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Rending the Veil
Concealment and Secrecy
in the History of Religions
New York University
Annual Conference
in Comparative Religions
Edited by
Elliot R. Wolfson
New York University
P.O. BOX 958, CHAPPAQUA, NEW YORK 10514-0958
Copyright © 1999 by Seven Bridges Press, LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any
means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or
otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Rending the veil: concealment and secrecy in the history of
religions I edited by Elliot R. Wolfson.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 1-889119-03-2
1. Secrecy-Religious aspects. I. Wolfson, Elliot R.
BL65.S37 R46 1999
Production services by TIPS Technical Publishing
Project Manager: Robert Kern
Copy Editor: Bryan Smithey
Composition: Lorraine B. Elder
Proofreader: Jessica Ryan
Indexing: llana Kingsley
the invisible, the manifest and the secret, a basic tenet of the orienta-
tion toward reality, which is experienced as filled with spirits of vital-
ity that are visually apprehended by those who have the proper
devotion or faith, which signifies the proper connectedness to the
teacher or to the teaching rather than (as in Western religious tradi-
tions) the ability to believe that which cannot be seen by the senses
or proven through logic. According to the Tibetan traditions, the con-
flation of the visible and the invisible is realized in the figure of the
Lama who is both present and absent, seen and unseen. The Lama is
considered to be the fourth jewel that embodies the traditional three
jewels of Buddhism: the body of Buddha, his teaching, and his con-
nection with community. Attachment to the guru, therefore, pro-
vides an opportunity for the disciple to find a way to the invisible
secret visibly embodied in his enlightened being.
Although the studies in this volume certainly do not exhaust
the subject of secrecy in religious traditions, they nevertheless repre-
sent a good sampling of a variety of features that characterize this
complex and ultimately impenetrable phenomenon. Indeed, what is
so engaging about the secret is that it remains enigmatic in spite of
the concerted effort on the part of many very fine scholars to clarify
the issue through logical analyses. To be what it is the secret must
persist as a secret. In many different cultural settings, the notion of
secrecy structurally embraces the paradox of the hidden and the man-
ifest even though the specific content of these may vary from one tra-
dition to another. In the lived experience of encountering the
mystery, the disclosure and the concealment are not polar opposites.
On the contrary, what is disclosed is disclosed because it is concealed,
and what is concealed is concealed because it is disclosed. Perhaps the
most important lesson to be learned from the essays included in this
book is that rending the veil itself is a form of veiling in which the
veil unveils what the unveiling veils.
Messianic Secret and the Gospel
of Mark: Secrecy in Jewish
Apocalypticism, the Hellenistic
Mystery Religions, and Magic
Adela Yarbro Collins
The "messianic secret" is a concept in the history of interpretation of
the Gospel of Mark, not a phrase that occurs in the text itself. William
Wrede coined the term das Messiasgeheimnis and used it in the title of
his very influential study of Mark that appeared in 1901.
He devel-
oped a hypothesis to explain a number of features of Mark that he be-
lieved had the same purpose, namely, the commands to demons and
disciples not to reveal the identity of ]esus,
the instructions to those
who are healed by Jesus not to speak about their healing,
the lack of
understanding by the disciples,
certain individual features that be-
tray a tendency against publicity, and the so-called parable-theory.
1. William Wrede, Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien: Zugleich ein Beitrag zum Ver-
stiindnls des Markusevangellums (1901; reprint Gottlngen, 1969); ET The Messianic
Secret (Cambridge/London: 1971).
2. For example, Mark 1:34 (demons), 3:12 {unclean spirits), and 8:30 (disciples).
3. For example, the leper in Mark 1:44.
4. For example, Mark 8:14-21.
The latter is expressed in the enigmatic and shocking saying of Jesus,
addressed to a restricted group of those around him together with the
Twelve, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God,
but to those who are outside, everything happens in parables, in or-
der that, seeing, they may see and not perceive, and hearing, they
may hear and not comprehend, lest they turn and it be forgiven
Wrede did not believe that the messianic secret in Mark re-
flected historical reality. Rather, he treated it as a development in the
pre-Markan Christian tradition, intended to explain the difference be-
tween the situation before the resurrection of jesus and the situation
afterward. He believed that the key to the meaning and function of
the messianic secret is the statement that, after his transfiguration,
jesus ordered Peter, james, and John to tell no one what they had
seen, "except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead."6 Wrede
believed that the various types of the secrecy theme were all intended
to explain the fact that Jesus' life and work were unmessianic,
whereas his followers came to believe that he was the Messiah after
they experienced him as risen from the dead.
Other scholars have argued that the messianic secret has some
basis in the life of Jesus.
Beginning with Rudolf Bultmann, however,
many scholars have interpreted the secrecy theory as a creation of
the evangelist. Bultmann argued that the device served to link the
Hellenistic Christian community's proclamation of the Son of God
coming down to earth, that is, the Christ-myth, with the narrative
traditions about Jesus.
