4. Secrecy in the Gospels


Although remnants of the messianic secret are found in the later gospels, the author of Mark in particular envelopes Jesus’ ministry in a shroud of secrecy and has Jesus repeatedly demand silence when engaging with demons (Mk. 1:25, 34, 3:12), the healed (Mk. 1:43-44, 7:36, 8:26) and his disciples (Mk. 8:30, 9:9). Since the evangelist does not provide an obvious explanation for this constant appeal to secrecy, it is possible that he naturally assumed that his readers would understand why this high degree of confidentiality was necessary. However, if the importance of secrecy within these passages was obvious to the early reader, then it appears to have eluded the authors of Matthew and Luke who are both seemingly confused regarding the purpose of this recurrent secrecy motif and/or uncomfortable with its presence in the Markan narrative and prefer instead to omit the commands to silence from their received texts. One example of this is Luke’s omission of the command to silence given by Jesus to the disciples following the transfiguration (Mk. 9:9). Rather then repeating the command to silence found in the Markan account of the transfiguration, the author of Luke implies that the disciples kept silent voluntarily rather than in obedience to Jesus’ strict command (Lk. 9:36).

The question of why the historical Jesus ordered his patients and disciples to maintain secrecy regarding his activities and hesitated to make an open messianic claim, or equally the motive behind the evangelist’s invention of the messianic secret, remains a riddle in New Testament scholarship. Most theories tend to engage directly or indirectly with William Wrede’s influential study which proposes that, methodologically, Mark’s Gospel should be approached as a creation of its author and therefore there is a strong possibility that the secrecy theme is a Markan invention.[1] If this is so, then what significance did the evangelist intend the messianic secret to have for the reader? For Bultmann, it is a simple literary device used by the author of Mark to weave his material into a coherent whole. Other studies suggest that since the Jewish people expected a warrior or king-like messiah they would have been disappointed by Jesus or rejected him altogether and consequently the author of Mark may have incorporated the messianic secret into his Gospel as an apologetic device to explain why Jesus failed to fulfil the role of the messianic figure anticipated by the Jewish people.

A number of additional theories have been proposed by scholars who oppose the recurrent secrecy theme as a Markan invention and seek to trace the messianic secret back to the historical Jesus. The simplest of these explanations is that Jesus’ failure to openly reveal his messianic identity was a consequence of his own modesty or personal insecurities. However, it is difficult to agree that humility was the impetus driving the secrecy commands given by Jesus, particularly those directed to the healed, as this is not consistent with the harsh and urgent tone with which Jesus addresses them. For example, Jesus ‘sternly charges’ (ἐμβριμησάμενος) the leper not to tell anyone about his healing in Mk. 1:40-45 and Bultmann comments that it is ‘possible to link this up with the emotion of anger.’[2] Severe commands to silence are also given to Jairus and his wife in Mk. 5:35-43 and to Peter in Mk. 8:30.

Alternatively, many commentators suggest that the significance attached to silence in Jesus’ ministry is directly related to the revelation of his messianic status. When demons shout out Jesus’ name and origin (Mk. 1:24, 5:7) and his true identity is made known to the disciples (Mk. 8:30, 9:9), the command to silence that follows on both occasions is often understood as a preventative measure to avoid the public exposure of Jesus’ divine nature. Information regarding Jesus’ true identity may have been purposefully withheld from the public for a variety of reasons. First, a messianic statement would have carried substantial revolutionary implications and therefore a public revelation may have been avoided in order to prevent a disturbance and thereby draw the attention of the authorities. Second, since Jesus wished his true messianic identity to remain hidden until after the resurrection, it is possible that making a messianic claim too early in his career may have detracted from the significance of the resurrection, thereby effectively spoiling the punch-line of any post-crucifixion revelations.

There are, however, considerable difficulties which arise when accounting for Jesus’ injunctions to silence as a ‘messianic’ secret. First of all, the ‘messianic’ secret stumbles over its own terminology in the charges addressed to the demoniacs in Mk. 1:25 and 3:12. The demoniacs do not address Jesus as the ‘messiah’ but as the ‘Son of God’. Therefore the subsequent commands to silence cannot be intended to protect Jesus’ ‘messianic’ identity. Second, it is highly implausible that the secrecy commands are intended to protect Jesus’ identity by concealing his miracles from public speculation as the author of Mark tells us that Jesus healed and exorcised in the presence of large crowds. For example, Mark states that the healings attracted a ‘great multitude’ (Mk. 3:7-10) and crowds begin to gather during the exorcism in Mk. 9:25. It is unlikely that Jesus silenced patients who had received a healing or exorcism in order to protect his identity as speculation regarding Jesus’ identity would surely have arisen naturally amongst the large group of witnesses to the miracle. Furthermore, Jesus even openly reveals his identity to the crowds on one occasion (Mk. 2:10), thereby demonstrating that withholding his true identity from the public was not a major concern.

