Has Philip Jenkins found a “new source” for Secret Mark?

Philip Jenkins, author of The Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (2001) and frequent contributor to the Patheos blog, has published a short article in Books and Culture magazine with the tantalizing title “Alexandrian Attitudes: A new source for the ‘Secret Gospel of Mark.’” Unfortunately, Jenkins is not talking about a manuscript source, but a source of inspiration.

Jenkins’ previous contribution to the debate on the authenticity of Secret Mark was the claim that Morton Smith was inspired to forge the gospel after reading James Hogg Hunter’s 1940 novel The Mystery of Mar Saba, in which a character discovers a controversial noncanonical text at the Mar Saba monastery. Indeed, as Jenkins says in this new article, Smith expected scholars to pick up on this connection: “As I have noted elsewhere, the fact that Smith’s alleged find occurred at Mar Saba is either strong proof of the text’s authenticity, in that nobody would have dared invent such a thing, or else it is a tribute to the unabashed chutzpah of a forger.” Jenkins’ theory has been repeated a number of times since—notably by Robert M. Price, Francis Watson, and Craig Evans—and challenged by Allan Pantuck.

Now Jenkins has attributed another literary inspiration to Smith: Angus Wilson’s 1956 novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. The plot of the novel involves the discovery of a phallic fertility symbol in the grave of a seventh-century celebrated missionary bishop named Eorpwald, a disciple of the great English Archbishop Theodore. The reader discovers that the artifact was planted by an archeologist, Gilbert Stokesay, to discredit and disgrace his father, the chief excavator of the site, as well as other scholars. Jenkins says also that the novel’s author, Wilson, was openly gay and that “much of the book depicts English gay subculture. This theme also shapes the Eorpwald hoax. By faking the discovery, Gilbert was subverting the heroic image that the modern-day church has of its founders, to make them confront the possibility that those early predecessors themselves were open to unrestrained ‘pagan’ sexuality. To a large degree, he succeeded, as scholars so uniformly accepted these bizarre claims and integrated them into their understanding of medieval faith.”

Jenkins sees a number of parallels between Wilson’s novel and Smith’s discovery: a forgery planted in an early Christian site, the association with the name Theodore, underground controversial clandestine practices, and accusations of sorcery (against Eorpwald in the novel, and against Jesus in Smith’s monograph Jesus the Magician). Jenkins also points out that it is rumored that Smith was gay. Jenkins concludes: “At some point, surely, Occam's Razor requires us to seek the simplest explanation for the whole Mar Saba affair. There’s no mystery here. The Mystery of Mar Saba + Anglo-Saxon Attitudes = Secret Mark.”

Those who claim Secret Mark is a forgery or a hoax will seize on Jenkins’ theory here as additional proof for their position. More careful readers, I hope, will see that the parallels are as tenuous (indeed, more so) as those for Hunter’s novel. Allan Pantuck eviscerated this theory in his article “Solving the Mysterion of Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark” posted on the Biblical Archeology Review Scholar’s Study Page for Secret Mark. Challenging Francis Watson’s restatement of Jenkins’ theory, Pantuck asks, “if we were to take any event in modern history and tried to find a novel written before that event with a content that resembles it in various more specific details, what are the odds we could come up with a parallel? To what extent does real life ever imitate art, and if it does, how closely?” (12-13). Pantuck provides five examples, one of the more amusing is the sinking of the Mignonette in 1884. Only four people survived and after being adrift in an open boat for many days, three of them killed and ate the cabin boy, Richard Parker. Forty years earlier, Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, in which four survivors of a shipwreck kill and eat a cabin boy named Richard Parker.

For both novels, Hunter’s and Wilson’s, what we have are nothing more than coincidences of names and isolated disconnected topoi—specifically, in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes a fake artifact, found in a grave of a follower of someone named Theodore, indicates that the occupant of the grave was involved in clandestine, pagan sexual practices; in Secret Mark we have a manuscript, found in a monastery and written to someone named Theodore, that mentions a version of a text that was corrupted by some early Christians known for their licentiousness (the Carpocratians). As for sorcery, Smith’s Jesus the Magician is an entirely separate work that does not even use Secret Mark to argue its case. And arguably, the alleged homoeroticism of Secret Mark is in the eye of the beholder.

What is disappointing to me about Jenkins’ recent article is its apparent disregard for those, like Pantuck, who have made significant challenges to the forgery/hoax hypotheses. Gratefully, Jenkins acknowledges the contribution of the collection of papers from the 2011 York Symposium on Secret Mark. He says of the collection:

Recently, Tony Burke has edited an impressive collection of scholarly essays under the title Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery? The Secret Gospel of Mark in Debate (Cascade Books, 2013). Whichever side you take in the controversy, this book is eminently worth reading as a model of how first-class critical scholars go about forming their conclusions and debating disputed points. In these pages, admirably, their fundamental disagreements remain firmly within the boundaries of civility and mutual respect.

Yet Jenkins’ new article does not take into account anything written within it, save perhaps Pierluigi Piovanelli’s piece on Smith’s interest in occult and antinomian traditions. Brown and Pantuck’s critique of Craig Evans’ articulation of the Hunter-novel parallels is ignored, as is Pantuck’s carefully-documented claim that Smith lacked the capabilities required to compose the text and write the manuscript (an argument that is supported by the experts commissioned by Biblical Archeology Review who concluded that Smith himself could not have created the manuscript). The parallels between the discovery and the two novels are curious (amusing?) in-and-of themselves, but they are not compelling if evidence indicates that the manuscript could not have been manufactured by Smith (and I believe that is what the evidence indicates).

