Beyond Suspicion, Beyond Doubt: Secret Mark Put to Rest
Francis Watson's "Beyond Suspicion: on the Authorship of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark" can be taken as the final part of a remarkable sleuthing trilogy that began with Stephen Carlson's bombshell, The Gospel Hoax, and Peter Jeffery's psychoanalytic tour-de-force, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled. The trilogy convicts Morton Smith beyond doubt as the forger of Clement's letter, just in case you were too blind to accept the obvious after reading Carlson.
Many of Watson's arguments complement those developed by Carlson and Jeffery, but extend to new developments. Here are the five high points of the article.
A. The Inappropriate Response to Theodore
Clement's letter supposedly answers Theodore's questions about the Carpocratian version of Mark's gospel, but as Watson explains, the reply is inappropriate on every level (see pp 146-147). Theodore wants reassurance that the Carpocratian gospel is a perversion of the canonical Mark, but Clement's emphasis is on the fact that it's mostly true aside from the remark about Jesus and the young man being naked. "The authentic Secret Mark is only slightly less prurient than the falsified one" (147). Theodore is then instructed not to correct the Carpocratians on this point. "He must resist the temptation to parade his new text-critical knowledge" (ibid), and must continue to deny, even on oath, that Mark ever wrote a secret gospel. On top of that (and as Charles Murgia outlined decades ago), Clement goes to considerable lengths to inform Theodore what he already knows. These red flags show that
"The real intention of the letter is evidently to disclose the existence and content of the Secret Gospel, not to respond appropriately to Theodore. If that is the case, however, then Clement's role as revealer of the Secret Gospel is parallel to Morton Smith's as its discover. Clement's text aims not to assist the embattled Theodore but to divulge the shocking fact that the Carpocratian claim about the two versions of the Gospel of Mark is largely true. There is indeed a Secret Gospel, and the addressee must come to terms with it. That is also the message of Smith's two books on the Secret Gospel. Clement is concerned to establish the authenticity of the Secret Gospel, and that is also Morton Smith's concern as he labors to establish the authenticity of Clement. What Smith argues about the letter is what Clement argues within it." (p 148)
In other words, Smith was projecting onto Clement his own project.
B. Dependence on Papias
Watson demonstrates that Clement is dependent on Papias with the same ease and persuasive power that Andrew Criddle wielded in proving that Clement sounds too much like himself to be true. "It is all too easy to imagine a modern author gratefully availing himself of Papias' assistance as he laboriously crafts his pseudo-Clementine fictions" (p 151), in contrast to (the real) Clement's account of Markan origins as preserved in Eusebius -- where echoes of Papias are discernible, but not abundant.
C. Morton Salt Revisited
By far the most amusing aspect of Clement's letter is the hoaxer's signature which puns the tradition of Mt 5:13/Lk 14:34-35: "For the true things being mixed with inventions are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt loses its savor." Stephen Carlson exposed this confession, pointing out that adulterated salt was unknown in the ancient world, free flowing salt being a modern invention -- of Morton Salt. Watson suggests an even looser connection between the "falsification of truth" and the corruption of salt, since the word "falsification" itself implies "forgery". And since, originally, a "forger" was simply one who worked at a forge, "another word must now be employed to differentiate the sinister figure of the 'forger' from the innocent and useful worker at the forge" (p 153), namely, the smith. The full confessional signature of "Morton Smith" has now been exposed.
D. Clement's Letter Validating Smith's Views
What has most astounded me in the Secret Mark controversy is that, prior to Stephen Carlson, no one picked up on the fact that Smith published ideas connecting Clement and "the mystery of the kingdom of God" (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1), and that he published them before his alleged discovery in 1958. Watson takes this further, showing how Smith had already believed (by 1955) that Mark censored offensive material out of his gospel, some of which he thought common to Mark and John, and that there was a secrecy tradition (of esoteric mysteries and sexual immorality) extending from Mark back to Paul and Jesus, to which he finally (in early 1958) connected Clement as a witness:
"Before Smith left for his visit to Mar Saba in the summer of 1958, many of the elements that comprise the letter to Theodore were already present in his published work. These elements do not simply recur in Smith's interpretation of the letter, as one would expect; rather, they are embedded within the letter itself." (p 160)
And as if this weren't enough to close the case against Smith...
