The Silence of the Messiah—Mark 1:29-39 (J. Leavitt Pearl)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Sometimes effective resistance necessitates speech or decisive direct action. Yet sometimes resistance also demands a tactical silence.

29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

In its summary of Jesus’ early ministry in Capernaum, the Gospel of Mark notes that Jesus “cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (1:34). This passage stands together with similar accounts as an instance of what William Wrede named in 1901: the “messianic secret.”

Among the passages drawn together by this term are instances, like that above, where Jesus silences demons (1:25; 1:34; 3:12), but also cases where Jesus silences the recipients of his healing grace (1:44; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26), and even his own disciples (8:30; 9:9).

For Wrede, the literary motif of the messianic secret allowed Mark to emphasize the miraculous and divine role of Jesus among those who still possessed the living memory of the all-too-human Jesus of Nazareth. By instituting this motif, the recipients of the message of Jesus could be divided in two: the insiders—with their special access to divine revelation—and the ignorant outsiders. As Mark writes, “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables” (4:11).

Thus, the parabolic teachings of Jesus served not to explain, but to provoke misunderstanding—that they might “listen, but not understand” (4:12, cf. Isaiah 6:9)—while, at the same time, Jesus secretly “explained everything in private to his disciples” (4:33). Do you remember Jesus, but not these divine events? You must simply have not been privy to his secret teachings.

This (in)famous thesis suffers from at least two distinct problems. First, while Jesus repeatedly demands silence, his commands are generally disregarded. Following Jesus’s command that a healed leper remain silent, we are told that he immediately “went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word” (1:45). Likewise, when Jesus orders a recently healed deaf man to remain silent, the man does precisely the opposite: “Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it” (7:36). Were Wrede’s thesis correct, than the incessant proclamations that Jesus “has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak” (7:37) certainly would not serve Mark’s apparent purpose.

Second, whereas Mark affirms that the disciples are granted special access to Jesus’s message, they nevertheless simply fail to understand these revelations. In the midst of his miraculous ministry they nevertheless continue to ask “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41). Even when Peter rightly recognizes Jesus’ messianic mission—“You are the Messiah” (8:29)—he fails to understand the full significance of this affirmation—prompting Jesus’s subsequent rebuke: “get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33). Were Wrede’s thesis correct, then this persistent misunderstanding of the disciples would be inexplicable.

Following Wrede, countless alternative interpretations of the messianic secret have been drawn forward, but in each case they remain contradictory at worst, and speculative at best. What is to be done, then, with the messianic secret? Is there no lesson that can be garnered from this motif?

At risk of simply adding one more reading onto an already crowded field, I would here like to propose a political, rather than theological or historical-critical, interpretation of the messianic secret. I would like to suggest that the messianic secret reveals something important about the structure of power, as well as tactics that might be employed in the resistance to sedimented structures of power.

Before turning directly to the Markan text, it will be helpful to articulate, even if only in rough terms, certain functions of discourse—speaking, speech, and silence—in the political landscape of power. Traditionally, silence has been read as the domain of oppression and repression. “Repression,” Michel Foucault writes in the first volume of The History of Sexuality (1976/1978), “operated as a sentence to disappear, but also as an injunction to silence, an affirmation of nonexistence, and, by implication, an admission that there was nothing to say about such things, nothing to see, and nothing to know” (4). Thus, conversely, speech and discourse are often understood as the domains of transgression, even liberation. Yet, Foucault asks, is it truly the case that the primary mode of power’s relation to discourse is repressive?

Quite to the contrary, he insists, “we must … abandon the hypothesis” (49). Rather than purely repressive, power is “polyvalent” (100), simultaneously operating in a multitude of spheres, and with a multitude of tactics. Indeed, the most significant function of power is not primarily the prohibition of speech, but the demand for it. An alternative to sedimented power structure is not silenced, but “tracked down as it were, by discourse that aim[s] to allow it no obscurity, no respite” (20). In nearly every instance where a real alternative appears, “devices of surveillance were installed; traps were laid for compelling admissions; inexhaustible and corrective discourses were imposed” (42). Discourse served to enframe—or even entrap—alternatives. When the alternative is named it can be objectified, studied, and ultimately, controlled.

Is this structure not exactly what one finds in the Markan narrative? The authorities against whom Jesus positions himself—“the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” (11:27)—persistently seek to entrap Jesus with questions of authority: “by what authority are you doing these things?” (11:28).

What these authorities seek, in an irony certainly not lost on Mark, is precisely that which the demons possess—“I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (1:24)—and what a gentile will first truly understand—“truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39).

This ability to name is of prime importance, for, insofar as Jesus’ messianic mission can be named, it will no longer serve as a source of fear (14:1-2); if discourse can be extracted, then the messianic spirit of this new Kingdom can be enframed and objectified, it can be understood, and finally controlled.

But Jesus flatly refuses to submit his messianic ministry to their objectification; it will be neither controlled nor quarantined: “neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (11:33).

Jesus appears to recognize that discourse means exposure, and for movements of resistance and alternative, exposure is always exposure to violence: “and when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him” (11:18; 12:12; 14:1) Even Jesus’ ultimate betrayal will be marked by a signifying kiss, a mark of denomination: “the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘the one I will kiss is the man’” (14:44). In the face of such violence, silence may constitute a political virtue.

What Jesus implicitly understands is that effective resistance to sedimented structures of power must take manifold forms. Sometimes resistance necessitates speech: “let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (1:38). Sometimes resistance demands decisive direct action: “he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers” (11:15). But sometimes resistance also demands a tactical silence. “Have you no answer?” asks Pilate, the epitome of authority and power, “but Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed” (15:4-5).

J. Leavitt Pearl is a PhD candidate at Duquesne University, and adjunct professor at St. Vincent College and Seton Hill College, currently completing a dissertation on the phenomenology and theology of the sexual body.

One thought on “The Silence of the Messiah—Mark 1:29-39 (J. Leavitt Pearl)

  1. I agree! If the goal is to expose and destroy death and the destructive power of sin, not just individually but institutionally, it makes sense that Jesus would approach his mission strategically. He not only orders people to stop talking about him and shuts up demons, he also lays low for much of Mark’s Gospel (in villages and towns and not in cities). As we see in our current political atmosphere, those in power have a large megaphone to name (or more accurately mis-name) in an attempt to bind up Jesus’ truth-telling.

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