Mark 1:23-28, 32-34 - Jesus Exorcises some Demons
This story encapsulates two elements that are integral to understanding Mark's gospel: namely, Jesus' capacity for miraculous deeds and the so-called "Messianic secret". I shall address miracles in the next section, and use this pericope instead to focus on the role of the Messianic Secret in Markan theology.
The Messianic Secret was an idea coined by William Wrede at the turn of the century in a book of the same name. He noted that Jesus quite frequently made a secret of his Messiahship in gMark, telling people that he has healed (or in any other way betrayed his great powers1 to) not to tell anyone about it (cf. v. 44 below, 5:43, 7:36). As a consequence, no-one in Mark's gospel recognises Jesus for who he is except for the demons (Mk. 1:24, 5:7) and the Roman Centurion after Jesus' death (Mk. 15:39). Tellingly, even Jesus' family and his disciples are kept ignorant about his true nature.
Wrede's solution to this quite enigmatic Markan motif is that it was a later retrojection, completely original to the author of this gospel, to explain why Jesus was not more widely acknowledged as the Son of God during his own lifetime. This may be especially pertinent if Mark was addressing the claims of early Christians who might have rejected higher Christological ideas (see, for instance, the Ebionites) and might have been able to point to the lack of surviving testimony concerning Jesus' powers in the oral tradition as proof of their claims. For Wrede, therefore, Mark invented - out of whole cloth - both the idea that Jesus performed great deeds befitting the Son of God and the idea that Jesus then compelled observers to keep these deeds a secret, as an explanation for why none of Mark's contemporaries were familiar with them having ever occurred. If true, the challenges for Christian theology are "legion".2
However I'm not inclined to rush to this judgment, as there are other credible solutions. Firstly, we must note that Mark, throughout his gospel, goes to great lengths to portray Jesus' disciples as ignorant of Jesus' true nature and the "Messianic Secret" motif might have been a means of explaining why. If so, it might be a coded reference to proto-Christian3 contemporaries of Mark that even people who lived close to Jesus had trouble understanding who he was, so struggles with faith and understanding should be considered par de course for a follower of Jesus, and that they should not be discouraged by such difficulties.
Secondly, perhaps it is the case that Wrede was on the right track (that Markan secrecy was borne of necessity due to genuine disagreements between Jesus' first century followers as to who he actually was) but that he simply over-reached by declaring that the issue was completely original to Mark. Perhaps, as Raymond Brown notes4, Markan secrecy:
"...may have its roots in Jesus' historical rejection of some messianic aspirations of his own time and his having no developed theological language to express his identity."
I'm not completely convinced by the "undeveloped theological language" argument, but the idea that Markan secrecy can be traced back to the uncertainty of Jesus' early followers (as opposed to Mark alone) about the exact nature of his minstry (perhaps due to Jesus' own uncertainty or coyness?) is one I find quite compelling.
Thirdly, the theme of secrecy in Jesus' ministry may be one which pre-dates Mark, perhaps even going back to Jesus himself. In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (and other gnostic texts) Jesus is presented as teaching a secret, hidden message, available only to this with special gnosis (γνῶσις) or knowledge. Mark himself appears to have Jesus explicitly endorse such a proto-gnostic message (Mk. 4:10-12):
When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that:
“they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”
Is there any historical truth to this notion that Jesus preached a secret message - available only to a select few - as the gnostics always maintained? Do we find traces of this in Mark? I'm quite drawn to the idea (it would certainly fit in with my own view of the historical Jesus, which will surely be fleshed out as we progress) though the evidence is - at best - inconclusive. For now, don't worry about making a firm decision about the nature of secrecy in gMark: just be aware that it is there, and that there are a number of different approaches as to determining its meaning.
1 - δύναμις / dynamis - from the same root that we get dynamite in English.
2 - Particularly, why should we be inclined to consider Jesus as the miracle performing Son of God if - according to this theory - no-one in the first 40 years of Christianity could have held such a view? The word "legion" here is an EXTREMELY clever reference to a later exorcism in this gospel (Mk. 5:9).
3 - Christianity as we recognise it today (with its attendant set of fundamental dogmas) hadn't really developed by the time of Mark's gospel. I use the term "proto-Christianity" as a way of pointing out that the ideas common to this group would later give rise to the Christianities that we are familiar with today, but it was not yet developed (or homogenous) enough to earn the title of Christianity proper.
4 - Introduction to the New Testament, p. 153.