Secret Mark Symposium: A Student’s View

I have been holding off on writing my own assessment of the Secret Mark Symposium because I thought a participant's view would be more valuable. Calogero A. Miceli, a Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University in Montreal, offered a report of the event at a forum a few days ago and graciously offered to pass along this summary for Apocryphicity.


On April 29th, 2011 a symposium was held at York University (Toronto, Ontario) where scholars from across North America gathered to present their opinions and understandings of the Secret Gospel of Mark (as found in the Mar Saba Letter) and of Morton Smith. The event was organized by Tony Burke (York University) and Phil Harland (York University) and since I recently presented a report of the symposium at the following: GRECAT Université Laval-Concordia University 2nd Annual Workshop on May 4th, 2011 held at Laval University (Quebec City, Quebec), I was kindly asked by Tony Burke to offer my account of the symposium as a guest-post on his blog ‘Apocryphicity’. I was present for the entire day of the symposium and here I offer a short overview of what happened and what came out of the conference. I will focus very little on the particular presentations and arguments of the scholars present mainly because these will be able to speak for themselves upon the publication of the papers of the symposium in an upcoming monograph edited by Tony Burke and Phil Harland – which I look forward to! It is also important to note that in such short time several other accounts of the symposium have already made their way to the web, see the posts on X, Y and Zen and Synoptic Solutions. Though my report here is not as thorough as some of these, a collective reading of all of these accounts of the conference seems to me a very good and comprehensive overview of the entire symposium. 

The event featured scholars from across North America whom have published on Secret Mark as Burke and Harland tried very hard to find a balance of scholars to argue for the various positions concerning the apocryphal text, namely the two sides – those who agree with Morton’s Smith’s account and accept Secret Mark as it is & those who disagree with Morton Smith’s account and believe that Secret Mark is a forgery perpetrated by Smith himself. The following scholars were invited and asked to present: Scott Brown (Independent Scholar), Craig Evans (Acadia Divinity College), Charles Hedrick (Missouri State University), Peter Jeffery (University of Notre Dame), Marvin Meyer (Chapman University), Allan J. Pantuck (University of California), Pierluigi Piovanelli (University of Ottawa), and Hershel Shanks (Editor, Biblical Archaeology Review).

The symposium was opened with a few words by Tony Burke. In his introduction, Burke spoke of how the symposium came into fruition, most notably the 2008 SBL session on Secret Mark where many scholars (some of whom were again present at York University) discussed the Secret Gospel of Mark. A good report on the happenings of this 2008 SBL session can still be found in earlier blog posts by Tony Burke on ‘Apocryphicity’. In light of the debate in 2008, Burke got together with several others and organized this symposium specifically dealing with Secret Mark. He mentioned in the opening remarks that the hope was to have some sort of consensus amongst the scholars present.  

Most of the papers were handed out to the participants in advance of the conference which made it that much easier to follow a particular argument and it helped in bringing people into the world of Secret Mark in today’s debate. (Hedrick, Evans, Meyer, Piovanelli (in French), and Brown’s papers were sent to the participants prior to the event). The presentations all went very smoothly and I particularly enjoyed the responses of Chilton and Pantuck as this allowed for an interesting way for scholars to discuss their points and critique one other. However, as the response papers were given, it was clear to me that there could easily have been a response to the response. The back and forth may never have ended.

During the sessions, of particular interest was the ‘Report on Handwriting Analyses’ by Hershel Shanks. The first handwriting expert Venetia Anastasopoulou stated that Smith did not forge the document (as was revealed in an article on the BAR website) whereas the second handwriting expert, Agamemnon Tselikas concluded – as was revealed by Shanks at the symposium – that the letter is a forged document perhaps by Morton Smith. Therefore, the two handwriting experts commissioned by Shanks have both made public their opinions and these are of opposing opinions.

The conflicting positions of the two handwriting analyses mirror the conflict between scholars regarding Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark. Throughout the conference, both sides stuck to their arguments and did not let up. Some of the arguments were rehashings of the same old arguments for or against Secret Mark and not much was said in way of innovating evidence. The thing that often came up throughout the day was the notion that a new discovery may help to clarify things or that a new text might help to resolve this issue. The hope or need for a new discovery may be the only thing that might move the conversation forward; however, as of right now we do not have anything ‘new’. 

The scheduling was tight throughout the day (presenters were only given 15 minutes to speak and they easily went over time limit). Much of the planned discussions between papers were sacrificed in order to keep with the schedule. The best discussions, in my mind, came during the public forum at the end of the conference (though it was said to me that during the dinner where all of the presenters went to eat, that this was the best discussion that took place). During the public forum, many of the scholars seemed loosened up from the process of having to present their papers and instead engaged in a more open discussion of the text at hand and they took questions from Phil Harland who presided over the forum and then from the audience present. One of the questions asked, by me, was what the future of the study of Secret Mark might be and how scholars intend to move forward with the text at hand. This garnered different yet interesting responses from the panel. Craig Evans noted that scholars have a lot of other works and things to consider while restating his skepticism concerning Secret Mark; he noted that the warning flags are there and that he will move on and not use Secret Mark. Marvin Meyer’s response was that the decision to work on or abandon Secret Mark is a decision each individual must decide for themselves. Meyer noted that it is an interesting gospel and that whatever we can do to better understand it we should pursue it and that we should not forget about it entirely. Peter Jeffrey also offered some insights for future scholarship saying that scholars need robust discussions with Clement of Alexandria experts. Jeffrey also stated that there is as of yet no solid examination of Morton Smith’s study of magic and also that everyone could use a good and sympathetic biography of Morton Smith’s life that should be well documented. I must agree with Jeffrey that this would be a great addition to the discussion since a biography of Smith’s life would be extremely helpful in the discussion.

As for the issue of consensus, it was clear during and by the end of the conference that scholars all disagree and will continue to disagree baring some new ‘evidence’ which may or may never come. While some scholars will turn away from Secret Mark and instead focus their energies on texts which are less ‘problematic’ it is clear that there will still be others who will continue to argue for or against this controversial text. By the end of the symposium there was still no consensus concerning whether or not Smith perpetrated the forgery or not, there was no consensus about the handwriting of the document and whether or not this was Smith’s own hand, and there was no consensus on what the future of the document should be. In my opinion, it is clear that both sides agree on only one thing, and that is to disagree.  

I want to thank Tony Burke and Phil Harland for their hard work in organizing such an interesting and well planned symposium as well as give a thank you to all of the presenters for their interesting papers and insights. The symposium, which I hope to see continued in the future, was a great convergence for exploring the Secret Gospel of Mark and while it did not bring harmony to the discussion, in my mind, it has become clear that scholars do not and will not come to an agreement. This realization that scholars can only agree to disagree may be a step in the right direction and may help to shape the future of the study on Secret Mark.

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