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The "Messianic Secret" motif in Mark is a theory which gained currency with a writer named Wrede earlier last century and has expanded in various directions according to theorists picking it up. The general theme is that Jesus in the Gospel of Mark appears to modern eyes to be hesitant to let others know of his divinity, telling people not to speak of their healings, or to be quiet about their knowledge of him.
From this we have seen permutations that explain this as evidence that the Apostles made up the divine claims and acts of Jesus (so that the "secret" motif was used to explain why no one had heard Jesus make claims or seen him do miracles before) to the idea that this shows Jesus to have been unsure of his divinity, and that he therefore may have been mentally ill.
We may first note that there were social reasons why Jesus had to be circumspect in His proclamations of divinity:
- a need for Jesus to avoid the loaded term "Messiah" which might be assumed to be military;
- the social constraint of Jewish apocryphal texts, including the Psalms of Solomon and 4 Ezra, which said that only God could declare who the Messiah was.
By this line of thinking, as Charlesworth puts it, "Any self-designation only proves that the proclaimer cannot be the Messiah." Thus, Jesus' relative silence on the issue "may well be an implicit indication that he thought of himself as the Messiah." (ibid.) We have also noted that the Messianic secret theory misses the point that despite these admonitions to silence, Jesus' subjects did go out and tell the story anyway.
But there was an even more primary social reason for Jesus' hesitation for word to spread of himself and his work. Pilch and Malina explain in the Handbook of Biblical Social Values [59ff] three social paradigms that come into play:
- Envy -- the begrudging of possession of some quality or object by another.
- Limited Good -- the ancient perception that all good things are limited and finite in quantity, including intangibles, like:
- Honor -- the accord given by a person to others, a value in the ancient world that they took as seriously as we today take paying the bills.
Taken together, these factors tell us that Jesus' reticence is an example of what would have been regarded as honorable behavior in the ancient world. For Jesus to have been plain about his divinity and Messianic nature in public would have aroused serious envy (as we do see it did, from his opponents, especially in John) as he would have been claiming a high level of honor, and this would have been seen as drawing from the well of honor, which was a "limited good". Thus to make such claims would have been seen as taking honor from others.
The society of Wrede's day was one of limitless good, and without such heavy concentration on honor; hence it is little wonder Wrede came up with the explanation of a "Messianic secret". In an individualist society with limitless good, the thing to do is go out and share what you have with others, and even brag about it. The world Jesus lived in would have found such behavior intolerable -- as did his opponents, and as did the residents of Nazareth.
One more point needs to be noted: Why is it that Jesus often stopped demons from speaking of him? This has been appealed to as part of the Messianic secret theme, but in fact it is not, and the reason for it is different than the above. Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social Science commentary, 183) note that the demons were seeking to protect themselves by "magically using" the "true identity" of Jesus. A desperate move, yes, but deserving of a rebuke, and not an element of Messianic secrecy.