The gospels are short as biographical writings go. In such short narratives we might expect a simple story, describing what happened in Yeshua’s life, what his mission was, how he was received, and the meaning of his death and resurrection. In many ways the gospels challenge us with their show-don’t-tell methodology, with their deliberate ambiguity, and with their lack of a clear program or agenda.
It appears that the complexity of the gospels is due to two things. One is the complexity of Yeshua. Often he did not speak plainly, but challenged his listeners with ambiguous and onerous sayings. The power of his speaking lay in the authority with which he spoke and also in the nearly impenetrable and unanticipated direction of his answers. The other is the apparent decision, by the evangelists, to present Yeshua much as he was and not to greatly simplify. Of course, they did some explaining and clarifying, yet for the most part they depict Yeshua as a challenging personality, a goad to wisdom, a demanding intellect.
Many readers are disappointed that Yeshua did not simply state his identity as Messiah and Lord. Equally they are dismayed that Yeshua did not render and clear and easily memorable guide to spirituality or inheritance of eternal life.
In fact, Yeshua is known for another theme in his deeds and sayings, a secretive theme. He told his disciples once than he spoke in parables so that only a few would understand (Mark 4:11). He repeatedly silenced unclean spirits who had access to higher planes of knowledge and were aware of his identity (Mark 1:25). He commanded those who witnessed healings and resurrections not to tell anyone (Mark 5:43). He downplayed talk of his status. He fled from crowds eager to make him king (John 6:15). He was sometimes evasive when directly questioned at his trial about his royal identity (Mark 15:2).
This is not to say that Yeshua did not own up, repeatedly, to lofty expressions of his identity and purpose. Yet he generally chose expressions off the beaten path, describing his authority in unusual ways or his status as the crux of salvation in unusual metaphors. He left his hearers confused, even his closest disciples. The church has not come to unanimous agreement either, through all the centuries, about the details of Yeshua’s message and the meaning of his deeds.
Yet for all this ambiguity and obscurity, Yeshua fascinates and draws followers rather than simply repelling them with an insurmountable challenge. His disciples, for example, were committed to a very high level of following him even though they did not understand what he was about until after the resurrection. One story in particular brings the theme of the Messianic secret to its high point and develops the theme of misunderstanding, true identity, and the need for a sober mind and clear vision.
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My book Yeshua in Context: Sketches of the Life and Times of Yeshua the Messiah will be released later in 2010. Stay tuned for news and some ways to be involved.