyptic discourse of chapter 13 (outside that chapter, one finds it in key eschatological or predictive contexts, for instance, in 8:31; 9:11; 14:31),[17] all leading up to the Passion, thus fulfilling Scripture and God’s plan.

By putting both the parable and its explanation in the book, however, Mark seems to be inviting his reader to either become or continue being wise like Daniel or those who are in Jesus’ circle by their reception of this divine revelation – and thus being wise, being also an insider with regard to Jesus and not an outsider. Readers may be encouraged, then, to see themselves as ones who have been given the secret of kingdom of God by Jesus since it has been written out for them in this very book. There may also be a hint of such a strategy also in Mark 13, to which we now turn.

As already hinted at, chapter 13 concentrates the apocalyptic vibe of Mark into a single discourse.[18] More instances of deiv seem to show up here than in any other chapter (13:7, 10, 14). The idea of an apocalyptic timetable as expressed in this chapter appears also in Daniel 12:7, 11, 12, minus the exact calculations and in favor of a more general sense of indefinite timing (Mark 13:32-37). Indeed, the notion of a shortening of the days as in 13:20, a truncation of the timetable, appears not only in Mark but also in other more paradigmatic apocalyptic works (1 Enoch 80:2; 83:1; Baruch 20:2).[19]

This shortened timetable is necessitated by the unparalleled suffering summarized in the prediction of 13:19, which seems to allude to the similar prediction of unparalleled suffering in Daniel 12:1.[20] And, as in Daniel 12:1, God shows mercy on his chosen ones – as already mentioned, the time in Mark 13:20 is cut short for their sake. Just as passages such as chapter 12 of Daniel can be read as a call to perseverance in the midst of refining suffering,[21] so also Mark 13 (and, indeed, Mark as a whole with its call for Christians to follow the way of the Cross). As John Goldingay states in relation to the suffering spoken of in Daniel, “It forces people to make up their mind which side they are on.”[22] So also Mark 13 can be seen as a call to choose sides and to choose the right one – to stay on the inside with Jesus and his followers.

For Mark’s readers, who many have suggested were undergoing some amount of persecution or suffering, this may have been an important call. Mark, in 13:14, connects more directly with them – making sure they know that this is written to them, perhaps calling attention to some particular aspect of what he is saying[23] – with the words “let the reader understand”. Although this is immediately connected with Jesus’ allusion to the abomination (bdeluvgma) of Daniel 9:27, 11:31, and 12:11, we can also, considering similar calls in Daniel, read it as applying also more generally to the discourse as a whole. Calls to understand a given passage occur, for instance, in Daniel 9:23 and 9:25,[24] calls which are directed at Daniel but which could also be seen as directed at the reader (perhaps uncoincidentally, this is also the very same passage where the abomination first shows up in Daniel).

Here in Mark 13, as in Mark 4, there may be an idea that the reader, by believing reception of what is given, will achieve understanding and stand as one of God’s chosen ones. This idea may also be present in Daniel 9 and indeed in the book as a whole, with its theme of the unveiling of various mysteries and future events, particularly for the sake of the readers who come later to the book – its messages were sealed for the future, hidden from others (Daniel 8:26-27; 12:4, 9-10), but now revealed at the proper time to the wise, those who believingly appropriate the book and its message and who are promised a glorious future. [25] As John Collins puts it, “Because the book is sealed, true understanding is hidden” – it is only available to the wise.[26] If we read Mark 13 against this background, we can look at it as having more to do with the secrecy motifs than it may have seemed at first – hidden things about the future spoken by Jesus have been put into this book and given to the readers so that they might read and understand and stand firm as part of God’s chosen. It is not so different, then, on such a reading, from the use of the secrecy motif as it occurred back in Mark 4. Let us now see how these apocalyptic themes which we have seen in Mark 4 and 13 can help us understand the Messianic Secret.

The secret of Jesus’ identity in Mark, Kingsbury has shown, is associated more often with the title “Son of God” than any other title in the book (1:11; 1:24-25, 34; 3:11-12; 5:7; 9:2-9; 12:1, 6; 14:11-64).[27] Mark slowly unfolds the secret of Jesus’ divine sonship throughout the second half of his gospel, marching through such partial understandings as 11:1-11 and 12:35-37, culminating in the insightful statement of 15:39 when Jesus dies on the cross. As Kingsbury puts it, in 8:27-16:8 “Mark guides the reader through a progressive unveiling of Jesus’ identity: the reader witnesses, respectively, Peter confess Jesus to be the Messiah, Bartimaeus appeal to him as the Son of David, and, finally, the centurion penetrate what for Mark is the essential secret of Jesus’ person, his divine sonship.”[28]

How are we to understand this progressive unveiling of the secret of Jesus’ identity and its relative hiddenness in Mark 1:1-8:26? From the general apocalyptic context of the book and its relation to the unveiling of secrets, particularly as we have seen in Mark 4 and 13, perhaps we can see this unveiling of Jesus’ identity as at least partially falling within this matrix of ideas. In this eschatological moment of the nearing of the kingdom (1:15), there is an initial divinely given message of divine sonship (1:11). In the following passages, it seems only the demons know of Jesus’ true identity as God’s Son, thus emphasizing that the truth of this is not discernible without supernatural aid. Such contests with the demonic or with oppressive spiritual forces occur also in Daniel 10:13, 20 and in other apocalyptic literature elsewhere as well, thus also emphasizing Jesus’ eschatological kingdom power.

