Monday, July 6, 2009

Master's Thesis: Chapter 1.2 A history of scholarship of the letter

[A comprehensive history of scholarship of the letter to Theodore is found in Scott G. Brown's 1999 dissertation "The More Spiritual Gospel: Markan Literary Techniques in the Longer Gospel of Mark". An updated version, up to the beginning of 2005 is found in Brown's "Mark's Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith's Controversial Discovery". Below I go briefly through the high (and low) points of the debate:

-Morton Smith postulated in "Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark" (1973) an early Aramean gospel behind the "Secret Mark" and its clear parallel, the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John (11:1-44).
-Smith speculated that the original story told about a nocturnal ritual, where Jesus baptized his disciples, one at a time, to the "Mystery of the Kingdom of God".
-In Smith's interpretation of historical Jesus there were enough elements to irritate the average, conservative biblical scholar (parallels from pagan magical texts, Jewish merkavah-mysticism, (self-)hypnosis, hallucinations), but one aspect in particular seems to have snapped, and badly: according to Smith the "[f]reedom from the law", acquired in the ritual, "may have resulted in completion of the spiritual union by physical union."1
-As a result of this suggestion many book reviews of Smith's works seem to have been written in an alternate dimension, like Joseph Fitzmyer's, where the fact, that Smith was bald, was given a mention.2
-After the initial ad hominem began the accusations of forgery. Quentin Quesnell asked in his 1975 article "The Mar Saba Clementine: A Question of Evidence" - in itself these questions were well grounded - where the MS was, and why Smith hadn't brought it from the monastery with him. The relations between Quesnell and Smith were - to make a gross understatement - strained afterwards, since Smith took Quesnell's "hypothetical forger" to be eerily similar to himself.
-Back in the monastery of Mar Saba, the book of Voss that contained the MS was sitting on a shelf. It was retrieved in 1976 by Guy G. Stroumsa et al., who deposited it to the Orthodox Patriarchate Library in Jerusalem.3
-In 1980 Thomas Talley asked to see the MS, but he was told that it was unavailable for it was being repaired.4
-In the beginning of the 1980s Quentin Quesnell was allowed to see the MS, and he also obtained a permission to have them photographed.5
-Nearing the end of the millennium Father Kallistos Dourvas told Charles W. Hedrick and Nikolaos Olympiou that he had removed the MS from Voss' book in 1977 for conservation purposes. He had also photographed the MS, and these photos were published in 2000. Kallistos reminisced further that the whereabouts of the MS were known to him up to 1990, when he retired from the Patriarchate library.6
-After Kallistos' retirement in 1990 the MS has not been seen though many scholars have made requests for it.7 Olympiou has suggested that the MS is deliberately being kept hidden8, while others have heard rumours of "shadowy figures suggesting that the two pages could reappear for the right price".9
-Apart from Morton Smith's own interpretation of the text, which has gained zero support from other scholars, there have been two schools of thought: those who see the "Secret Gospel" as a pastiche of canonical material, composed using the nowadays popular cut & paste -method, and those who see the "Secret Gospel" as an important variant of the Gospel of Mark, helpful in reconstructing the tradition history of the Gospel.
-After Smith's death in 1991, the debate has been gaining fury. Jacob Neusner, to take an extreme example, has used various "titles" of Smith including "crank, crackpot, nasty old fool, a conceptual bungler, know-nothing, fraud".10
-In 2003 Charles W. Hedrick titled his paper "The Secret Gospel of Mark: Stalemate in the Academy", and a stalemate it seemed to be. This is the ending of the pre-Carlson era of debate.]

[Before Stephen C. Carlson's "The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark" in 2005, the last scholarly treatises that took Clement's letter to be authentic were Scott G. Brown's 1999 dissertation "The More Spiritual Gospel: Markan Literary Techniques in the Longer Gospel of Mark", Marvin Meyer's 2003 essay collection "Secret Gospels: Essays on Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark" and Brown's 2005 monograph "Mark's Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith's Controversial Discovery".]

