In 1901 Wilhelm Wrede shook the academic study of the gospels by arguing that not everything recorded in the gospel According to Mark had actually happened as described. Wrede identified in this gospel a leitmotiv that he named “the Messianic secret”. It is present in the gospel in two basic forms.
On the one hand, Jesus imposes absolute silence on anyone who identifies him as the Son of God, or as the Christ, the Messiah. This is especially noticeable in the exorcisms: the unclean spirit dwelling in a poor human being identifies the exorcist before him. The narrator then says that “Jesus rebuked him, saying: ‘Be silent’” (1: 25), or strictly commanded him to tell no one. This is also the case in the famous confession of Peter. When Peter says, “You are the Christ”, Jesus instructs all the disciples “to tell no one about him” (Mk. 8: 30).
On the other hand, on several occasions Jesus makes public pronouncements that leave his audience startled, and later, privately, explains to a small select group the meaning of what he said. He did this, for example, in the case of the parables of the kingdom, after having taught “a very large crowd” from a boat on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Mk. 4: 1). Later, “when he was alone [with] those who were about him with the twelve”, Jesus starts his explication of the parables saying, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables” (Mk. 4: 10 – 11). The most striking example is the apocalyptic discourse. When he is in the temple before the crowds Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” Later, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus expounds on the significance of his words to only four disciples: Peter, James, John and Andrew (Mk. 13: 1 – 3).
The Messianic secret, Wrede argued, is a literary device used by the narrator of According to Mark to explain how it had been possible for the disciples after the resurrection to proclaim Jesus as Messiah, the Christ. Many of their listeners, no doubt, had been acquainted with Jesus and knew what he had preached. During his ministry Jesus had not claimed to be the Messiah. There was, therefore, no reason for the disciples to assign this title to him after his crucifixion. According to Wrede, the disciples responded to this objection by saying: “Jesus imposed silence on us about this back then, but privately he told us who he really was.”
Most scholars today recognize the Messianic secret as a leitmotiv in According to Mark which was adopted by the other two synoptic gospels. Not many, however, agree to the explanation Wrede gave to its origin. Most recognize that the public ministry of Jesus must have had, at a minimum, messianic connotations.
In According to John we find exactly the opposite to the first aspect of the Messianic secret motif. Instead of imposing silence, Jesus proclaims to everyone within reach that he is the Son of God, the Christ. From the very beginning Jesus is given titles that distinguish him from the rest of humanity. After having spent a day with Jesus, Andrew tells his brother Simon: “We have found the Messiah (which means Christ)” (1: 41). John the Baptist twice makes the disclaimer “I am not the Christ” (1: 20; 3: 28), making clear in the process who is the Christ. When the Samaritan woman says to him: “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ)”, Jesus tells her: “I who speak to you am he” (4: 25 – 26). Later the Samaritans of Sychar confess: “We know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (4: 42).
When the disciples are left wondering and confess: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (6: 60), Jesus asks them if they intend to abandon him. The challenge makes them all confess: “We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (6: 69). Hearing this confession Jesus does not tell his disciples to keep it among themselves, as he does after the confession of Peter in the synoptics. To the one born blind Jesus identifies himself as the Son of God (9: 37). When “the Jews” somewhat frustrated insist: “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly”, Jesus tells them: “I told you [already]” (10: 24 – 25). When Martha confesses: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God” (11: 27), Jesus does not tell her to tell no one. Finally, when Pilate asks him about his disciples and his doctrine, Jesus assures him that his disciples had not received private instructions. He has taught only in public (18: 20).
But the full revelation of his identity and his teachings was not within everyone’s reach during his ministry. It became available after his resurrection. In other words, the gospel According to John, like the synoptics, does not record what actually happened during the ministry of Jesus with the accuracy desired by modern historians. What we have is a presentation of the ministry of Jesus seen through the filter of theological reflection. As I said in a previous column, those who read According to John must know the symbolic universe within which it works if they are going to understand it.
One of the historical references in the gospel which the modern historian will undoubtedly question is the explanation that both the parents of the one born blind and Joseph of Arimathea acted as they did for fear of being expelled from the synagogue. I will have the occasion to comment on this explanation in a future column. Here I will note only that it is impossible to make it fit the historical situation during the time of Jesus. The question, then, becomes, what is it that the gospel transmits to us? What need does it supply?
As a recounting of the life of Jesus, According to John does not give us enough information to write a biography. Since it was written in an oral culture several years after the events had transpired, surely what is narrated depends on the collective memory of a community bound to what is being described. Memory, however, is not a modern electronic recorder; it selects, accommodates and interprets. To remember is not to preserve the past. It is to re-live it in the present.
As Saint Augustine makes clear in his Confessions, faith lives in memory guided by the Holy Spirit. The gospel According to John must be read taking into account this reality. As a matter of fact, it explicitly admits to enjoying the benefits of this perspective. Memory establishes the identity of the body in time, be that the body of a person or of a community. The one who writes a Memoir does not write an autobiography. In it the author projects the image he wishes others to see, most probably with a central theme or specific trajectory that overlooks much.
