Why and when “Mark” wrote the first gospel: a new explanation

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by Neil Godfrey

We have another argument (I don’t mean evidence-free speculation) for when and why somebody sat down and wrote the first gospel, the one we know as the Gospel According to Saint Mark. I’m going to have to set several of these arguments (beginning with William Wrede and on up through Burton Mack, Dennis MacDonald, and most recently till now R.G. Price) and set all their key points of argument out in a table and compare.

I will try here to set out the main gist of Adam Winn’s case.

He begins with the date of its composition because on the relative date hangs his whole thesis. It was written, he believes, not soon prior to but after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Justifications for after and not before:

Some scholars say the gospel was written just prior to the destruction of the temple and point to some specific details in Jesus’ prophecy not being literally fulfilled; so “Mark” (I’ll call the author Mark henceforth for convenience) was recording a tradition that Jesus did predict the temple’s destruction.

Winn objects on two grounds:

  1. an overly literal emphasis on a reading of the prophecy (e.g. not one stone left standing on another) misses the nature and point of apocalyptic prophecies. They are never meant to be read strictly literally but for overall fearful impact;
  2. even if Jesus did predict the temple’s destruction it would be irrelevant to the question of whether Mark wrote before or after its fulfillment. In fact, it would be risky for the author to record it before the event because he could not have known if it was going to happen and he would know he could eventually lose the confidence of his audience if it didn’t. (Even during the siege of Jerusalem itself it was not clear that the Temple would finally be destroyed.) It is more likely that Mark wrote after the prophecy had been fulfilled when the prophecy would be vindicated among readers.

But there is a stronger positive argument Winn uses.

Winn sets out the arguments and evidence for the gospel being written in Rome and primarily for a gentile audience. I won’t repeat all of the details here. That’s point one.

Point two. We can know from Paul’s letters to gentile Christians that the temple of Jerusalem was simply not a thing in the everyday consciousness of gentile Christians. It was not discussed. It was not important for their beliefs. It never arose in Paul’s conversations with them. Yet — in the gospel of Mark there are several chapters given to addressing the temple, its authorities, its fate and theirs. From the time Jesus enters Jerusalem and is welcomed by “the people” through to his trial the temple, its destruction, and the demise of the authorities of that temple, is constantly before us. Even Jesus’ debates with the leaders are debates with those who bear responsibility for the temple’s doom, and those debates are concluded with a parable pointing to their bloody end.

So why? Why does Mark devote so much of his narrative to the fate of the temple and those responsible for its end in a gospel written to gentiles who heretofore had not thought much about the temple at all? It presumably had no theological significance for them. So why?

Theology of Victory

The answer, suggests Winn, lies in the propaganda the emperor Vespasian was so masterfully spreading throughout the empire after his and his son Titus’s victory in 70 CE. (I have written about this propaganda effort of Vespasian’s before so won’t go into details now.) In effect, we can say that Roman emperors ruled by divine right that was passed on through natural succession. But when the system broke down and a new leader arose through military conquest (as had Augustus before him) then the assumption was that the gods had given a special display of “virtue” or courage and manliness and strength to become the rightful ruler.

Vespasian not only defeated the last rival for the imperial chair but promoted his victory in Judea as a massive triumph, even declaring (falsely) that he had been the first to conquer that region. He displayed his greatness through this victory in statues, buildings, monuments of various kinds, and with stories spread of his miraculous powers (he healed the blind and restored a crippled man’s hand) and divine-scale beneficence (he fed a hungry Rome from his own largesse in Alexandria, Egypt). There were other miracles and wonderful acts that I won’t list here at this time.

So what had happened? Vespasian had overthrown the god of the Jews! To prove it all the loot from the temple was now in Rome. Jewish captives were marched by their hundreds in his triumphal procession. The temple of the Jews was destroyed and that proved that Vespasian’s gods had been more powerful, had subjected the god the Christians had looked to.

Suddenly the temple, now destroyed, became a problem for many Christians. This is the inference that Adam Winn draws. If Christians were not popular before this time then one can imagine pagans concerned for their souls trying to bring them back to normalcy by taunting them over the fate of the Jewish god.

And so Mark got to work. A story needed to be created to assure the flock that all was not lost, but that Jesus, the Son of God, really was more powerful and had in fact turned the tables on these ignorant fools boasting in their victory.

I have many things to write about and will add more to this post in due course.

Winn, Adam. 2018. Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.


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11 thoughts on “Why and when “Mark” wrote the first gospel: a new explanation”

  1. I concur with both John MacDonald and Proud-foot. I also want to suggest that IVP would have never have published this unless Winn still has an evangelical investment in the gospel of Mark in some way. I haven’t read his book but I think it is another take on Mark which doesn’t really do much for us in understanding historical, literary , and many more issues. Perhaps a tidbit here or there might show up.

    I might learn a thing or two but I will suspend judgement as to this work. Just raising a warning here.

    This is all old hat to me, maybe not to other bloggers. Not a reflection on you Neil for posting such a piece. I am still wondering why evangelical scholars are making every effort to try and jive with the results of higher criticism and failing miserably.

    In my view Mike Licona is the worst among recent evangelicals who thinks he is taking on in a good way all this contradictory data that is right in his and their face. He is becoming more and more confused and becoming increasingly “gobble-di-gook” in his responses. He is a ” cutsy-tutsie” apologist. Just plane unverifiable nonsense.

    If you want to see a recent piece of absolute confusion and two trains passing in the night see the recent debate by Licona and Crossan. I can’t believe what Crossan says!!! Nor Licona! What a crock of Christian shit! Paul left his “old” view and called it “dung”. Don’t accuse me of blasphemy!