The other great form-critic, Martin Dibelius,
argued that the secrecy theory had an apologetic function. It was in-
tended to explain why, in spite of so many proofs of his supernatural
power, Jesus was not recognized as the Messiah during his lifetime.9
5. Mark 4:11-12.
6. Mark 9:9.
7. Schweitzer, Cullmann, Taylor, Schniewind, Lohmeyer, and Sjoberg.
8. Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Germ. ed. 1931; ET rev. ed.;
New York/Evanston: Harper & Row, 1968), pp. 347-348; see also Helkki Raisanen
The «Messianic Secret« in Mark (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990), p. 55. '
9. Martin Dlbelius, From Tradition to Gospel (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935),
p. 223. Dlbellus had many followers, e.g., T. A. Burklll and Walter Schmlthals; see
Raisanen, The «Messianic Secret« in Mark, pp. 56-60.
Messianic Secret and ttze Gospel of Mark
Some scholars have argued against Wrede's thesis that the several
secrecy themes have the same origin and purpose. Ulrich Luz argued
that the "miracle secret" and the "messianic secret proper" should be
distinguished. According to him, the miracle secret is an indepen-
dent motif which serves to highlight the glory of jesus that manifests
itself irresistibly. He interpreted the messianic secret proper in terms
of the theology of the cross.
Jiirgen Roloff agreed with Luz's separa-
tion of these two motifs, but argued that the messianic secret proper
should also be divided into two parts: commands to silence addressed
to demons and commands addressed to disciples. Schuyler Brown,
Heikki Raisanen, and others have argued that the parable-theory
should be interpreted without reference to the messianic secret.
In the scholarship that I have reviewed up to this point, the
primary methods that have been employed are the reconstruction of
the history of tradition in historical context and literary-theological
interpretations of the text of Mark. Recently Gerd TheiBen has taken
a different approach. Applying the perspective of the sociology of
knowledge, he has suggested that the secrecy motifs had a pragmatic
function. That which is kept secret is removed from social sanctions.
It is kept secret to avoid evoking such sanctions on the part of those
with the power to enforce them. As a rule, every secret is an attempt
by a group to protect itself. When the secret is broken, the group is
endangered. Assuming a correspondence between the world of the
text and the social world of the audience, TheiBen suggested that the
tension between keeping their Christian identity secret and revealing
it was a problem for the audience, just as an analogous tension was a
problem for jesus as a character in the narrative with whom the audi-
ence would identify. By telling the story of jesus, the Gospel of Mark
offers advice to the audience. They may keep their identity secret
with a good conscience. But they are warned that it will be impossi-
ble to do so in the long run. When they are discovered, they must
10. Ulrich Luz, noas Geheimnismotlv und die markinlsche Christologle," Zeitscllri{t {iir
die neutestamentlicl!e Wissenscha{t rmd die Kunde der Alteren Kirche 78 (1965), pp. 169-
185; ET "The Secrecy Motif and the Markan Christology," in C. M. 1\rckett, ed., The
Messianic Secret (London: 1983), pp. 75-96.
11. For discussion and bibliographical references, see Raisanen, The «Messianic Secret" in
Mark, pp. 7b-73.
confess their identity bravely, as Jesus did, and risk conflict that may
lead to death. By means of this approach, TheiBen was able to make
a case for the unity of the secrecy themes, since they all have the
same basic purpose.
Although TheiBen's study and those of earlier scholars are illu-
minating, the comparative history of religions approach has not yet
been applied in a serious way to this problem, and I believe that it
can make a considerable contribution. Further, the social functions
of secrecy are more varied and complex than TheiBen allows, and
need to be explored further. I hope that this paper will take some
steps toward the fulfillment of these two goals.
Secrecy in Jewish Apocalypticism
According to an early Jewish apocalypse, found in Chapters 1-36 of
the composite work known as 1 Enoch and designated the Book of the
Watchers by scholars, certain things are public knowledge, such as
the visible workings of nature and the law of the Lord.
The primary
focus of the work, however, is secret knowledge, revealed in this work
itself by the pseudonymous author, the antediluvian patriarch Enoch.
His eyes were opened by the Lord, and he saw a holy vision in the
heavens, shown to him by angels. He communicated the vision to
the chosen in the form of a parable (7tapapol.:!l). This "parable" is a
description of a great theophany through which God will execute
judgment upon the impious and bring mercy to the righteous.
secret knowledge revealed by Enoch also includes a narrative that
seems to be an expansion of the story in Genesis 6, according to
which mighty men were born to the sons of God who came down
from heaven and had intercourse with the daughters of men.
12. Gerd TheiSen, "Die pragmatische Bedeutung der Gehelmnlsmotlve im Markusevan-
gellum: Eln wissenssoziologischer Versuch," in Hans G. Klppenberg and Guy G.
Stroumsa, eds., Secrecy and Concealment: Studies in the History of Mediterranean and
Near Eastern Religions (Studies in the History of Religions 65; Leiden: Brill, 1995), pp.
13. 1 Enoch 2-5.
. 14. 1 Enoch 1.
15. 1 Enoch 6-11; Gen 6:1-4.
Messianic Secret and the Gospel of Mark
version of the story in the Book of the Watchers may be called a myth
of the origin of evil, but it seems also to be an allegorical assessment
of the author's own time. The "sons of God" of Genesis are inter-
preted as angels called "Watchers." These reveal heavenly secrets or
mysteries to the daughters of men. Enoch is instructed to rebuke the
Watchers and to tell them that, although they were in heaven, its se-
t h
ad not been revealed to them. It was only a "worthless mys-
cre s
tery" that they knew and revealed to the. women. s.tatement
may reflect the competition Jewish and  
and between various religious traditions. The narrative also descnbes
a glorious future, an eschatological fulfillment, in which evil
work will cease and the plant of righteousness and truth will appear.
