Reflections on the Secret Mark Symposium, part 3

[With apologies for taking so long; a short vacation and a nasty cold kept me from work].

The afternoon session began with Marvin Meyer’s paper, “The Young Streaker in Secret and Canonical Mark.” Meyer holds a position on Secret Mark similar to that of Helmut Koester—that canonical Mark is an abridgement of a longer version of Mark that included the two Secret Mark passages. This longer Mark helps to clear up the confusion over the neaniskos (young man) who shows up at the end of canonical Mark, a character so mysterious that Matthew and Luke ignore him when composing their texts. In the course of his paper, Meyer echoes the views of some of the scholars from the morning session regarding indicting Smith: “I myself find it rather distasteful to see in these exposés what seem to be inappropriate attacks upon one of our late colleagues, Morton Smith, and my perception that some scholars are inclined to ‘pile on’ concerns me…Some of the charges seem almost libelous.” Meyer provides several examples of other neaniskoi in ancient literature, some of whom flee and abandon their robes, just as in canonical Mark. One example in particular, the fresco from the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, provides the closest parallel to Mark’s figure: “As his expression indicates, the youth is excited and surprised by what he is discovering from the women. Like the youth in Mark, he is discovering the mysteries, and he is amazed.” Meyer finishes the paper by looking at all possible references to the youth in longer Mark and pieces together a complete narrative in which the youth becomes a paradigm of discipleship. I have always been attracted to the Meyer/Koester theory; Mark does read better with the Secret Mark material included. But Meyer (nor anyone else who holds to the theory, as far as I remember) does not provide a compelling argument for why longer Mark became canonical Mark—i.e., if the Secret Mark material is so innocuous and central to Mark’s story, why remove it? Or better, why remove only some of it, leaving the naked youth and thus confusing readers?

Pierluigi Piovanelli’s paper, “Halfway Between Sabbatai Tzevi and Aleister Crowley: Morton Smith’s ‘Own Concept of What Jesus “Must” Have Been’ and, Once Again, the Question of Evidence,” was not distributed before the conference. In its stead, Piovanelli offered a Powerpoint presentation outlining his argument. Piovanelli raises some of the standard reservations about the authenticity of Secret Mark—e.g., the unlikelihood of finding a lost, major work from an ancient author, particularly in such an odd source (the Voss book); and the disconnect between what we read in the To Theodore with what we know of Alexandrian Christianity from other sources. Piovanelli then examines the correspondence between Smith and Gershom Scholem for evidence of motive for Smith to forge the text; he focuses specifically here on Carlson’s theory that Smith created the text out of disillusionment with the academy after his dismissal from Brown University. He also makes much of Smith’s interest in Scholem’s work on Jewish mysticism and his fascination with Alistair Crowley. His conclusion is that Smith created Secret Mark to strengthen his argument that Jesus was a mystical Jewish messiah in the style of Sabbatai Tzevi. More time should be spent looking at Smith’s innovative ideas, Piovanelli argues, than on Secret Mark itself.

