The “Messianic Secret” According to J.C. O’Neill

Although I don’t intend this blog to become too focused on the technical/critical questions and issues of the NT guild, I’m going to indulge myself a little further this week. I was flicking through Nick’s list of book reviews and came across one on J.C. O’Neill’s really fascinating, if flawed, book Who Did Jesus Think He Was? It reminded me of his interesting answer to the so-called “Messianic Secret”. So after digging out the book again, today I’m going to share a few thoughts on it (also, see Nick’s general review of the book with which I basically agree).


I still recall how strange it seemed (coming from an essentially fundie outlook) to hear for the first time the expression “The Messianic Secret”. “Huh? What?” I hear you say. Yup, the relative public silence of Jesus concerning his Messiahship has led to a vast array of scholarly musings (and the demise of more than one or two trees). Geza Vermes (Jesus the Jew), for example, concluded that Jesus didn’t hold himself even to be the Messiah. However, our hero of this post, J.C. O’Neill, disagrees and argues that there are good reasons to think that Jesus did so because of both his actions and the “hints” in his sayings. He points out that while there may have been no unified concept of what the Messiah would be like in the NT period, the theme of Davidic kingship is woven into every thread of expectation. And as another well-known scholar Ed Sanders observes of Jesus: “What he claimed for himself was tantamount to claiming kingship… he talked about a kingdom; his disciples expected to have a role in it; they considered him their leader; he was crucified for claiming to be king” (evidenced by the titulus – the charge placed above the cross; Jesus and Judaism, p. 322). Yet, this leaves O’Neill with the quandary as to why if Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah, he was so reticent about proclaiming this directly, clearly and publicly. To account for this conundrum, O’Neill postulates his theory of the “Law of the Hidden Messiah”. O’Neill surveys the literature and notes the following:

  1. Various biblical texts were read messianically and the search for “types” of the Messiah indicated that “the Messiah, when he first came, would be hard to identify.” [p. 42]
  2. The Messiah would be a “type” of King David. As such, O’Neill points to the hardships David had to suffer, including periods when he had to remain “hidden” with the Ziphites or escape and hide from his own son Absolom. Thus, “just as not everyone at the time of David recognized the anointed king, so when the greater David came it would not be obvious who he was.” [p. 43]
  3. Josephus reported that the people were searching and looking for “the signs of salvation”. Moreover, he records the activities of twelve different men acting in a “messianic manner”. Yet, strikingly, as O’Neill points out, “None of them is reported as actually saying he was king, but they are said to be king by their followers.” [p. 44] E.g., Menahem the Galilean advanced on Jerusalem like a king and entered the Temple in royal robes.
  4. If spiritual discernment was necessary to see the “hidden Messiah”, a corollary was that eventually God would reveal and declare him openly.

On the basis of this evidence, O’Neill proposed “the hypothesis that there was current a Jewish law which proscribed, on pain of death, the presumptuous blasphemy of anyone taking it upon himself to say that he was the Messiah until the Father had clearly spoken.” [p. 48] He claims that we see this reflected in the NT Gospels, e.g., John 19:7  (The Jewish authorities answered him [Pilate], “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God”). O’Neill points out that the term ‘Son of God’ was a messianic title and not blasphemous in itself. As such, he argues that this verse demonstrates that the ‘law’ which Jesus had broken was making the claim himself that he was the Messiah. Further, this appears corroborated by John 19:21 (Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews'”). According to O’Neill, the Jewish authorities were actually asking for precision in the charge of which Jesus was guilty; it was because ‘he said’ or ‘made the claim’ to be Messiah. In fact, he believes that the Gospel writer had access to accurate information on the ‘technical nature’ of the charge. However, O’Neill argues that Jesus never actually broke this law.

At first blush this all seems very possible. But there’s a hitch: during the trial scenes in the Gospels, Jesus appears to state clearly that he is the Messiah (‘Son of God’). However, O’Neill attributes these direct claims to the work of later Christian scribes. For example, compare Mk 14:61-63 with Matt 26:64-65:

  • Mark: Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power,’ and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.'” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses?
  • Matt: Then the high priest said to him… “tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses?