E. The Two Mysteries of Mar Saba
Saving the best for last, Watson compares the circumstances surrounding Smith's expedition to Mar Saba with the fictionalized adventure related in James Hunters' obscure 1940 novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba. The novel, as we know, is about a forgery at the Mar Saba library -- quelle surprise -- exactly where Smith "discovered" Clement's letter, and the parallels are so transparent they're embarrassing. Both documents are preoccupied with death, burial, and removing stones from tombs. Both associate, in good Johannine fashion, Joseph of Arimathea's tomb with a garden, and extend the idea to another tomb in another garden. Both flirt with the figure of Nicodemus, who "came to Jesus by night" just as the young man did in the Secret Gospel, and who is supposedly the author of the Mar Saba text in Hunter's novel. Watson is perhaps putting it too kindly when he writes:
"Had The Mystery of Mar Saba been first published in c. 1975, the analysis presented here would show it to be heavily dependent on The Secret Gospel (1973), both in its account of the immediate circumstances of the discovery and in the rationale, content, and construction of the controversial Greek fragment. But The Mystery of Mar Saba was first published in 1940, eighteen years before the second Mar Saba 'discovery'. There is no alternative but to conclude that Smith is dependent on the novel, and that he himself is the author of the fragments of the Secret Gospel of Mark together with the pseudo-Clementine letter in which they are embedded." (p 170)
As I've said before, it's really this that puts the issue beyond doubt. If Hunter's novel had been spotted by biblical specialists long before 2001, a lot less people would have been duped, and Secret Mark would have been put to rest before scholars like Koester ran wild with it and made a monster that, incredibly, can't be let go. You can throw out everything else as far as I'm concerned -- the Morton Salt signature, the homoerotic overtones aligning with Smith's orientation, the Anglican Paschal liturgy invoked by the resurrection symbolism and white cloth, the hyper-Clementine and hyper-Papias language, the way Clement speaks to modern concerns instead of answering Theodore appropriately, and even the fact that Secret Mark vindicates Smith's published views -- all of that is damning enough. But you can argue around The Mystery of Mar Saba novel only by becoming the willful fool.
And so it ends. For good. We bid Secret Mark a final farewell, even if in admiration for Morton Smith's genius -- and admiration that, for my part, can only increase the more scholars like Scott Brown persist in denial. Their rejoinders at this point should simply be ignored.
posted by Loren Rosson III @ 4/15/2010
Jeffery on Secret Mark
The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery, by Peter Jeffery. Yale University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-300-11760-4.
Like Stephen Carlson a year ago, Peter Jeffery is able to show how obvious it is that Morton Smith fabricated Clement's letter to Theodore. One would think that Carlson exhausted all of Smith's anachronisms (the "bald swindler" M. Madiotes, Morton Salt, and modern gays in the 1950s being arrested in public Gethsemanes), but Jeffery has spotted more:
* The three features of Secret Mark's initiation rite -- resurrection symbolism, a period of teaching followed by a night vigil, and the wearing of a white cloth -- point to the Anglican Paschal liturgy as it was before the 1960s liturgical renewal movement. In addition, Clement and the Alexandrian church had a theology of baptism that was based not on the easter event of Jesus' resurrection, but on the epiphany event of Jesus' baptism by John. Secret Mark should thus have epiphany motifs (i.e. creation, the heavens opening with light, the descent of the Holy Spirit and fire, the seal of priestly and messianic anointings) rather than easter motifs (i.e. Pauline associations between baptism and resurrection).
