Review: Reading Mark’s Christology under Caesar, Part 2 (Gupta)

Winn

In the first part, I summarized the book and talked about the positive features of this fascinating book. Here I offer critical comments.

I mentioned before that Winn’s book is a deductive study—applying a hypothesis to the text and pointing out proofs or evidence in favor of his theory (namely that Mark’s Gospel was written to counter Vespasian’s claims to supremacy). Winn assembles many different types of evidence in favor of his theory. But, in my opinion, this doesn’t raise the level of his theory to probability, only possibilty. Here are some of the obstacles as I see it.

More primary Vespasian material. The part of the book that captured my attention most was material that demonstrated “Vespasian’s claim to be the true fulfillment of Jewish messianic prophecies and expectations” (45). Here he quotes brief snippets from Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius (pp. 45-46). I think Winn needed to really expand this into perhaps even a whole chapter. The more he could tie all of this directly to Judaism and Jewish thought, the better he could establish his case.

Beyond connections/parallels. It is common in anti-imperial readings of the NT to point out parallels or connections to support the case. But the perennial issue is, why does Mark not speak more directly against Vespasian? It is easy to find all kinds of parallels and resonances with imperial ideology – where do you draw the line?

Methodology. This is often ground on which many arguments are broken. When connections are detected, the question is why such parallels are there and what they are meant to mean in terms of interpretation. Is Mark anti-imperial at the whole-composition level? That is, is it a main reason why the Gospel was written? How do you know? When it is on a passage-level, is it a clever rhetorical device, an intentional criticism that has a point, is it a non-political parody? And, again, how do you know?

I think, for me, this “anti-Caesar” approach to Mark must address convincingly why Mark is not more explicit about this. Just as Paul is not explicit about any of this either.

That being said, Winn has come closer than most in arguing in favor of an anti-imperial approach to Mark, thanks to his historical spade-work. Again, I think you can “enjoy” a book without finding it completely convincing. Read it!

Review: Reading Mark’s Christology under Caesar, Part 1 (Gupta)

 

WinnI read lots of books, but I can’t say I enjoy many of them. Well, Adam Winn’s new book, Reading Mark’s Christology under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology is an absolute pleasure. In this 2-part review, I will take this first post to summarize the book and explain why I like it so much. In the next part I offer my critical feedback.

Summary

The application of postcolonial criticism and empire studies to the Synoptics has been going on for decades. In fact, it continues to be rather “trendy.” But most of the time it is done with rather vague thematic brushstrokes – an allusion or double-meaning here and there. Lots of speculation, no real purpose or historical grounding. In comes Winn. He applies a pretty impressive historical theory to the composition of Mark, and then lays out evidence within the text. Winn places the writing of Mark into the context of emperor Vespasian’s reign. In particular, Vespasian presented a certain imperial ideology of supremacy that included conquering of the Jewish people and destruction of the Jewish temple. Furthermore, there is some evidence that Vespasian claimed to fulfill Jewish messianic prophecies and expectations (or other claimed that about him)—Winn gives direct testimony about this from Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius (pp. 45-46). The implication of this for Christians would be the message that the “Jewish scriptures did not point to a Jewish Messiah but rather to the rise of the emperor Vespasian” (48). Winn argues that Mark wrote his Gospel in part to “set the record straight,” so to speak; thus, Mark’s Christology is central to his story, and one ought to read Mark within this wider political context.

With this backdrop in view, Winn gets to work showing how elements of Mark’s Gospel support his hypothesis – The Gospel as intentionally anti-Vespasian. Mark’s emphasis on the miracle-working wonders of Jesus would have a direct intention of one-upping the assumed miracles of Vespasian (see Winn’s ch. 3). Winn has a clever imperial-context solution to the Messianic Secret mystery as well. Like other kings and rulers of his time, Jesus was expected to resist excessive public honor, but he could (and did) accept public honor sometimes (see Winn’s ch. 5). And obviously the Temple incident is important to Winn’s theory. Why the Temple was destroyed was important for Flavian propoganda—and for Mark’s Gospel. Rather than this being a powerful act of Vespasian, Mark ensures Christians understand how this came about by the will of the one God who allowed Rome to sack the Temple “as a sign of divine favor on the Markan community, establishing it as the true dwelling place of God and divine power” (150).

Strengths

There are many strengths of Winn’s proposal. First and foremost he grounds it in history—especially the ancient testimonies of Vespasian’s supremacy. One can see how this might become central to Mark’s pastoral intentions. Secondly, Winn focuses this on the temple, a major feature of Jewish life, and a key symbol in early Christianity. Thirdly, Winn has done his Roman world homework and is able to find a number of fascinating connections between Jesus and Roman imperial ideology in continuity or contrast. And, perhaps most noticeably, Winn is a winsome and succinct writer offering clear information, helpful summaries, and explicating the relevance of connections he observes.

