Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Raiders of the Lost Manuscript

Wieland Willker, the maintainer of The Secret Gospel of Mark Homepage, feels that the time is right for hunting down the missing manuscript: "Perhaps Harrison Ford should be reactivated, (together with Angelina Jolie)?" I concur that Ford & Jolie could make a spectacular chase of the manuscript through various important Middle Eastern locations, battling with Nazi-robots, revealing a sinister plot of the Illuminati to build of clone army out of the DNA of Morton Smith, and finally, in a grand climax, unearthing the manuscript, guarded by the triune brotherhood of the elderly gentlemen, Henry Jones Sr., Lord Richard Croft, and the evil twin of professor Smith. Let's call that Plan A.

And if some things do not work together as planned, I think we could also have Plan B, just in case. Since we do not have the movie industry with millions of dollars backing us up, the second plan should be something more down-to-earth. For starters, I will make a chronological list of the past attempts to locate the manuscript, and see in which areas we could do better.


1958: Smith left "Epistulae genuinae S. Ignatii Martyris", the book that hold the manuscript of Clement's letter to Theodore, in the monastery of Mar Saba.1

1976/1977: Guy G. Stroumsa, David Flusser, Shlomo Pines, and Archimandrite Melito(n) deposited the book and the manuscript to the Orthodox Patriarchate Library in Jerusalem.2 The manuscript was removed from the book (for conservation purposes), but supposed to have stored with the book even though they were separate items now.3

1980: Thomas Talley asked about the MS in the Patriarchate library, but he was told that it was unavailable as it was being repaired.4

Beginning of the 1980s: Quentin Quesnell was allowed to see the MS.5 I have not been able to contact professor Quesnell, not directly nor through Smith College where he is still listed in the Campus Directory. Details of this encounter could reveal something new of the MS.

1990: Charles W. Hedrick and Nikolaos Olympiou visited the monastery of Mar Saba and learned that the book (and the MS) had been transferred to Jerusalem. Later, Father Kallistos Dourvas told Hedrick and Olympiou that the whereabouts of the MS were known to him up to 1990, when he retired from the position of the head librarian in the Patriarchate library.6 From 1990 onward no one seems to have seen the MS.

1992: Hedrick and Olympiou visited the Patriarchate library, but the book (or the MS) could not be located.7

1996: Willy Rordorf saw the book, but not the MS, in the Patriarchate library. Ditto for James H. Charlesworth.8

1998: Olympiou saw the book, but not the MS, in the Patriarchate library.9

1999: James Edwards & Shaye Cohen - no MS.10

2000: In March, John Dart faxed the librarian, Bishop Aristarchos, inquired about the book and received a telephone call: "neither the Voss book nor the pages [the MS] had been found".11 In June, Olympiou saw the book the second time, and photographed it.12


It is easy to believe that the recent attempts to locate the MS have been as unfruitful as those related above: presumably the book of Voss is seen now and again, but the MS itself remains out of sight. A year ago, together with Dr. Matti Myllykoski, I fired a shot in the dark, trying to find out if the Finnish Orthodox Church would have favourable contacts to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and if these contacts could be utilized for tracking down the MS. Nothing came out of that, and we were compelled to give up.

I can think of three possible scenarios concerning the MS, following Hedrick's assessment in his SBL paper from 2001 ("The Secret Gospel of Mark: Manuscript and Interpretation", information from Dart 2003, 141). Either the MS has been destroyed, the MS has been misplaced, or the MS is deliberately kept hidden. The first scenario is, to my mind, the least plausible. Father Kallistos told to Hedrick and Olympiou that the photographing of the MS had happened in the first place because "of its importance... it is the only copy of the manuscript that exists, and also because it contains a great deal of "diversity".13 If Kallistos' attitude represents the norm in the Patriarchate, the MS would never be consciously destroyed, whatever the opinions of its contents might be.

Could the MS have been genuinely misplaced? From my experiences working in a library, I would have to acknowledge this possibility: these things happen. They happen in the well-organized university libraries, and presumably with even more regularity, they happen in other libraries, as well. John Dart, who received the phone call from the Patriarchate library in 2000, tells that "[the current librarian, Bishop] Aristarchos complained that the previous librarian, one who had succeeded Kallistos, left the library in relative disarray".14 For the purposes of finding the MS, this scenario is about as bad as the first one: we could, sure enough, hire somebody to go through all the items in the library, but it could take dozens of years until chancing upon Clement's letter to Theodore. If it's missing, it remains missing unless we get extremely lucky.

