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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 57, 2009

ADAM WINN, The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda (WUNT 2/245; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008). Pp. xiv + 236. Clothback. €54.00.

This dissertation by Adam Winn, who teaches at Fuller Seminary, seeks to determine “what realities moved [Mark] to provide a written account of Jesus’ life” (1). His answer is that Mark was writing after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple for a fearful Christian community in Rome who, because of Nero’s purge, were very concerned that Vespasian might regard Christians as seditious and resume persecution (171–72). Winn rightly sees the fear behind Mark’s Gospel in a fragile community wavering in their faith (170–76), especially after witnessing the Triumph of Vespasian and Titus through the streets of Rome in 71, which so “offended Christian sensibilities” and had such an “enormous impact” on them that a response was needed (168). Winn therefore argues that Mark’s primary aim is not to write a theology of the cross but to show that Jesus’ power far exceeded that claimed for the new emperor, who had allegedly performed miracles, had been the subject of prophetic oracles, and who had been proclaimed by Rome as the ‘saviour of the world.’

Winn, along with other recent writers, has concluded that a post-70 Rome setting best explains the rhetoric of the Gospel. He performs a lengthy analysis of 13:2 according to a number of criteria (56–67) and concludes that Mark wrote after 70. His risk-reward analysis concludes that Mark would not have taking the risk of having Jesus predict the temple’s destruction unless it had already happened. On provenance, he argues that the tradition of authorship in Rome is strong and consistent, and that the use of Latinisms indicates a Latin environment (82); “the use of Latinisms in Galilee is much more difficult to explain than Aramaisms in Rome” (84). More importantly, however, he rightly sees the fear and loss of faith behind the Gospel, the contrast of Jesus with Vespasian and the prospect of martyrdom for members of Mark’s community, which had only occurred in Rome by that time.

His consideration of the sort of environment that might give rise to Mark’s Gospel is commendable, but his study does not quite go far enough. First, he makes only two mentions of Titus in the whole book (as the temple’s destroyer), but it was Titus who was regarded as the one likely to become another Nero because of his earlier lifestyle, and who was effectively co-emperor with Vespasian, now 60, regarded as an old man. Titus was the one who tore down God’s temple in Jerusalem and, on his triumphal return to Rome in mid-71, was appointed as head of the Praetorian Guard. Winn comes to no conclusion about the figure in 13:14, which he considers to be some future person who will be a sign of the end, and yet Mark urges his readers not to look for signs, and it was Titus who had stood in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem. Moreover, Vespasian returned to Rome almost a year before Titus, and Rome did not hear of the fall of the Temple until later. Christians did not apparently feel a need to respond until Titus turned up in triumph with the captives, and items from the temple, such as the veil, were paraded, while Titus stood alongside Vespasian in the quadriga.

Second, for Winn, the disciples in Mark’s narrative are portrayed as “wavering” like his readers, serving as fallible examples, and are treated positively after Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah. But Mark does not just depict ‘fallible’ disciples; they actually abandon and betray Jesus. Once the Roman Christian community is recognised as the setting, there is need to recognise that Christians were martyred under Nero because they were betrayed by other Christians, who presumably apostatised. This would have caused considerable pain in the community, and great difficulty if those apostates had sought, in calmer times, to return, and Mark’s Gospel does hint of this situation in 2:1–12 and elsewhere. Also, Peter’s ‘confession’ is hardly a turning point; Winn does not consider what sort of messiah Peter thought Jesus to be, and the ‘Davidic’ entry to Jerusalem and their question about ruling with Jesus (10:37) show that the disciples had not changed their hopes at all.

Third, although recognising that the reader feared further persecution, in his attempt to show that the Gospel primarily contrasts the power of Jesus with that of Vespasian (see 120), he frequently downplays Jesus’ death and his willingness to be martyred for the sake of the gospel, a fundamental attitude Jesus insists his followers must have (8:34). Jesus’ predictions of his death, according to Winn (119–20), merely show his divine power. In the end, Winn is too concerned to convince us that the Gospel is all about Christology, and does not pay quite enough attention to the situation of Mark’s intended readers who, after Nero, would have been liable to arrest and execution at any time.

Winn is to be congratulated for focusing on the way the Gospel was intended for fearful Roman readers after the temple had been destroyed and seeking to understand how this text would have spoken to those fears. This well-written study is an important contribution. It is now up to those who advocate an eastern setting to show how that environment better matches the rhetoric of Mark’s Gospel.

Review by
Brian J. Incigneri
23 Gareth Drive
Burwood East VIC 3151