The "plant" is probably a Jewish sect, or at least a subculture, to
which the actual author and audience belonged. According to the
text, they will plant righteousness and truth in joy forever. The earth
will be transformed to a state of peace and fertility, and all the na-
tions will worship the God of Israel.
Finally, the work contains the
revelation of secret knowledge in the form of an account of Enoch's
vision of the house and throne of God in heaven and of accounts of
his tour of the secret places and secret workings of the cosmos. An im-
portant aspect of the tour is the revelation of the places of reward for
the righteous and punishment for the wicked after death.
This work was probably written in the third or the early second
century B.C.E. and reflects conflict related to the interaction of tradi-
tional Jewish and Hellenistic culture. We have no hard evidence that
this text and its contents were concealed by its author, audience, and
those who transmitted it from other Jews or the general public. The
knowledge imparted in the work seems to be secret in the sense that
it is not generally available and public, like the visible workings of na-
ture and the written Torah. Enoch is described in the text as a
scribe.19 There were many types of scribes in second temple Judaism
with varying social locations and functions. Most probably served the
governor and the chief priests. But those who produced and handed
16. I Enoch 16:3.
I7. I Enoch 10:16-11:2.
18. I Enoch 12-36; the places of reward and punishment are described In Chap. 22 .
19. I Enoch 12:3-4.
on the Book of the Watchers seem to have distanced themselves from
the ruling elite. The secret knowledge revealed in the name of Enoch
served to legitimate the leaders of a traditionalist and apocalyptic
subculture and to distinguish that group from other Jewish groups.
The book of Daniel was written during the crisis related to the
persecution of the Jewish people by the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV
Epiphanes. It includes an older tale in which King Nebuchadnezzar of
Babylon had a troubling dream.
He commanded that his magicians
and wise men tell him both the dream and its interpretation. They re-
sponded that not a man on earth could meet such a demand. Then
the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night. The term
translated "mystery" is f1 in the Aramaic text, a Persian loanword.2
It occurs often in the Dead Sea Scrolls to designate cosmological ores-
chatological secrets, and sometimes in the phrase "the mysteries of
the words of his servants the prophets."
The latter usage suggests
that certain passages in Scripture are opaque and in need of interpre-
tation, like dreams. The use of the term for secrets of the cosmos and
of the future implies that such passages and dreams reveal knowledge
of such secrets when properly interpreted. The revelation of the
dream and its interpretation to Daniel legitimates him and his succes-
sors, "the wise" among whom the actual author counted himself, as
well as glorifies the God of Israel who determines the future, gives
wisdom to the wise, and reveals mysteries. In both of the surviving
Greek versions of Daniel, the term r1 (mystery or secret) is translated
with the word J.LUcrt'llpwv. Near the end of the work, an angel tells
Daniel, "Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed
until the time of the end."
This statement does not necessarily
mean that the book of Daniel was kept secret and shown only to the
members of the circle of the wise. The point seems to be to explain
why a book supposedly written by Daniel four hundred years earlier
only became known in the time of Antioch us IV, when it was actually
written. At the same time, the dream and its interpretation of Chap-
ter 2, as well as the visions of Chapters 7-12, are presented as revealed
knowledge, inaccessible to the general public, unless mediated by the
20. Daniel 2.
21. Dan 2:18-19.
22. John J. Collins, Daniel (Hermeneia; Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1993), p. 159.
23. Dan 12:9.
Messianic Secret and the Gospel of Mark
wise and their followers. Since the work states that "those among the
people who are wise shall make many understand," it seems likely
that the content of the book was made known to the Jewish people
generally, in an attempt to persuade them to stand firm against Anti-
ochus and his agents.
The sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls divided the law into two cate-
gories, the  
n ~ ("revealed") and the 1f;lt;>J ("hidden").
The revealed
laws were known to all Israel, since they were clearly set forth in the
Scriptures. The hidden laws were known only to the sect, and these
were based on secret meanings of the Scriptures that were revealed
by divinely guided interpretation.
Secrecy is an important theme in a Jewish apocalyptic work of
the first century c.E., preserved in Chapters 37-71 of 1 Enoch and des-
ignated the Similitudes of Enoch by scholars. In the introduction, the
pseudonymous author, Enoch, states that he will share with those
who come after, the dwellers on the dry ground, three parables that
have been imparted to him.
Like the opening chapter of the Book
of the Watchers, the first parable of the Similitudes of Enoch describes
an epiphany related to the judgment of the sinners and the vindica-
tion of the righteous. In this work, however, it is not God who will
appear for judgment, but his agent, the Righteous One, who is also
called the Chosen One, the Messiah, and that Son of Man elsewhere
in the workP An important theme in the Similitudes of Enoch is the
hiddenness of the Son of Man, expressed in the following passage:
And because of this he was chosen and hidden be-
fore [the Lord of Spirits] before the world was cre-
ated, and for ever. But the wisdom of the Lord of
Spirits has revealed him to the holy and the righ-
teous, for he has kept safe the lot of the righteous, for
they have hated and rejected this world of iniquity.
