Book Review: Helen K. Bond, The First Biography of Jesus

Bond, Helen K. The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2020. 317 pp. Hb; $42.99.   Link to Eerdmans 

In The First Biography of Jesus Bond argues the Gospel of Mark is a very specific reception of earlier Jesus tradition. The Gospel of Mark is an ancient biography and as such, the author actively re-appropriated and reconfigured selected material in circulation at the time into a formal literary creation (5). By imposing a biographical structure on this tradition, Mark extended the Christian gospel beyond the death and resurrection of Jesus, so it now included his ministry as well.

Bond, The First Bio of JesusThe first three chapters of the book begin with a survey scholarship on Mark as Bios. In general, she assumes Mark was written from Rome after the Jewish War in the mid-70s CE. Yet the Mark still retains the “air of persecution” from Nero’s brutal attacks of Christians in 65 CE. Nothing in her book depends on these identifications (9). Early form critics described the gospels as a unique phenomenon in literature quite different from other ancient histories and biographies. By the 1970s scholars began to look for antecedents to the gospels, sometimes by drawing comparisons to Philo’s Life of Moses of the works of Josephus. Since the work of Richard Burridge (What are the Gospels?; Cambridge, 1992), scholars have once again described Mark as bios, an ancient biography. After surveying much of this literature, Bond observes that nobody really answers the “so what?” question. If Mark is a biography rather than a history or a theological treatise or a letter, what difference does it make for the reading of the book? (37).

Answering this “so what?” question drives the rest of this volume. For example, Bond suggests Mark may have wanted to challenge his readers, “to jolt them out of their complacency or to encourage a subtle new way of articulating their story” (109). Later she suggests Mark’s extension of the gospel to include Jesus’s life and ministry was intended to “encourage his audience to recommit their lives not do a set of theological ideas but specifically to the person of Jesus… Jesus is not only the proclamation but also the model of Christian discipleship” (166).

Bond then surveys ancient bioi, focusing especially on the role in the educational system: biography was used to teach morality. “at the heart of biography was a concern with character or what Plutarch calls ‘the signs of the souls of men’ (Alexander 1.3)” (151). This is especially true in her biography describes the character’s death. She surveys a wide range of ancient biographies which focuses on heroic “good deaths” of their characters. A good death is the crowning point of a virtuous life. A good death had a ripe old age may signal and endorsement of a philosopher’s way of life. However, there are a few philosophers who are remembered positively even though they met what an ancient reader might consider a “bad death” such as Socrates or Zeno. This is an obvious difference in Mark’s gospel. Mark does not describe Jesus’s death as noble or “conventionally honorable.” Rather, he portrays Jesus’s death as conforming to his countercultural teaching. Like a good philosopher, Jesus has a fitting death, which a fitting conclusion to his earlier way of life (250).

Are ancient biographies historically accurate? If the goal is to describe a great man’s character as positively as possible in order to teach morality, and perhaps some historians exaggerated or idealized their subjects. Bond cites Cicero, who suggested a historian had to stick to the truth, but a biographer could take liberties with the facts (67).  She surveys several studies which confirm the passion that biography is prone to slip into fiction. Since biographies rely upon anecdotes, this increases the possibility of an accuracy. Apocryphal stories circulate despite having questionable historical foundations. She ultimately concludes that the purpose of an ancient biography was not to provide an accurate list of everything the subject did or said, but to “labor the essence of the man, to re-create a living character” (71). Bond interacts briefly with a view of Craig Keener who argued ancient biography on the whole “tended to put a high value on historical accuracy” (67, n. 108).  Keener repeats this view in his recent Christobiography (Eerdmans, 2020), “some biographies from the early empire this warrant more respect his historical sources then do others,” those composed close to living memory of the subject are more historical (17). Unfortunately, Bond’s book was complete when Christobiography, so she could not interact with Keener more fully.

After describing the general contours of an ancient bioi, Bond then argues Mark is a biographer. In this chapter she describes what can be known about the writer of Mark. She also attempts to describe Mark’s audience, his “Christ-following readers.” This description implies the gospel was written for insiders, people who already knew what Christian terms meant. The gospel uses Christian terms and well-known characters without any explanation or introduction. At least initially, the gospel was not written for evangelistic reasons.

The next three chapters survey the life (ch, 4) and death (ch. 6) of Jesus. Beginning with the opinion of Aristotle that “actions are a sign of character,” Bond observes people in antiquity did not rely upon the judgment of the narrator to best appreciate a character, but rather “observing a person’s words and deeds” (121). Most ancient bioi collected anecdotes and maxims and allow the readers to form their own opinions. Bond moves through the ministry of Jesus and compares Mark’s presentation of Jesus to the bioi.

Although Mark does not seem to be interested in Jesus is early years, the gospel uses a similar method of characterization. The audience is “not merely hearing stories, but watching the protagonist as events unfold” (123). Mark therefore collected miracles, conflict stories, and questions about Jesus’s identity in the first half of his book. The second section of the Gospel contains teaching on discipleship and travel to Jerusalem, leading up to the passion. For Bond, Mark included these stories point out that Jesus is not merely the focus of Christian proclamation but the model for Christian discipleship (166). The crucifixion was an attempt by authorities not only to destroy Jesus’s body, but remove his memory. Bond argues that Mark as a biography is an act of defiance; it is a refusal to except the Roman sentence and attempt to shape the way in which both his life and death should be remembered (249).

The fifth chapter examines the “other characters” who populate Mark’s landscape. Here Bond suggests Mark used intercalations, the so-called Markan Sandwich, in order to draw two characters together as a form of synkrisis. Synkrisis is common in histories interested in the moral character of their subjects (174). Bond describes Plutarch as a master of his style, especially in Parallel Lives (176). But these are not formal comparisons in Mark. In fact, she suggests, with the possible exception of one or two disciples, Mark is not interested in any of these characters other than the light they shed light on Jesus. The “walk-ons” and minor characters enable Jesus to do his ministry or perform his miracles or they conspire against him (220).

Conclusion. Bond succeeds in her goal of demonstrating Mark is bios, using the genre of biography to extend the Christian proclamation of the gospel. Since this book is primarily interested in the final form of Mark, it is beyond the scope of the book to treat in any detail early Christian preaching or how oral tradition may (or may not) have been adapted in the Gospel of Mark. Peter’s speech in Acts 10, for example, may be a hint of the process moving from oral proclamation to a written biography.


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

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).

Winn, Reading Mark's ChristologyThese “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.