Reflections on the Secret Mark Symposium, part 2

As I said in my previous post, much of the contents of the symposium (i.e., the presentations and discussions) are a bit of blur to me. But I can, and wish to, make some comments about the papers and attempt some reflections on their contributions to the study of the text.

First, I should state that, going into the symposium, I had no firm view about Secret Mark’s authenticity. I was conversant with the scholarship but had not been forced to come to a decision on the issue. My only contribution to discussions of its origins prior to this event had been on my frustrations over conservative scholars’ rush to embrace the arguments advanced by Stephen Carlson (The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark, 2005). It seemed to me that they were motivated by a distaste for the text’s contents—perceiving something homoerotic in the relationship between Jesus and the “young man”—and this was interfering with their obligations as scholars to consider carefully the evidence. Now that the symposium has concluded, I am convinced Smith did not create the text; rather, he found it at Mar Saba exactly as he claimed. I do not yet know whether it is an authentic letter of Clement, an ancient forgery, or a medieval forgery. But scholars should move to determining which of these options is correct rather than continuing to spin their wheels attempting to prove it was forged by Smith.

The first of the papers was “Secret Mark: Moving on from Stalemate” by Charles Hedrick. Hedrick was charged with presenting an argument for the authenticity of the text. As part of his paper, Hedrick discusses the statement on the text issued by paleographer Agamemnon Tselikas and some reflections on an interview Hedrick conducted with Tselikas. What is striking about Tselikas’ comments is that they seem at variance with even the evidence he cites—i.e., the text was written in an 18th-century Greek hand, which could not be executed by Smith himself, yet Smith is identified as the forger, having brought the manuscript from another monastery during his travels in Greece as a secret agent working for the US and/or Britain (!). Hedrick also dismisses Stephen Carlson’s arguments as “less-than-circumstantial evidence”—indeed, very little of Carlson’s evidence, which has been effectively countered by Scott Brown, Allan Pantuck, and Roger Viklund, was discussed during the day, and it seems to have been abandoned even by those who argue against the text’s authenticity. In the end, Hedrick advocates “begin[ning] with the evidence on the table” and accepting the legitimacy of the manuscript. He also (rightly) defends Smith, stating “the standard of proof for convicting a distinguished colleague of forgery should be higher than what has been offered by the modern forgery theorists.”

Hedrick compares the debate over Secret Mark with that over the Donation of Constantine, an 8th-century text purporting to be composed in the 4th century. This text was proven a forgery due to “historical anachronisms, inconsistencies, and misunderstandings” not “imaginative ‘clues’ to support a forgery.” If, after fifty years, similar data cannot be advanced to prove Secret Mark’s inauthenticity, then perhaps it is time to move on. One noteworthy argument that Hedrick advances based on comparison with the Donation is that this text was shown to be a forgery in part because the language does not fit a 4th-century time-frame; Secret Mark, on the other hand, has been declared “too-Markan” or the Letter to Theodore “too-Clementine.” Ultimately, Hedrick concludes that Secret Mark should be considered an example of ancient imitation—i.e., its author was trying to expand Mark by imitating Markan style, similar to the endings of Mark that come after Mark 16:8 in some manuscripts. Mind you, he adds, these endings are not particularly “Markan” in style, so perhaps “Mark later emended his own text—just as Clement said!”

Hedrick’s paper was followed by a response from Bruce Chilton. Chilton did not respond specifically to Hedrick’s arguments but instead made some cautionary remarks about “provenience”—i.e., the necessity of establishing where and when a text is from before using it in a scholarly argument. He concludes that, “[claims about the text’s origins] amount to categorical assertions of provenience that are untested and far from proven. We can begin by finding out where the book in which the letter was written came from. Until we can do that, we are not dealing with evidence, or even with a stalemate about evidence. We are dealing with an unverified claim, which may remain so for as long as some of the other cases briefly indicated here.” I agree with Chilton that we have to be very careful about using unprovenanced evidence; the same argument has been made in archeology, most recently in connection to the artifacts associated with Oded Golan, the owner of the James ossuary. But with manuscripts, this may be asking too much. Both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library, as well as numerous other manuscript finds, are “unprovenanced”—i.e., they came to scholars through middlemen, not from archeological sites. Even with manuscripts from monastery libraries, such as Secret Mark, we rely on the scholars who catalogued or acquired them to be truthful about their origins. Why can we not trust Morton Smith’s word? He found the manuscript, catalogued it, photographed it, and left it at the library for others to consult. There is nothing questionable or unusual about his actions.