If the commands to silence in Mark’s Gospel faithfully reflect the words and actions of the historical Jesus and a) these commands did not result from personal modesty, b) these commands did not guard against a public revelation of Jesus’ messianic identity, and c) Jesus performed his miracles in front of large crowds and even openly reveal his identity to them, then there must be an alternative explanation for the historical Jesus’ constant appeals to secrecy. I would suggest that further insights into the purpose of these secrecy commands can be gained by examining the behaviour of another figure in the ancient world who deliberately generated an aura of secrecy around himself and regarded secrecy concerning his actions to be of paramount importance; the magician.


An emphasis on secrecy is apparent in the recipes of magical instruction within the Greek magical papyri, which repeatedly implore the magician to maintain secrecy concerning his actions and stress the importance of keeping the technical aspects of the rite private and away from public scrutiny. For example, a magical text in the Berlin papyrus (PGM I) urges the performer to ‘conceal (κρύβε), conceal the [procedure]’ (I. 41) and ‘share this great mystery with no one [else], but conceal (κρύβε) it’ (I. 130). Similarly, in ‘a spell for dream revelations’ in the Great Magical Papyrus of Paris (PGM IV), the author of the text urges the practitioner on two occasions to ‘keep it secret (κρύβε)’ and ‘keep it secret, son (κρύβε, υἱέ)’ (IV. 2510-2520). The phrase ‘keep it secret’ also appears in the same papyrus in a ‘spell for revelation’ (PGM IV. 75-80) and a ‘charm of Solomon’ (PGM IV. 920-925). Silence is also an important element of these rites and the magician is frequently ordered to ‘keep silent’ (PGM III. 197, 205) or ‘perform it…silently’ (PGM III. 441). The reader of these magical texts is faced with the same questions that are raised regarding the secrecy theme in the Gospel of Mark; why is it so imperative that the actions of the performer are kept secret? And what are the consequences should these secrets be divulged?

While there have been countless investigations into the activities of secret groups within various societies and the effects of secrecy upon social interaction, there has been very little research into the role and motivational objectives of the individual who possesses the secret, in this case that of the magician. As a result, the function of secrecy in the operations of the magician must be gleaned from a close examination of the importance of secrecy in the magical papyri and the ancient magical tradition in general. The results of this investigation reveal that the magician’s underlying motives when concealing his actions appear to vary according to the contact group with whom he is engaging and whether the individual or members of that group are permitted to observe the magician’s rituals and/or have authorised access to his knowledge or whether they must remain uninformed and unaware of his activities. Since the rationale behind the magician’s secretive behaviour appears to vary according to his audience, it is possible to discern a pattern in the function of secrecy in ancient magic from which three distinct contact groups emerge; the magician’s initiates, the magician’s opponents and the general public:

I would suggest that Jesus’ use of secrecy in Mark’s Gospel corresponds almost identically to the magician’s use of secrecy when engaging with the three main contact groups of his initiates (the disciples), his opponents (the demons) and his public (the healed). The motivations driving the magician to maintain secrecy when confronted with these groups might help to shed some light on why the author of Mark presents Jesus as constantly demanding secrecy regarding his activities and concealing his identity from the disciples, the demons and the healed.


By maintaining confidentiality regarding his operations, the magician appears to withhold secret knowledge from the public and thereby creates a sense of mystery surrounding his knowledge which makes it increasingly attractive to new initiates and in turn intensifies the power of the secret. In addition to providing a desirable incentive to the curious observer, the magician deliberately fosters secrecy in order to accord himself a degree of control over those who do not have access to his private knowledge. Once the magician has established a close group of ‘followers’ or ‘apprentices’ who have access to his special knowledge, the importance of secrecy is often impressed upon the collective members of this group and studies into the behavioural norms of secret groups have revealed that the possession of hidden knowledge and the exclusion of ‘outsiders’ closely unites those within the circle of knowledge, with members typically exhibiting great trust in one another, developing a strong sense of the ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ and even acquiring a new vocabulary.