Stephen C. Carlson's "The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark" was published in the summer of 2005, and it made its appearance at a favourable time, as we will see. In this book Carlson argued that Clement's letter to Theodore was a hoax by Morton Smith. I demonstrate and assess the argumentation of Carlson in more detail in chapters 2, 3 and 4 of this thesis. In brief: Carlson makes a distinction between two kinds of forgeries. An actual forgery is usually made for a clear advantage, such as money or reputation. A hoax is a more difficult case, for the motives for its execution could well be more ambiguous. The latter is a more suitable genre for the Theodore-letter, especially since the swindler only seldom contains herself from hiding jokes and clues of her identity to her material. Indeed, Carlson does find plenty of these witty bits in the letter to Theodore, and his argument for the inauthenticity can be divided into three parts: 1) the examination of the physical dimension of the MS, 2) the examination of the subject matter of the MS, and 3) the examination of the clues to his identity hidden by Morton Smith. For every part, Carlson presents numerous arguments in support of the fact that the Theodore-letter is a text written by Morton Smith.

The hoax hypothesis has had a varied reception. To take some examples: Birger A. Pearson has reportedly titled himself and his colleagues as "a bunch of losers” for not being able to understand the hoax11, while Jean-Daniel Kaestli has pitied himself for trusting to the authenticity of the Secret Gospel of Mark.12 Others were delighted of the ingeniousness of Carlson: Mark Goodacre has named Carlson a "master sleuth"13, while Larry W. Hurtado estimated Carlson's overall case to be "persuasive, decisive, practically unanswerable".14 Still others were a bit more reserved in their praises, like Paul Foster15, but everyone seems to have agreed that Carlson's hoax hypothesis can't be simply dismissed, if one wants to argue about Clement's letter to Theodore. In this initial stage of reception, stray voices were scarce, mainly by Scott G. Brown.16

Leaving simple book reviews of "The Gospel Hoax" aside, the history of scholarship of the letter to Theodore after Carlson went the following way. First, "The Expository Times", a traditional ecclesiastical publication, asked for book reviews from both Carlson and Brown - they were to review each other's writings. These reviews were published in the beginning of 2006, but although Brown's review was published first, the following review by Carlson did not engage it in any way, which gave a strong illusion of the two sides talking past each other. ["The Expository Times" should probably have noted to its readers that the reviews were done well in advance, and were not intended to address one another's features.] Brown argued that there were weaknesses in Carlson's handwriting analysis, while Carlson argued against Brown's intercalation argument for its merits in supporting the authenticity of the Secret Gospel.17

During the year 2006 Brown published two more articles critical of Carlson's case18, and Carlson replied to the first of these (Brown 2006b) with a thoroughgoing series of blog posts.19 A year later, Pierluigi Piovanelli wrote an exhaustive analysis of the debate so far in "L'Évangile secret de Marc trente trois ans après, entre potentialités exégétiques et difficultés techniques".20 Piovanelli ended up with 95% probability for the Theodore-letter to be a forgery, and 51% probability that it was written by Morton Smith.21 These writings can be considered to form the first wave of the post-Carlson era.

The second wave could arguably be seen rising with Peter Jeffery's 2007 book "The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery", where he argues, like Carlson, but on a very different basis, that Morton Smith had forged the Theodore-letter. The core argument of Jeffery examines the implied reader of the letter: if this implied reader is perceived to be herself a follower of Carpocrates, the meaning of the text turns upside down. Among other things, memorable in Jeffery's book was his take on the motive for the forgery, which, according to Jeffery, was "arguably the most grandiose and reticulated “Fuck You” ever perpetrated in the long and vituperative history of scholarship".22 A reply to Jeffery by Brown was not of the usual sort, either: Brown's "book review" was an essay with 47 pages, where Jeffery's method is titled "a hermeneutics of desperation".23

