The Messianic Secret

So let’s say you have a piece of personal, private news that needs, for whatever reason, to become public. Obviously you have to tell people about it, or it will never become public; how do you go about doing this?

Firstly, what do about those people who ought to know, but you’re not really friends with them – do you tell them directly? No. But what about the people are are friends with? You can’t have the people you should tell directly learn about it from others just because you told someone else first.

So what do you do? You tell the people you need to tell about it, and you say that it’s a secret. Then, since humans are bad at keeping secrets, the information will slowly become public – but slowly enough that everyone who needs to be told directly, can be.

This reminds me, strangely, of the Messianic Secret – that oddity in the New Testament whereby Jesus tells everyone to keep his performing of miracles and general Messiah-ship a secret, when doing so makes little sense. There’s different theological debates about the meaning of this, but what’s always struck me as odd about it is that he explicitly says to keep it a secret, but it doesn’t seem like the people who don’t keep it a secret are doing anything wrong. Why is that?

Well, it’s because there’s certain times when telling people something is a secret, and not to tell anyone, doesn’t actually mean they’re not allowed to tell anyone. It means the news is important, and people need to be told in the right way, but doesn’t mean it is literally a secret that only a select few will ever know about. It seems to me that Jesus neither expected nor desired for the people he told to keep it a secret to actually do so.

But then there are some things that actually do need to be kept secret. As in, um, things that most people ought not to know, because they’re embarassing or whatever. Which means there’s no one behavior that is requested by saying “keep this a secret”. So there are two ways to err in the treatment of someone else’s secret; to misinterpret the latter kind as the former, and to misinterpret the former kind as the latter.

The latter form of misinterpretation (i.e. not telling anyone when it’s acutally OK to do so, for those of you who lost track of my latter-former usage) seems clearly the less egregious of the two. Giving away secrets when you ought not to is much worse. But both seem to involve an error of some sort, one that ought to be corrected. I tend more towards not talking rather than talking too much; perhaps I ought to try to be more loose-lipped.

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