It may very well be that part of what is going on when Jesus silences the demons is that the demons are trying to gain control over Jesus by stating who he really is but Jesus shows his greater power as their exorcist by silencing them.[29] But we can also see this in an apocalyptic light – it is not yet the right time in the divine time table for the unveiling of this secret. Yet, of course, Mark’s readers, by the very recounting of such stories are being let in on the secret as part of the continual invitation to read and understand and join in as insiders with regards to Jesus and his kingdom. In 8:30, after Peter is the first of the disciples to finally confess Jesus as the messiah, Jesus warns the disciples not to tell anyone, which emphasizes the lack of understanding of the disciples as to the exact kind of messiah he would be (and the nature of the kingdom as it was breaking in at this time in his person) – a suffering and dying one (3:31-33) whose followers need to be willing to take on suffering and death as well (3:34-38).

The warning thus emphasizes the secrecy or hiddenness of Jesus’ messiahship, both from the disciples and the rest of the world. From here on out, Mark unveils to his readers what kind of messiah this is, the suffering, Danielic, apocalyptic Son of Man (see Daniel 7) who is the Son of God.[30] The disciples do not fully understand all of this until after Easter – though they hear God’s reaffirmation of Jesus’ divine sonship in 9:7 (directly echoing the earlier 1:11), thus giving them the secret of Jesus’ identity, they do not understand it and are, as in the case of Daniel and his visions of the future and heavenly glory, not to reveal any of what happened at the transfiguration until after Jesus rises from the dead (9:9). Predictions of Jesus’ death continue from here on out as Jesus approaches his passion to come at Jerusalem.[31] As Ulrich Luz puts it, Jesus’ coming “suffering remains incomprehensible to the disciples until the cross. Only there, in the light of Jesus’ death, is full understanding and genuine confession of Jesus’ divine sonship possible, as Mark shows by way of example through the gentile centurion’s confession at the cross.”[32]

The Messianic Secret, read against the apocalyptic background of Daniel, particularly as instantiated in Mark 4 and 13, can thus be read as an apocalyptic motif used by Mark as a literary device, reinforced and in combination with some of the other secrecy motifs woven into the book of Mark. There is a divine time table and the correct time for the unveiling of secrets, here Jesus’ identity, is not to be rushed – and, in fact, the veiling and the timing of partial or full unveilment may very well be part of what pushes the plan along. Correct timing pushes the opposition forward and controls the perceptions of Jesus’ identity for their proper times.[33] The secrets themselves and their understanding, though, are for those inside – Jesus’ followers – alone, but such understanding comes in part through believing reception of the very words and secrets recorded in this book and finally unveiled now at the proper time for the readers. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, the end times for which the book has been written have proleptically arrived, thus ending Mark’s book on a note looking forward to resurrection, and the triumph of God and God’s kingdom over history, much as the book of Daniel itself ends. Like in Daniel, Mark’s readers are invited to take a part in this.[34]


Collins, Adela Yarbro. “The Influence of Daniel on the New Testament.” In J. J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, 90-112. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

Collins, John J. Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

Donahue, J. R. and D. J. Harrington. The Gospel of Mark. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2002.

Evans, Craig A. “The Function of Isaiah 6:9-10 in Mark and John.” Novum Testamentum 24 (1982): 124-138.

Goldingay, John E. Daniel. Dallas: Word, 1989.

Gundry, Robert H. Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993.

Kingsbury, Jack D. The Christology of Mark’s Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Luz, Ulrich. “The Secrecy Motif and the Marcan Christology.” In The Messianic Secret, edited by C. Tuckett, 75-96. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Marcus, Joel. Mark 1-8. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

Moule, Charles F. D. “On Defining the Messianic Secret in Mark.” In Jesus und Paulus: Festschrift für Werner Georg Kümmel zum 70. Geburtstag, edited by E. E. Ellis and E. Gräßer, 239-252. Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1975.