24. Dan 11:33.
25. 1QS 5:7-12; Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls (Philadelphia/
jerusalem: The jewish Publication Society, 1994), pp. 247-249.
26. 1 Enoch 37:3-5.
27. 1 Enoch 38.
28. 1 Enoch 48:6--7.
Another passage reads:
For from the beginning the Son of Man was hid-
den, and the Most High kept him in the presence of
his power, and revealed him only to the chosen.
The context makes clear that at the time of writing, the Son of
Man is hidden in heaven, his existence and identity known only to
the righteous. But on the day of judgment, he will be revealed to all
as God's agent in punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous.
Again, there is no hard evidence that this text or its content
was kept secret. Nevertheless, the wisdom that it contained seems to
have played an important role in the self-understanding of the mem-
bers of the subculture in which it circulated. It distinguished them
from the rest of the Jewish people and from outsiders as the righ-
teous from sinners, as implied by the two passages quoted above. In
this work, the righteous seem to be equivalent more or less to the
poor and the wicked to the rich and powerful. The revealed knowl-
edge also provided them with a framework of meaning in which to
understand and accept their social and political situation and to per-
severe in their commitment to traditional jewish values.
Finally, the Jewish Apocalypse of Ezra, known as 4 Ezra, should
be mentioned.
This pseudonymous work claims to have been writ-
ten thirty years after the first destruction of jerusalem, that is, in the
sixth century B.C.E. It was actually written after the second destruc-
tion, around 100 C.E. In the final chapter of the work, the Lord ap-
pears to Ezra in a burning bush, just as he appeared to Moses. He tells
Ezra that he revealed to Moses the secrets of the times and the end of
the times. He said to Moses, "These words you shall publish openly,
and these you shall keep secret."
Ezra laments that the law given by
the Lord has been burned and requests that God send the Holy Spirit
into him, in order that he may "write everything that has happened
in the world from the beginning, the things which were written in
29. 1 Enoch 62:7; cf. 69:26.
30. 4 Ezra is equivalent to Chapters 3-14 of the apocryphal book 2 Esdras.
31. 4 Ezra 14:1-6.
Messianic Secret and the Gospel of Mark
thy law, that men may be able to find the path, and that those who
. ,32 E h k d d' .
wish to live in the last days may tve. zra t en spo e un er tvme
inspiration for forty days and nights, while five scribes wrote down
his words. Ninety-four books were written during the forty days. The
Most High spoke to Ezra, saying "Make public the twenty-four books
that you wrote first and let the worthy and the unworthy read them;
but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to
the wise among your people. For in them is the spring of understand-
ing, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge." Ezra then
states, "And I did so."
The twenty-four books are most likely the
jewish scriptures, known to all and publicly available. It is not clear
exactly what the seventy books are, but it is evident that a distinction
is being made between exoteric and esoteric books, and that the
secret books are more highly valued.
The Hellenistic Mystery Religions
Unlike the situation with jewish apocalypticism, we have abundant
evidence for the strict observance of secrecy in the mystery religions,
especially the Eleusinian mysteries. The motif appears already in the
Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which dates from the later Archaic age.
Demeter is said to have revealed "the awesome rites, which it is not
possible to transgress or to learn about or to proclaim, for deep awe
of the gods checks the voice."
The practice of secrecy may derive
from traditionally secret initiations of girls and boys.
32. 4 Ezra 14:21-22.
33. 4 Ezra 14:37-48.
34. Homeric Hymn to Demeter 478-479; trans. from Hugh G. Evelyn-White, ed., Hesiod,
The Homeric Hymns and Homerica (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press; London: Heinemann, 1967), p. 323, modified In accordance with
the citation by jan N. Bremmer, "Religious Secrets and Secrecy in Classical Greece"
In Klppenberg and Stroumsa, eds., Secrecy and Concealment, pp. 61-78; dtation from
p. 71.
35. Bremmer, "Religious Secrets and Secrecy in Classical Greece," p. 71.
In Augustan times, Strabo explained the secrecy as follows:
The secrecy with which the sacred rites are con-
cealed induces reverence for the divine, since it im-
itates the nature of the divine, which is to avoid
being perceived by our human senses.
]an Bremmer has argued that this explanation is fully satisfac-
tory. There was no real secret, no esoteric wisdom, kept hidden from
the general public. Rather, it was the very holiness of the rites that
forbade their being performed or described outside of their proper
ritual context.
Although there was no actual secret in a cognitive sense, those
who transgressed the decree of secrecy were prosecuted or punished.
Aeschylus was accused of allowing an object belonging to the secret
equipment of the mysteries to be carried around upon the stage. He
was acquitted, apparently because he claimed that he had not been
initiated and did not know that the object was sacred.
Diagoras, a
citizen of the island of Melos, mocked the mysteries and opposed
them openly.
He was accused of telling the mysteries to all and thus
profaning them.
Alcibiades and other aristocrats were accused of
profaning the mysteries more than once in private houses at sympo-
sia. One of them was accused of putting on a robe, imitating the holy
rites, and revealing to the uninitiated and speaking with his voice the
forbidden words. Nearly all of those denounced fled the city. Their
property was confiscated and auctioned and a few were executed.
