- 27 And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am? 28 And they answered, John the Baptist; but some say, Elias; and others, One of the prophets. 29 And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ. 30 And he charged them that they should tell no man of him.
- Compare: Matthew 16:13-20; Luke 9:18-21
What Does Peter Say About Jesus?
This passage, like the preceding one, is traditionally understood as being about blindness. In the previous verses Jesus is depicted as helping a blind man to see again not all at once, but gradually so that the man first perceives other people in a distorted manner (as trees) and then, finally, as they truly are. That passage is commonly read as an allegory for peoples spiritual awakening and growing to understand who Jesus really is, an issue thought to be made explicit here.
Is Jesus asking a real question? That is to say, is Jesus genuinely ignorant of what people are saying about him? That could be possible. He has, after all, enjoined people from talking about what he has done even though no one seems to listen. Because of the large crowds, he must know people talk about him and he cant go anywhere without being recognized. Marks story is building Jesus up into an important figure among the local populations.
Jesus would have surely heard people call out to him by various titles or names I doubt that people in that place and time just went around saying Hey, you! to get a strangers attention. Thus, we cant assume that Jesus would have been totally ignorant of what people thought of him even though we can assume that his disciples would have known a bit more than him.
In context, the question whom do men say that I am? seems like a rhetorical introduction to the following question, whom do you say that I am? Jesus could thus allow the two answers to be contrasted. Curiously, he actually got an answer which, for the purposes of the text, was correct.
Why is that curious? Throughout this gospel the disciples are depicted as complete dolts they dont understand anything that Jesus does. Even when he performs miracle after miracle, they never figure out that hell be able to perform yet another one to get them out of whatever problem they are having. Despite so much accumulated incompetency, Peter somehow manages to blurt out the correct answer: Jesus is the Christ (Messiah).
Theres no indication as to how he hit upon that answer, but I guess its the one Jesus was looking for and he immediately tells his disciples to keep absolutely quiet about it and inform no one. Presumably, this is intended as an indication that he agreed with the answer, which would make this the first instance that he actually gives any assent to the idea that he is the Messiah. On the other hand, it is plausible that he meant tell no one in the sense of dont spread false rumors like that.
Why would he want his disciples to keep quiet if it were true that he was the Messiah? There are a number of answers in Christian tradition; that he didnt want to incite the Pharisees to come after him just yet, and his desire to keep the people from making a temporal ruler out of him are two of the most common that I have seen.
Caesarea Philippi, by the way, was a Gentile town well north of the Sea of Galilee, located on the slope of Mt. Hebron and near one of the sources of the Jordan river. In antiquity it seems to have been known under the name Panion and was famous for a shrine to the god Pan. Caesar Augustus granted it to Herod the Great and when his son Philip became tetrarch of that region, he renamed it in Caesars honor.
Although it is not strange for Jesus and his apostles to be traveling in the area under Philips control, one does have to wonder why he was in a Gentile area so far north again was he bringing his message to them or doing something else? Its particularly curious that he would chose a Gentile area to tell his apostles about who he is and, as we will see in the next passage, explain that he is fated to die.