Telford, W. R. The Theology of the Gospel of Mark. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Tuckett, Christopher. “Introduction: The Problem of the Messianic Secret.” In The Messianic Secret, edited by C. Tuckett, 1-28. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

[1] Jack D. Kingsbury, The Christology of Mark’s Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 11. Cf. Christopher Tuckett, “Introduction: The Problem of the Messianic Secret,” in The Messianic Secret, ed. C. Tuckett (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 1-28.

[2] There is another possible correspondence in Mark 4 with Daniel – the mighty tree in the parable of Mark 4:32 with its birds and branches may be an echo of the tree in the dream of Daniel 4 which similarly hosts animals. See John J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 107.

[3] Adela Yarbro Collins, “The Influence of Daniel on the New Testament,” in J. J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, 105-106. In drawing correspondences between Daniel and Mark, I will elsewhere also be making reference to the Greek text of Daniel.

[4] Collins, Daniel, 400.

[5] Collins, Daniel, 400; Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), 197; Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 298.

[6] Marcus, Mark, 302. From the Dead Sea Scrolls, Marcus cites, for comparison, 1QH 4:23-24; 1Q5 5:11-12.

[7] Cf. Collins, Daniel, 51; John E. Goldingay, Daniel (Dallas: Word, 1989), 330.

[8] J. R. Donahue and D. J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2002), 146; Gundry, Mark, 206-207; Kingsbury, Christology, 73; Marcus, Mark, 303.

[9] For a sample list, see W. R. Telford, The Theology of the Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 33-34.

[10] Collins, Daniel, 49-50, 105-106; Donahue and Harrington, Mark, 145; Goldingay, Daniel, 57.

[11] Collins, Daniel, 105-106; Donahue and Harrington, Mark, 145.

[12] Donahue and Harrington, Mark, 145; Gundry, Mark, 195-198; Marcus, Mark, 303. Donahue and Harrington, in particular, cite for comparison 1 Enoch 83:7; 91:5; 1QM 1:9-10; 1QpHab 7:13.

[13] Donahue and Harrington, Mark, 146; Gundry, Mark, 195, 203-207.

[14] Marcus, Mark, 306.

[15] Craig A. Evans, “The Function of Isaiah 6:9-10 in Mark and John,” Novum Testamentum 24 (1982): 138; Gundry, Mark, 195; Marcus, Mark, 526.

[16] Marcus, Mark, 526.

[17] Donahue and Harrington, Mark, 261.

[18] For additional parallels between this chapter of Mark and the book of Daniel or other apocalyptic literature beyond what I pursue here, see, for example, Donahue and Harrington, Mark, 371; Gundry, Mark, 747.

[19] Donahue and Harrington, Mark, 373.

[20] Collins, “Influence”, 110. A snippet of the parallel language – Mark 13:19: “aiJ hJmevrai ejkeivnai qli:yiV oi{a ouj gevgonen toiauvth ajp j”; Daniel 12:1: “ejkeivnh hJ hJmevra qlivyewV oi{a oujk ejgenhvqh ajf j”.

[21] Goldingay, Daniel, 319.

[22] Goldingay, Daniel, 319.

[23] Gundry argues that it is calling attention to Mark’s use of the masculine rather than the neuter in reference to the abomination of 13:14. But, as I will interpret it, it may additionally (or instead) also be a general call for the reader to pay attention. See Gundry, Mark, 743.

[24] Cf. Gundry, Mark, 743.

[25] Cf. Collins, Daniel, 341-342, 400; Goldingay, Daniel, 218, 309.

[26] Collins, Daniel, 400.

[27] Kingsbury, Christology, 12, 19, 150, 164. Cf. Charles F. D. Moule, “On Defining the Messianic Secret in Mark,” in Jesus und Paulus: Festschrift für Werner Georg Kümmel zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. E. E. Ellis and E. Gräßer (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1975), 242-243.

[28] Kingsbury, Christology, 20.

[29] Gundry, Mark, 88; Ulrich Luz, “The Secrecy Motif and the Marcan Christology,” in The Messianic Secret, ed. C. Tuckett (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 82; Marcus, Mark, 187, 201.

[30] “Son of Man” being an apocalyptic title developed further in other apocalyptic literature but originating in Daniel 7. Unfortunately, there is not enough room in the current paper for a full discussion of this contribution of Daniel to Mark’s apocalyptic atmosphere. For its use in Mark and Daniel, see Collins, Daniel, 80-84; Collins, “Influence,” 90; Kingsbury, Christology, 169-170; Moule, “Defining,” 250; Telford, Theology, 36.

[31] Cf. Collins, “Influence,” 98; Donahue and Harrington, Mark, 28-29, 261; Gundry, Mark, 462; Luz, “Secrecy,” 83-86; Tuckett, “Introduction,” 28.

[32] Luz, “Secrecy,” 85.

[33] Cf. Moule, “Defining,” 248-249.

[34] Cf. Collins, Daniel, 401; Goldingay, Daniel, 318.

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