A clear division between insider and outsider, those who possess knowledge and those who are without knowledge, is made by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. This distinction is deliberately fostered by a series of didactic parables which are intended to be incomprehensible to the general populace who must remain as outsiders that ‘may look, but not perceive, and may listen, but not understand’ (Mk. 4:12). Poetic or unusual language was also employed by practitioners of ancient magic who sought to disguise certain words or techniques from the uninitiated, hence the intense use of cryptography and mathematics to encrypt secret words. For example, both PGM LVII and LXXII are standard cryptograms and PGM XII. 401-44 is a list of materials that have been given secret names in order to prevent the public from copying the magician’s techniques. The author of this list in PGM XII states ‘because of the curiosity of the masses they [i.e., the scribes] inscribed the names of the herbs and other things which they employed on the statues of the gods, so that they [i.e., the masses]…might not practice magic’ (XII. 401-405). Then follows a list of secret names and their corresponding objects, including ‘a snake’s head: a leech’, ‘crocodile dung: Ethiopian soil’, ‘lion semen: human semen’ and ‘blood of Hestia: camomile’.
While the author of Mark tells us that the crowds must remain ignorant concerning the real meaning of Jesus’ parables, the true teaching is subsequently revealed to the disciples (Mk. 4:33-34). There are many occasions in which Jesus withdraws from the crowd with his disciples to give secret instruction (Mk. 5:11, 7:17-23, 9:28-32, 13:3ff) and as we will discover later, some of these teachings clearly have magical connotations. The division between outside and insider is made evident in Mk. 4:11 in which Jesus says: ‘to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.’ By singling out the disciples to receive secret teachings, restricting public access to his knowledge and referring to his teachings as ‘secrets’, the Markan Jesus implies that the disciples are privy to special knowledge and immediately ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ groups are created. Jesus holds the key to this knowledge and he is able to unlock the secrets for the disciples (quite literally in the case of Mt. 16:19).[3] This cycle of secrecy also appears in Matthew’s Gospel as Jesus urges the disciples that they should keep their special knowledge confidential and engage in solitary prayer (‘but whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you’, Mt. 6:5-6).

The secretive nature of Jesus’ prayers within the Gospels, along with the fact that the disciples are also urged to adopt this private method of prayer, suggests that the Gospel writers intended the reader to understand that Jesus’ spoken words were not intended for public hearing and therefore these prayers could not form part of communal, public worship. This is surprising since we have previously established that secretive, anti-social behaviour and the rejection of public worship are behaviours that were typically associated with deviancy and magic in the ancient world. By teaching in parables, speaking about revealed knowledge, engaging in secretive prayer and encouraging others to do the same, the picture of Jesus that begins to emerge is reminiscent of the magician in antiquity who uses secrecy as a means of fostering allegiance and creating insider/outsider groups.


Although secret knowledge can be attractive to outsiders, it can also foster jealousy in those who, rather than attempting to learn the magician’s secrets, will mock the magician, ascribe his powers to evil spirits, attempt to use his powers against him, or seek to punish him under the laws prohibiting magic. The magician’s conflict with political authorities will be addressed below, however it was equally important that the magician concealed his actions from his ‘magical rivals’ and fellow magicians. If a ‘magical rival’ towards whom a spell or curse was directed became aware that he had been subjected to a spell, it was feared that he may try to overcome or reverse it. Worse still, if an enemy was to overhear the words of a spell, they too may be able to perform the same incantation and thus the exclusivity of the magician’s knowledge would be nullified or his magical techniques may even be used against him.

In addition to concealing his activities from his ‘magical rival’, the magician would also attempt to conceal his identity. The notion that secret names and identities possess immense power is a magical motif that is consistent throughout the ancient world. For example, the possession of the name of a god, angel or demon was thought to grant the bearer immediate control over that particular spirit and the ability to manipulate it, harm it or harness the spirit as a power-source for various operations such as exorcism or healing. For this reason, ancient magicians used biblical names and various titles for God in their incantations whenever they required divine assistance and Origen mentions the use of powerful names amongst the Egyptians, the Magi in Persia and the Brahmans in India, concluding that this ‘so-called magic is not…an altogether uncertain thing’, but rather it is ‘a consistent system’.[4] Instances of secrecy regarding the names of gods and spirits are found throughout the Old Testament. For example, Moses asks the angel at the burning bush for Elohim’s name (Ex. 3:13-14), Manorah inquires of the name of the angel of the Lord to which the angel replies ‘why do you ask my name, seeing it is secret’ (Judg. 13:18) and while wrestling with the ‘man’ at Peniel, Jacob asks ‘Tell me, I pray, your name’ (Gen. 32:29). The magical virtue of the name was particularly prevalent in ancient Egypt where it formed the basis of more than half of the religious ideas. The legend of how Isis stole the name of Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun, is the most infamous use of a magical name in ancient Egyptian mythology. In this story Isis knows that possession of the secret name of Ra would give her an incredible amount of magical power. In order to steal it from him, she creates a serpent from Ra’s spittle which bites him and makes him sick. She then persuades Ra to reveal his name so that she can cure him and when he does so, he immediately places himself completely in her power.[5]