O’Neill points to the considerable difference between “I am” and “You have said so”. In fact, the possible Aramaic root for “You have said so” is ambiguous and may even mean “no” in context. For example, the saying of Rabbi Simeon the Modest:

“Who is more eminent, you or the high priest?” Rabbi Simeon kept silent. Rabbi Eliezar said to him, “Demean yourself and admit that the high priest’s dog is more eminent that you.” Simeon answered, “Rabbi, you have said it.” (tKel 1.1.6; see Vermes, p. 148).

Additionally, when Jesus goes on to speak of the ‘son of man’, he is not necessarily speaking of himself. In fact, when Jesus used that phrase he left it open as to whether he was referring to himself or not, or using it to refer to the Messiah or not. Moreover, O’Neill appeals to Vermes that ‘son of man’ could also simply be a circumlocution for ‘me’ or ‘I’ rather than carrying a directly messianic sense. In the context of the trial narratives, O’Neill suggests that Jesus is speaking of the ‘heavenly judge’ and is not making a direct self-reference. However, it was heard by the high priest as a claim for himself and this then made Jesus guilty of blasphemy for breaking O’Neill’s “hidden Messiah” law.

Although making Jesus’ relative silence about his Messiahship into an absolute silence in the Gospels, it must be admitted that O’Neill’s conjecture of a law directly forbidding a public self-claim to Messiahship does have some explanatory power. It explains the so-called “messianic secret” and why Jesus was found guilty of blasphemy at his trial. Interestingly, while agreeing with Vermes that Jesus made no public claims to Messiahship at all, contra Vermes, O’Neill uses this as evidence that Jesus in fact believed himself to be Messiah! (Is this the ultimate argument from silence?)

Nonetheless, in my view, O’Neill’s incredibly speculative proposal is rather dubious. At the very least, the complete lack of actual evidence for such a law renders its existence problematic. Moreover, his reading of the biblical evidence is very strained. As O’Neill does elsewhere in his writings – when the textual evidence is contradictory, he attributes it to later Christian scribal activity in order to dismiss it. Moreover, if there are better reasons for the relative silence (not absolute!) of Jesus concerning his Messiahship in the Gospels, then O’Neill’s theoretical law becomes unnecessary. Perhaps a simpler, more practical reason may be suggested.

In the context of the first century AD, any claim to Messiahship carried with it tremendous political overtones; in fact, it would have conjured up images of violent, revolutionary nationalism. This being so, it should not surprise us that Jesus avoided any direct, public claims. Firstly, such a claim would doubtless have attracted the negative attention of the authorities – which is precisely what in the end led to his crucifixion. Secondly, Jesus seems to have had a different perspective on what Messiahship entailed. It was not the way of bloody revolution and a holy crusade to rid Israel of Rome, to free her from the shackles of her enemy. Rather, in the fight against tyranny, Jesus the ‘son of David’ did not merely choose  the weapons of passive resistance – to go the second mile and to turn the other cheek, but he intensified and surpassed that by insisting on blessing and praying for those who cursed you, and radically, to love your enemies. This is drastically different from the path of his forefather David, the warrior-king (cf. John 6:15). Furthermore, if Jesus was considered to be a mesith, one who led the people astray (cf. Deut 13:6-8; 21:22-23; 11Q Temple 64:6-10), who might bring down the wrath of Rome on the people, then that would provide reason enough for the Jewish authorities to want rid of him (cf. John 11:46-53). Anyone who gathered and attracted large crowds would automatically have been rendered suspect to both the Jewish and Roman leadership. We don’t need to posit a law concerning the “hidden Messiah” to explain the desire to have Jesus done away with.

In the end, O’Neill has given us a compelling, ingenious, but ultimately unconvincing explanation for the “messianic secret”. (The whole book is a good read, though I tended to find him saying ‘I’m going to demonstrate this in the next chapter’ [but doesn’t]. Then in the following chapter he’d say “Having demonstrated that…” [somewhat frustrating!])

To buy: In the US; In the UK.

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