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The Esoteric New Testament, Part I: The Gospel of Mark

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Ever since William Wrede named it in an influential 1901 book, the ‘messianic secret’ in the Gospel of Mark has been under intense discussion. In Mark’s gospel Jesus goes around doing his thing – exorcising impure spirits, healing the sick, performing the odd ‘nature miracle’, and so forth – but he doesn’t want anyone to know about it. What is going on here? We explore some of the background – in particular the Roman political background – relevant to the messianic secrecy motif in Mark, and then look forward to some of the ways in which it becomes a multi-purpose theme of the esoteric in later Christianity.

We turn to the evidence, also abundant in Mark, for Jesus as an esoteric teacher, a teacher with secret doctrines reserved for a chosen few, or revealed through parables whose obscurity makes the esoteric élite a self-selecting group.

Finally, we reflect a little on the opportunities opened for esoteric reading by having a canon of texts like the New Testament, chock-full of factual contradictions and other inconsistencies. How to read such a canon as delivering a single religious story? The only option with anything going for it is to read it esoterically.

Works Cited in this Episode:


  • The Carpocratians’ esoteric claims: Irenæus Adv. Hær. I.25.5.
  • Clement of Alexandria on Valentinus’ esoteric claims: Strom. VII.17.106.4; cf. Extracts of Theodotus LXVI.
  • Hippolytus on Basilides and Isidore’s esoteric claims: Elenchos VII.20.1.
  • Josephus witnesses an exorcism: Jewish Antiquities VIII 2.5.

Gospel of Mark:

  • Jesus withdraws from the crowd to go on secret trips with his disciples and teaches them: Mk. 4:10-13, 34; 7:17-23; 9:28 ff., 8:1; 9:31; 10:32-34; 13:3 ff.
  • The `Messianic Secret’ among demons: Mk. 1:25 (ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ), 34 (δαιμόνια); 3:11-12; etc.
  • The `Messianic Secret’ among humans: Mk. 1:44 (cleansed leper); 5:43 (daughter of synagogue-chief brought back from dead with ‘magic words’ talitha koumi 5:41); etc.
  • Withdrawal from the crowd to go on secret trips with his disciples to give them private instruction: Mk. 4:10-13, 34; 7:17-23; 9:28 ff; 8:1; 9:31; 10:32-34; 13:3 ff.


The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin, Warner Bros. 1973.

J. Schniewind. Das Evangelium nach Markus. Göttingen, 1949. We quote p. 41: ‘Dies Geheimnis steht hinter jeder einzelnen Perikope.’

Morton Smith. Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1973.

William Wrede. Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien. Zugleich ein Beitrag zum Versta ̈ndnis des Markusevangeliums. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 1901.

Recommended Reading:

David E. Aune. The Problem of the Messianic Secret. Novum Testamentum, 11:1–31, 1969.

G.H. Boobyer. The Secrecy Motif in St Mark’s Gospel. New Testament Studies, 6(3): 225–35, April 1960 [starts with a nice point-by-point history of scholarly discussion of the messianic secret from Wrede onward].

Adela Yarbro Collins. Messianic Secret and the Gospel of Mark: Secrecy in Jewish Apocalypticism, the Hellenic Mystery Religions and Magic. In E. R. Wolfson, editor, Rending the Veil: Concealment and Secrecy in the History of Religions, pages 11–30. Seven Bridges, Chappaqua, NY, 1999.

H.J. Ebeling. Das Messiasgeheimnis und die Botschaft des Marcusevangeliums. Toepelmann, Berlin, 1939 [a very thorough discussion of the evidence and of previous theories about it pp. 1-113].

C.L. Mearns. Parables, Secrecy and Eschatology in Mark’s Gospel. Scottish Journal of Theology, 44(4):423–42, 1991.

Heikki Räisänen. The ‘Messianic Secret’ in Mark. Clark, Edinburgh, 1990.

Albert Schweitzer. The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. A. and C. Black, 1910.

G. Theissen. Die pragmatische Bedeutung der Geheimnismotive im Markusevangelium: ein wissensoziologischer Versuch. In Guy G. Stroumsa and Hans G. Kippenberg, editors, Secrecy and Concealment: Studies in the History of Mediterranean and Near-Eastern Religions, pages 225–46. Brill, Leiden, 1995.