Over thirty years ago I began studying the New Testament and Christian origins, mostly on my own though I took a class or two along the way. I began for several reasons. I wanted to write a definitive essay on why biblical teaching on homosexuality had no authority, and found that the backstory was too large for anything brief. I was also reacting to the defensive arguments of Christians that I should judge Christianity by Jesus and his teachings, not by the interpretations or conduct of specific Christians.
This project turned out to be very rewarding. It reaffirmed my atheism in a way that no writing by an atheist could have done, though I had read and continued to read writings by atheists. I learned how to do research, and how to think historically and critically. But I also learned that if I hoped to learn the truth about Jesus and Christianity, I was doomed to failure. In the first few months I read several reconstructions of Jesus' career that at first seemed plausible enough. After each one, I'd read another that effectively refuted the previous one, and offered another, initially plausible account of what Jesus and the early Christians were up to; and so it went. One of the conclusions I reached was that it is probably impossible to produce a valid account of the historical Jesus.
This, I recognize, assumes that there was a historical Jesus. I'm agnostic on that question, because the same difficulties that prevent our producing a reliable picture of the Jesus of history also make it impossible to say for certain that he did or didn't exist. This is true of all history: certainty is almost never possible. The best we can do is to sort out probabilities, even concerning fairly recent events and people where the documentation is much richer. That's why I recommend Albert Schweitzer's The Quest for the Historical Jesus, originally published in German in 1906 and first translated into English in 1910, to anyone who's interested in this subject. The bulk of that book is a survey of historical-Jesus research from the late 1700s to around 1900; Schweitzer showed what was wrong with all of the theories those writers produced, and then offered up his own reconstruction, which had flaws of its own but still challenges New Testament scholars more than a century later. You won't learn what Jesus did say or do, but you may learn to be skeptical of the speculations or other claims about Jesus that you'll encounter -- not just from Christians, but from non-Christians and anti-Christians who are sure that the Bible is fiction but are mysteriously convinced that their opinions and speculations are non-fiction. You'll also learn that almost all accounts of the supposedly real Jesus that are touted as something new are not only old, but were refuted ignominiously by Schweitzer a hundred years ago.
Recently I read Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret by David F. Watson, published in 2010 by Fortress Press, which over the years has published many books I've found useful. It looked like this one might offer some new insights into the New Testament, so when I heard of it I went to the university library and checked it out. And I did learn from Honor Among Christians, though nothing really earth-shaking.
Watson, like numerous scholars before him, seeks to apply social science to biblical interpretation, in particular to the problem known to scholars as "the Messianic Secret." That phrase applies mainly to the gospel of Mark, where Jesus tries (inconsistently) to maintain secrecy not only about his status as messiah but about some of the miracles he performs. In 1901 a German scholar named Wilhelm Wrede published a book on this problem, Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien [The messianic secret in the gospels], which wasn't translated into English until 1971 -- in time, luckily, for me to read it. It had much the same impact on New Testament studies as Schweitzer's big book: it was upsetting to conventional piety, but it was too well-argued to ignore altogether.
There are elements of secrecy in the other three gospels, as well as elsewhere in the New Testament, but it was Wrede's discussion of Mark that drew the most attention. Briefly, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus drives out demons, who on their way out of their victims claim to know who he is, and he silences them. Sometimes when Jesus does healings, he takes the sick person aside, or (as in the case of the daughter of Jairus), shuts himself in a room with only one or two other people (usually his chief disciples) present. Afterward, he may or may not order them to tell no one about what he has done, though this doesn't work: despite his strictures, people will talk, and they do. When Simon Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus tells him and the rest of the Twelve not to tell anyone about him until after he has died and risen from the dead. Scholars had already noticed these and other details in the gospels, and debated what they meant. If they were historically true, and until the late 19th century most biblical scholars took for granted that they were, they sought to explain why Jesus would behave like this. Wrede argued that these details were not historical but were dogmatic or theological -- that is, Mark invented them to make theological or doctrinal points.
I read Wrede around 1990, and I noticed that much of what I'd read about his work was erroneous, as if often the case with controversial ideas. Some of the received wisdom about flaws in his argument turned out to be about ideas that he considered but rejected. But I can't recall the details; I should reread The Messianic Secret sometime soon. So I'm not sure about some of Watson's criticisms of Wrede, but I'll grant their validity for the sake of argument. For example, I think Watson is correct that not all of the "secrecy" in Mark is necessarily related to Jesus' status as messiah, and that not all of it is necessarily secrecy. He devotes a chapter to the language and concepts of secrecy in the ancient Mediterranean world, which is one of the best parts of the book.