The case for forgery was made by Criag Evans in his paper, “Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark: Exploring the Grounds for Doubt.” Essentially, Evans’ point is that he sees elements of Secret Mark—the “mystery of the kingdom of God” in Mark 4:11, secrecy and initiation, (sexual) union with a god, and Clement of Alexandria—present in Smith’s work prior to his discovery of the text. He thus makes a comparison between Smith’s Secret Mark and Paul Coleman-Norton’s “amusing agraphon”—a lost saying of Jesus that, apparently, was a joke told by Coleman-Norton before he discovered the saying. Of course, there are some marked differences between the two cases. Coleman-Norton claimed that he happened upon the saying in a book in a North African mosque; there is no manuscript evidence. Were it not for the Mar Saba library and the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem losing the manuscript, scholars would be able to consult it. There was no subterfuge on Smith’s part when it comes to the evidence. Evans also restates Francis Watson’s arguments about the suspicious commonalities between Smith’s discovery in Mar Saba and the discovery of the “Shred of Nicodemus” in the same monastery by the fictional archeologist in James Hunter’s The Mystery of Mar Saba, a novel published 18 years before Smith visited the monastery. Noting a few other mysteries about the text (e.g., what is the significance of it being copied into the back of the Voss book?), Evans concludes, “in my view the evidence that Smith possessed knowledge of distinctive elements of the Mar Saba find, prior to his finding it, is more than sufficient for viewing the find with grave suspicion.”

Evans seems to be the writer most troubled by Secret Mark’s supposed homoeroticism (though Jeffery, too, makes much of it). Evans, however, tends to misrepresent the text’s contents in this regard. He writes that in the gospel “Jesus teaches a naked young man” (but the youth is not naked) and later “Jesus in the nude instructs a young convert” (nor is Jesus nude). Such flustering over a “gay Jesus” is reminiscent of the controversy over Tinky-winky, the gay Teletubbie, and the unsavoury relationship between Spongebob and Patrick. These all seem to reflect the anxieties of the viewer/reader and have little basis in reality. Evans also notes along the way some other dubious arguments for forgery: the presence of mildew and mold spots on the manuscript (all we have are photographs; the nature of these “spots” cannot be determined), the forger’s tremor (which is not apparent in the better photographs), and Carlson’s report from a professional handwriting expert (which has been shown to have been edited to strengthen his position).

Allan Pantuck’s response to Evans passed over these issues to focus on his argument about themes from Secret Mark in Smith’s prior work and on the similarities between the discovery and Hunter’s novel. Pantuck effectively demonstrated the weaknesses of Evans’ main argument—Smith’s early work does not link forbidden sex to Mark 4:11, the mystery that Jesus teaches his disciples instead relates to his messiahship and eschatology (a fairly standard position in the academy), and nowhere do we see an example in Smith’s work where all four of Evans’ themes are present. As for the similarities with Hunter’s novel, these arise simply because Hunter’s protagonist and Smith were both manuscript hunters performing the same task in the same place. Indeed, these coincidences were dispelled by Pantuck before the symposium in an article for BAR (available HERE).

The discussion that followed Pantuck’s response illustrated a number of misconceptions that people have regarding manuscript studies. In his paper, Evans wondered why Smith would write his name in the book (he wrote “Smith 65”), but this is standard practice for cataloging manuscripts—i.e., placing an identifier in the manuscript linking it to the catalogue entry and also adding page numbers if necessary. Someone asked why Smith did not safeguard the book. Why did he simply put it back on the shelf of the monastery library and leave? But that is precisely what he should have done (it belonged to the library after all), and there is no reason for him to think it would not be safe there.

The final paper in the morning session came from Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. We invited Shanks to speak because of his magazine’s efforts to authenticate the Secret Mark manuscript. He commissioned two examinations of the text: one by Venetia Anastasopoulou, a Greek handwriting expert, and one by Agamemnon Tselikas, a Greek philologist. Anastasopolou concluded that the scribe of the manuscript was a native Greek writer, while Smith’s own Greek handwriting was like that of “a student learning how to write the language.” Her conclusions seem to be universally accepted; no-one at the symposium seems to claim now that Smith personally wrote the text. Even Tselikas agrees with this assessment, believing that Smith had someone from another monastery write it for him. Shanks provided everyone with a new summary of Tselikas’ report; his views are mentioned above in my overview of Hedrick’s paper, but contained in this summary is Tselikas’ charge that Smith forged the text “to prove how important he was, to become ‘known and significant.’” And here was the main argument of Shanks’ presentation, which was a spirited defense of Smith, the would-be “Bernie Madoff of the academy.” “To me,” Shanks writes, “it is just not believable that Morton Smith would forge this letter. He may have been crazy, but not that crazy. A joke that would ruin his entire life? But it is more than this. It is a matter of character. Is there any hint that Morton Smith was of a character that would allow him to do this horrendous thing? I think not.” To bolster his defense, Shanks quotes a letter sent to him by Jeffrey Tigay of the University of Pennsylvania, which summarizes Robert Kraft’s view that, “practically the only people accusing Morton of fraud are people who didn’t know him.” In the discussion following Shanks’ talk, it was mentioned that some scholars who knew Smith do think he forged the text and, though it may seem crazy to us for him to do so, stranger things have happened in other forgery cases.

By the end of the morning, the argument for forgery seemed to be convincing many of the audience members at the symposium. The coincidences that were unsettling Evans were unsettling others also. But the afternoon session included a paper that swung opinion toward authenticity, and convinced me once and for all that Smith did not, indeed could not, have forged the text.

This entry was posted in Secret Mark, York Christian Apocrypha. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Reflections on the Secret Mark Symposium, part 2

  1. Convinced you once and for all? Now I do wonder which of the afternoon papers did that.

  2. Phil H. says:

    Excellent summary, Tony.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *