Robert Conner on the Secret Gospel of Mark

Robert Connor graciously passed along to me a draft of his forthcoming book, The "Secret" Gospel of Mark: Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria, and Four Decades of Academic Burlesque, to be published by Mandrake of Oxford. Mandrake's web page provides the following abstract:

While cataloging material in the library of the monastery of Mar Saba in 1958, Morton Smith discovered a quotation from a letter of Clement of Alexandria copied in the end pages of a 17th century collection of the letters of Ignatius. After more than a decade of collaborative analysis of the find, Smith published his conclusions in 1973, setting off a firestorm of controversy in the New Testament studies guild.

In 1975, a Jesuit scholar, Quentin Quesnell, claimed the letter had been forged and implied that Smith was the forger, moving the focus of debate off the text itself and onto Smith. Since then the pages containing the letter have been removed from the book and possibly destroyed, while Catholic and evangelical writers, none of whom have ever seen the pages in question, continue to claim that Smith forged the letter.

Following his death in 1991, accusations against Smith took on a considerably more personal tone, highlighting his alleged homosexuality and by implication his dishonesty and moral perversity. Although the question of authenticity remains unresolved, the controversy has opened a window on the intellectually corrupt nature of apologetic New Testament studies, a subject of greater importance than the authenticity of early Christian texts.

Connor's small book spends more time criticizing hoax/forgery theorists (particularly Peter Jeffery) than analyzing the text; however, he does present a theory for why the Secret Mark pericopae were removed from the text to form what is now canonical Mark. I won't spoil the book here but if you want to get a good sense of Connor's arguments, listen to an interview with the author on the internet radio show Aeon Byte (on Youtube HERE), hosted by Miguel Connor (no relation). The interview begins around the 15 minute mark. 

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One Response to Robert Conner on the Secret Gospel of Mark

  1. Robert Conner says:

    Hello Tony and thanks for posting the link.

    How many editions of Mark were in use in the 1st century is of interest to that infinitesimally small percentage of humanity that regularly obsesses about Christian origins but is ultimately (in my opinion) of absolutely zero importance in the real world. However, given the sway of fundamentalist Christianity on public and foreign policy here in the United States (educational standards, the Middle East to cite two easy examples), the conservative response to Smith’s publications opens a window on apologetic, theologically motivated “scholarship” that is important for us to understand. Indeed, I argue that the “Secret” Mark controversy is a veritable case study in everything that is wrong with what I call “Jesus Studies.”

    I believe it is quite easy to discard Smith’s inference of a nude baptismal ritual and propose a different and quite easily defensible alternative interpretation of of the gospel fragments based on textual analysis. Unfortunately for the credibility of the Jesus Studies guild, much of the attention to the actual evidence has come from outside the academy, from figures like Roger Viklund, for example, who examined photographic evidence instead of a printed halftone reproduction of the letter to Theodore and found Carlson’s handwriting claims to be wildly off the mark.

    Peter Jeffery’s psychoanalytic attack on Smith, whom he never met, is merely despicable and his analysis, such as it is, of the letter to Theodore is laughable. It is my impression that a substantial number of scholars are of the same opinion but are reticent about voicing it, but I’m quite happy to say it clearly, out loud, and in public.

    The case against Smith has advanced over the past four decades on the basis of homophobia, conspiracy theory, amateur forensic demonstrations and repeated misstatements of fact. Although I am convinced that there is a greater than 90% probability that Clement wrote the letter to Theodore and that the Marcan fragments were written by the same hand that composed the gospel of Mark, I regard it as of scant importance whether those convictions are true or false. However, it is of some importance whether conservative biblical scholarship is just a parody of real textual and historical investigation. The evangelical/Catholic response to Longer Mark does not inspire confidence.

    Best regards,

    Robert Conner

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