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Answering the Messianic Secret argument against John

One remaining argument against John's historicity that I haven't yet dealt with in this series on John is the idea of the "Messianic secret."

In the Synoptic Gospels we often find Jesus telling the disciples or the recipient of a miracle not to tell others that he is the Messiah or not to tell about a miracle. For example, Matthew 16:20 shows him charging the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah after Peter's famous confession to that effect. In Mark 5:43 Jesus tries to hush up the news of his having healed Jairus's daughter. In Mark 7:37 Jesus tries (ineffectively) to stop the wide publication of his healing of a deaf man.

These prohibitions by Jesus are seen by those making the Messianic secret argument as a general attempt to conceal his identity. Usually the idea is that he concealed his identity until the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem in the last week of his life, when he was killed swiftly thereafter.

On this theory, there is a tension between John and the Synoptic Gospels, since Jesus repeatedly and (relatively) explicitly emphasizes his unity with God the Father in John, as in the famous declarations in John 8:58, "Before Abraham was, I am" and John 10:30, "I and the Father are one." After both of these, Jesus is nearly stoned by outraged crowds for his perceived blasphemy. Also in John 4:26, Jesus expressly identifies himself as the Messiah to the Samaritan woman at the well.

If Jesus was so "cagey" about his identity as shown in the Synoptic Gospels, then (goes the argument) he would not have been so forthright as is shown in the Gospel of John. So in some sense John must be only semi-historical (at most) at these points.

We find a version of this argument, interestingly, spelled out by Michael Licona about a year ago (fall, 2017) in a post in defense of Craig Evans's 2012 statements calling into question Jesus' "I am" sayings. Here is Licona:

By no means does this mean John is historically unreliable. It means that John is often communicating Jesus’ teachings in a manner closer to a modern paraphrase than a literal translation. Stated differently, John will often recast Jesus saying something explicitly the Synoptics have Him saying implicitly. For example, one does not observe Jesus making his “I am” statements in the Synoptics that are so prominent in John, such as “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). That’s a pretty clear claim to deity. Mark presents Jesus as deity through His deeds and even some of the things He says about Himself. But nothing is nearly as overt as we find in John. Granted, the Synoptics do not preserve everything Jesus said. However, in all four Gospels, Jesus is cryptic in public even pertaining to His claim to be the Messiah. In Matthew 16:16-20 // Luke 9:20-21, Jesus charged His disciples that they should tell no one that He is the Messiah. In Luke 4:41, Jesus would not allow the demons to speak because they know He is the Messiah. In John 10:23-25, Jesus is walking in the temple when some Jews gathered around Him and said, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Now, if Jesus was hesitant to announce publicly that He is the Messiah, we would not expect for Him to be claiming to be God publicly and in such a clear manner as we find John reporting.

Later Licona clarified that he himself was undecided on this matter and was merely presenting an argument that moves scholars in this direction. More recently (listen here beginning at about 8:30), he has said that "if someone put a gun to [his] head" he would go in the direction of saying that these passages in John were probably "paraphrases" in this very expansive sense. Presumably this "messianic secret" argument would be part of the reason for that inclination, since it is the argument already given.

I have emphasized repeatedly that this use of the "messianic secret" argument must inform our understanding of the way in which Licona (and Evans) use the term "paraphrase." It must be emphasized that there is no scene whatsoever in the Synoptic Gospels that is like the scene in John 8 or John 10. When, for example, in Mark 2 Jesus claims to have the power to forgive sins, which implies his deity, it is in a completely different context, place, and time. It is in the context of his healing a paralyzed man in Galilee (the one who was let down through the roof), while the incidents in John 8 and John 10 occur in Jerusalem and come at the end of Jesus' speaking either to or in dialogue with the crowds, not in the context of any healing at all, much less the healing of the paralytic recorded in Mark 2. Nor is there anything any closer to John's scenes anywhere in the Synoptics. If Mark 2 (or any other scene in the synoptics, or a combination of a set of scenes in the synoptics) is Jesus "making claims implicitly" and John's entirely different scenes are "recasting" him as "saying something explicitly," then what this amounts to is John's invention of incidents, not a "paraphrase" in any ordinary sense of the word whatsoever. And the very argument that Licona gives makes this clear. For "claiming to be God publicly and in such a clear manner as we find John reporting" is the very essence of the scenes in John. If John's incidents are accounts of historical incidents in any recognizable sense, then they do indeed show Jesus "claiming to be God publicly and in such a clear manner." That is precisely what John is reporting. So if Jesus would not do that and did not do that, then John is reporting in an historically false manner. Which would, by the way, mean that John is indeed historically unreliable, and on a very important matter, too.

