Why Would Jesus Conceal His Identity?

As the saying goes, a man is only as good as his reputation. Unfortunately, reputations are fragile: anything from whispered insinuation to broadcast slander can shatter even the most guarded image. While this is especially true in our world of instant media, it was also true in Jesus’ day—and Jesus knew it. At least, that’s what John H. Morris Jr. argues in his The Messianic Secret in Mark.

As we read Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus charging his followers to keep quiet about his miracles and identity (Mark 1:40–45; 8:29–30). Yet in other scenes, Jesus encourages people to tell others about him. These seeming discrepancies have puzzled interpreters for centuries, leading to suggestions that Mark invented the charges of silence to explain why Jesus never revealed his messianic nature during his life.

In The Messianic Secret in Mark, Morris argues that this isn’t the case; rather, these are accurate descriptions of the normal behavior of a high-profile first-century person trying to grow his or her reputation while protecting it from people who would seek to discredit it. Jesus was doing what he could to protect his public image. Sometimes that meant keeping his identity and miraculous works a secret.

Morris’ groundbreaking work explores these passages in Mark’s gospel from a social science model of deviance and name-calling.  Approaching the Gospel of Mark in its first-century context, Morris bridges the cultural gap between the first century and today, offering new insights into the peculiarities of Jesus’ behavior in proclaiming his ministry. With an annotated bibliography showing examples of insults, name-callings, and slanders from the New Testament era, Morris explores the lengths Jesus went to to ensure that his message of good news and salvation would spread.

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  1. “Sometimes that meant keeping his identity and miraculous works a secret.”

    Please lead me to the Scripture references where that ever worked; where the ones the Lord commanded were actually obedient and kept mum.

  2. Jesus gives the cleansed leper specific commands. “but GO (I’m guessing that’s an imperative), see that you say nothing to anyone”. Then He tells the leper exactly where to GO; to show himself to the priest and offer for cleansing what Moses commanded. According to Leviticus and the offering for cleansing of leprosy, where was the former leper supposed to go? The tabernacle or after the temple was built, to the temple IN Jerusalem. Why? “For a proof to them.” To who? The priests at the temple in Jerusalem. To “prove” what? How many leprosy cleansings had the priests at that time seen? How many leprosy cleansings had the priests for the past 700 years seen? What would a cleansed leper, something the Jews hadn’t seen since Naaman, clue the priesthood in on when they saw a real cleansed leper for the first time since Naaman, especially the priests who had even a cursory, Reader’s Digest knowledge of Daniel? Seems to me the issue is anything but Jesus trying to maintain secrecy of Himself but that the issue in the case of the cleansed leper is obedience, and failed obedience at that. Obedience and failure to be obedient seems like it is the issue every single time the Lord commanded the one He healed not to tell anyone. Had the leper obeyed Jesus, the Levitical priesthood would have had demonstrable proof that God’s clock per Daniel was spot on. Whether the priesthood would have made that connection is questionable but they would have had the opportunity whether to reject their lyin’ eyes or go with their decision to reject Christ as Messiah. Seems like there would have been a twofer. The cleansed leper obeying the Levitical requirements which were still part of the existing covenant at the time AND the priesthood seeing an actual leper presenting himself to them for the first time since Elisha and Naaman which should have turned on a light bulb or two in the thoughts and meditations of a priest. Unfortunately the leper made an issue out of the miracle and not an issue out of the One who performed it. Jesus then commanded him to build on his faith he had when he first came to be healed by obeying the Lord’s command AFTER he was healed. Had the issue been keeping Jesus’ identity a secret, Jesus failed miserably.

    I find similar commands and failures of obedience every time Jesus commanded the healed one not to tell anyone about the healing, especially in John 5 where the healed man at Bethesda made an issue out of himself and his new found ability to walk which caused the Lord to go to the man and warn him to stop sinning. Even then, the man disobeyed.

    • John Morris says


      I am the author of this work, so I may be able to help.

      Here is my take. The issue is not secrecy, but who is encouraged to spread information about Jesus and who is encouraged not to spread information about Jesus. It is all about reputation and who gets to influence it. Jesus is less concerned about secrecy than about the reputation of who is spreading the word about Him.

      You raise great points. Unfortunately, the brevity of the blog entry meant that a lot of the meat of my argument was not included. My point is that Jesus wanted people who were proper witnesses to go and tell everyone about what had happened. Jesus wanted people who would not be good witnesses (for a variety of reasons), to stay silent. The leper was not a “good” witness for the reasons that you mentioned and several others. Jesus did not want a “bad” witness spreading the word about him because even correct information from a “bad” source could damage a reputation. I use a social science model to discuss why one particular witness might be good or bad and apply that model to the “Messianic Secret” passages in Mark’s Gospel.

      Your point about obedience is interesting. From my point of view, anyone who disobeyed a basic command to be silent would probably fall under the category of a bad or poorly prepared witness.

      Peter and the disciples may be an example of people who were ordered to be silent and kept the commandment (Mark 8:30 and 9:9)

  3. Ken Russell says

    First of all, thank you John for your comments. And in fairness to you, I am commenting on what is written in the write-up about your book and in this reply, your response. Hopefully I’ll figure out your objective when I read your book.

    “Jesus did not want a “bad” witness spreading the word about him because even correct information from a “bad” source could damage a reputation. I use a social science model to discuss why one particular witness to discuss why one particular witness might be good or bad and apply that model to the “Messianic Secret” passages in Mark’s Gospel.”

    If reputation was the issue, then the Lord again failed miserably when He raised Lazarus. Look at the results of the Savior just after raising Lazarus. Who was a better witness to His reputation than the Lord since He did the raising in front of lots of folks? Those who were eye witnesses to Jesus’ very own “witness” decided the solution to raising a man from the dead was to kill Lazarus and Jesus. Even our Lord couldn’t save His own reputation let alone the others who were commanded to keep silent. So much for the social science model of the day.

    Plus, if the Lord was worried about who witnessed for Him and therefore told the bad ones to keep mum, why in the world was Isaiah 53 written, not to mention several Psalms (Ps 50:19-21; Ps 69:11, 12 for example) that prophecy His bad reputation? He was thronged all the time as a result of those He told to keep silent. I don’t think the Creator of the universe is limited by who is a good and who is a bad witness nor is He worried about satisfying the social science model used in the first century, especially when He is fulfilling His priestly function before His kingship. In every case, I believe He told people to keep silent for specific reasons that had nothing to do with His good reputation. Had the folks in the various home towns been ready for the Messiah like they should have been, the issue would not have been, “Let’s get our limbago healed, the line starts here” but the issue would have been looking forward to the promised kingdom and the promised King even if a recently cleansed leper was a terrible witness to them. I think that is what Jesus was concerned about and not who was a good or bad social science model source.