* The homoeroticism in Secret Mark makes no sense in an ancient context. Adult males were supposed to pursue young boys/men, who in turn were supposed to acquiesce only after "playing hard to get" and only if the boy perceived that the sex would have intiatory value (i.e. that the man would go beyond sex and educate him in proper mores). But in Secret Mark, Jesus does not pursue the young man: just the opposite if anything, and this would have been shamefully unacceptable. Secret Mark was evidently written by a modern person who assumed that ancient homosexuality would have followed Plato's model of an older teacher with a young disciple, but who didn't quite understand how the roles played out -- and such misunderstandings were common in academic circles before the work of K.J. Dover in the late 70s. (This would seem to improve on Carlson, who argued that the homoeroticism in Secret Mark makes no sense since Jesus and the young man are depicted as social peers. But a "young man", however rich, suggests they're not quite peers.)
* Clement's letter is riddled with allusions to Oscar Wilde's 19th-century play, Salome, and Wilde was a homosexual martyr to boot. In the play Salome does the "dance of the seven veils", which is punned by Smith's Clement, who writes about "the truth hidden by seven veils". She is punned, in turn, by Smith's Salome, whom Jesus rejects along with the rest of the female race.
On top of this, Jeffery catches Smith in some pretty amusing lies. A notable one: whereupon discovering Clement's letter, Smith says he went to Vespers instead of staying to investigate his discovery, apparently forgetting what he said two pages earlier (in The Secret Gospel, p 10) -- that he had stopped attending religious services because he no longer "responded" to them.
Jeffery examines Smith's brief career as an Anglican priest, noting his excessively harsh judgments on homosexuals in a 1949 article -- very severe by Anglican standards at the time. Any fool can make the diagnosis: Smith was going through his own sexual crisis that caused him to leave the priesthood a year later. Interestingly, in that same 1949 article, Smith referenced a 19th-century debate between Catholics and Protestants over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church. Quelle surprise: the letter to Theodore answers that very question.
Jeffery goes after Morton Smith pretty hard, unlike Carlson who seemed (at least in part) to respect or admire a man who had the skills to bamboozle so many academics. Jeffery expresses sorrow and contempt: Smith "became what he opposed: a hypocritical Clement who condoned lying for the sake of a fundamentalist sexology"; "a man in great personal pain", who didn't even understand himself despite pretensions to a superior gnosticism; a bitter academic, whose hoax stands as "the most grandiose and reticulated 'Fuck You' ever perpetuated in the long and vituperative history of scholarship". He's right about that last one, but whether Smith wrote his hoax more out of experimental amusement or angry revenge remains unclear.
The names Stephen Carlson and Peter Jeffery will soon become closely associated, and that's a credit to them both. But who has the stronger case? Carlson has the edge with his forensic handwriting analysis. The Morton Salt exhibit (Carlson) and Anglican liturgical analysis (Jeffery) each point to Morton Smith in particular. Both address the homosexuality issue -- which also puts Smith directly on the spot -- though Jeffery more satisfyingly. Carlson insists on the pernicious nature of fakes, while Jeffery seems more interested in the perniciousness of Morton Smith himself. They complement each other perfectly, and stand as definitive twin debunkings of the Secret Mark hoax.
UPDATE: Don't miss Stephen Carlson's reflections, as he compares and contrasts Jeffery's work with his own.
posted by Loren Rosson III @ 11/17/2006
The Motives of Morton Smith
Don't miss Stephen Carlson's series on the motives of Morton Smith, in response to Scott Brown's "The Question of Motive in the Case against Morton Smith," JBL 125 (2006): 351-383. I'll post the links to new installments as they appear.
Part I: Carlson discusses the role of motive in criminal law (misunderstood by Brown), the distinction between motive and intent, and why, in any case, it's inappropriate to use criminal law standards to determine the authenticity of texts in historical criticism.
Part II: "The Gay Gospel Hypothesis". Brown devotes most of his attention to refuting this hypothesis instead of the two stronger ones that follow. Perhaps this is a rhetorical trick, meant to imply that skeptics of Secret Mark are homophobes.