In accordance with this principle, secret names were highly guarded in antiquity and not pronounced for fear that enemies would use the name for counter magic. This accounts for the rumpelstiltskin-esque air of secrecy adopted by magicians regarding their true identities and the common practice of giving secret names to new initiates in mystery religions in order to protect them from hostile magic.

The ancient magician’s motives for withholding his true identity from his enemies have direct implications for Jesus’ silencing of the demoniacs in Mk. 1:21-28 and Mk. 5:1-13. Although the demoniacs correctly identify Jesus on both occasions and attempt to expose his true nature, parallels between the terminology used in these Gospel accounts and similar phrases found within the magical papyri suggest that these aggressive outbursts are not strictly concerned with the revelation of Jesus’ identity to the surrounding observers, but they are also attempts to use their knowledge of Jesus’ name and origin as a magical technique through which to gain control over him.


The demoniac in the synagogue at Capernaum in Mk. 1:24 addresses Jesus with three short statements which, when taken as a whole, are intended as an apotropaic defence against Jesus’ attempted exorcism. Upon encountering Jesus, the demoniac cries out 'I know who you are' (τί ἡμιν ἐμοί καὶ σοί;), a question which corresponds to the Semitic phrase  which is literally 'what to me and to you?.' [6] Similar questions appear throughout the Old Testament; for example, the widow in 1 Kings 17:18 rebukes Elijah with the words ‘what have you against me?’.[7] I would suggest that in light of the Old Testament usage of this phrase in the confrontational dialogue between opponents, the words of the demon in Mk. 1:24 are to be understood as a defence mechanism used to ward off Jesus. However, I would add that the demoniac’s statement is not merely a defensive endeavour, but the first in a series of appeals to common magical techniques in an attempt to gain control over Jesus.

To begin with, although the phrase in Mk. 1:24 is commonly understood as ‘why are you bothering us?’, since both are in the dative case it is probably more correct to translate the question literally as ‘what to us and to you?’. This interpretation is similar to the formula of mutual identity which appears in the Greek magical papyri whenever a magician is seeking to gain control over a spiritual power:

        ‘For you are I, and I, you (σὺ γὰρ εἰ ἐγὼ και ἐγὼ σύ). Whatever I say
         must happen, for I have your name as a unique phylactery in my heart,
         and no flesh, although moved, will overpower me…because of your name,
        which I have in my soul and invoke’ (PGM XIII. 795)

A further example of this formula is found in a fourth-century rite known as the ‘Binding Spell of Astrapsoukos’ (PGM VIII.1-63). When invoking Hermes in this text, the magician declares ‘for you are I, and I am you (σὺ γὰρ εἰ ἐγὼ και ἐγὼ σύ); your name is mine, and mine is yours’ (PGM VIII. 36).

The second part of the demoniac’s statement concludes with a direct identification of Jesus by revealing his name and place of origin (᾿Ιησου Ναζαρηνέ, Mk. 1:24). In addition to the magical use of Jesus’ name, the combination of the location ‘Nazareth’ along with the name is highly significant as it not only serves to concentrate the focus of the demon’s words onto the person of Jesus, especially since the name ‘Jesus’ would have been common during the period [8], but it is also a technique that has many parallels in the ancient magical tradition. When seeking to control a spirit or human, it is equally important that the magician states the origin, either geographical or parental, of the victim in order to conclusively establish their identity. For example, in the ‘binding love spell of Astrapsoukos’ (PGM VIII. 1-62) the magician declares ‘I know you Hermes, who you are and where you are from and what your city is: Hermopolis’ (VIII. 13) and when a spell is to be directed towards a specific individual in the Greek magical papyri, the name of the person’s mother is often stated to the same effect, i.e. N, son of N.[9 An indication of Jesus’ origin appears to function in a similar fashion in Mt. 21:11, albeit with a positive rather than negative intent, when the crowds identity Jesus by stating ‘this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee’.