There are two types of academic studies – inductive and deductive. Most studies are inductive; they look at a theme or issue and draw out a variety of insights. Some studies are deductive – they develop a hypothetical solution to a problem and then amass evidence to support that theory. Winn’s book is deductive; he urges that Mark should be read as a response to imperial ideology, grounded in the ascension of Vespasian. He does a fine job of drawing together elements of imperial ethos and propaganda and then demonstrating how Mark’s Gospel, and specifically his Christology, is designed to counteract this. Again, he does not do this in a “hey aren’t these anti-imperial motifs interesting” sort of way; rather, he makes a case that Mark directly desired to subvert the emperor’s actual claims with his Gospel. This makes Winn’s book engaging and exciting!

When students ask me for good examples of deductive argumentation, Winn will serve as a great case study.

Having said all of that, I will also say that I am not sold on his theory (Yes, I can love a book without agreeing with its core thesis!). Be on the lookout for my next post to see why…

 

The Apostle’s Creed, by Ben Myers (Gupta)

CreedIn seminary, Dr. Gary Parrett got me hooked on the importance of catechism/Christian education as a fundamental ministry of the church. Parrett introduced me to the Heidelberg Catechism and the teachings of Augustine. He also fostered in me a love for the three big staples of the traditional catechetical diet: the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed. And that love has stuck with me and grown over the fifteen years since I took that course (“The Educational Ministry of the Church”). So much so that I wrote a book on the Lord’s Prayer, and I am co-teaching a course next year based on the Apostles’ Creed.

In comes Ben Myer’s new little book, The Apostles’ Creed. This new series from Lexham Press (“Christian Essentials”) aims to reinvigorate knowledge of and love for great traditions of the Church. Authors have been carefully selected both for their academic knowledge, but also for their ability to introduce and pass on these traditions with grace, wit, and insight, all at an accessible level. And Myers was an excellent choice to launch this series, because he is a fantastic and winsome communicator (#jealous). The book size is very small – like a devotional (its about the size of my hand). So, when I say it is ~130 pages, it feels more like 40-50 pages. In 21 very short chapters (4-6 pages each), he breaks the Creed up into small units of usually a few words. In terms of writing style, I would say it seems very C.S. Lewis-ish, or Alister McGrath, Rowan Williams, Kallistos Ware – learned, but faith-forming, accessible illustrations, etc. Easy to read, fresh and thought-provoking.

Myers does several good things at once—he addresses modern concerns and questions, he engages formative Patristic literature, and he draws from the story of Scripture. This is a masterful model of full interpretive integration, and what some call “Theological Interpretation of Scripture.” Perhaps my favorite little chapter is on the “virgin birth.” Myers says the focus is not on a one-off miracle, but rather a pattern in Scripture: “at the great turning points of history, we find a woman, pregnant, and an infant child brought into the world by the powerful promise of God. Israel’s story is a story of miraculous births [Isaac, Samson, Samuel, etc]” (51). So, in Mary we confess a culmination, the gospel of the uniquely-born Jesus “silhouetted against the backdrop of God’s promise to Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, the rule of the judges, the coming of the prophets, and the promised deliverance from exile” (54). Brilliant reading of Scripture, brilliant creedal emphasis, and now this will stick with me!

My only wish for this book (and series) is that it was longer. The short chapters are just a taste, a thought, a brief word. This is not a full-blown interpretation of the Creed (nor should it be). But I think it would have still been successful and useful to laypeople if it was even twice as long. I eagerly look forward to future volumes, not least my friend Wesley Hill on the Lord’s Prayer!

Academic Books I Want to Read 2018-2019 (Gupta)

I was recently asked what books I have my eye on and want to get for SBL/Christmas[/Valentine’s Day?]. This covers the next six months or so.

Luke Timothy Johnson, Miracles. Interpretation. WJK, Jul 2018.

Michael Gorman, Abide and Go: Missional Theosis in the Gospel of John

Graham

Wipf and Stock, Jul 2018.

David deSilva, The Letter to the Galatians. NICNT repl. Eerdmans, August 2018.

Louise J. Lawrence, The Bible and Bedlam: Madness, Sanism, and NT Interpretation. T&T Clark, Aug 2018. looks to be a fascinating study of mental illness and “sanism” assumptions in the Bible and today.

Rowan Human

Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons. Eerdmans, Sept 2018. Loved his previous books in this series.

Adam Winn, Reading Mark’s Christology under Caesar, Sept 2018. Extra points for a beautiful cover!Winn.jpg

Craig Blomberg, A New Testament Theology. Baylor Press, Oct 2018. 

Donald Hagner, How New is the New Testament. Baker, Oct 2018.

C. Clifton Black, The Lord’s Prayer. Interpretation. WJK, Nov 2018.

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Gerhard Lohfink, The Our Father: A New Reading, Liturgical, Jan 2019.

Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives (ed. Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica). Eerdmans, Feb 2019. The four views are: Reformational, New Perspective, Apocalyptic, and Participationistic.

