Thursday, July 8, 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 II

On pages 132-144 Watson breaks Clement's letter to Theodore down into six parts:

1. Editorial Introduction (Theod. I.1)

2. Against the Carpocratians (Theod. I.2-15)

3. The Origin and Falsification of the Secret Gospel of Mark (Theod. I.15-II.10)

4. The Need for Secrecy (Theod. II.10-19)

5. The Content of the Secret Gospel (Theod. II.19-III.17)

6. Exegesis of the Secret Gospel (Theod. III.17-18)

He paraphrases the contents of the letter, and offers some choice commentary in each of the six sections. The latter is a true exercise of hermeneutics of suspicion in its most Ricoeurian sense, as nothing in the letter remains what is seems. To drive the point home, Watson ends the discussion of each section with a question that emphasises his perspective of suspiciousness to the limit. These include the following:

Is the more limited formulation the model or template for the broader one? [Having noted that the editorial introduction resembles the introduction found in Sacra Parallela of John of Damascus.] (134)

Or does the homosexual orientation of the Carpocratian Secret Gospel represent an anachronistic attempt to make it relevant for the mid-twentieth century? [Having read the the words 'naked man with naked man' (Theod. III.13) as referring to a homosexual practice of the Carpocratians.] (135-136)

Is the secrecy surrounding the Secret Gospel an indication that the letter is a modern fabrication? (139)

[I]s it easier to attribute such a compositional procedure to a second-century scribe or to a mid-twentieth-century scholar? [Having deducted the compositional procedure of Clement's gospel extracts.] (142)

In the end, Watson summarises his reading of the letter with the remark that "there are indications that the closest analogies may [emphasis original] simply reflect the use of sources and models by a modern author". (143) Considering all of the above, his final conclusion manages to surprise as it is certainly a sensible one:

The arguments presented so far do not as yet amount to a proof that Smith was the author of the letter. But they are hardly 'fantastic conjectures'. ... The debate about this text should rest on something more substantial than impressionistic observations about what other scholars seem inclined to accept. (144)

Paul Ricoeur, in his Freud and Philosophy (1970) presented the hermeneutics of suspicion as a method "geared toward unmasking and decoding hidden meanings", to cite one recent commentator. (David M. Kaplan: Reading Ricoeur. SUNY Press 2008, 198) It is one of the more fascinating ways to read a given text. The surface-level of the text becomes a veil that must be torn apart, for it hides the political interests encoded within; Whom does the text serve? Nothing is what it seems, and the naïve literal reading of the text the least. Instead and behind the fabulous façade of the plain text something completely different is going on.

That Watson is suspicious of Clement's letter to Theodore, that is perfectly well and even desired. That his suspicions result in reading every line of the letter as a signpost to the composition's modern origin, there there must surely lie something with perilous potential. My personal impression - note that my leanings towards the authenticity of the text have their say here - is that Watson tries too hard to find anachronisms from Clement's letter at this section of his article. He ends up somewhat careless with his choice of words, e.g. finding a parallel between Clement's use of the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Secret Gospel in the fact that both are non-canonical gospels used by "heretics" while Clement "chooses to reinterpret [them] rather than to reject" (135) - but the suggested parallels are all modern scholarly constructions, non-existent for the real Clement of Alexandria. On the same page Watson grounds his suspicion on "the love of 'naked man with naked man' (III.13)" (135), but there is no "love" mentioned in the letter, requiring another anachronistic reading from the part of Watson for the matter to become suspicious in the first place!

Here is the problem as I perceive it. When Stephen C. Carlson laid out the hoax hypothesis in The Gospel Hoax (2005), one of his arguments dealt with potential tale-telling derivations from the real Clementine writings. Thus Carlson remarked that "Clement's decision to quote Secret Mark [is] in the first place unnecessary, Clement's unusual care in doing so is inexplicable" (57) stating further that the letter "discloses far more details about the literary origin of the gospel of Mark than is typical for Clement's time" (58). In short, it is suspicious that the letter shows signs deemed not typical of the real Clement.