Who would have deliberately hid the MS? Olympiou speculated that the MS was "likely concealed by certain well-meaning persons at the Patriarchate library for reasons of piety".15 Peter Jeffery, on the other hand, has heard rumours of "shadowy figures suggesting that the two pages could reappear for the right price".16 Neither option, though I favour Olympiou's suggestion as the most plausible of them all, looks too good. Certainly asking the librarian to fetch the MS produces nothing, as many scholars have already done that and failed. (At this point Ford & Jolie would sure come in handy.) If the problem is the speculative interpretation of Morton Smith, spiced with some hyperbole about "homosexual Jesus", then the situation could be mended simply by drumming about some more down-to-earth interpretation of the Secret Gospel.

But, if the problem is the general scholarly pursuit, seen as not important by the representatives of the Patriarchate, then there's not much we can do. I'm serious: a similar situation happened just recently regarding the Patriarchate of Alexandria where scholars from Helsinki University (and possibly from somewhere else, too) had at first access to the collections of manuscripts, but were denied access after the appointment of the new Patriarch who (presumably) does not see any point in the Western project for increasing knowledge through the applying of scientific method. In this case, the only option would be to try and build contacts to the Patriarchate, in an effort to persuade at least some ruling members of our cause, to let us have the MS, as a loan, for a period of testing it with the methods of forensic sciences. Oh, and there are some highly unethical options (including paying those millions to the possible thieves), too, but let's not go in there - nothing good will come out of deceiving the Patriarchate one way or another out of the MS. All in all, I do not see there is a lot to go by.

By the way, the Patriarchate library has its own homepage at http://jerusalem-patriarchate.info/gr/patria_bibl.htm if anyone manages to come up with new ideas from the page (in modern Greek only).

1Morton Smith: The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark. The Aquarian Press. 1985, 12-17.
2Guy G. Stroumsa: Comments on Charles Hedrick's Article: A Testimony. JECS 11:2. 2003, 147-153.
3Charles W. Hedrick & Nikolaos Olympiou: The Secret Gospel of Mark: Stalemate in the Academy. JECS 11:2. 2000, 8-9.
4Thomas Talley: Liturgical Time in the Ancient Church: The State of Research. Studia Liturgica 14. 1982, 45.
5Adela Yarbro Collins: Mark: A Commentary. Hermeneia – A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Fortress Press. 2007, 491.
6Hedrick 2000, 3-11, 14-16.
7Hedrick 2000, 8-9.
8Scott G. Brown: Mark's Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith's Controversial Discovery. ESCJ 15. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 2005, 25.
9Hedrick 2000, 8-9.
10Brown 2005, 25.
11John Dart: Decoding Mark. Trinity. 2003, 139.
12Hedrick 2000, 8-9.
13Hedrick 2000, 8-9.
14Dart 2003, 139.
15Hedrick 2000, 8-9.


  1. Pseudo-Sibelius21 October, 2009 02:01

    Although I like any excuse to don my fedora hat, I think the best way to convince the patriarchate to search for the manuscript would be to offer them something that they value in exchange for their cooperation. A one-sided appeal to their sense of duty and the greater good of Western scholarship probably won't get you anywhere. But discussion of appropriate compensation, in the form of a donation to the library, in return for finding the manuscript and permitting its testing might lead to some action.

  2. Yes, that could be a possible course of action. But do you have any idea how I could convince my grant committee to produce, say, two or three extra million euros for purposes of "obtaining important manuscript(s) through an extensive use of non-Finnish customs of giving of gifts to the other party in extra large sums of money"? Because "Finnish corruption [is] hidden in social structure", and the plain old bribe isn't going to sound too good in my study plan.

  3. Pseudo-Sibelius30 October, 2009 05:35

    Hi Timo. You have to think positively about this. Corruption will always be hidden in the structure of university administration, but if you're worried that honest people might reject your bribe money application, you can always volunteer to "serve" on the grant committee for a few months (that's good for your academic resume) and then submit your application under a pseudonym like Pseudo-Sibelius (make it an obvious and memorable pseudonym so that you don’t absentmindedly reject your own application). So a straightforward request for bribe money is still in the cards. But I was actually imagining a scenario in which the manuscript is misplaced in the library and what we need to do is convince the librarians to look for it. The incentive you offer for that could take many forms, but the acceptable gifts that I know about are charity work and copies of the latest Hollywood blockbuster movies.

  4. Only one thing is more disturbing than irony: when you are quite unsure about where exactly does the irony begin and end.

    Because, to tell the truth, the above is not the craziest of things I have heard regarding the research of Clement's letter to Theodore.