The second statement made by the demoniac (ἤλθες ἀπόλεσαι ἡμας;) illustrates the demon’s familiarity with Jesus’ previous exorcistic activity and thereby serves as a further indication of the extent of the demon’s knowledge regarding Jesus. To complete his defence, the demoniac cries out 'I know who you are' (οἴδά σε τίς εἴ). Many spells within the magical papyri require the magician to elaborate at length concerning the spirit over whom he is seeking to gain control by employing a series of statements beginning with ‘I know…’. For example, this ‘I know’ formula is used at great length throughout the ‘binding spell of Astrapsoukos’ (PGM VIII. 1-63):

“I also know what your forms are…I also know your wood: ebony.
I know you, Hermes…I also know your foreign names…These
are your foreign names” (PGM VIII. 8-21) [10]

By grouping an ‘I know’ statement with a ‘you are’ formula in Mk. 1:24, the author of Mark is clearly conforming the demon’s words to a pattern commonly found in ancient magic. The pronouncement ‘you are (name)’ is as common as the ‘I know’ formula in the Greek magical papyri and it functions as further proof of the magician’s knowledge of the spirit that he is seeking to control. For example:

           ‘You [are] the dew of all the gods, you [are] the heart of Hermes, you
            are the seed of the primordial gods, you are the eye of Helios, you are
            the light of Selene, you are the zeal of Osiris, you are the beauty and
            the glory of Ouranos, you are the soul of Osiris’ daimon…you are
            the spirit of Ammon.’ (PGM IV. 2984-86)

           ‘I summon you… you who created light and darkness; you are
           Osoronnophris…you are Iabas; you are Iapos, you have distinguished
           the just and the unjust; you have made female and male; you have
           revealed seed and fruits, you have made men love each other and
           hate each other.’ (PGM V. 103-5)

In the final stage of the demon’s defence against Jesus’ exorcism, the demon cries out that Jesus is ὁ ἅγιος του θεου. Although this appears to be a form of messianic confession, there appears to be no tradition surrounding the title and no evidence of its use during the period. In light of the indications of magical manipulative techniques in the demoniac’s previous outbursts, it is likely that this address provides additional proof that the demon has correctly identified Jesus and therein contributes towards the demon’s magical assault.
In summary, the demon’s counter-attack in Mk. 1:24 is as follows; the demon identifies Jesus by his name and origin (
᾿Ιησου Ναζαρηνέ), his activity and purpose (ἤλθες ἀπόλεσαι ἡμας;) and his status (ὁ ἅγιος του θεου). These statements confirm the demon’s correct recognition of Jesus and they are therefore intended as a direct threat against him. Some commentators on this passage have recognised elements of magical activity in the words of the demoniac. I would suggest that parallels to Mk. 1:24 are not found within the magical texts which seek to gain the voluntary aid of a higher authority, but from a body of magical texts in which the magician is concerned with gaining control and supremacy over a spirit, usually by employing a series of aggressive and coercive techniques. When applied in the context of a power-struggle between two opposing forces, the individual who pronounces these statements is not seeking to gain the assistance of a higher force, but he is employing a common magical technique used by magicians to bind and control a spiritual being. However, although these techniques are typically employed by a magician attempting to control a spirit, these role are reversed in Mk. 1:24 and it is the demon that is attempting to control Jesus.


