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Disobeying Jesus: An element of the messianic secret motif

Hultin, J.F. (2005) Disobeying Jesus: An element of the messianic secret motif. In: Annual Meeting. Society of Biblical Literature, 19 - 22 November 2005, Philadelphia, PA


The Synoptic Gospels depict (1) Jesus demanding that people be silent about his identity, and (2) people disobeying Jesus and spreading the word about him. Since the gospels rarely portray Jesus failing at his intentions, this pattern demands some explanation. Wrede argued that with the motif of the Messianic Secret Mark tried to account for the fact that Jesus had not actually been known as "messiah" or "son of God" during his life. But the references to people disobeying Jesus are singularly ill-suited to address such a discrepancy, since they portray many people proclaiming Jesus' identity—precisely what, ex hypothesi, was not taking place. A satisfactory explanation for the motif of the Messianic Secret must explain both the fact that Jesus tries to silence others and that he fails. The gospel material was taking shape at a time when Jewish rights could be endangered by any hint of Jewish nationalism. Some Jews even turned over potential revolutionaries, lest nationalistic ambitions endanger their communities. A story about a charismatic Galilean who assembled a following and called himself (or even let himself be called) by royal titles would have sounded like a tale of recklessness. To many Jews in Palestine or the Diaspora, it would have appeared that the Jerusalem authorities did precisely the right thing by handing Jesus over before the Romans had to intervene. It was not possible or desirable for Christians to deny altogether that Jesus had been declared Messiah by some. But since this might make Jesus appear reckless, they claimed that he had tried to keep his identity a secret; it was others who spread the word about him. Such a motif—attempted secrecy which fails—absolves Jesus, while acknowledging that during Jesus' lifetime bold claims were in fact made.

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