But what about the argument? Can we say that the "Jesus of the Synoptics" was trying to hide his identity and that the "Jesus of John" is revealing the "Messianic secret" too soon, so they cannot be the same Jesus?

Certainly it is easy to encounter a sense that there is something especially questionable about these portions of John, and Bart Ehrman will hammer on them in debates, blatantly using an argument from silence concerning their absence from the Synoptic Gospels, seeking to get his opponents to back down on those portions of the Gospel.

It should go without saying that a mere argument from the absence of the sayings in the Synoptic Gospels is poor. With that understood, the first thing that must be stressed in answer to the Messianic secret argument is that there were various aspects to Jesus' identity. To say that Jesus charges the disciples in the Synoptic Gospels not to tell others that he is the Messiah and charges the recipients of (some) miracles not to tell others about the miracles is not the same as saying that he doesn't want anyone to know anything about his identity. Jesus was not stupid. He knew quite well that his identity was a matter of talk and speculation, and it is on that basis that he asks the disciples in Matthew 16 who men say that he is. The very fact that he tells the recipients of miracles that they should believe in his healing abilities (see Mark 9:23-24, Mark 5:36) shows that he knew quite well that they had heard of those abilities.

Moreover, to say that he was equal with God or was the "I am" of the Old Testament was not the same thing and not likely to have the same effect as claiming to be the Messiah. Messianic expectations were very high among the Jews, particularly in the Galilee region, and were (with some excuse, based on OT passages) national and military in nature. As we see in John itself, claiming to be equal to God was likely to get a man stoned. Claiming to be the Messiah might get him acclaimed as king.

It is true that, in the Synoptics, Jesus orders the demons to be silent when they cry out that he is the Son of God and/or the "Holy one of God." (Mark 1:24, 34, Luke 4:41) But it appears based upon Peter's confessions of Jesus that these expressions were sometimes used in a Messianic sense (John 6:69, Matthew 16:16), and Luke 4:41 expressly states that Jesus told the demons to be silent because they knew that he was the Messiah.

The claims to deity made in the scenes in John 8 and John 10 are somewhat different. While they could be taken as extrapolated and overblown claims to Messiahship, it is quite evident that the crowds took them rather as blasphemous claims to deity. In fact, Jesus plays on the very possibility of this ambiguity by "trolling" the crowds in John 10:31-39, teasing them as if he has merely claimed to be the "Son of God" and as if this is supported by "you are gods" in Psalm 82:6. (Surely this is one of the most surprising "defenses" one can imagine for Jesus to make of himself, especially given John's notorious "high Christology," and therefore all the more likely to be historical. This is a point that Leon Morris borrows from Godet, in Morris's Studies in the Fourth Gospel, pp. 167-168)

It is from John 6:15 that we learn that there was a danger that the crowds in Galilee would attempt to make Jesus king by force. In this sense (as Craig Blomberg has noted) John actually explains the so-called "Messianic secret" of the Synoptics, rather than being incompatible with it. (This could even be regarded as an undesigned coincidence.)

So to begin with, any appearance of conflict between a "more open" Jesus in John and a secretive Jesus in Mark arises from speaking too generally about Jesus' "identity" rather than more specifically about his Messiahship. It was his Messiahship that was likely to be misunderstood and bring about attempts to make him king. We might think that there is some sort of "so much the more argument" here: If he was concerned not to let his Messiahship be widely proclaimed too soon, how much the more would he try to avoid proclaiming his deity in such a clear a manner as we find John reporting? Indeed, Licona's argument says almost precisely that. But that is anachronistic thinking. Nobody was going to rush to proclaim him an earthly king because they heard that he said that he was God.

The second point, which is often made in response to the "Messianic secret" argument, is the specifically "hot" nature of the region of Galilee and the fact that it is in Galilee and in the north generally that Jesus is trying to squelch rumors of his Messiahship. This is certainly true, and the feeding of the five thousand, after which they did try to make Jesus king, occurred in the north.

But (to be consistent with the previous point), we actually do not find Jesus proclaiming his Messiahship even in Jerusalem early in his ministry, either. So the issue is partly one of content and only partly one of geography.