As previously encountered in the account of the Capernaum demoniac in Mk. 1:24, the initial words of the Gerasene demoniac in Mk. 5:7 constitute an aggressive attempt by the possessing demon to gain preternatural control over Jesus. It is not until the next verse (Mk. 5:8) that we discover that the demon’s aggressive defence is not a spontaneous outburst, but that it is a response to Jesus’ previous exorcistic command. The resulting notion of a power struggle raging between Jesus and the possessing demon is typical of the Markan emphasis upon the cosmic conflict between good and evil and his tendency to glorify Jesus as an all-powerful exorcist who conquers the powers of evil. However, since verse eight implies that Jesus’ command was ineffective or that it had been ignored by the demon it is unlikely that this would have been consciously implied by the editor and therefore it is doubtful that this verse was a later edition to the story (particularly since the reapplication of a technique was a major indication of magical practice and there are additional instances in the Gospels in which Jesus fails to achieve immediate success and he is required to reattempt a healing (cf. Mk. 8:22-26)). Nevertheless, the presence of this problematic verse in the narrative tells us that the author of Mark considered this verse to be valuable to his story and that it needed to be included even though it indicates that Jesus’ initial command was ineffectual. By tucking it gently under the demoniac’s outburst in verse 7, the author of Mark breaks the order of dialogue and softens the idea that Jesus’ command did not work.
In the demoniac’s question ‘what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’ (Mk. 5:7) we once again are presented with a formula of mutual identity (τί ἐμοι καί σοί
;) and a revelation of Jesus’ true identity as Son of the ‘Most High God’, a phrase which is also found in the magical papyri (for example, PGM V. 46 exhorts the spirit to leave and not to harm the magician ‘in the name of the most high god’). However, rather than threatening Jesus by using an ‘I know’ formula, the demon openly attempts to adjure Jesus by crying out ὁρκιζω σε τὸν θεόν (‘I adjure you by God’). This statement could be mistaken for a desperate plea of mercy from the demons who beg Jesus to ‘swear by God’ that he will not to harm them, but this is not the case. The verb ὁρκίζω dates back to at least the fifth-century BC and it is used in the context of oaths sworn between contracting parties, hence techniques involving this form of spirit-control were commonplace in the first century. As the term ὁρκίζω was considered to be effective in allowing the magician to control spirits and demons, it was used both in exorcisms and magical procedures involving spirit manipulation. The widespread use of ὁρκίζω when binding demons in the ancient world is demonstrated by the practices of the Jewish exorcists in Acts 19:13 and the formation of the popular word ‘exorcism’, from the Greek ἑξορκίζω, which literally means ‘to cause to swear’ or ‘to put on oath’.[11]
The addition of τὸν θεόν in Mk. 5:7 is entirely consistent with the common form of adjuration found within the Greek magical papyri, in which the first person singular form of ὁρκίζω is used alongside the name of a powerful deity in order to adjure or compel a spirit to obey the magician’s requests. For example, in an exorcism entitled ‘a tested charm of Pibechis’ (PGM IV. 3007-86) the magician commands the demon ‘I adjure you (ὁρκίζω σε) by the God of the Hebrews’ (IV. 3019-20) and ‘I adjure you (ὁρκίζω σε) by God the light bringer’ (IV. 3046). Similarly, in PGM IV. 286-95 (‘spell for picking a plant’) the magician declares: ‘I adjure you by the undefiled name of the god’ (IV. 290). In addition to the demoniac’s attempt to ‘adjure’ Jesus ‘by God’ in this passage, a similar technique is used by the high priest in Mt. 26:63. When attempting to adjure Jesus to reveal his true self, the high priest says ‘I adjure you by the living God (ἑξορκίζω σε κατὰ του θεου του ζωντος), tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ As the words of the demoniac in Mk. 5:7 are similar to those used by the high priest in Mt. 26:63 and both serve the purpose of aggressively seeking to expose Jesus’ true identity, I would suggest that connotations of magical coercion are present within both passages.

 In light of the considerable evidence to support this interpretation of the term o`rki,zw, I would suggest that the demon’s words in Mk. 5:7 should be interpreted as having both a prophylactic and coercive function. The demon initially threatens Jesus by demonstrating his knowledge of Jesus’ true identity and he then attempts to gain control over Jesus by shouting ‘I adjure you by God’. The authors of Matthew and Luke are obviously uncomfortable with the concept that the demon is attempting to bind Jesus or they are aware that this statement carries significant magical connotations since the Matthean version omits the adjuration (Mt. 8:29) and the author of Luke softens it to a plea from the demon (‘I beseech you (δέομαί σοι), do not torment me’, Lk. 8:28).

The statements made by the demoniacs in Mk. 1:24 and Mk. 5:7 demonstrate that the author of these accounts generally understood that the name of an individual and details regarding his origin and activities could be employed in a magical attack against him.[12] If these stories are a Markan invention then the evangelist may have been familiar with superstitions surrounding the magical use of the name, indeed it would be a rare individual in the ancient world who was not acquainted with his notion, and this may explain why Jesus is depicted as making continual attempts to conceal his identity and activities on other occasions in the Gospels. Alternatively, if these are historically reliable accounts of exorcisms performed by the historical Jesus, then we must consider the possibility that Jesus himself was aware that his opponents were actively using his identity in malicious magical attacks against him and he therefore wisely concealed his identity from them.


