Book Write-Up: Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar

Adam Winn. Reading Mark’s Christology under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Political Ideology. IVP Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Adam Winn has a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary and teaches at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor College of Christian Studies.

The idea that the New Testament is polemicizing against the Roman empire is popular within scholarship these days. My impression, right or wrong, is that some of the treatments of this issue are rather superficial. They seem to amount to something like: “Caesar claimed to be the Son of God, and Jesus claimed to be the Son of God! Jesus was such a revolutionary!”

Adam Winn’s book has some of that. Winn offers other arguments as well near the beginning of the book, some of which I have encountered in some way, shape, or form in scholarship or even popular Christianity. He presents arguments for a post-70 rather than a pre-70 date for the Gospel of Mark, notes that Mark uses the same word for “good news” that Roman imperial ideology used in anticipation of Roman imperial reigns, and observes that Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, like Vespasian, performed miracles.

Then the book presented mildly interesting arguments. The argument that the Gospel of Mark was responding to Vespasian’s claim to legitimacy and superiority to the God of Israel due to the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple comes to mind. According to Mark, Jesus knew that would happen, and God was the one who orchestrated that event as part of divine punishment.

It was near the middle of the book that it became truly mind-blowing. It was then that Winn argued that the Gospel of Mark was appealing to Roman political views by actually depicting Jesus as a humble servant. One can get the impression from Christian apologetics that Christianity was a light of virtue amidst a sea of selfishness and rank ambition. Christianity encouraged service and love? That was revolutionary back then, Christian apologists have implied or even flat out said. Such a narrative should not be thoroughly discarded, for, like many narratives, there are things that support it. But Winn effectively demonstrates that there was another side to the story, that Roman imperial ideology wanted an emperor who was humble and a servant due to Roman fear of tyranny. The cross was deemed shameful, but Mark sought to show that Jesus’s death on the cross exemplified the imperial service that Roman imperial ideology idealized.

That also undergirds the Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark, Winn argues, as Jesus helped people in secret rather than taking public credit for his good deeds. Of course, Winn acknowledges that there are places in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus does miracles publicly. Jesus is not consistent about the Messianic Secret, and that is one reason that scholars have posited two layers of Mark’s Gospel: Jesus as miracle-worker, and Jesus as sufferer. Winn surveys this scholarship and finds it wanting. Jesus in the Gospel of Mark sometimes did his miracles publicly and sometimes wanted to keep them a secret. The latter, for Winn, was Jesus reflecting Roman imperial ideology by being a servant-leader rather than an ambitious tyrant.

The book started out somewhat interesting, as Winn talks about his change in mind about a scholarly issue. Initially, he thought that Mark’s Gospel elevated Jesus’s suffering at the expense of Jesus’s miracle working and glorification, but he changed his mind and concluded that Mark sees the miracle working and glorification as important, too. Then the book got a little dry, as it laid out the scholarly positions on how the theme of Jesus the sufferer relates to that of Jesus the miracle worker in Mark’s Gospel; this chapter was probably essential, but still rather dry. The book was then mildly interesting in dating the Gospel of Mark. Then, the book became mind-blowing as it talked about the emperor as a servant-leader and fit the Messianic Secret into that theme. The book ended with a clear summary of Winn’s positions.

The book was also judicious in sifting through scholarly views, rejecting ideas that have been commonplace in New Testament classes. It was a pleasure to read.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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