Another scholar who has worked extensively with the Smith-Scholem correspondence is Allan Pantuck. This and other private materials form the basis of his paper, “What did he know and when did he know it? Further Excavations from the Morton Smith Archives.” I particularly enjoy Allan’s work on Secret Mark because he is able to use concrete, empirical evidence to refute speculation about Smith’s abilities and motives. Like Piovanelli, Pantuck provided a Powerpoint presentation rather than a draft of his paper; but this worked well for Pantuck as he was able to show the audience images from the Smith archives that helped to establish his argument. This argument challenges the notion that Smith had the abilities to create the To Theodore. To do so he would need: “An intimate knowledge of the writings of Clement of Alexandria sufficient to compose a de novo, original composition that would successfully imitate Clement’s complex thought, vocabulary, and poetic/rhythmic; ability to compose complex ideas flawlessly in Patristic Greek; expertise on the Gospel of Mark; ancient epistolography; expertise in 18th-century Greek paleography; and physical ability to write in a native 18th-century cursive Greek hand.” Pantuck then uses Smith’s correspondence to show that his skills in Greek were not particularly strong; he concludes his point with some remarks made by Roy Kotansky in 2006 that Smith did not read such texts as the Greek Magical Papyri very well and, “he certainly could not have produced either the Greek cursive script of the Mar Saba Ms., nor its grammatical text, as we have it.” But the most compelling section of Pantuck’s presentation is that titled “What did he do and when did he do it.” Here he provides a timeline for Smith’s work on the text, showing, among other things, that Smith took a considerable amount of time (six years) transcribing and translating the manuscript and developing his interpretation of the text. The rough notes illustrating this work—notes from Smith’s private archive and not meant to be seen by the public—indicate that either Smith did not forge the text (otherwise he would not need to decipher it) or that he meticulously created these notes in the event that, after his death, scholars would go through his materials looking for proof of the forgery. The latter is more ridiculous given that Smith wanted all of this material destroyed after his death. Consider also Scott Brown’s point (made in his paper and also his monograph) that Smith translated the phrase “for Jesus was teaching him” as “for he gave him the mystery” so that he could make the mystery of the kingdom of God into a rite. If Smith created the text and wanted it to read “for he gave him the mystery,” why not make the Greek explicitly say so?

As far as I am concerned, Pantuck’s and Brown’s (and also Hedrick’s) work on Secret Mark prove (as much as is possible) that Smith did not forge the text. However, I am not convinced that the To Theodore is an authentic letter of Clement; indeed it could be an eighteenth-century forgery, though I am inclined to think it more ancient. I look forward to seeing the reaction to Pantuck’s paper when it appears in the proceedings.

The final two papers of the day tackled situating the To Theodore in the thought of Clement of Alexandria. Peter Jeffery began with his lengthy paper, “Clement’s Mysteries and Morton Smith’s Magic.” The paper is the latest volley in an exchange between Jeffery and Brown that began with Brown’s review of Jeffery’s The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled (2007). It seeks to show that To Theodore does not fit with Clement’s views on initiation, but it does cohere with Smith’s “idiosyncratic hypotheses” about magic. Jeffery has little regard for Smith’s scholarly abilities; he sees in both Smith’s work and To Theodore the cobbling together of bits and pieces of ancient texts, often misinterpreted or deliberately misrepresented, and removed from their historical contexts, in order to promote his theory of magic. In his presentation, Jeffery gave the audience the “Jeffery Challenge”: read through Smith’s books and articles, check his sources, and if you do not see the shortcomings in his scholarship, then he will write you a reference to the business school of your choice on Princeton letterhead. Scott Brown finished the session with “Behind the Seven Veils, I: The Gnostic Life-Setting of the Mystic Gospel of Mark.” Brown’s argument is that Jeffery (and others) are wrong to place To Theodore and Secret Mark in a baptismal setting. Instead, it should be interpreted as reflecting entry into a higher level of involvement within the church, one reserved for the “true Gnostic.” After a lengthy discussion of the meaning of the lesser and great mysteries in Clement’s corpus, Brown shows how To Theodore fits Clement’s view on the allegorical reading of scripture as an aid for obtaining “the visionary experience of noetic and more pneumatic realities,” and experience “reserved for the Gnostic.” Thus, a longer, “mystical” Mark “simply would not be read to neophytes, hence in the connection with the rites of initiation into the church.” Both Brown’s and Jeffery’s papers work extensively with Clement of Alexandria’s corpus of work. It would be valuable to us for a scholar of Clement to interact with their arguments. We did make some attempts to include feedback from Clement scholars in the symposium and/or in the published proceedings, but we were not successful.

The evening session featured four of the scholars—Evans, Brown, Meyer, and Jeffery—answering a set of prepared questions and also taking questions from the audience. The questions were:

1. This event is the first in a series of symposium on apocryphal Christian literature. What do you see as the value of studying such material?

