Book Review: Adam Winn, Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology


Winn, Adam. Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 187 pp. Pb. $24.00   Link to IVP Academic  

This volume is an update to his 2008 doctoral dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary, published as The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda (WUNT/2 245; Mohr Siebeck: 2008). As Winn explains in his acknowledgment page, that book was “strongly criticized.” After taking part in the SBL Mark Group for several years, Winn was motivated to move deeper into the world of Roman imperial ideology in order to “make sense of the disparate pieces of Mark’s Christology.” In the Gospel of Mark, Winn thinks Jesus “out-Caesars Caesar” (p. 116).

These “disparate pieces” include Mark’s use of titles, stories in which Jesus demonstrates power (miracles, healings, exorcisms, revelations by supernatural beings, popularity and proclamations by crowds), the suffering of Jesus, and the so-called messianic secret. Although these various parts may be accounted for through form and redaction criticism (the various bits come from different sources), Winn considers narrative criticism the only way present a compelling Christology from Mark’s Gospel. He initially followed the lead of Robert Gundry who suggest Mark is an apology for Jesus’s shameful crucifixion, but in this study he uses a historical-narratival method using the final form of Mark’s gospel. He wants to set Mark’s gospel into a particular sociocultural and historical setting (p. 24). That setting is the Roman world after A.D. 70.

Winn devotes about half of the first chapter arguing for this date and provenance and then argues the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 played a central role on Flavian propaganda. Vespasian needed a major military accomplishment to legitimize his and his son’s claim in the imperial throne. The destruction of Jerusalem was presented as a major victory and was celebrated through triumphal processions, coins and architecture. This was a “theology of victory,” the gods favored the Flavian dynasty and supported it through a series of miracles prophecies and other portents. In fact, Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius all report the tradition that Vespasian fulfilled prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures when he conquered the east (p. 45). The Gospel of Mark “strips Vespasian of is powerful victories and places the victory into the hands of Jesus” (p. 164).

Chapters two through five apply this historical setting of the book to the several common ways scholars have sought to develop Mark’s Christology. First, Winn examines Mark’s Christological titles (Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, and Lord). He concludes these titles can be understood apart from their imperial context and are not necessarily responses to Vespasian’s imperial propaganda (p. 68). Second, Winn surveys the presentation of Jesus as a powerful miracle worker, especially during the Galilean ministry (Mark 1-8). Mark presents Jesus as the true Christ and Son of God in contrast to the propagandistic claims of Vespasian (p. 88). Third, Winn turns his attention to the suffering of Jesus in Mark 8:22-10:52 (the rest of the passion narrative is covered in chapter 7). Winn argues that an imperial reading of Mark eliminates the perceived tension between Jesus as a powerful miracle worker and his suffering and death. The disciples do not fully understand the suffering of Jesus the Messiah, drawing a parallel to the Roman readers of Mark’s Gospel (p. 115). Fourth, Winn interacts with David Watson’s Honor among Christians (Fortress, 2010) as he re-examines the so-called secrecy motif in the light of his “Roman reading” of Mark (chap. 5). The Roman political strategy of recusatio meant Roman emperors often refused public honors. Winn illustrates this with data from Augustus and Tiberius. Winn concludes Mark is contextualizing Jesus in a way which would have resonated with his Roman readers (p.129). Like the emperor, Jesus refuses public honor as a result of his powerful healing ministry.

Winn devotes a short chapter to Jesus and the temple, including the temple action, Jesus’s teaching in the temple and apocalyptic discourse. The temple action is a symbolic destruction of the temple (p. 138); Jesus is establishing a new messianic community as a replacement for the temple itself (p. 140) and marginalizing the sacrificial system (p. 142). Since Mark wrote the apocalyptic discourse after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, the “desolating sacrilege” may be a future eschatological sign (p. 145).

Finally, Winn examines the passion narrative through the lens of Roman imperial ideology. The so-called cry of dereliction, when Jesus cites Psalm 22 from the cross, is the unity between the powerful Jesus and the suffering Jesus. Although he is suffering, Psalm 22 looks forward to the glory and vindication after the resurrection. Regarding Roman imperial ideology, Winn sees the passion as a Roman triumph. He offers a series of observations to support this. For example, Simon carrying the cross parallel to a Roman official escorting a sacrificial bull and carrying a double-bladed axe; Jesus is the sacrificial animal and Simon carries the instrument of his death (p. 159). Since a Roman triumph ended at the temple of Jupiter, the Capitolium (caput is the Latin for “head), Winn sees a parallel with Golgotha, the place of the skull (p. 160). Winn sees this as a creative narrative which has a “clear and significant payoff for Mark’s Roman readers living in the shadow of Flavian propaganda” (p. 162). The suffering and death of Jesus is not a weakness, but a sign of strength and power. As with any literary allusion to culture, a reader sees what they want to see. Although it is possible to read the passion of Jesus as a parody of a Roman triumph, it is difficult to imagine the original readers fully appreciating the subtly of Mark’s allusions.

Conclusion. Winn argues Mark’s gospel presents Jesus as a powerful man but also as one who suffers tremendous shame. Both themes are present throughout the gospel of Mark and it is problematic to emphasize one over the other. Suffering and power are “Christological poles” which may seem to stand in tension, but they form a coherent unity when read in the light of Roman political ideology according to Winn’s reconstruction (p. 164).

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.