In the summer of 2008 Allan J. Pantuck and Scott G. Brown published an article titled "Morton Smith as M. Madiotes: Stephen Carlson's Attribution of Secret Mark to a Bald Swindler", where they show Carlson's use of the catalog, that Morton Smith had been working out in 1958, and that was published in 1960 titled "Ἑλληνικὰ χειρόγραφα ἐν τῇ Μονῇ τοῦ ἁγίου Σάββα", to have been misinformed. This doesn't work wonders for Carlson's Madiotes-clue, featured in detail in Chapter 2.4, that proposes there's a hidden clue (pointing to the baldness of Morton Smith) in another MS that Smith catalogued as number 22.24 Later in 2008 Guy G. Stroumsa edited a correspondence of Morton Smith and Gershom Scholem during the years 1945-1982. Nothing in Smith's letters points obviously to the possibility that he had forged the Theodore-letter.25 Still in 2008 Walter M. Shandruk wrote two short articles for the community blog "Thoughts on Antiquity", part of "NeoNostalgia", an acclaimed website for biblical studies. In the first one he focused on the problems of Carlon's handwriting analysis concluding that the same signs of the forgery, that Carlson used to establish his case of the hoax including the so-called "forger's tremor", can also be found in the pictures of MSS that Carlson gave for comparison.26 The second article refuted Andrew H. Criddle's 1995 article "On the Mar Saba Letter Attributed to Clement of Alexandria", that formed the basis for Carlson's initial scepticism regarding the Theodore-letter: if those principles, utilized by Criddle to conclude that the text of the Theodore-letter is written by an imitator, are applied to Philo, then many Philo's texts deemed authentic should be considered to be inauthentic as well.27

In Finland, I wrote an article "Kuka kirjoitti Salaisen Markuksen evankeliumin?" that the Finnish magazine Vartija published in two parts in the autumn of 2008. In the article(s) I assessed the arguments of Stephen Carlson and Peter Jeffery, and paid attention to the fact that some of the arguments for the hoax hypothesis seemed to resemble pseudoscientific, conspiracy theory thinking, like those of Michael Baigent.28 SBL Meeting 2008 in November included also a session titled "Secret Mark after Fifty Years". Birger A. Pearson and Stephen C. Carlson argued for the hoax hypothesis, Allan J. Pantuck and Scott G. Brown against. Only Pantuck had genuine new material to present, having scrutinized through Smith's literary remains. For one thing, Smith's departure from Brown University in 1955 seems to have happened in mutual understanding and with no hard feelings, and is not a good basis to construe a motive for the hoax. For another thing, there are no traces to be found that Smith had worked extensively with Clement of Alexandria before 1958, before his return from the monastery of Mar Saba.29

The most recent articles were published in the end of 2008 by Scott Brown and Jeff Jay. In "The Letter to Theodore: Stephen Carlson’s Case against Clement’s Authorship" Brown argued, that every single thing Carlson found out of place in the Theodore-letter, is in fact quite natural when compared to other writings of Clement.30 Jay's article was a comparison between Theodore-letter and other letters from antiquity that were also interested in solving a confusion coming from the existence of different variants of the same text. In Jay's assessment, Theodore-letter is similar to these other genuine letters in both form and subject matter.31 Anthony Grafton, for his part, took a very moderate position to the question of authenticity in his article "Gospel Secrets: The Biblical Controversies of Morton Smith" published in "The Nation".32 In February 2009 Roger Viklund took another look at Carlson's handwriting analysis, and refuted the claim that the handwriting gets better towards the end of the letter.33

Without going through the book reviews in great detail, it is difficult to say, if scholars in general are leaning towards the hoax hypothesis or not. It seems to me, that the majority of scholars are willing to accept the inauthenticity of the letter based on the case made by Carlson and Jeffery, but that the attitudes towards the hidden jokes and clues are more varied. For example, Mark Goodacre took the Madiotes-clue (that Smith hid a reference to his baldness in another MS) to be his personal favourite34, whereas James Hannam took these deliberately left clues to be "a little too clever and a little hard to swallow".35 One thing is certain: Carlson's (and Jeffery's) case for a hoax/forgery can't be simply dismissed, when using Clement's letter to Theodore, for whatever end.