2. What brought you to work on Secret Mark?

3. Many scholars avoid the text because of the debate over its authenticity. Secret Mark is not the only text in our discipline which suffers from this problem—Q comes to mind. Do you feel some trepidation in integrating the text into reconstructions of early Christian history?

4. What do you need to convince you that the text is authentic/inauthentic?

5. Is it difficult for scholars to admit defeat and embrace positions that are contrary to their own?

6. Part of the resistance to this text is due to its somewhat homoerotic features (Jesus "spends the night" with a young man). Is this homoeroticism intended by the author? If not, could the text get a fairer hearing among more conservative scholars if this interpretation was dispensed with?

I enjoyed hearing the responses from the panel and other questions from the audience. The published proceedings will feature a summary of this session.

And thus closes the first annual York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium. Despite some minor bumps along the way, I am quite pleased with what we accomplished and will build on these experiences in future years. Going into the symposium I hoped to see some consensus emerge on the strengths and weaknesses of the current arguments for the origins of Secret Mark. While there were no explicit statements made reflecting such consensus, it does seem that scholars are moving away from many of the arguments advanced by Stephen Carlson, are embracing the views of the handwriting experts that Smith did not (indeed, could not) have forged the text by his own hand, and perhaps are beginning to re-evaluate the apparent homoeroticism of the story of Jesus and the young man. Of course, caution is still recommended when using this text to reconstruct early Christian history and to establish the relationships between the gospels.

Stay tuned for more information on the proceedings and next year’s symposium.

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3 Responses to Reflections on the Secret Mark Symposium, part 3

  1. Many thanks for providing your summary and comments, Tony. A couple of quick comments on the questions at the end:

    — re. 3, “Q comes to mind”, I am genuinely surprised. I have not experienced any trepidation among scholars to discuss Q on grounds of its hypothethetical status (if that is what “debate over its authenticity” means in this case). Quite the contrary. Is there any evidence for this alleged trepidation?

    — I am sceptical of the suggestion that scholars are moving away from many of the arguments advanced by Stephen Carlson in the light of 6, which appears to take for granted his interpretation of “spend the night with” in Secret Mark (Gospel Hoax, 67-8)

  2. Tony says:

    Re: Q. Well, perhaps that is my reticence. I’m happy to consider the possibility of Q, but I don’t make arguments on the history of Christianity as if it is assured. Other people I know also hesitate to embrace stratigraphic arguments as they are uncomfortable pushing the theory that far. And maybe the analogy is too much of a stretch for Secret Mark–one is hypothetical, one may or may not be a forgery.

    Re: “spend the night together.” The homoeroticism in SM seems to hinge on whether or not you think it a forgery. If it is genuine, then it is not homoerotic. Those who hold to this position do not see any homoeroticism in the text. And Charlie made a good argument that this statement, which is considered by Carlson a modern euphemism for sex, is not that alien to ancient literature (consider Luke 24:29, “But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.'”). Those who see SM as a forgery cannot help but see this as a sign of modernism (or perhaps they see it as homoerotic and then MUST conclude it is a forgery). Clearly, it is not a sure sign of anachronism. But the point of my statement was that this was not an argument that was used much in the papers for the symposium (Craig Evans’ paper is an exception) and discussion tended to shy away from it even when asked scholars were asked the question in the evening session.

  3. Mike K says:

    Thanks for these summaries of this interesting conference you put together. I agree there does not seem to be anything homoerotic in Secret/Mystic Mark, as we don’t read these innuendos into the statement that Jesus looked on him and loved him (Mk 10:21), Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night (John 3) or the disciple whom Jesus loved who leans on him at the meal (John 13:23-25). I just have a question if anyone addressed or debated the line “naked man with naked man” which Theodore inquired about and which Clement denied was in the text (was this a Carpocratian addition and then suggest that the text was not so innocuous, at least for the Carpocratians)?

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