Around 200 B.C.E., two young men from Acarnania, who had not
36. Strabo 10.3.9; cited by Bremmer, "Religious Secrets and Secrecy In Classical Greece,"
p. 72.
37. Bremmer, ibid.
38. Bremmer, ibid., 72-73; see also Walter Burkert, "Der geheime Relz des Verborgenen:
Antike Mysterienkulte," in Klppenberg and Stroumsa, eds., Secrecy and Concealment,
pp. 79-100, esp. 94.
39. Bremmer argued that Dlagoras' opposition to the mysteries was an anti-Athenian
political act; idem, "Religious Secrets and Secrecy In Classical Greece," pp. 74-75.
40. Burkert, "Der geheime Relz des Verborgenen," p. 94.
41. Bremmer, "Religious Secrets and Secrecy in Classical Greece," pp. 76-77, cttingThucy-
dides 6.28.1. Bremmer again suggests that the offenders had a political motivation: to
show their contempt for the political pretentions of the democrats of Athens.
Messianic Secret and the Gospel of Mark
· ·t· ted unwittingly entered the temple of Demeter during the
been 1m 1a , ...
d s of the celebration of the mysteries along with the crowd of Im-
  They were discovered because of their "absurd questions". and
led to the priests of the temple. Even though clear that their of-
fense was unintentional, they were executed.
Walter Burkert has shown that the mystery cults did not in-
volve knowledge that endowed a ruling elite with power; they ex-
pressed neither a philosophy of nature nor a riddling, allegorical
theology. Their importance had to do with their concern with the
riddle and the mystery of death. It was often said that the two gifts
of the goddess of Eleusis were grain and "better hopes" for life
death. The poets had always spoken openly about a blessed afterlife.
But poetry did not necessarily compel belief or end?w with hope.
The Eleusinian initiate "knew" that he or she was km to the gods.
The experience of the initiate was a privilege; it remained a privilege
only insofar as it was kept separate from profane usage. Profanation
of the mysteries, therefore, was not primarily the unauthorized reve-
lation of the content of secret knowledge, but an offense against the
uniqueness of the access to that knowledge.
Hellenistic Magic
As Hans Dieter Betz has pointed out, the phenomena in the Greek
Magical Papyri relating to secrecy are complex and varied. Only some
of the texts in this collection were supposed to be kept secret; others
were open to the public and could even be sold in the marketplace. In
the Demotic spells, which reflect traditional Egyptian magic, certain
divine names and magical substances were to be kept secret, but ritu-
als and other procedures were not. Some of the Greek magical texts
concerned with secrecy show the influence of the mystery-cults.
It seems likely that, in a pluralistic culture with many religions
and cults in competition with one another, one reason for secrecy
42. Burkert points out that this was a disastrous application of sacred law, entirely con-
trary to rational diplomacy; Idem, "Der gehelrne Relz des Verborgenen," pp. 86-87.
43. Burkert, Ibid., pp. 91, 95-97.
44. Hans Dieter Betz, "Secrecy In the Greek Magical Papyri," In Klppenberg and
Stroumsa, eds., Secrecy and Concealment, pp. 153-175, esp. 153-154.
was to limit the spread of magical expertise in order to protect the
prestige and livelihood of an individual magician and his sons or ap-
prentices. Another reason was the same as that stated by Strabo for
the secrecy of the mysteries: some of the spells and rituals are awe-
some and holy because of their connection to the gods; thus, they
may be shared only with those who are worthy. Both of these con-
cerns appear in "The Spell of Pnouthis, the sacred scribe, for acquir-
ing an assistant [daimon]."
At the end of the description of one
form of the ritual, the implied author states, "Share this great mys-
tery with no one [else], but conceal it, by Helios, since you have been
deemed worthy by the lord [god.)"
More pragmatic concerns are
evident in the closing remarks, "Therefore share these things with no
one except [your] legitimate son alone when he asks you for the
magic powers imparted [by] us."47
In another passage the secrecy is linked to the awesome effec-
tiveness of the spell:
Here is truly written out, with all brevity, [the rite] by
which all modeled images and engravings and carved
stones are made alive. For this is the true [rite], and
the others such as are widely circulated, are falsified
and made up 'of vain verbosity. So keep this in a
secret place as a great mystery. Hide it, hide it!
Here both rationales may be in the background: the rite is so
powerful that great harm could result, if it fell into the wrong hands;
likewise, the fewer the magicians who possess it, the greater their
power, wealth, and prestige.
As we have seen, the secrecy surrounding the mystery cults de-
rived from initiation rites and served to protect a unique mode of
45. PGM 1.42-195.
46. PGM 1.130-132; trans. by Edward N. O'Neil in Hans Dieter Betz, ed., The Greek Mag-
ical Papyri in Translation (2nd ed.; Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press,
1992), p. 6.
47. PGM 1.192-193; trans. by O'Neil in Betz, ed., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation,
48. PGM XII.319-324; trans. by Morton Smith In Betz, ed., The Greek Magical Papyri in
Translation, p. 164.
Messianic Secret and the Gospel of Mark
access to the knowledge of one's kinship with the gods. The presence
of the so-called Mithras Liturgy in the Great Magical Papyrus of Paris
suggests that magicians also practiced a rite of initiation that resulted
in the deification of the initiate. It was this rite that made the practi-
tioner of spells and rituals effective.
