Reading Mark's Christology under Caesar

Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Theology

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Adam Winn
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , September
     204 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Theology, Adam Winn attempts to address a problem that he sees in contemporary research on Markan Christology. Winn argues that Mark presents a Jesus with two indissoluble features, namely suffering and power, and he believes that interpreters have wrongly privileged one of these features over the other—usually suffering over power, although Winn himself formerly preferred the reverse (ix-x). Winn hopes to find a way to resolve this problem rather than to give prominence to one theme or to allow power and suffering to stand in irreconcilable tension (19-20). Winn finds his solution in Mark’s setting.

The introduction outlines his method as well as the problem of resolving the tension between power and suffering in recent scholarship on Mark’s Christology. Winn utilizes a method that he dubs “historical-narratival” (24), which takes the stronger points of a narrative-critical approach but rejects excesses, such as deriving meaning exclusively from the narrative (25-27, 51). His approach is also deductive: Winn seeks to reconstruct the “missing pieces” of Mark’s Gospel—that is, its historical setting—“and fit those pieces together with the existing pieces of Mark’s narrative” (27).

Chapter 1 discusses Mark’s date, provenance, and setting. Winn argues that Mark is a post-70 CE Christian response to Flavian propaganda in Rome. As this date and place of origin is the argument’s linchpin, readers may be surprised to see only about two and a half pages on Mark’s provenance (29-32). The Flavian propaganda depicted Vespasian as a victorious conqueror, a powerful healer legitimated by portents and prophecies, a generous benefactor, and, perhaps most importantly, the true fulfillment of Israel’s messiah (40-47). According to Winn’s reconstruction, Mark’s Christology counters each of these aspects of Flavian propaganda in order to address the crisis of faith among Mark’s Roman Christians.

Chapter 2 investigates Mark’s five Christological titles (Christ/messiah, son of God, son of David, and Lord). Winn argues that Mark’s titles “are largely synonymous” though each of these titles bears certain nuances (68). For example, Mark’s “son of man” title carries a distinct eschatological nuance while the titles Christ and son of God—but, oddly, not lord—are especially relevant for addressing Flavian propaganda. The purpose of this chapter is largely to address the point raised by redaction and narrative critics alike, namely that Mark appears to present competing Christological themes. Winn’s contention is that although each is more appropriate for a certain setting, every title contributes to Mark’s unified Christological picture.

Next, Winn discusses specific aspects of Mark’s Christology. Chapter 3 begins with the powerful Jesus of Mark 1-8. Winn argues that Jesus’s miracles in Mark are just as significant as the responses to them. The miracles characterize Jesus as an extremely powerful figure, while the responses to Jesus’s miracles in the Gospel anticipate potential responses among members of Mark’s community. Winn draws upon several similar miracles, which were said to have been performed by Vespasian, and shows how Mark portrays Jesus’s miracles as surpassing those of the emperor’s. Through the responses, Mark’s message to his community is that they should respond in faith, as do minor characters such as Bartimaeus.

Chapter 4 addresses the narrative “hinge” of 8:22–10:52, wherein a shift from the powerful Jesus to the suffering Christ occurs. Mark’s purpose here is to get the audience to affirm both Jesus’s power and his identity as a suffering messiah. Mark does this by depicting Jesus as the perfect emperor, who was expected to be humble and beneficent. But Jesus “out-Caesars Caesar” by giving his own life for his people (116).

Chapter 5 gives a new reading of the “messianic secret” motif. Winn suggests that this motif should be understood in terms of shame and honor, rather than knowledge and secrecy. The Roman emperor, in order to maintain the perception of himself as the “first among equals,” could only accept a certain amount of honor. Jesus’s commands to secrecy, especially following his miracles of healing, must be understood in this way; Jesus is maintaining humility by rejecting the “honor” due him through public praise. Here again, Jesus “out-Caesars Caesar” in rejecting honor more successfully. This chapter is the most innovative and the least likely to sway Markan scholars. Although it does have a bit of explanatory power concerning the times when Jesus does not command a person to secrecy, it is not able to explain satisfactorily every command to secrecy. An obvious example of this is the transfiguration, in which Jesus does not perform any healings; the disciples, then, have no obligation to honor him, and he still commands them to silence until he is raised from the dead (9:9).

Chapter 6 argues that Jesus condemns the temple rather than cleanses it. To counter Flavian propaganda, Mark found it necessary for Jesus to predict the temple’s destruction and to condemn it himself. Mark inverts this propaganda by making Vespasian not a conqueror over the temple, but a mere pawn in Jesus’s hand. In chapter 7, Winn suggests that Mark presents the crucifixion so that it resembles a Roman triumphus, employing parallels that are intriguing though not fully convincing. On this reading, Jesus’s “cry of dereliction” is a disguised cry of victory. The book ends with an appendix to show that this reading of Mark’s Christology comports well with a “high” reading of Mark’s Christology.

Winn tries to find a possible paradigm for understanding the tension between power and suffering in Mark’s Christology, and is largely successful—that is, he provides a possible paradigm by which to understand Mark’s Christology. Many of the “pieces” of the Markan puzzle fit, but the book’s conclusion leaves the reader with many questions. How can we distinguish between parody and apologetics? Is Mark’s critique of empire limited to Vespasian’s propaganda? Would Mark’s wider, non-Roman audience have accepted a Jesus modeled after Caesar? Could a non-Roman provenance support Winn’s reading? Such questions are a testament to Winn’s provocative thesis and stimulating work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel B. Glover is a doctoral student in New Testament and Early Christianity at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adam Winn is Assistant Professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor College of Christian Studies.


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