The secretive messiah


  • Question 171, from Simon B

    I’m reading Luke chapter 8. Why did Jesus tell the Gerasene to tell everyone that he had been healed of his demon possession and Jairus to tell no one about the resurrection of his daughter?

    These two stories in Luke chapter 8, along with the stories of the calming of the storm (verses 22-25) and the healing of the woman with permanent bleeding (verses 43-48) are key to establishing the various claims made about Jesus by his followers.

    In order, Jesus is shown to be in charge of the natural world by stilling the storm on the Lake of Galilee, master of the ‘spiritual world’ by freeing a man of demon possession (verses 26-39), having authority over the law through his interaction with the woman who was bleeding and therefore ‘unclean’ according to the Torah, and finally, having the power to reverse the effects of death (verses 40-42 & 49-56).

    The gospel writer is effectively setting out some very strong claims for Jesus’ divinity or, at the very least, his unique relationship with God. However, there are several occasions in the first three gospels when Jesus is reported as asking those he has helped not to tell anyone about it. This is particularly true in the gospel of Mark.

    Jesus’ reported reticence has been referred to as the ‘Messianic Secret’. In more liberal theology, associated with the German theologian Wilhelm Wrede who coined the phrase, the ‘Secret’ is an invention of the gospel writers who believed that Jesus was divine and needed to explain why the miraculous side of Jesus’ life was perhaps not so well-known. The gospel writers therefore created accounts where Jesus instructed people not to talk about the miracles, but those in the know, his disciples, act as witnesses to them, and they are reported later in the gospels.

    This is a bit of a convoluted theory and has been widely critiqued. There is only one occasion when Jesus instructs his disciples to keep quiet about a specific conversation about him being the messiah (Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ in Mark chapter 8). There are also numerous miracles – the feeding of 5,000 people which appears in all four gospels, for example – where it would be impossible for that to have been kept a secret, if it happened.

    There may have been good reasons for Jesus wanting to keep certain miracles under wraps. He had attracted criticism and threats against his person for linking healing with forgiveness of sins. A resurrection, or rumours of one, would have raised the hackles of his opponents. The contradictory nature of his responses to the newly-restored Gerasene demoniac and Jairus could be explained by where the writer says the miracles took place.

    The Gerasenes either lived near Gadara, one of the Hellenistic cities on the other side of the Lake of Galilee, or Gergesa on the shores of the lake. This wasn’t Jewish territory and a large number of non-Jews lived there – as can be seen by the presence of a large herd of pigs which were unclean animals in Jewish law. The likelihood of Jesus enemies among the Jewish religious leaders actively seeking out or believing stories from that area was very low.

    Jairus, however, is noted by Luke as a “ruler of the synagogue” (verse 41). The account does not say which synagogue, but there had already been an incident in a Galileean synagogue which had almost resulted in Jesus being stoned, when had made a claim to being the fulfilment of a messianic prophecy (Luke chapter 4, verse 28-30). An appeal to Jairus’ discretion seems very plausible in those circumstances.

    It’s also important to recognise that Jesus explicitly instructs the Gerasene man he has healed to go and tell other people about him. It is impossible to know whether the man himself was Jewish, but certainly Jesus gives no indication that he should restrict his witness to Jews. Luke’s gospel is often regarded as more ‘universal’ in its approach – and this story seems to bear out the theory that the writer wanted to show the good news was for both Jews and gentiles alike.

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