The ritual begins with the
words, "Be gracious to me, 0 Providence and Psyche, as I write these
mysteries handed down [not] for gain but for instruction; and for an
only child I request immortality .... "
Here the implied author
distances himself from the profit motive and emphasizes the motive
of the transmission of secret knowledge through teaching. The men-
tion of "an only child" is perhaps intended to reassure the gods that
this powerful knowledge will be shared within a very limited circle.
Secrecy in the Gospel of Mark
I think that William Wrede was right that all the secrecy themes in
the Gospel of Mark have the same purpose, or at least very similar
purposes. But I disagree with his explanation of what that purpose
was. As noted earlier, Wrede took the saying of Jesus after the trans-
figuation as the key to the messianic secret. According to Wrede,
when Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen
until the Son of Man had risen from the dead, that meant that the
identity of Jesus would only be revealed or could only be compre-
hended after his resurrection. Other scholars have noted that Jesus'
declaration to the High Priest and the acclamation of the centurion
beneath the cross call this hypothesis into question.
Jesus' words
after the transfiguration should rather be interpreted as a signal that
the transfiguration serves as a preview of the resurrected state of
Jesus. Mark offers this account instead of a description of an appear-
ance of the risen Jesus later on.
Hans Jiirgen Ebeling was closer to the mark in his thesis that
"Talk about the secret is a literary device, which is intended to make it
clear to the reader of the gospel how important are the things which
49. Betz, "Secrecy In the Greek Magical Papyri," p. 169.
50. PGM IV.475-829; citation Is of lines 475-476.
5L Mark 14:62; 15:39.
are being dealt with here."
Although Ebeling himself did not make
a persuasive case for this view, I believe that one can be made.
Ebeling argued that the Gospel of Mark is from start to finish
an account of the epiphany of the Son of God.
There is of course
great tension between the theory that Mark is an account of such an
epiphany, on the one hand, and the observation that secrecy is an
important theme, on the other. This tension is resolved, it seems to
me, by the felicitous description of the Gospel of Mark by Martin Di-
belius as a series of secret epiphanies.
It is clear from the introductory titular sentence of Mark that
the evangelist intended to present jesus as the Messiah: "The begin-
ning of the good news of jesus Christ," since the basic meaning of
Christ is "anointed one" or "Messiah."
This impression is reinforced
by the heavenly voice at the baptism of jesus that addresses him say-
ing, "You are my beloved son," an address that alludes to Psalm 2, in
which God so addresses the king of Israel.
It is equally clear that the
activities of jesus in Mark are more those of a prophet and teacher
than those of the Messiah, judging from contemporary jewish litera-
ture. But the two epithets of Jesus preferred by Mark are "Son of God"
and "Son of Man," epithets that individually, and especially together,
have messianic connotations. The Son of Man sayings in Mark that
have the strongest parallels in contemporary jewish literature are the
apocalyptic Son of Man sayings. According to the first of these, when
the Son of Man comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels,
he will be ashamed of those who have been ashamed of him. 56 This
saying evokes Dan 7:13, a text that was interpreted messianically at
the time that Mark was written. In the discourse about the last days in
Mark 13, jesus speaks of the arrival of the Son of Man after the great
tribulation in classically epiphanic terms. 5
It is in this discourse that
52. The quotation is part of R1iis1inen's summary of Ebeling's interpretation; see
R1iis1inen, The "Messianic Secret" in Mark, p. 60; emphasis in the original.
53. Ibid.
54. Mark 1:1.
55. Mark 1:11; cf. 9:7, 12:6, 14:61-62a.
56. Mark 8:38.
57. Mark 13:24-27; cf. 14:62.
Messianic Secret and the Gospel of Mark
the situation of the evangelist becomes most clear, as well as his ex-
ectations of the immediate future. One may infer, therefore, that the
  expected jesus to exercise his messianic role in the future,
after his death, resurrection, and exaltation to heaven, when he
would return in divine power and glory to gather the elect into the
new age. During his lifetime, he was revealed as Son of Man and Mes-
siah, but only to the elect, only to those with eyes to see and ears to
hear. The secret revelation of jesus as Son of Man to the disciples in
Chapters 8-10 of Mark is strikingly analogous to the secret revelation
of the Son of Man to the chosen in the Similitudes of Enoch.
The secrecy theme appears for the first time in Mark in the ac-
count of his first miracle, the exorcism that he performs in the syna-
gogue in Capernaum.
It was typical of ancient exorcisms, as we
know them from other texts, that the exorcist would rebuke the de-
mon and gain power over him by discovering his name. In this exor-
cism, the typical form is reversed. Before jesus does or says anything,
the demon says, "What do we have to do with you, Jesus of Naza-
reth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the holy
one of God." jesus rebukes him, saying "Be silent and come out of
him."59 The command to silence here is a typical exorcistic tech-
nique. But Mark has modified the typical genre of the exorcism in or-
der to allow the demon to identify jesus. It is important to note that
this identification has importance primarily for the reader. Those
present in the narrative scene comment on how the demons obey
jesus, but not on the demon's revelation of jesus' identity.
The in-
tention of the evangelist comes out even more clearly in the editorial
summary given in the same chapter: "And he healed many who were
sick, and he drove out many demons, and he would not allow the
demons to speak, because they knew him."
