Baker Academic

Friday, September 28, 2012

Review of Watson's Honor Among Christians - Le Donne

I had the pleasure of reviewing David Watson's Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to Messianic Secret for a conference recently. I hope you enjoy this as much as I enjoyed reading the book. (David Watson will be welcoming us to the United Theological Seminary family next week for our "Demise of Authenticity" conference).

One of my most beloved seminary professors taught me that “you know that an exegetical thesis is worth pursuing when you find that the answer to your question unlocks the meaning of several other texts that are otherwise problematic.” In other words, rather than unlocking the meaning of a particular passage in isolation, the thesis creates a constellation of related meanings throughout the book in question. This is what made William Wrede’s Messianic Secret so influential. In the wake of Strauss’s Leben Jesu, historical critics were looking for a problem to solve and were convinced that it would be solved by parsing out Mark into strata.

Wrede asks two questions to begin his masterpiece: “What do we know of Jesus’ life? and…What do we know of the oldest views and representations of Jesus’ life?” Wrede then rephrases the two-part question like this: “How do we manage to dissect the Gospel tradition in these two directions: how do we separate what belongs properly to Jesus from what is material of the primitive community?” (Wrede, 4).

One can see the premise of his work implicit in these questions: Jesus is a figure obscured by the veneration attached to his name by the earliest Christians. Upon this premise, Wrede noticed that Jesus repeatedly silences such venerations and commands people to tell no one of his great works. Moreover, Jesus’ “messianic identity” is most often revealed to only a small group of disciples until the end of Mark’s Gospel. For Wrede, this odd behavior tied together to form a Markan theme. Mark was attempting to answer the problem of Jesus’ silence concerning his messianic status relative to his public persona. For Wrede, Mark’s agenda to overlay Jesus with secretive intentions created a second stratum with messianic veneration and an apologetic for Jesus’ otherwise humble persona. For Wrede, and countless scholars since Wrede, this made better sense of prohibitions addressed to demons, prohibitions following other miracles, the prohibition following Peter’s confession, and Jesus’ many and varied attempts to retreat from public view.


Of course, there were problems with Wrede’s thesis, including several episodes in Mark where Jesus acts out his “messianic” vocation quite publicly. And there was also the problem of those who disobeyed Jesus’ commands for secrecy. Wrede recognized these and offered a few caveats to explain these discrepancies. Still, Wrede’s thesis became a standard talking point in Markan studies and survives globally in various permutations. The question persists: Why does the Markan Jesus not want his true identity to be known?

David F. Watson argues that we have been asking the wrong question. According to Watson, Mark’s "ancient Mediterranean audiences" would have been asking, "Why would Jesus behave in ways that prevented, rather than promoted, the spread of honor broadly among the public?" (15). Watson answers that the Markan Jesus acts in countercultural ways to subvert common notions of honor acquisition in ancient Mediterranean culture. "For Mark, to be regarded favorably in God’s eyes necessarily involves being regarded unfavorably, and thus dishonorably, in the eyes of the wider culture" (75). 

Many of those who receive the benefits of Jesus’ messianic activity would have naturally acclaimed Jesus publicly and thus fulfilled their social obligation in terms of "achieved honor". Jesus not only foregoes this acclaim, but he creates an awkward situation whereby the regular avenues toward honor are blocked. Similarly Jesus disallows disciples and demons alike from proclaiming his true identity, thus foregoing "ascribed honor". This resistance of honor would have been scandalous by ancient Mediterranean standards and this sets the stage for the scandal the cross, which would have been a potent symbol of shame. "Mark’s Jesus challenges characters with the Gospel and the Gospel audiences to join Jesus’ in-group and 'take up' the cross, an object of shame in the wider culture, but a symbol of virtue within Jesus’ group" (84).

This book is compelling and important in several respects. Not only does it contextualize the concealment passages better than Wrede could, it makes better sense of Mark as a whole. Indeed, in reading this book, I couldn’t help but think about many other NT passages that make better sense in light of Watson’s thesis. In other words, rather than unlocking the meaning of a few particular passages in isolation, Watson creates a constellation of related meanings throughout Mark. For instance:

Q: Why does Jesus say that the official’s daughter was only asleep when she was in fact dead? (Mk 5:39) / A: Because Jesus wanted to draw less attention to the amazing thing he was about to perform.