Concealing the words of a rite or incantation from the public in general was essential in the ancient magical tradition for a variety of reasons. First, it was thought that disclosing details of the divine mysteries to the masses would offend the gods and there are many slander spells in the Greek magical papyri to punish those who make public revelations regarding their magical knowledge. For example, the performer of the ‘spell of attraction’ in PGM IV. 2441-2621 promises to inflict illness on his victim who ‘has slanderously brought your holy mysteries to the knowledge of men’ (IV. 2475-2477). A similar warning is heeded in a story concerning the Greek historian Theopompus (380 BC) who began to suffer headaches when translating the Jewish law into Greek. He prayed and asked why this was so and the gods sent him a dream in which he was told that he was suffering because he had revealed divine things to the public.[13]

Second, since the magical rite may contain physical or verbal elements that clearly indicate that the performer is engaging in magical activity, the magician may fear that by practicing his magic openly in public he will evidently, at the very least, be subjected to ridicule and be required to justify his actions to observers or, at the worst, he will attract the attention of the authorities and suffer the legal penalties for practicing magic. Since magicians and miracle-workers often used secrecy as a means of concealing their activities in order to avoid persecution, similar concerns may well strengthen the case for the historical Jesus’ own appeal to secrecy. If the authorities were growing suspicious of Jesus’ behaviour then we would naturally expect Jesus to attempt to suppress reports of miraculous healings before they became widespread. A preliminary means of doing this would be to silence his patients and the surrounding crowds, however this may have been difficult since Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus’ fame spread very early into his ministry (Mk. 1:28) and that the healings attracted large crowds (Mk. 1:41-45, 3:9-10). The author of Mark tells us that questions were already in circulation regarding the source of Jesus’ ability to perform miracles and this is reflected in the chief priest’s question ‘by what authority are you doing these things?’ (Mk. 11:28//Lk. 20:2) to which the secrecy theme resurfaces in Jesus’ response: ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things’ (Mk. 11:33//Lk. 20:8). If the historical Jesus did not want to draw attention to himself and his activities, then he may have been averse to large crowds when healing, often being eager to finish the healing or exorcism when they start to gather (as indicated in Mk. 9:25) and even removing the patient from public view (Mk. 7:33, 8:23, 5:40). Although Mark tells us that Jesus took great care to conceal his activities from the public, there are a number of difficulties which arise when explaining the presence of the secrecy theme within Mark’s Gospel as a preventative measure against rumours concerning his divine nature reaching the authorities. First, Jesus does not consistently silence his patients after each healing. For example, Bartimaeus the beggar is not silenced (Mk. 10:46-52) and neither is there a direct injunction to silence in the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida (Mk. 8:22-26).[14 Second, there are no direct revelations of Jesus’ identity during the healings. Third, Jesus makes candid statements concerning his identity to the crowds (Mk. 2:10). Finally, Jesus heals directly in front of the authorities (Mk. 3:1-6) and even openly reveals his divine power source to them (Mk.3:28-29//Mt. 12:31-32//Lk. 11:20).

As many magicians and miracle-workers in the ancient world considered secrecy to be of paramount importance for their continued livelihood and survival, it is highly likely that the Historical Jesus held similar concerns and therefore I would suggest that the presence of secrecy commands in Mark’s Gospel may reflect the words and behaviours of the Historical Jesus. We have considered the possibility that the Historical Jesus used secrecy when addressing his disciples as a means of attracting followers and creating insider/outsider groups and also the possibility that secrecy was used when confronted by enemies in order to protect his identity from the authorities and magical rivals. However, difficulties arise when considering the secrecy commands given to the healed and the exorcised in Mark’s Gospel. If, as related in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus did not consistently silence his patients, his messianic status was not revealed through his healing activities and he did not always attempt to conceal his activities from public speculation, then we must assume that the confidentiality demanded of those healed and exorcised by Jesus was not concerned with a revelation of his divine nature, nor intended to prevent reports of his activities reaching the authorities.

