Review: The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda

I would like to thank Mohr Siebeck for this review copy:

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Over the past decade, the field of criticism which examines the quest for the Historical Jesus has seen a large body of work beginning to be developed which focuses on the New Testament in light of Roman Imperial context. Adam Winn argues that Mark’s Gospel was written as a defense against Roman Imperial propaganda. He takes a conservative view on ‘faith’ as a commitment, which shows the contrast between the commitment to Christ and to Caesar for the Christian. While he takes his time establishing this motif, he is well supported.

In his first chapter, he takes apart, nicely, the prevailing theories of the Markan purpose. While Winn maintains a connection to the theory that Mark was ‘simply’… ‘preserving history, he gives the reasons why previous theories of interpretation of Mark’s purpose generally fall flat. From the outset, he betrays his bias of Mark’s Christology. For him, Mark has a clear Christology, and is only slightly offering corrective measure. Further, he defends the point that Mark was written to the Christian community and builds his case on the socio-political forces which assailed the community; however, in doing so, he dismisses Horsely’s anti-imperial economic agenda while excepting other points. He notes that Horsely correctly sees Mark in a more political light than modern Western readers, but accuses of going to the extreme to suppress any religious attachment of the author of the Gospel.

In chapter 2 Winn explains his method in preparation for his argument. He takes a great deal of time, needful, for this final conclusion, in handling Mark’s date and location of writing. The author makes great use of early Christian tradition, citing the early Church writers, such as Papias, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria. While Winn is comfortable using Christian Tradition to both date and place Mark’s Gospel, he simply refuses to use the same source for Mark’s intent, which is to record Peter’s preaching. He deals masterfully, giving full respect, to the first interpreters of Mark’s Gospel, allowing them to be becoming the starting point for both the date and the location.

The Author concludes that the dating of Mark is post-Temple. While not expressly denying that Christ gave the Temple prophecy, Winn concludes that Mark’s inclusion is post factum, and thus points to a post 70 date for Mark’s composition. His belief is that Mark wouldn’t risk the credibility of his writing by including a yet unfulfilled prophecy, yet, he doesn’t answer the same about the inclusion of prophecies related to the Parousia in this argument. In examining the setting of Mark’s community, he uses the same method – with due examination of several opinions, their high points and low points, and a slow building to the author’s conclusions. He conclusions are based on history, logic, and more than enough evidence to support his decision.

The third chapter finds Winn beginning to move into his premise a bit more. After examining ‘Son of God’ and ‘Christ’ in the incipit, he deduces that Mark’s beginning points to ‘the world of Jewish messianic hope’ which is brought together in Christ ‘with the Roman imperial cult.’ Touching on this subject as he moves into Mark’s Christology, he notes against that Mark’s use of ‘Son of God’ indicates more than just Jewish thought, but should be seen in light of the Imperial Roman world as well. He spends a considerable portion of this chapter exploring Mark’s Christology, especially in light of several theories which place Mark within the imperial framework.

He ends the chapter discussing discipleship and eschatology in Mark. His section on discipleship is brief, well done, but simply is too short to had to his overarching premising, leaving the reader to wonder if perhaps he or she has missed something. His section on eschatology, while brief, builds upon what he has already written; however, in its brevity, he makes several key points which aren’t fully discussed. He sees Mark’s eschatology as something yet undefined, and allowing that Mark’s writing style allows for an open-ended eschatology. Winn notes, ‘This eschatological instruction can be read as a pastoral response to the eschatological anxiety and confusion facing’ Mark’s community. To calm the fears that the world was about to end, Mark writes of the abomination of desolation as the final sign, not the destruction of the Temple. Winn concludes that because of Mark’s vagueness, it allowed eschatological tempers to subside.

In chapter four, he examines the imperial cult of Vespasian’s Rome, ending with Mark’s Sitz im Leben. This is the chapter which takes everything that the author has examined so far and places it within the historical context so that in the final chapter, Winn can firmly establish his interpretation of Mark. Winn’s conclusions of Mark’s Sitz im Leben rests solely – whether author sees it or not – on the date. Granted, the situation of Mark’s community may help feed the dating of the Gospel; however, if Mark is later found to have been written earlier than the author’s proposed, and needed, date, than his theory falls. The good thing, though, is that the author realizes that for his theory to work, his shaky foundation must remain consistent.

Winn has provide a large bibliography, excellent footnotes, and an index of sources, Scriptural and otherwise.

Reviewer’s Comments

Winn has masterfully presented a ‘purpose’ for Mark that is relevant to the early Christian communities in the date and time it would have been composed. If Winn was to scale down his use of Mark’s unique features to support his overall hypothesis, one could easily see that Mark used the early Christian tradition about Jesus of Nazareth to defend the community against Imperial propaganda in a time when the community was weak.

As he does several times, Winn refuses to take one settled answer, and instead casts the result of the argument for which he just made in the light of another, sometimes with facts in conflict. The reader must then follow Winn’s excellent bibliography for other facts and is free to come to their own conclusions.

Winn has made a great effort to secure his thesis, but to what cost? But turning Mark’s gospel into a complete rebuttal of Roman Imperial Propaganda, the author has removed any hope of finding the historical Jesus, or any hope of finding anything historical, in the Gospel, denying any of the theologies that could be found therein. If taken completely, Winn falls into the same trap as Horsley (see above), in that Mark takes on a political attachment rather than a religious one. When he comes to one undeniable theology – that of the world-wide mission to spread the gospel – he gives in to the redactors, which he rarely does in other areas. If the entire theory is to be accepted, Mark would then have created a fictional Jesus, perhaps based roughly on one Jesus of Nazareth. If the argument of Markan priority rings true, then neither Matthew nor Luke has any hope of providing the historical Jesus. His connectivity of Mark’s features to the fantasy of Vespasian is well done, except for the periscopes about the fishes and the loaves. Here, he takes a blind leap of faith to unite the two and does so on very shaky ground.

To his credit, however, he does give absent objectors to his conclusions notice, acknowledging the inconsistencies with his view and the biblical account, rather, the question raised by a post factum inclusion.

Joel L. Watts

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