Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mark's Secrecy (Mark 7:36)

A question that came by email:
How come in the New Testament when Jesus is performing all these miracles for the people, he repeatedly tells the people who watch him not to tell anybody? For example in Mark 7:36 it says, "Jesus told the crowd not to tell anyone, but the more he told them not to, the more they spread the news." - C.D.

It's a good question, and one that has puzzled many people. Mark doesn't tell us clearly why Jesus gave these commands, so we can't give a certain answer - but we can make some reasonable guesses.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus often asks people to keep secrets. (Gospels scholars call this the "Markan secrecy motif." Doesn't that make you feel better just knowing there's a term for it? Kind of like knowing the name of your rare disease). Jesus commands the demons not to talk about his identity (Mark 1:23-24, 2:34, 3:11-12); he tells the disciples not to testify that he is the Messiah (Mark 8:27-30); and he tells some healed people not to talk about their healing (Mark 1:44, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26). Some of these make sense - Jesus does not want the testimony of demons, and he wants the disciples to wait until the resurrection to proclaim him as Messiah. The identity of the Messiah should be understood in light of the cross.

But why does he tell some healed people to keep quiet? Here are some reasonable guesses.

1) Hype about Jesus' healing ability sometimes made his ministry impossible, as you see in Mark 2:2, 3:8-10, 8:1-4 and others. After the healed leper disobeyed Jesus and told everyone (Mk 1:44), Jesus was not even able to enter any town for a while (Mark 1:45). He wanted to be able to freely travel and minister, and the crowds made that difficult.

2) Jesus did not want to be known as just a wonder-worker, like other (supposed?) miracle-working Jews and Greeks of his time. He wanted his reputation as a healer to be tied to his teaching about the Kingdom of God and repentance. People who were only excited about the healings would spread word about his power, but not about the gospel. Jesus wanted the healings to always be accompanied by his teaching.

3) Jesus wanted to have formal testimony to his healing power, not just the rumors spread by crowds. That's why he told the leper in Mark 1:44, "Go, show yourself to the priest and offer a sacrifice for your purification." If the leper would have followed Jesus' command, the priests would have formally verified that a registered leper had been healed. Not many scholars seem to talk about this reason. However, it has the advantage of being the first time in Mark that Jesus asks a healed person to keep quiet about it. Maybe Mark wanted us to read all of the remaining healing secrecy commands in light of this first one.

The picture: an ivory carving depicting the healing of the leper (Mark 1:44), ca. AD 400.

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