Part III: "The Hoax Hypothesis". This is a good installment, focusing on Brown's "nonfeasance" as he fails to address the the jokes embedded in Secret Mark, and the arguments of Akenson and Carlson in general -- particularly Carlson's demonstration that the confessions in Secret Mark parallel an aspect of Coleman-Norton's denture joke.
Part IV: "The Hoax Hypothesis" (continued). Brown claims that Smith put too much effort into publishing Secret Mark for it to be a hoax. (I wonder what Brown would make of all the hours I wasted in my undergrad years composing prank letters to a friend, in place of studying and doing other productive things.)
Part V: "The Hoax Hypothesis" (continued). Brown claims that for someone who supposedly put so much effort into creating a hoax about a libertine Jesus, Smith almost never referred to his discovery in his subsequent articles about libertinism. But as Carlson says in his book, that just means Smith was smart enough not to become a victim of his own hoax.
Part VI: "The Controlled Experiment Hypothesis". Carlson: "Although I think that Smith could have well have been a little curious at the process in which Secret Mark was accepted, I agree, largely for the reasons canvassed by Brown, that [this] hypothesis is unlikely to be the primary or a major motivating reason behind Secret Mark."
Part VII: Carlson re-emphasizes the pitfall of comparing Secret Mark with Smith's subsequent writings instead of his prior ones.
Part VIII: Secret Mark has the "scale and depth" to qualify as a forgery done to support beliefs and opinions, the crucial factor for Anthony Grafton in Forgers and Critics.
Part IX: Carlson wraps up, emphasizing that circumstantial evidence is stronger in law than in popular misconception, and with a wonderfully rhetorical question: "If Brown had a devastating critique of my position, why didn't he share it in one of the most prestigious journals in the field when he had the chance?"
posted by Loren Rosson III @ 7/28/2006
Peter Jeffery on the Handwriting of the Mar Saba Document
Of all the nails in Morton's Smith's coffin, handwriting analysis hasn't been pounded home, and doubtfully ever will be. I've always been leery of such analysis, which is why I've avoided blogging about it over the years, and even in my review of Gospel Hoax I barely mentioned that part of Stephen Carlson's case. Recent analyses both for and against Smith don't exactly reinforce reliability here. As a forensic method, handwriting analysis has been handled cautiously by the courts in recent decades, and it seems the answer to Secret Mark will remain in the content of Theodore's letter itself, which of course points to a plain conclusion.
Peter Jeffery has written a five-point response to developments on the handwriting front, and his last makes the same point about the primacy of the letter's content over handwriting style.
"Since the handwriting cannot be earlier than the 17th century (the date of the book in which it was found), no graphological analysis can prove that the Mar Saba text was composed in ancient times. Those who think it a forgery have based their arguments mostly on content, and among them there is general agreement on the features that point to a modern origin: the text was constructed by re-using words and phrases from the canonical gospels and Clement’s authentic writings, the general picture of the Alexandrian church and its practices looks more like the fifth century than the second, Clement’s advocacy of lying seems inauthentic and references modern debates, the hints of ritualized homosexuality seem to assume a modern sexology, Smith’s own account of his discovery is demonstrably deceptive, the many apparent jokes uncannily resemble Smith’s own sense of humor. Those who consider the text ancient, on the other hand, completely disagree with each other as to its origin and interpretation. Does the Secret Gospel pre-date or post-date canonical Mark? Why the secrecy? Are the sexual innuendoes actually present or not? What are the Carpocratians actually being accused of? What is the meaning of Salome’s expanded role? Before they declare victory, those who would place the document in the second century need to face such questions instead of ignoring or minimizing them, and come to some level of consensus on a compelling interpretation that shows why their dating makes the most sense."
And to all the above must be added Hunter's Mar Saba novel, and the fact that Smith's "discovery" confirmed his scholarly views already published, some just months before.
posted by Loren Rosson III @ 4/25/2010