The goal of the symposium on Secret Mark was to gather together scholars of the text and work through the evidence for the authenticity of Secret Mark, set aside arguments that were weak (for either side of the debate), and focus on what was strong. Unfortunately, those who maintain that the text is a forgery continue to cite the same theories without acknowledgement of contrary arguments. It’s disappointing too that, more than a year after the  publication of the proceedings of the symposium, few reviews of the book have yet appeared, and none in an academic journal. Is this simply the typical time lag that occurs in the discipline? Or are the supporters of the forgery hypotheses hoping that, by ignoring the book, their critics’ voices will go unheard?

[My thanks to Philip Jenkins for sending me a copy of the complete article].

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4 Responses to Has Philip Jenkins found a “new source” for Secret Mark?

  1. Thank You for replying to him Tony. Of course it “may have” actually happened as Mr. Jenkins thinks. But what he and the other conspiracy theorists do not seem to understand is that “may have” does not translate into evidence that “Smith actually did what they think he did.” Since we are only dealing in possibilities–which are not even probabilities. Where is the beef?

  2. The parallels presented by Jenkins are as follows:

    1) Gilbert in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes sought to disgrace and embarrass the historical establishment who was stupid enough to believe an obvious hoax. Also Smith did the same thing.
    2) Wilson was openly gay and also Smith was (possibly) gay or at least bisexual.
    3) The items were in both cases “faked” in order make the church confront the possibility that those early predecessors themselves were open to unrestrained “pagan” sexuality.
    4) Anglo-Saxon Attitudes had a particular appeal for readers interested in scholarship or in accurate accounts of the scholarly world and for those who were gay. Smith would then have had a particular interest in such a novel
    5) Both were forgeries planted in early Christian sites.
    6) In both plots there was a man named Theodore.
    7) The intrusive item promises to rewrite church history, by proving that Christian orthodoxy co-existed with controversial clandestine practices
    8) Both cases include dual religions where both shadow religions have a strong sexual content.

    The first five suggestions are only focused on Smith and not the discovery itself. Also, they presuppose that Secret Mark IS a forgery and that Smith was the culprit. But they are only relevant if Smith was gay (for which there are no proof), that he would have been interested in that book and its themes, that he wanted to embarrass the establishment and to promote a gay view; all which are unsupported and suggestions that needs to be proven before they can be used as proof (to avoid circular reasoning).

    The remaining three focus upon the parallels between “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” and “Secret Mark”. In both plots there was a man named Theodore. This is only partial true. The otherwise unknown person in Secret Mark is named Theodoros and not Theodore. Theodore is of course an English (or proto-English) adaption of the Greek name and I doubt that the Theodore in “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” also was known by the name of Theodoros. At least that name does not occur in the book and whether or not based on an actual bishop, that man was probably also known by just Theodore.

    Jenkins suggests that both findings promise to rewrite church history, by proving that Christian orthodoxy co-existed with controversial clandestine practices. And that is true. But seriously, how strange would that be? Secret Mark is a controversial text. But how difficult would it be to find a novel in which there is a controversial discovery made? Any thrilling novels where discoveries are made are bound to include controversial discoveries. That is the genre.

    Finally both shadow religions have, according to Jenkins, a strong sexual content. But then of course there is nothing sexual at all in Secret Mark. In the letter Clement deals with an alleged sexual plot with a naked man with a naked man, but he strongly opposes that such a text was part of Secret Mark and the quotation he presents has nothing of the kind.

    So this so-called parallel is even more far-fetched than the one with “The Mystery of Mar Saba” and the only relevant parallel are the names Theodore – Theodoros. The name Theodore is though a very common ecclesiastical name.
    But I wonder a bit about the mathematics in the scenario put forward by Jenkins. I have a really hard time understanding how he can imagine that this “parallel” would make it more likely that Smith was influenced by fictional novels to make a forgery. Let’s follow Jenkins in his logic and see where it ends. He writes the following:

    “In order to grant the truth of Morton Smith’s alleged discovery of the Mar Saba letter, at the particular time and place, we must accept an outrageous series of coincidences, to which we must now add explicit echoes of two separate contemporary novels. At some point, surely, Occam’s Razor requires us to seek the simplest explanation for the whole Mar Saba affair.”

    Jenkins accordingly thinks that two parallels would be a stronger proof that Smith was influenced to forget the Mar Saba letter. Even though this parallel is a really weak parallel, for the sake of argument let’s presume it was a strong one. So, then we have two novel who influenced Smith. Which one was it then who influenced him? Are Jenkins suggesting that it was both and that they combined made a stronger impact than they would have done separately? Let’s say that we find another novel and another novel and another novel with parallels. Would it then be even more likely that Smith forged the text? If we found a hundred novels (which possibly could be made if we simply need to find such superficial parallels as the ones found in “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes”) would it then be almost impossible that Secret Mark was genuine?

    The truth is that the more parallels one can find, the less likely it is that Smith was influenced by anyone of these. Instead it shows that forgeries are a common theme in many novels and given that many tens of thousands such books has been written, there is nothing strange that occasional parallels to genuine events and artifacts can be found if you search through all the books available.

    Roger Viklund

  3. Tony says:

    Incidentally, the Secret Mark Symposium papers are available at RBL for review if anyone is interested in taking it on. Secret Scriptures Revealed is there also. (http://www.bookreviews.org/)

  4. DBlocker says:

    Secret Mark has more vocabulary and subject sequence over laps with passages from the Tanakh than it does with certain novels proposed by a distinnguished professor residing in Texas.


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