Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Close Look at Francis Watson's "Beyond Suspicion: On the Authorsip of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark" - Part I

In April 2010 a new article on the question of authenticity of Clement's letter to Theodore was published in Journal of Theological Studies. Francis Watson, a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, argued that the case was literally "beyond suspicion". In his reading of the letter Watson claims to have found "a way... through its multiple concealments" (131). The author is not Clement of Alexandria, but the alleged discover of the text, late Morton Smith (1915-1991), whose handiwork is "clearly recognizable" (170) as "that truth hidden by seven veils". (Theod. I.26) The article, Beyond Suspicion: On the Authorship of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark (JTS, NS 61 (2010), 128-170), is found online here (subscription required). The following is the abstract:

The suspicion that the ‘discoverer’ of the letter from Clement of Alexandria to Theodore was in reality its author was raised shortly after its first publication in 1973, and has often been reasserted in the years since Morton Smith’s death in 1991. Yet the fragments of the ‘Secret Gospel of Mark’ are often still interpreted on the provisional assumption that the letter containing them is genuine. This article enquires whether the long-standing suspicion of forgery—occasioned largely by the circumstances of the text’s discovery—can be put beyond reasonable doubt. It proceeds by way of a close scrutiny of the letter itself against the double background of the undisputed writings of Clement of Alexandria on the one hand, and the published work of Morton Smith on the other. It is argued that the letter’s internal anomalies are incompatible with Clementine authorship, as are certain compositional techniques; and that it is the product of interests and influences that predate its supposed discovery at the Mar Saba monastery.

I will begin the close look at the article by noting some general agreements and disagreements between the perspectives of Watson and my own. Right at the beginning of the article Watson spells out the specific criteria by which the question of authenticity should be resolved.

"If the forgery hypothesis is to be substantiated, it must be on the basis of the internal evidence of the Clementine letter, read against the double background of the undisputed work of Clement (and Mark) on the one hand, and Smith's own work on the other. Careful analysis of the letter within the appropriate contexts may reach more nearly definitive results than can be achieved by analysing Smith's handwriting, raising questions about his conduct, or speculating about his psychological development." (131)

There is much in the quote I agree with. Certainly the case cannot be solved by coming up with plausible yet ultimately imaginary character traits, motives, and psychopathological conditions for Smith. The business of handwriting identification is not so clear-cut, especially when we recall how Venetia Anastasopoulou concluded recently that Morton Smith probably could not have simulated the handwriting in the letter. The internal evidence read in the appropriate contexts remains, however, the best option available, at least until the missing manuscript reappears.

Getting the article off to such a good start, it is somewhat striking to find the following sentence on the very same page as the above clear-headed marching order.

"Perhaps this enigmatic text actually solicits its own exposure?" (131)

In a moment of poetic motion of his spirit Watson proposes that we are, in fact, dealing with a genuine hoax, as differentiated from mere forgeries in Stephen C. Carlson's The Gospel Hoax (2005). A forgery aims to cheat us for good; a duel tough but fair. A hoax beckons us to approach, constantly whispering of the secrets it keeps from us. Only a genuine hoax (love the language of contradiction here) solicits us to try and solve its mysteries.

I swear I am one day going to make a queer reading out of the hoax hypothesis. Should I send it to Theology and Sexuality or maybe FAMA: Feministisch-theologische Zeitschrift?

In any case, this line looks like the choice candidate for making sense of Watson's approach to Clement's letter to Theodore. Lured by a text begging to have a full disclosure done, Watson is understandably eager to accumulate the evidence of foul play, leading to six main arguments against the letter's authenticity. The claims are reminiscent in style of the argumentation in Carlson's The Gospel Hoax, both for good and bad, as we will see in the subsequent parts of this series. For the end of part I, I wish to draw attention to the curious practice of non-engagement with scholars critical of one's own views, a scholarly practice that is found almost exclusively in the recent debate concerning the authenticity of the Mar Saba letter.

In 2005 things were fairly well. Carlson welcomed further assessments of his hypothesis e.g. in his reply to Kyle Smith (one of the first criticisms laid out against parts of the hoax hypothesis, available from Wieland Wilker's The Secret Gospel of Mark Homepage), and responded at length to Scott G. Brown's The Question of Motive in the Case against Morton Smith (JBL 125 (2006), 351-383) in 2006.