    “Mark”is an “evangelist”, not an historian. I grew up in the days when redaction, form, source, etc. criticism provided incredible and helpful tools for making sense of the NT documents.

    Most evangelical scholars these days are scrambling here and there to answer very serious questions being put to them.

    I want to say to all scholars of some faith or no faith. If you believe you are going to hell because you do not hold any part of the bible as authoritative during human history or in your own history I would encourage to let go of that fear. It is “unreal”. All biblical scholars who love the Bible, should not be hampered by the hypocritical posture of other serious students and scholars of the Bible who try to control other scholars with threat! Shame on you!

    You will not go to destruction if you “twist” or offer a different reading of the Bible. 2 Peter is a really bad example of how a forged writing installs fear in you that you will be destroyed if you initiate a different reading of an issue or text concerning Christianity as he sees it. See 2 Pet. 1:20-21 etc,

    BTW Peter uses a bankrupt apologetic in his first chapter. I think he is a hermeneutical hypocrite since he uses “mythoi” in Chapter 1 and yet in Chapter 2 regarding “hell” or “tarturus”, Peter capitilizes on Greek sources for his own apologetic. So not following myths, he still uses them to beat up his reader with his bullshit history.

    What a bunch of religious “gnosis”. One of Peter’s favorite words! All forgers are liars. Right? Peter has a history of lying and mouthing off bullshit since his time with Jesus. Not just once, but over and over again. I am not surprised that Paul calls this man himself a “twisted ” man. Note Paul calls Peter “unorthodox”.. in Galatians 1-2. THAT IS SOMEONE WHO IS NOT A STRAIGHT SHOOTER AND SO A TWISTED Peter ==Satan.. . Wow!

    And should you believe Peter given that tradition? What a three-time prick of a liar! As Robert Gundry proved as an evangelical himself a number of years ago,Peter became an apostate. He is headed for the place of outer darkness.

    Later on damage control sets in (John 21)! How sad and sickening! Everyone of you evangelical scholars out there are simply doing damage control. You may be brilliant and a big scholar. Good for you. I don’t really care. You have manifested your ignorance and immorality in the handling of ancient texts in your favor.

    And even if those texts are considered in those contexts it says nothing about whether you should shove them in our agnostic and atheistic faces!

    So let it be written so let if be done!:)))

    Cheers everyone


    1. I was not aware of Winn’s “evangelical investment” and have tended to see Winn’s analysis of Mark very similar to Thomas Brodie’s in the past.

      But just between you and me for now, I do see some pockets of weakness in Winn’s arguments where he runs up against mainstream interpretations on a particular point and can think of no way around them …. and it did for a moment enter my mind that some of those fall-back positions could actually be removed and replaced with an entirely new and plausible reason to invent from scratch the story of Jesus that we see in that gospel. But keep the lid on that for now because it’s something I have not thought through yet.

  2. The more evident (in my view) weakness of the Winn’s argument is how he can explain the Barabbas episode. Under the his hypothesis, that episode would sound too much as a criticism of the Zealots movement, and so a Gospel case of pro-Roman propaganda more than a case of anti-Roman propaganda.

    I mention Barabbas as it works as a positive test to see if there is a better interpretation than the one (proposed by Couchoud and by Jean Magne) that recognizes in the episode some clues of anti-Gnostic polemic (the only “sin” of Bar-abbas – and of the his true Gnostic followers in the real History – being his not being the Jewish Christ).

    It is not a coincidence that I don’t see even any occurrence of Barabbas in the Winn’s book.

  3. As I have said I am not totally familiar with Winn’s position on things. I intend to look at his stuff more carefully. I hope I didn’t do him injustice with my observations. The evangelical investment issue was raised because a publisher like IVP is essentially committed to selling evangelical books, both British and American. So I usually get suspicious. It might be a great book.

    I often wonder how scholars who come up with thorough analyses of the the Bible that call into question the usual stuff regarding Christianity and still remain Christian in the process. My last post obviously generalized some issues. Part of me gets worn out listening to all the politics connected with these issues. Very tiring actually.

    Neil you seem to have a thick skin for handling these hot topics and taking on lots of individuals who are caught up in things regarding the historical Jesus that they don’t have the tools to assess. eg. Tim O’Neill, etc.

    1. My warning lights were activated when Winn speaks of a collaboration on a detail with Craig Evans. But as I’ve said often enough, I’ve generally learned something, sometimes quite a lot, from even the devoutly Christian scholars.

  4. Yes Neil! Whewww! Got a bit nervous that I was over-reading on that issue of his redactional
    activity , not just Mark’s , Winn’s as well. Thanks for similar notes or observations.

    Heh, we are all here trying to make sense of very disparate texts and traditions in deconstructing the origins of Christianity. I think both O’Neill and Carrier are doing their best, one has more tools and exposure than the other with respect to these issues and I don’t want to be bullied by either this or that side.

    All of us supposed interpreters of religion bear a heavy burden and we can’t always push off the people who would cling to life on the basis of anyone of our interpretations. My “god” these are just ancient texts we found and trying to make sense of. Everyone…. lighten-up…

    I am more interested in the psychological and social implications of all these discussions. I don’t think theology can solve any of our problems, really, in some pretty significant ways.

    Like Spinoza said, as I interpret him at least….It is total Sola Scriptura. Everyone going at it to decipher it with the best historical and scientific tools available. Every Bible has a hidden message on its first page!! Just speaking poetically as you know :).

    What is it???? “Totally Open and Licenced for “Interpretation” and “Re-interpretation”, and again and again.

    Yes, upon the “Holey” Bible.

    Okay, I should stop now!

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