The gospels are not chronicles of the past. Those who affirm that the gospels give accurate reports of what actually happened only demonstrate that they have not read the four gospels seriously. Each gospel has a unique agenda, paints a picture from a particular perspective which is aimed at a particular public. According to John distinguishes itself by consciously admitting its vantage point. This, however, does not mean that this gospel is the only one with a vantage which allows its contemporaries to understand their experiences.
I have argued that in According to John instead of imposing silence about his identity, Jesus openly proclaims it. In this way, this gospel negates the first aspect of the Messianic secret motif. The second aspect of the motif, however, is not negated, but modified. In the synoptics, during his ministry Jesus teaches the mystery of the kingdom of God to a small select group privately. In According to John understanding comes to the disciples through the “teaching” and the activation of memory by the Comforter after the resurrection. Or, as the disciples say when they hear the second Farewell Discourse: “Ah, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure [of speech]! Now we know that you know all things . . . by this we believe that you came from God” (16: 29 – 30).
On several occasions throughout the gospel it is made clear that what Jesus is saying is not being understood by his hearers. Jesus insists that “at the beginning” he told everyone who he was (8: 25), but his audience “did not understand that he spoke of the Father. So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he’” (8: 27 – 29). After he had drawn a contrast between the shepherd and the hirelings, the narrator explains: “This figure [of speech] Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them” (10: 6).
After having had supper with his disciples, Jesus began to wash their feet and Peter got upset saying: “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus calmed him down saying: “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand” (13: 6 – 7). This explication does not apply only to the washing of the feet. It applies to the whole ministry of Jesus. The same explication is given by the narrator to the saying about the “rivers of living water” that will gush forth from Jesus’ heart: “This he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him would receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (7: 39). In other words, at the time no one understood what Jesus had said.
The clearest explication of the perspective from which the narration is taking place reads: “His disciples did not understand this at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that this had been written of him and had been done to him” (12: 16). And when Peter and the beloved disciple run to find out if it is true that Jesus’ body had been stolen from the tomb and the door left open, the narrator explains that “as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (20: 9).
This explanations make clear that what had happened during the ministry of Jesus had not been understood by his disciples at the time. Only after the glorification of the Son of man, his lifting up and returning to the Father, did his disciples “remember” the things that happened and understand that the Scriptures had predicted them. That is, the recognition of Jesus as the Savior of the world, the One Sent by the Father, came as the result of a memory that “remembers” and interprets in light of the Scriptures guided by the Holy Spirit that was given to them after his glorification.
We can understand, then, why the gospel says that Jesus promised his disciples that the function of the Paraclete was to “remind” them of what Jesus had said when he was with them. “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (14: 26). This promise is preceded by the explanation: “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you” (14: 25). But in the second Farewell Discourse Jesus tells his disciples: “But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I have told you of them. I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.” (16: 4) How are we to understand this?
It would seem that the one speaking is the Risen Christ, not the Jesus who was to be crucified. Are we to understand that Jesus told them about “these things . . .from the beginning”, when he was with them, or that he did not tell them about these things precisely because he was with them? If he did not tell them because he was with them, how was it going to be possible for them to “remember” what he did not tell them? Or, is it that the Holy Spirit is going to “teach” them and “remind” them what Jesus did not tell them when he was with them, at the beginning? This makes me think that to “remember” has here a technical meaning. To “remember” is to reflect theologically about the meaning of the life of the Son of God in the world below.
The roots for the use of memory as a theological faculty, which does not limit itself to retaining something in the mind but also informs action, are found in the Old Testament. In his discourse to the people before entering into Canaan Moses tells them: “Take heed and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen” (4: 9, cp. 4: 23, 6:12). Micah transmits the word of the Lord: “O my people, remember . . . that you may know the saving acts of the Lord” (6: 5). In a psalm recorded in 1 Chronicles, David sings: “Remember the wonderful works he has done, the wonders he wrought, the judgments he uttered” (16: 12). After a brief summary of the mighty acts that God had done on behalf of his people, Nehemiah laments: “they refused to obey and forgot the wonders which thou didst perform” (9: 17). Whearas the fourth commandment in Deuteronomy begins by saying: “Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (5: 12), the same command in Exodus reads: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (20: 8). To remember, not to forget, is to behave obediently with full understanding of what is required.
The gospel According to John includes a beatitude for those who have not seen and yet believed (20: 29). This applies to those of us who confess: “You are the Christ who has come to the world.” All future generations of believers are contemporaries of Jesus who can remember his mighty deeds because the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, teaches them and “re-minds” them of what they have neither seen nor heard. Once the disciples received the Holy Spirit who taught them all things and reminded them of all things in the light of the Scriptures, then and only then did they understand what Jesus had been about. This is the Johannine definition of the memory that is guided by the Holy Spirit. It understands what it did not know and remembers what it had neither seen nor heard in order to actualize in labors of love the life of Jesus on earth. To all his disciples Jesus says: “Remember the word that I said to you” (15: 20).