The sporadic nature of these secrecy commands suggests that Jesus demanded silence of certain patients on specific occasions. It certainly appears that the healing accounts in which the participants have been removed from public view and subsequently commanded to silence also involve unusual physical techniques which could be construed as having magical elements to them. For example, in Mk. 8:23 we have the application of spittle, in Mk. 5:40 there is the phrase ‘Talitha Koum’ and Mk. 7:33-34 describes an unusual combination of techniques in which Jesus spits, touches his tongue, looks up to heaven, sighs and utters a healing word. In each of these accounts, the patient has been removed from the crowd and there is a swift command to silence once the healing has been completed.[15] As the magician fears that the implicit magic in his techniques might lead to legal penalties, Jesus may have been aware that certain elements of his healing procedures could be interpreted by observers as magical techniques and thereby attract an ensuing punishment. Therefore the commands to silence may not have been to avoid a ‘messianic’ revelation, but to protect his physical techniques from incurring a charge of magic. This would account for why the secrecy theme is not strictly adhered to in every case and why the patient is occasionally removed from the crowd. Perhaps we must therefore interpret the commands given to Jesus’ patients not as ‘don’t tell anyone who I am’, but ‘don’t tell anyone what I did’.

In order to determine whether the use of magical techniques could account for Jesus’ secretive behaviour, we must now turn to the healing accounts of the Gospels, particularly to the passages mentioned above (Mk. 5:40, 8:23 and 7:33-34), and consider whether the Gospel writers present evidence which suggests that magical techniques were employed by Jesus when healing the sick.

Extract from Helen Ingram (2007) Dragging Down Heaven: Jesus as Magician and Manipulator of Spirits in the Gospels, PhD, The University of Birmingham, UK.

[1] I must emphasise that Wrede only suggests this theory since he personally did not consider the author of Mark to be the creator of the secrecy theme. Wrede believed that ‘material of this kind is not the work of an individual’ (W. Wrede, The Messianic Secret trans. J. C. G. Greig (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1971) p. 145).
[2] R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, p. 37.
[3] In the Gospel of Thomas the promise of revealed knowledge is extended to include not only the disciples, but also everyone who reads and understands the words of Jesus. For example, saying 108 of The Gospel of Thomas reads: ‘He who drinks from my mouth will be as I am, and I will be he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.’ The ‘I will be he’ indicates that when the individual ‘drinks’ from the wisdom of Jesus, the spirit of Jesus will enter into that individual. In this case, Thomas has become ‘like Jesus’ by correctly interpreting his words and it follows that these ‘hidden’ things will be revealed to him.
[4] Origen, Con. Cels. 1.24.
[5] The original text of this story was found on a papyrus preserved in Turin and first published in W. Pleyte and F. Rossi, Papyrus de Turin (Leiden, 1869-76). The text was later translated by E. A. Wallis Budge in his Legends of the Gods (London: Kegan Paul, 1912) pp. 42-55 and Sir James G. Frazer refers to this story in his study The Golden Bough when discussing the tabooness of the names of gods (The Golden Bough, 22.5).
[6] The LXX parallel to Mk. 1:24 has τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί.
[7] For further examples of this type of address, see Josh 22:24, Judg. 11:12., 2 Sam. 16:10, 19:23; 2 Kgs. 3:13; 2 Chr. 35:21; Jer. 2:18, Hos. 14:9 and Jn. 2:4.
[8] Cf. Collossians 4:11, Josephus, Ant., 15. 9. 3; 17. 13. 1; 20. 9. 1; Bel. Jud, 3. 9, 7; 4. 3. 9; 6. 5. 5
[9] This formula is applied extensively throughout the Greek magical papyri. To give two examples: PGM IV. 130: ‘Arouse the heart of NN whom NN has borne’ (cf. IV. 94-153) and PGM IV. 2496: ‘Make her, NN, whom NN bore, ill.’
[10] Although PGM VIII is dated to approximately the fourth or fifth century, the ‘I know’ formula appears in the magical writings of many ancient civilizations. For example, the Egyptian Papyrus of Ani, a papyrus of the Theban period which contains a number of pages of the Book of the Dead, includes the sentence ‘I know thee, I know thy name, I know the names of the Forty-two Gods who live with thee in this Hall of Maati…’ (Ch. 125).
[11] William Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 277.
[12] The possibility that the author of the story was fully aware of the techniques used in magical spirit manipulation is supported by Jesus’ use of magical techniques as a defensive response in both of these passages (as we will see later).
[13] Josephus, Antiquities, XII. 14.
[14] Although in this latter case we may assume that the command not to enter the village is an indirect injunction to silence.
[15] In the case of Mk. 5:40, the crowd has been removed prior to the healing, (5:40 ‘he put them all outside’) and the command to silence follows in verse 43.

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