Q: Why does Jesus disallow demons to proclaim the truth about Jesus’ status? (Mark 1:34) / 
A: Because Jesus didn’t want to give the demonic leverage with honor reciprocity convention.

Indeed almost all of Mark chapter 10 takes on a new light in terms of honor and shame.

I did have a few questions as I read:

1) Does this thesis change (or at least nuance) the way we understand Mark’s so-called "apology" for the cross?

2) Does this thesis help us connect Jesus’ Galilean ministry to Mark’s passion narrative a bit better?

3) Watson briefly touches on Daniel 7 and the "Son of Man" debate, but I wonder if there is much more to be said about concealment and revelation in apocalyptic categories. I would like to revisit Mark 13 in light of this thesis.

4) If wealth was for the purpose of maintaining one’s honor and secrecy had in-group implications, does this thesis help us better understand the secret of Ananias and Sapphira? Might that story betray an interest in guarding their ability to keep giving gifts indefinitely? And might this have challenged the social cohesion of the in-group on a fundamental level?

5) If grasping honor above one’s station in life was considered shameful, does this help us understand the Christology of Phil 2 better?

I also had a few minor challenges:

1) Watson assumes in several places that "gift-giving" is the appropriate category for Jesus’ healings. I would have liked to have seen a full defense of this association since is seems crucial to his thesis.

2) Why does Watson dichotomize theological (or in Wrede’s terms dogmatic) concerns from sociocultural concerns? Shouldn’t we expect these to overlap?

3) Finally, at several points, Watson argues that Jesus was acting in countercultural ways. He makes a good case that Jesus’ actions would have been viewed as countercultural to a Greco-Roman audience… but he does very little to show how these would have been understood in a Jewish context? Isn’t there precedent for such action in Jewish wisdom literature?


  1. This sounds like a very interesting book. While I have not read the gospel of Mark, I noticed in the Gospel of Matthew several instances where Jesus told the disciples to keep what they witnessed a secret. If Jesus were to be the "messiah" as Matthew is intent on portraying, it seems like Jesus should to prove himself worthy of the title to the Jews. The notion that Mark tried to downplay Jesus' miracle work correlates with a portrait of Jesus as more human. Maybe Jesus wants to hide the fact that he is the messiah in order to gain the peoples' trust and to come across as similar to them.

  2. This book seems like another great piece of a big puzzle that will help give further insight. While we can speculate and try and decipher Jesus true intentions for his actions we will never really know what his parables really meant.

    "The question persists: Why does the Markan Jesus not want his true identity to be known? "

    I think a better way to ask this question would be; How would Jesus be perceived among the people had he let his true identity and actions be known and spread through the communities?Had he walked around from town to town like a modern rockstar and performed miracles and allowed to be talked up people would have more reason to proclaim him as a charlatan eventhough he already was called that being low-key. Watson's answer of Jesus's counterculture behavior is very vague and doesnt give concise points on his answer. I really think that he wanted to show people that he wasnt doing all of this for his own recognition or money but to let them know he was the messiah.

  3. Maybe the simple answer is that Jesus was modest, no but seriously isn't hard to believe that Jesus felt as though he had nothing to prove. Throughout mark(when he heals the man with leprosy,when people proclaim he is the son of god) he silences anyone who dares acknowlegde his greatness, he just wants to know that they have faith. Jesus' message is that he doesn't want to be understood.

  4. I think that the true of identity of Jesus should not have been known. It's like when you are beginning to date someone and you don't want to reveal everything about yourself because one the guy might run off in fear and two it makes it much more intriguing to try and get to know the person and with each fact that is discovered comes excitement. For Jesus, he was modest and therefore many of his various miracles were not seen or praised, but for those who did witness these miracles they became intrigued and became strong believers in him. Like Cetoya said, for Jesus the greatest thing he could get from others was not praise but a strong faith.

  5. I agree with Cetoya in that Jesus was modest and also believe that a large part of why the true identity of Jesus is unknown is because of his holiness and relation to God. God is almighty and all knowing and there are thousands of mysteries that go along with being God. Because of this, I think that if we knew everything about Jesus, we would not be as interested in him as we still are now, almost 2000 years after his existence. I think that not knowing everything about Jesus also allows there to be a Jesus for just about everyone.