There is of course a
striking contrast between the "unclean spirit" and "the holy one of
But the demons and jesus have in common participation in
58. Mark 1:21-28.
59. Mark 1:24-25.
60. Mark 1:27.
61. Mark 1:34; see also 3:11-12.
62. Cf. Mark 1:23 with 1:24.
the heavenly world, the demons by origin and jesus by his endow-
ment with the spirit of God.
The demons recognize jesus, as one
heavenly being sees and knows another, but his identity is never re-
vealed unambiguously to the human beings in the narrative.
The account of jesus' healing of a leper is often cited as an ex-
pression of the secrecy theme.
But actually it is not. jesus' command
to say nothing to anyone is not a command to secrecy, but rather an
expression of urgency. The man should go directly to the priest and
tell how jesus has healed him, "as a proof for them."
The healing is
to demonstrate to the authorities that jesus is the agent of God.
Following the sequence of the Gospel, the next passage relating
to secrecy is the discourse in which jesus teaches the crowd in para-
bles.67 In Greek and Roman rhetoric, the "parable" or "comparison"
was a type of argument. The illustration was clear and the application
unambiguous. As we have seen, the jewish apocalyptic works called
the Book of the Watchers and the Similitudes (or Parables) of Enoch
use the term in quite a different way, to refer to once secret but now
revealed knowledge about the heavenly world and the future. In
some cases the revelation comes through visions that are opaque and
require interpretation. Thus, the "parable" in 1 Enoch is similar to the
"secret" or "mystery" of Daniel 2. The term parable in 1 Enoch and
Mark 4 is also related to the Hebrew term mashal, a figurative saying
or narrative that often requires interpretation, especially as the term
is used in the prophetic books. The parables in Mark are enigmatic
narratives that require interpretation.
In addition to its apocalyptic overtones, the statement of jesus
regarding the mystery of the kingdom of God also evokes the
63. Cf. Mark 1:10.
64. Mark 1:40-45.
65. Mark 1:44.
66. I cannot agree with Gerd The!Ben's conclusion that Jesus commands the man to
conceal from the authorities how he was cured; idem, "Die pragrnatlsche Bedeutung
der Geheimnismotive im Markusevangelium," p. 243. The phrase J.I.CXpri>ptOV
  ("as a proof for them") tells against this hypothesis.
67. Mark 4:1-34.
68. The term is used for an enigmatic saying in Mark 7:17. In 12:11t Is said
that jesus spoke ev Since he only tells one parable, it may be that
the phrase indicates a manner of speaking, not a literary genre. In 3:23 the same
phrase is used in relation to a series of figurative sayings.
Messianic Secret and the Gospel of Mark
mystery-cults.69 The insiders in Mark possess the secret of the king-
·ust as the initiates of the mysteries have special knowledge.
om, 1 .
The term J.I.UcmlPtOV in Mark thus evokes two different cultural tradi-
tions, the revealed secrets of apocalyptic traditions and the ritually
mediated experience of the mysteries. It is striking that only one of
the several parables in the discourse is interpreted, and that one of
course only for the insiders. It is also striking that the interpretation
retains figurative language to a considerable degree. In the center of
the discourse, jesus departs from the use of parables to declare in figu-
rative sayings that "there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed,
and nothing concealed that will not come out into the open." This
revelation does not occur in the immediate context, however. jesus
spoke the word to the people only in parables; he explained every-
thing privately to his disciples. If these explanations are like the inter-
pretation of the parable of the sower, then even they remain
somewhat opaque.
jesus first begins to speak openly after Peter's confession. He
began to teach his disciples privately that the Son of Man must suffer
many things, be killed, and rise from the dead. The narrator com-
ments, "And he was speaking the word openly."
The contrast with
the discourse in parables seems to be deliberate. The parables of
Chapter 4 provide enigmatic, partial revelation. The suffering, death,
and resurrection of jesus as Son of Man is the mystery of the king-
dom of God, which becomes manifest in Chapters 8-10. The content
of this mystery corresponds to that of the mystery-cults: death and
the privilege of a happy afterlife. There is also a certain analogy in
form: only the initiates hear and see the mystic ritual and receive
"better hopes" through the experience. Only the inner circle around
jesus receive the revelation about the destiny of the Son of Man. If
they deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him, they
will share in his destiny.
69. joseph Coppens argued that Paul's use of the term mystery is rooted in the Jewish
tradition but also reflects Hellenistic Influence; idem, '"Mystery' in the Theology of
Saint Paul and Its Parallels at Qumran," In jerome Murphy-O'Connor and James H.
Charlesworth, eds., Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Christian Origins Library; New
York: Crossroad, 1968; reprint 1990), pp. 132-158, esp. 154. The situation seems to
be similar with Mark.
70. Mark 8:32.
There are also striking differences between Mark and the mys-
teries. The secret of the kingdom of God is written down in the text of
Mark for anyone to read. Jesus does not perform an enigmatic, secret
ritual, but speaks plainly to his followers. I suggest that Mark is delib-
erately competing with the mystery-cults and claiming that the
Christian mystery is a better one. Yet Mark does not abandon secrecy
entirely. On one level, the secrecy theme is necessary to evoke the
comparison between the mystery of the kingdom of God and the Hel-
lenistic mysteries. The nature of the Christian mystery and the social
context may also be factors.