Third, we do have the incident with the woman at the well in John. Jesus states to her in so many words that he is the Messiah. What about that? Well, were the Samaritans likely to think that he was going to set up an earthly kingdom for them? The woman's own words to Jesus, after they have spoken about where worship is to take place and Jesus has said that they who worship God must worship him in spirit and truth, indicate a somewhat different concept of the Messiah:


The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” John 4:25

This indicates more of a prophetic than a military expectation, a suggestion confirmed by what the woman actually did and by the actions of the people in the village. She went into the village and told the men, "Come, see a man who told me all I ever did." And the people of the village listened gladly to his words. There is not even any record of healings (though healings may have taken place), much less of an attempt to make him king. In contrast, the Jews did tend to plot the downfall of Rome, a point highlighted by the leaders' self-serving argument for killing Jesus in John 11:47ff: "If the people think he is the Messiah and start a revolt, Rome will come and destroy us."

When we put together all of these considerations, we get a coherent picture based upon all of our evidence: Jesus wanted to avoid misunderstandings of his messiahship, so he tried to limit the extent to which rumors spread that he was the Messiah in times and places where they were particularly likely to spark military ambitions and expectations. In contrast, he did want to teach that he was God Incarnate, and there was no similar danger that such an implication or declaration would cause his audience to declare him to be an earthly king. Therefore, he (at times) implied his deity (as in his claim to have power to forgive sins in Mark 2) and at times declared it more openly (as in John 8 and John 10).

There is, then, no contradiction between John and the Synoptic Gospels on this point. Therefore, the alleged tension with the "Messianic secret" can be set aside as a reason for doubting Jesus' statements of his own deity in John.

Remember: The incident-by-incident approach to Gospel reliability is wrong. Dead wrong. Philosophically wrong. Epistemologically wrong. Historically wrong. When one has evidence for the historical nature and intention of a Gospel overall (as we do have for John), then the specific incidents in it do not need to be individually defended, starting each time from a position of agnosticism, on a case-by-case basis.

This leaves us with the position that the "I am" statements, and the statement, "I and the Father are one" in John's Gospel are no less prima facie historical than anything else in the Gospels. There is no need for us to be defensive about them or to mount some kind of special, separate argument for their historicity. We need to get over the idea that they start at a special disadvantage and therefore require special help, any more than do, say, the Beatitudes or any of Jesus' sayings recorded in the Synoptic Gospels.

Naturally, hyper-skeptics will question all of it. But here I am addressing the more common view among "non-minimalist" and even (as we have seen) some evangelical scholars--namely, that the Synoptic Gospels are more historical than John, and in particular that Jesus' sayings reported in the Synoptic Gospels are prima facie much more historical than the (relatively) explicit claims to deity found in John.

The Messianic secret argument has been regarded as a pillar supporting that bias for a long time. It's time to recognize that the pillar cannot bear the weight.

Comments (10)

Still going through some ETS stuff. I found this essay by the late Thomas Lea on the gospel of John and it being historical to be interesting. I think he defends it. Though, I might be wrong?

https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/38/38-3/38-3-pp387-402_JETS.pdf

Thanks. It's a broad literature survey and doesn't get into highly specific questions, but he is indeed (from a quick read) defending the factual reliability of John and relying upon Morris. Interestingly, he quotes Morris (as I have also done) and says the same thing that I say with my maxim, "Fake points don't make points."

We must ask, however, the question, “What is the spiritual value of an event that has never occurred? What is the redemptive benefit of redemptive happenings that did not take place?” As Morris has said, “The very idea of bringing out theological significance seems to imply respect for the facts. What did not happen can scarcely be called redemptive.” p. 401

Likes: "The incident-by-incident approach to Gospel reliability is wrong. Dead wrong. Philosophically wrong. Epistemologically wrong. Historically wrong. When one has evidence for the historical nature and intention of a Gospel overall (as we do have for John), then the specific incidents in it do not need to be individually defended, starting each time from a position of agnosticism, on a case-by-case basis."

Remember: The incident-by-incident approach to Gospel reliability is wrong. Dead wrong. Philosophically wrong. Epistemologically wrong. Historically wrong. When one has evidence for the historical nature and intention of a Gospel overall (as we do have for John), then the specific incidents in it do not need to be individually defended, starting each time from a position of agnosticism, on a case-by-case basis.

There should be some cheesy "successory" poster for this that every NT scholar can or should hang on their office wall, perhaps with a Hawaiian sunset or waterfall picture motif.

If he was concerned not to let his Messiahship be widely proclaimed too soon, how much the more would he try to avoid proclaiming his deity in such a clear a manner as we find John reporting? Indeed, Licona's argument says almost precisely that. But that is anachronistic thinking. Nobody was going to rush to proclaim him an earthly king because they heard that he said that he was God.