1Smith 1985, 114. Also Smith 1973, 251 proposes this.
2Eyer 1995 gives a handy overview of these wacky responses. Smith himself did not flinch but countered: he thundered, for example, that Fitzmyer's "falsities... are not worth discussion, nor is he”; Smith 1985, 149.
3Stroumsa 2003, 147-153.
4Talley 1982, 45.
5Collins 2007, 491.
6Hedrick 2000, 8-9.
7Cf. Dart 2003, 137-139 and Brown 2005, 25.
8Hedrick 2000, 8-9
10As collected together by Brown 2005, 43.
12Kaestli 2005, 18.
13Carlson 2005, back cover endorsement.
14Hurtado 2005, xii.
15Foster 2005.
16Brown 2006a; Brown 2006b; Brown 2006c.
17Brown 2006c; Carlson 2006. Brown's criticism will be discussed in Chapter 2.5, and Carlson's in Chapter 3.3.
18Brown 2006a; Brown 2006b. The latter's criticism will be discussed in Chapter 3.3; the article focuses on the possible motives of Morton Smith for carrying out a hoax, but this line of questioning has not convinced me of its fruitfulness. The existence or non-existence of a motive will be in any case only circumstantial evidence, and can't solve the question of authenticity for one way or the other. Brown 2006a, on the other hand, is the most important single article against the hoax hypothesis, and its criticism will be discussed in length in all the Chapters.
20Piovanelli 2006.
21Kaestli 2005, 18.
22Jeffery 2007a, 242.
23Brown 2007, 27.
24Pantuck 2008. The criticism from this article will be discussed in Chapter 2.5.
25Morton Smith and Gershom Scholem, Correspondence 1945-1982 2008. Stroumsa's interpretation will be discussed in Chapter 3.4.
26Shandruk 2008a. The criticism from this article will be discussed in Chapter 2.5.
27Shandruk 2008b. Andrew H. Criddle's article will be discussed in length in Chapter 3.1. The question of the proper usage of academic (biblio)blogs in academic papers has not been settled yet. A positive attitude to their existence (and usage) is present, for example, in James G. Crossley's 2008 book "Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century", which discusses, among other things, the biblioblogosphere and its relevance to Crossley's use of the propaganda model of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky; Crossley 2008, 20-55. In the debate of the authenticity of the Theodore-letter, arguments presented in blogs and e-lists have been used, for example, by Brown 2006c and Pantuck 2008.
28Paananen 2008a; Paananen 2008b.
29Personal communication.
30Brown 2008. The criticism from this article will be discussed in Chapter 3.2.
31Jay 2008. The criticism from this article will be discussed in Chapter 3.2.
32Grafton 2009. Grafton has been included to the list, because Carlson uses his book "Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship" in "The Gospel Hoax", and considers that he's gaining strong support from Grafton in his quest for the jokes and clues the hoaxer hid. Grafton himself, however, seems to be a bit more reserved, since he sees some of the arguments having gained "a staggering level of ingenuity" - this doesn't seem to be an unreservedly positive note, especially, when Grafton takes Carlson's salt-argument, discussed in length in Chapter 4, to be an example of this "staggering level of ingenuity".
33Viklund 2009.


  1. In note 9 you refer to Peter Jeffery who writes: “Suppose the two pages did re-emerge, were scientifically tested, and were discovered to have been written in 20th-century ink. Die-hard believers could plausibly claim that these were not, in fact, the very papers Morton Smith held in his hands, but a sophisticated modern forgery of them, reproduced from the photographs onto flyleaves excised from yet another copy of the same 1646 book. Since we do not know where Smith's pages have gone, the continuity of ownership has been broken, and it may not be possible to verify that any rediscovered pages are indeed the same physical specimens that Smith saw. Thus we should not assume that scientific testing of the manuscript will produce either consensus or an irrefutable solution.”

    Here he is certainly wrong, since there is no way you could produce a writing which is exactly the same as the one we have in the two sets of photographs. And there is also impossible to produce paper with exactly the same damages, marks, wrinkles, mould and so on. Such a forgery would be very easy to detect.

    Roger Viklund

  2. I certainly wouldn't know how to make a forgery [i]that[/i] sophisticated, and I too doubt it would be possible at all. So, in the case that the MS (or something that looks exactly to be the MS in question) is unearthed, and the ink test points to a 20th-century ink, I think I have to yield. Being a "die-hard believer" in the authenticity would not make any sense.

    On the other hand, the hoax hypothesis will not go bankrupt even if the ink looks to be genuinely from the 18th-century. Not, at least, according to Carlson, in his own words: "while a chemical test of the ink might condemn the Mar Saba Clementine as a forgery, it is not clear to me that testing the ink can exonerate the letter if the result is consistent with early modern inks" (

    Because, obviously, if Morton Smith was capable to write as an 18th-century writer, he must have been capable to mix ink as an 18th-century chemist, too.

    Jeffery has a point, though, that "the continuity of ownership" would have been helpful.

  3. The only way to solve the question would be if we found ancient fragments of either Clement's letter or the secret gospel.