The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda
In this “moderately revised” version of a PhD dissertation completed for Fuller Seminary, Adam Winn revisits the question of the purpose of Mark’s Gospel. He concludes that the primary purpose was to respond to Flavian imperial propaganda that caused Christological problems in the church at Rome. Two secondary purposes of Mark were to encourage believers to remain faithful in the face of what was perceived as imminent persecution and to provide teaching to address anxiety and confusion about eschatology in light of the readers’ present historical situation.
Chapter 1 includes an informative discussion of suggested purposes of the Gospel of Mark. These include a record of historical events in Jesus’ life; a Christological or eschatological emphasis; and a pastoral purpose as the paradigm for discipleship. Some have suggested that the purpose is evangelistic and is thus aimed at non-Christians; and others say Mark’s purpose was sociopolitical, in that he sought to undermine the sociopolitical structures of his day. None of these suggested purposes is persuasive to Winn.
In chapter 2 Winn discusses issues of date and provenance. He says the book may have been written as early as AD 65, but possibly later. Winn believes that including prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem in Mark 13 before it happened in AD 70 would have been too risky; if not fulfilled, it could have caused the validity of Jesus and the Gospel to be questioned. Therefore Winn suggests a date sometime shortly after AD 70. Also after considering various options for provenance, Winn concludes that Rome is the most likely place of composition.
In chapter 3 Winn focuses on major features of Mark’s Gospel. In discussing 1:1–4 he concludes that there is both an Isaianic and imperial background to this passage. His discussion is nicely argued and he avoids extremes sometimes taken in favor of one background over the other. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to Christology. Although Winn acknowledges the importance of Jesus’ suffering and death, he nevertheless concludes that Jesus is accurately described in Mark as one having supreme power. However, there is an attempt to hide both His power and messianic identity. Jesus is also presented as king. In Jesus’ passion Winn follows T. E. Schmidt, who in 1995 argued that this section should be seen as parallel to the Roman triumph. Winn seems to undervalue the themes of suffering and death, which are strongly emphasized in the Gospel. Nevertheless a suffering Jesus may still be seen as having supreme power. In fact, since Jesus is powerful, it makes His suffering and death all the more significant. Although interesting, Winn’s (and Schmidt’s) comparison of Jesus’ passion to the Roman triumph is not convincing. Death is too prominent to view the passion as parallel with a celebratory Roman victory parade. Also in this chapter Winn describes the theme of Markan discipleship from which (among other things) he sees understanding Jesus’ identity and the disciples’ faith/faithfulness in light of suffering as key. The chapter concludes with a brief section on eschatology.
Chapter 4 is a reconstruction of a plausible historical situation for the Gospel. Winn’s date of shortly after AD 70 places Mark in the early reign of the first Flavian emperor, Vespasian (who ruled AD 69–79). This was a new era in Roman history, and Vespasian did not have ties to nobility or other claims on his new position. Thus he utilized propaganda. This involved Vespasian’s power to heal and the fulfillment of Jewish messianic prophecy. The title “Messiah” is not used by Josephus, Tacitus, or Suetonius, but an attempt to view Vespasian’s rule through Jewish Scripture is made by these authors (Josephus, The Jewish War 6.312–13; Tacitus, Histories, 5.13.1-2; Suetonius, Vespasian, 4.5). Vespasian is also seen as a second Augustus. Winn’s use of the ancient sources to paint Vespasian as a messianic figure is interesting and has some potential merit (but see below). Vespasian ruled a decade after the terrible Neronic persecution in Rome, and it is likely that fear about further persecution was possible in this new government that was led by a representative of the family that had executed the Jewish war and destroyed the temple. Thus Winn suggests Mark was written to combat Flavian propaganda that challenged Jesus’ role as Messiah (which can explain Mark’s warnings against “false messiahs”; p. 174). Mark was also written, Winn suggests, to encourage people to stand firm in their faith even if persecution was threatening.
Instead of the usual idea that the New Testament presents Jesus in a manner that challenges Caesar, Mark was written in part, Winn says, to respond to a challenge by a Roman emperor to Jesus and His place in the church (pp. 164–69, 73–74).
In chapter 5 Winn argues that Mark was written primarily to respond to Flavian imperial propaganda and secondarily to encourage believers to be faithful in the midst of persecution and to clarify eschatology. He demonstrates how the presentation of Jesus would serve to challenge Vespasian’s claims. Mark emphasized Jesus as the Son of God, a title that Vespasian could not claim. Mark also presented Jesus in a number of ways that are superior to the emperors. He was a rebuker of demons (pp. 183–84), He had remarkable healing power (pp. 184–85) and power over nature (pp. 185–86), and He was a powerful prophet (pp. 186–88) and a powerful benefactor (pp. 188–90). Also included in this chapter is a discussion of Mark’s presentation of discipleship and eschatology in this historical context (pp. 194–99).
Although this reviewer agrees with much of what Winn has presented, Winn has not adequately proven his case. Winn’s view that Mark should be dated during the early rule of Vespasian is not impossible, but it is based, in this reviewer’s opinion, on inadequate evidence. Imperial propaganda was present throughout the imperial period, predating even the life of Jesus. Since imperial power was a reality for the entire early church, this allows many of Winn’s observations (except that about Vespasian specifically) to be applicable for an earlier date.
Winn includes interesting evidence for suggesting that Vespasian was seen as Messiah, but the evidence is not persuasive. First, Josephus was certainly aware of the title Messiah and did not use it for the emperor. Second, Tacitus and Suetonius wrote much later than the Gospel. Third, even if Vespasian was seen by some as a ruler foretold in the Jewish scriptures, it is difficult to know how common this belief was. Fourth, it is difficult to place this identification in the church in the early 70s. No concrete proof exists. In light of Roman propaganda and the assumed divinity of living Roman emperors, a situation under another emperor or a more general statement about Roman imperial propaganda is probably more likely. In this way such a specific date need not be demanded. The imperial system with its emperor worship and other blasphemous demands was offensive to Jews and Christians. It is difficult to maintain that the early reign of Vespasian was any worse in this area for Jews and Christians than at other times in the first century.
Winn is probably correct that the purpose of Mark is not merely to record history; however, there is a significant difference between creating stories and choosing stories to meet the needs of the church. Overall, Winn is too skeptical about the Gospel’s historical purpose and fails to give sufficient weight to early external evidence.
One further criticism is worth noting. Winn’s concept of “imperial cult” is never defined. He does not discuss its meaning or role in the Roman religious experience.
These criticisms are minimal in light of the valuable contribution this volume makes to placing Mark in its first-century context. Mark was no doubt written in part to combat imperial propaganda; however, this probably was neither the only nor even the most prominent purpose for the Gospel. However, this area is often underemphasized and Winn’s study contributes important contextual detail.
About the Contributors
Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God’s Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ’s love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. Dr. Fantin’s research interests include the first-century world, Greek language and linguistics, exegetical method, and exegesis of the prison epistles. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.