In his discussion of possible explanations for the secrecy of the
Pythagoreans, Jan Bremmer mentions the intense competition of the
Archaic age. Competition was equally intense in the early imperial pe-
riod. Bremmer suggests that Pythagoras may have felt dismayed by
the critique of his fellow "intellectuals" and come to the conclusion
that the meaning of his views would evaporate when removed from
their specific context and exposed to general discussion. He compares
the advice of Menander Rhetor to preserve but not to publish scien-
tific and enigmatic hymns because they look too unconvincing and
ridiculous to the masses.
Michael Barkun has spoken of the "stigma-
tized knowledge" of modern apocalyptic movements.
To members
of the group, it is reliable knowledge, but to outsiders it is absurd. A
recent example is the beliefs of the members of the cult of Heaven's
Gate about UFOs and another, better world. Considerations like those
discussed by Jan Bremmer in connection with Pythagoras may have
led Mark, not to hide the mystery of the kingdom, but to present it as
secret and difficult to understand. To most jews of the first century
C.E., the idea of a suffering and dying messiah was absurd. On the
contrary, the Messiah of Israel was to be a great warrior who would de-
feat the enemies of the people and reestablish an autonomous king-
dom of Israel. To most Gentiles, the idea that a criminal crucified in
an obscure province by a Roman governor could be a king or son of
God was also absurd. Even the disciples of jesus, who were prepared
71. Bremmer, "Religious Secrets and Secrecy in Classical Greece," pp. 69-70.
72. Michael Barkun, "Politics and Apocalyptidsm," Bernard McGinn, john]. Collins, and
Stephen J. Stein, eds., The Encyclopedia of Apocalyptidsm, vol. 3, Apocalyptidsm in the
Modem Period and the Contemporary Age (New York: Continuum, 1998), pp. 442-460.
Messianic Secret and the Gospel of Mark
for this difficult revelation, could not comprehend it. Nevertheless, it
is presented as something that "must" happen, like the events proph-
esied in the dream of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2. It is the will of
God, divine destiny, foretold in the Scriptures.
Like the jewish apocalypses, the jesus of Mark and the Gospel of
Mark reveal secrets in a partial and veiled manner. Lacking sufficient
contextualization, the parables of Mark are analogous to the dreams
and visions associated with Daniel and Enoch. In the Similitudes of
Enoch, the Son of Man is hidden in heaven, yet known to the cho-
sen. He will be revealed to all on the day of judgment. In Mark, he
walks the earth, but incognito. His identity is hidden from the
masses but revealed to the elect. Although even they are not able to
grasp the mystery of his being, he will be revealed to all when he re-
turns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
The rituals and symbolic objects of the mystery-cults were kept
secret out of reverence for the divine. Similarly, the Gospel of Mark
implies that the miracles of jesus and his teaching about suffering
are manifestations of the divine by surrounding them with secrecy.
Although the content of the mysteries, like the fate of jesus, was an
open secret, secrecy was important in both cases to ensure that the
message was conveyed in the proper context, with the proper solem-
nity and effectiveness.
The goal of the magician was to cross the boundary separating
the human and the divine. The ritual of deification known as the
Mithras Liturgy was intended to accomplish that feat. According to
Mark, jesus crossed that boundary by being raised from the dead and
being seated at the right hand of God.
The followers of jesus, if
they are not ashamed of him and if they take up their crosses and
follow him, have the "better hope" of sharing in the divine glory
through him.7
73. Mark 14:62; cf. 12:36.
74. Mark 8:34-38; cf. 13:27.
The various themes of secrecy in Mark-the commands to de-
mons and disciples not to reveal the identity of]esus, the instructions
to those who are healed by Jesus not to speak about their healing, the
lack of understanding by the disciples, and the "parable-theory"-are
all literary devices created or adapted by the author of the Gospel to
reveal and yet conceal Jesus and to imply that, during his lifetime, his
identity was similarly revealed yet concealed. He was truly endowed
with the divine spirit, was really the son of God, and was indeed the
Messiah, even though he did not do what the Messiah was expected
to do. He came as a prophet to proclaim the coming kingdom of God,
he came as a teacher and a healer. But most of all, he came to lay
down his life as a ransom for many. From Mark's point of view, this is
the mystery of the kingdom of God, the only true mystery.
~   ~
secrecy, Revelation, and Late Antique
Demiurgical Myths
Michael A. Williams
When one is organizing an event whose theme is religious secrets, or
esotericism, there seem to be certain personalities whose inclusion on
the guest list is more or less de rigueur, and among these are that as-
sortment of ancient religious sources commonly categorized as "gnos-
tic."1 This category has been constructed in modern times primarily
from descriptions by early Christian heresiologists of various myths
and teachings that they deemed perversions of Christian truth, and
from surviving original sources that actually contain such myths and
doctrines. The most extensive collection of the latter is contained
among the Coptic writings found near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt
in 1945.
Though various motifs of secret tradition or revelations of previ-
ously hidden truths are unquestionably well represented among these
sources, there has not been much analysis devoted specifically to the
1. For a general treatment, see Rudolph, Gnosis.
2. For an English translation of the contents, see Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library.

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