The application of social science to this material is interesting too. Watson argues that Jesus' culture, as well as others around the Mediterranean, placed a very strong emphasis on honor and shame. Expectations about how a man should honorably conduct himself, how he should avoid shame, how he should react to praise, how he should treat his inferiors, and how they should respond to patronage. So, Watson argues, when Jesus tries to keep his healings secret, he is deliberately going against the normal expectations of a great man, who would usually expect thanks and praise and the spreading of his fame for helping others. Jesus wanted to overturn the normal conception of honor, by arguing that the great should be the servants of the less, rather than lording it over them.
This is all very well, but it's not exactly news, nor is social science necessary to see it. Even if you know nothing about ancient Mediterranean culture, an attentive reader can see that Mark's Jesus (and not only Mark's) is going against the grain of his society. He must continually squelch his disciples' competition for status among themselves, for example; he must tell people not to spread around the news of (some of) his miracles, though as Watson and other scholars have noticed, his efforts are doomed to failure from the start.
After all, if he didn't really want all that attention, why do the miracles? They weren't part of the normal messianic expectations, which Jesus supposedly didn't want to fulfill anyway. It can be argued that he had to do his miracles, because of his compassion for human suffering; but many of his miracles have nothing to do with that. Some, like walking on water, look like mere showing off. Some of his secrecy, such as his declaration that he taught in parables so that his audiences would not understand him, has no detectable relation to the culture of shame. As Graham Shaw pointed out in The Cost of Authority (Fortress Press, 1982), some of his non-miraculous conduct was oddly provocative for someone who supposedly didn't want attention: "For paradoxically the refusal to conform to demands for
public religious observance is itself intensely visible; so that the criticism
of religious visibility acquires many of the characteristics of
exhibitionism. Repeatedly they attract
hostile attention to themselves and their master. Invisible spiritual religion thus proves to
have a highly public face." Early in Mark's story Jesus also publicly claimed the authority to forgive sins, which was hardly a stance of meek humility.
A common explanation for Jesus' quixotic secrecy, noted by Watson, is that he didn't want to come to the attention of the Roman authorities, who took a dim view of anyone who drew crowds in territories they controlled. Again, if that was really his concern, why do the miracles, why preach publicly, why draw all the attention to himself while pretending he didn't really want it? Supposedly, as I indicated before, Jesus was at odds with the normal expectation that the Messiah would be a military figure and a king in the mold of David; but instead of disavowing them openly, he played coy games with his audiences. Was he or wasn't he a prophet, the reincarnation of Elijah, John the Baptist resuscitated ... ? Jesus wasn't telling; you had to guess.
And, of course, according to Christian mythology, Jesus ultimately wanted to come to the Romans' attention. He told his disciples that the prophets had foretold that the messiah must be betrayed, crucified, and on the third day rise from the dead. (The prophets had also foretold a great military victory which would restore David's kingdom, extending its rule to the entire world, but Jesus supposedly wasn't on board with that part.) Eventually he entered Jerusalem with great fanfare, violently disrupted the Temple Court in front of thousands of people (including the occupying Roman troops), playing hide-and-seek with his enemies until they finally caught him. That was supposedly Judas Iscariot's fault, but what would have happened to Jesus' mission if he hadn't been caught? He was supposed to die on the cross for the sins of humanity. After the resurrection, of course, all pretense of humility on Jesus' part went out the window: he ascended to the right hand of the Father, resumed his status as the Second Person of the Trinity, and would eventually judge the quick and dead. According to the New Testament, he would then become a military messiah; the conventional expectations were not really rejected, just postponed.
Watson doesn't do much better with Mark's conflicting and inconsistent narrative than his predecessors have done, it seems to me. The "culture of shame" theme makes sense of some of the material he needs to account for, but not all of it. I also think that Watson underestimates how important honor and shame remain in the modern West. I haven't observed that modern Christians have any trouble understanding what Jesus was demanding of his followers by ordering them to be humble servants, though they do (understandably) have as much difficulty meeting those demands as Jesus' first followers did. Twenty-first century social science isn't necessary to see how Mark's Jesus went against his culture's ideas of a good or great man's attitudes and behavior, because they are our culture's ideas too.