 

 

 

Theology Podcasts I Follow (Gupta)

Podcasting

So, this year my commute time to work is longer because I am teaching a class at the Newberg campus twice a week (~45 min away). My friend and dean, Roger Nam, recommended that I check out some good theology podcasts. To be honest, I never much listened to podcasts before, but I am really enjoying it. The following are a mix of older podcasts and newer ones, but all of them are worth checking out.

OnScript – for me, this is the current premier biblical studies podcast. Recently, I have enjoyed episodes with Cynthia Westfall, Susan Eastman, and Scot McKnight. But also check out older episodes with lots of fascinating scholars and topics.

Seminary Dropout -this one offers a mix of theology, ministry, culture, and life; great variety of guests, academic and professional. (I was interviewed a while back, but I am not nearly as interesting as most of their other guests!). A good couple of recent episodes are with AJ Swoboda (“Subversive Sabbath”) and another with Dominique Gilliard (“On How the Church Can Rethink Incarceration and Advocate for Justice that Restores”).

Kingdom Roots – This is Scot McKnight’s theology and ministry podcast. He does a good job weaving together academia and real ministry interests and concerns. A good recent episode interviews my buddy Dennis Edwards (pastor and professor) on 1 Peter.

Weird Religion – OK, this is a brand new podcast show. And—even better—it is hosted by my wonderful colleagues Leah Payne and Brian Doak (George Fox profs). This quirky, interesting, and fun podcast covers religion and pop culture. Payne and Doak are great thinkers, but also just a lot of fun. Also, protip, they use excellent microphone and sound systems, so the sound quality is outstanding.

 

An Innovative Greek Reader Textbook-Part 2 (Gupta)

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Why Galatians

We built our intermediate Greek reader on Galatians. I have used many different kinds of Greek reader textbooks in the past, and even though having different types of texts was pedagogically helpful, it felt very choppy. Most reader walk you through short snippets of biblical and non-biblical texts. There is something especially satisfying for me in reading a whole text from beginning to end. So, we chose to build our textbook with a bulk of reading in a complete text.

But why Galatians in particular?

There are many advantages to strengthening your Greek by reading Galatians. It is relatively easy Greek. Most of the time the syntax is straightforward. Also, it is not too long. Six chapters is digestible in a semester. Thirdly, it happens to be one of the most important pieces of literature in all history. Galatians touches upon lots of important NT concepts foundational to Christian theology. Fourth, within Galatians you have different types of discourses; it begins very narrative heavy (chs 1-2); then you get more argumentation (chs 3-4), and it ends with paraenesis and more concentrated “epistle-y” material (chs 5-6). Lastly, it was especially helpful that Galatians contains numerous interactions with the Septuagint. (More on that in the next post)

To be honest, though, I chose Galatians as the main text of the reader because I love it. I am writing a commentary on Galatians and this project gave me a chance to dig deep into the Greek text with the help of my students. I have the luxury of setting up classroom experiences where I get to learn from my students and then utilize those insights in my research and writing.

An Innovative Greek Reader Textbook—Part 1 (Gupta)

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Since Thursday, the new intermediate Greek textbook I co-edited (with a group of my students) has now been downloaded almost 1000 times. I have received words of appreciation and positive feedback from students and Greek nerds in places such as New Zealand, Hong Kong, South Korea, Ethiopia, England, Scotland, India, Canada, Japan, and Brazil. Why? Not because I am famous or anything like that. I believe this textbook is getting attention and recognition because it is a high quality product that fits a major need, and because it is an open access textbook it is available to anyone in the world for free. That is pretty exciting.

In further posts in this series I will talk about why this book is special, but right now I want to talk a bit about how this book came to be. We at Portland Seminary wanted to re-envision how seminary can serve students beyond the old confines of traditional papers and exams. We had a why not attitude. Why not prod our students to dream big? Why not teach our students how to be creative and make something beautiful, excellent, practical, and affordable?

So we did.

When took intermediate Greek in seminary on the east coast, we read a textbook and did quizzes and tests. Fine. But boring.

I wondered—what if we work together to create something we can be proud of, something we can give away. Now, with GoogleDocs, we had the technology to work together from a distance and collaborate. The students (8 in all) worked week by week, reading through Wallace and Mathewson/Emig, and studying Galatians (more on that in a later post). They translated and parsed everything in Galatians, and then created study notes to help others. It’s pretty simple—learn by doing. And knowing it would be published put some pressure on them that they can’t be sloppy, they had to check, double-check, and triple-check their work (and check each other’s work). They felt like professionals. We had a team of librarians, Greek editors, design folks, copyeditors, and consultants help to produce this book.

We (the students and I) distinctly recognized our privileged position – American grad students with the money, time, and luxury of graduate theological education. And we recognized the great need in the world for good, affordable resources. So it makes me proud that the students left the course with the empowered feeling of using their privilege, education, and energy to give away a resource for free. Not a cheap, crappy, “clickbait” resource, but something that took over 1000 combined hours, involved numerous professionals with advanced degrees, all the while meeting program and course objectives and helping prepare these students for lifelong study of Greek.

So now that this book has been live for about a week, the next question is: how can we do this kind of thing again, and again?