I think there is a little more to it than that. There was considerable confusion about the nature of the Messiah, in part because of prophecies that show him triumphing over evil but other prophecies that show him as the Suffering Servant, and being led like a lamb to the slaughter. In the midst of that confusion, though, I think there were strong hints and indeed some expectations that the Messiah would be greater than a mere man, and other hints even that the Messiah would be divine. This was all a jumbled mess, and you had more than one strain of rabbinical thinking on what the Messiah would be like. But one strain of it, at least, seems to have allowed room for a Messiah who was God. And so claims to be God could not be entirely independent of expectations of the Messiah: if Jesus gave a convincing argument for divine power (as forgiving the sins of the paralyzed man), this would resonate at least with that portion of Israel who thought that the Messiah would be God. But then, I don't know to what extent that slice of the population would also have had militaristic expectations for the Messiah: without any specific information, I would have to consider plausible that as many of this group also held militaristic views as was common in other parts of the Israelite groups; i.e. that some of them were militaristic on the Messiah's behalf and some were not.

I don't think this defeats the point you made, Lydia, but I think it qualifies it to some extent: it is still true that among the both geographically AND THEOLOGICALLY diverse groups, Christ could well have had different objectives that drove different ways of interacting with them. What I have no clear idea of is the extent to which the different rabbinical schools about the Messiah were geologically distinct - other than, as you indicated already, that in Galilee there was a stronger militaristic expectation.

I like the idea.

One of my favorite summaries of the literary theory of the so-called "Messianic Secret" is from N. T. Wright who rightfully points out some of the serious problems with this approach of using the motif of a Messianic Secret as a controlling feature of redacting the text of the Gospels (in this context he is specifically talking about Wrede's theory that the Messianic Secret has been added to the Gospels by "Mark") :

First there was Jesus, who in no way thought of himself as Messiah. Then there was the early church, who hailed him as such (why?) despite his innocence of the idea. Then there was the ingenious and anonymous hero, who faced with this anomaly, invented the explanation that Jesus had after all spoken of himself as Messiah, but had always kept the matter strictly secret. Then there was Mark, who took this scheme and deliberately embodied it in a continuous narrative. Even he did not do such a good job, since there are still oddities, such as those times in the gospel when it seems as though the secret is being let out too soon. And all this is supposed to have happened within forty years. . . .

This is not to say that quick and dramatic theological development is impossible. It quite often happens, and the first century is a good example. But development of this oddity and complexity, for which complex and bizarre motivations have to be invented, stage by stage, out of thin air -- this is asking us to believe quite a lot. A hypothesis which explains the data without recourse to this kind of thing is always going to prove more successful, and rightly so. Wrede paid dearly for the simplicity of his basic (and simple) idea – that Jesus did not think himself as Messiah -- at the cost of ultra-complexity everywhere else, and even then there was a lot of data which still refused to fit. It is no good cleaning out under the bed if the result is a pile of junk under the wardrobe. [N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 1 (Minneapolis, Fortress, 1992), 104.]

Lydia, I thought you might appreciate how a NT scholar is attempting to use the tools of evidential reasoning to evaluate the literary hypothesis. Not that I always agree with Wright's historical and theological conclusions, but I am encouraged by moments when a New Testament scholar is explicitly considering how the hypothesis fits with the extant evidence in terms of simplicity/complexity. Too bad more NT scholars today do not have a mind like Wright's.

What's interesting there is that Wrede's idea is that Jesus really didn't think of himself as Messiah and the whole thing was invented.

The way it's used against John is apparently that the historical Jesus did think of himself as Messiah but also really did try to keep it a secret, and that this means that he "would not" have said, "Before Abraham was, I am" and "I and the Father are one."

On that subject, I don't know what Wright thinks, and the little I've been able to find from him on the subject is insufficiently specific to answer the question.

Wright is the one who said, "I feel about John the way I feel about my wife. I love her, but I would never claim to understand her." Mike Licona quotes this repeatedly as an indication that Wright is claiming some lesser degree of historicity for John than for the Synoptics. When one looks it up in context, it's not at all clear that that is what Wright means. He is indeed emphasizing the greater theological thrust of John but also emphasizes that theology and historical accuracy are not incompatible. So I think that (to my mind, somewhat smarmy and annoying) sentence about John and Wright's wife has been taken out of context somewhat in Licona's usage.

Still, it's possible that Wright would agree more with what one might call the "less radical" version of the Messianic secret argument, as represented in the o.p.

There should be some cheesy "successory" poster for this that every NT scholar can or should hang on their office wall, perhaps with a Hawaiian sunset or waterfall picture motif.

This must be done.

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