Then something happened. Brown's next article Factualizing the Folklore: Stephen Carlson's Case Against Morton Smith (Harvard Theological Review 99 (2006), 291-327) went without a response, as did Pantuck & Brown's Morton Smith as M. Madiotes: Stephen Carlson's Attribution of Secret Mark to a Bald Swindler (JSHJ 6 (2008), 106-125), Jeff Jay's A New Look at the Epistolary Framework of the Secret Gospel of Mark (JECS 16 (2008), 573-597), Brown's The Letter to Theodore: Stephen Carlson’s Case against Clement’s Authorship (JECS 16 (2008), 535-572), Roger Viklund's Tremors, or Just an Optical Illusion? A Further Evaluation of Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis (2009; online here), and Brown and Pantuck's Stephen Carlson’s Questionable Questioned Document Examination (2010; (blog edition with comments; PDF from Wieland Wilker's The Secret Gospel of Mark Homepage). Only in the parallel debate with Peter Jeffery's The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled (2007) has there been any engagement to be had (mainly Brown's essay review & Jeffery's two responses).

Except for the debate centering on Jeffery's monograph (a debate which continues to thrive in a much healthier state), scholars have - or at least this is my sincere impression - simply pretended that the criticism does not exist. Consider, for example, Birger A. Pearson's The Secret Gospel of Mark: A 20th Century Forgery (Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 4 (2008), 1-14). The article includes Jeffery's book from 2007, and at the very least Brown's Factualizing the Folklore (2006), one which I see as a key article in the debate, should be expected to be included. But it is not. Instead, Pearson writes that "I cannot see how anyone... could entertain the possibility that the Secret Gospel of Mark plays any role at all in the development of the canonical Gospel of Mark". (9) Could he have been unaware that such possibilities were indeed entertained - in peer-reviewed scholarly articles, no less - just as Bart D. Ehrman, another pro-forgery scholar, seemed to be unaware in the 2008 SBL Annual Meeting? An oversight, or a deliberate attempt to downplay the other side of the debate?

Francis Watson, at least, is aware of Brown's criticism. He cites Factualizing the Folklore in Beyond Suspicion, starting from page 130, footnotes 5 and 7. Other instances where Brown gets mentioned take place on page 131, footnote 9; page 136, footnote 25; page 138, footnote 32; page 141, footnote 40; page 142, footnote 42; page 156, footnote 77; page 163, footnote 100; page 164, footnote 101. Am I reading too much on this when I perceive that not once is Brown mentioned in the actual text of the article, but all the engagement with him is relegated into the footnotes?

Furthermore, a meaningful dialogue happens only with those minor points Watson had himself rejected as inadequate for establishing "definitive results". Thus, Watson i.a. argues that Smith hold a "gay reading" of the gospel text in Theod., and cites the instances from Smith's books were such a reading is suggested (CA, 251; SG, 114). A discussion of this could certainly be had. But as Watson remarks on page 156, it is not surprising if Smith's views prior to and after 1958 happen to coincide. The real debate should be about the text, not about Smith's interpretation of it. Here we can all agree, but why then is Smith's interpretation debated in the footnote in the first place? Why not engage with Brown about the things that matter?

An optimist in me feels that things are getting better. The defenders of the hoax hypothesis, in its Carlsonian form, have allowed their critics to creep into the footnotes; for them the change from non-existence must come as a change long overdue. Next paper will, no doubt, start to engage with their arguments directly, and the one after that will finally give a definitive response to the most burning of the questions - How is Factualizing the Folklore not a death blow to the Carlsonian hoax hypothesis, not to mention the others that have been published since?

For one other thing: a chance to reflect my thinking about Watson's article has been offered by the_cave whose A Critique of Watson can be found in his blog, Synoptic Solutions.


  1. I like Peter Head's comments the other month about Watson's article "Francis Watson has attempted to move from 'suspicion of forgery' to 'beyond reasonable doubt' in a paper published recently in JTS. This is an interesting read, and raises some questions, although occasionally it gets a bit ridiculous."

    'Occasionally' is the understatement of the year. When obviously smart people get carried away with the stupidest of circular arguments I start wondering "what is the psychological motivation behind all this nonsense?"

    I really get disappointed when I read scholarship like this. It reminds me of when John Lennon finally ended up meeting Elvis Presley after being one of his biggest fans.

    'Oh my God, Lennon is recorded as saying, 'I just met Engelbert Humperdinck.'

  2. I have argued in several venues that analysis of the text, not Smith's interpretation of it, is the best way forward until the original is rediscovered or additional manuscript evidence appears. However, I suspect that the original is lost to scholars, possibly even destroyed, and the discovery of additional ancient evidence is extraordinarily unlikely if Longer Mark was a local production with limited circulation. Why does the retreat of the Carlsonians remind me of political figures with indefensible beliefs who quit giving interviews to the malicious "mainstream media" and refuse to take questions from a general audience. Watson's speculation aside, two salient facts remain: Carlson has never even seen the document he claims is a forgery which is almost beside the point since he is not a qualified document examiner in the first place. And second, Peter Jeffery, who is a music teacher, claims to have done a forensic psychological analysis on a subject he never once met. In any academic field other than New Testament Studies these procedures would be dismissed out of hand with a single snort of derision. Little wonder the proponents of fraud are reticent.

    Robert Conner