Now, Scott G. Brown, in The Letter to Theodore: Stephen Carlson’s Case against Clement’s Authorship (JECS 16:4 (2008), 535-572), has shown that in Strom. Clement does precisely what happens in Theod. as well, citing a long passage of a questioned text, while in Strom. he decides it necessary to insert contextual information into his discussion, just like in the letter to Theodore. With these considerations the letter to Theodore ceases to be un-Clementine, at least in these respects. The hoax hypothesis, however, does not need to budge. Watson, while discussing the last two lines of the letter and the interpretation of the gospel passages that never comes, notes the following:

A similar format may be seen in Clement's treatise on the salvation of the wealthy (Quis dives salvetur). Here too, a problematic Markan text is cited in full... Here too, the citation is followed by the promise of an interpretation of the scriptural words. (142-143)

The question Watson is compelled to ask is "Has this text provided a model for the letter to Theodore"? The question itself is fair enough, but perfectly illustrates the problematic nature of the hoax hypothesis. Whether individual details are judged Clementine or not, they can still be used as the basis for suspicions. Combined with a rigorous use of Ricoeur's hermeneutics of suspicion every individual detail becomes damning evidence. If Clementine, the forger has used real Clement as a template, if un-Clementine, the forger has produced an anachronism. The other side of the fence is placed between the devil and the deep blue sea. How can they still defend the letter's authenticity when every word practically screams either of the forger's use of real Clement or of her making a blunder? This perspective hardly gives credit to the defenders of authenticity, and at the end of the day, reading Clement's letter to Theodore as full of suspicious features simply shows that it is indeed possible, to put this insight into the workings of texts quite moderately, to read texts in a number of different ways, e.g. full of discrepancies, or perfect in every way. But why does a balanced take on both pros and cons of the various camps remain out of the question?

It is this undownable nature of the hoax hypothesis I am troubled with. In my estimation the style of conspiracy theorising really is that evident in Watson's one-sided reading of the evidence as always pointing to the possibility of forgery, in the complete lack of features that would shift the scale of probabilities towards the opposite side, i.e. nothing in the letter (at least in this one article) suggests to Watson that it could be anything else than a blatant forgery by Morton Smith. It is all fine and good to construct one's argument as fool-proof as possible, but to build it in such a way that no imaginable counterargument is able to shake it?

Since Watson, however, concludes with the statement I have cited above, that nothing he has found suspicious on pages 132-144 is sufficient for establishing "beyond suspicion" that Clement's letter to Theodore is a forgery, there is no need to debate the finer points of these suspicions. Instead, we will move forward to the remaining five arguments of Watson, granting that it is entirely possible, and in this particular case even desirable, to read Clement's letter to Theodore with eyes full of suspicion. To my mind, the need for such reading simply shows that the question of authenticity has not yet been decided for the satisfaction of all, and that the debate should continue.


  1. Really? You think this authenticity debate is really continuing? With what? What's the next smoking gun that Pearson, Ehrman, Carlson, Jeffrey and Watson haven't uncovered yet?

    I think that this whole debate was overtaken by a popular climate where no one believes in 'the truth' any more. I know some professors and scholars who go out with their lunch pail and set out to translate some obscure text with the idea that they are playing some small role in making sense of 'the big picture.'

    That type of scholarship has given way to the Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, Karen King scholar. You know 'the king (or queen) of all media.'

    Something changed with the publication of the Da Vinci Code. Somehow that Tom Hanks guy (whatever his name is) became a popular figure like Indiana Jones or the Terminator (at least for a while). Even the most erudite American scholar was looking over his shoulder saying ' think of all that money that Dan Brown's making! He's even getting movies deals! (I have actually had those conversations with professors.

    That naive Protestant belief that you should follow the truth wherever it leads you is another dinosaur.

    In any event, there are no new arguments to be found that will make a strong case for forgery. Watson is probably the kind of guy who completes whatever he sets out to do. Because he decided to write a paper on Secret Mark, he's going to finish that paper. The problem in this case is that he ran out of ideas.

    The truth is that the argument for authenticity, the argument for how the Letter to Theodore fits into Alexandrian Christianity of the late second century has never been written.

    I don't know what you call Smith's thesis. He had a very unique interest and I don't think that the Letter to Theodore supports any of his theories. Brown's arguments are cleverly designed to result in a stalemate. But has anyone really argued the case for why the Letter to Theodore advances our knowledge about Clement, the Catechetical School of Alexandria or the writings of Irenaeus?

    That's the future of this debate. Tell the story of how the Letter to Theodore explains something about late second century Christianity in Alexandria. Until then the whole discussion is stuck in a seemingly endless stalemate EVEN IF Tselikas finds proof of another manuscript with the same handwriting.

  2. Kullervo's Sister12 July, 2010 13:16

    I've been enjoying your posts over the last few months, as always. This post reminded me of something Morton Smith wrote to A. D. Nock in 1961:

    "Of course ... [some of those] working on the [Secret] Gospel text take it for granted that anything similar to the canonical Gospels is derivative, and anything not similar, secondary. Thus they cover the field completely with only two false assumptions."

    Over the years that logic has been applied to all noncanonical gospels to prove them all late and apocryphal (i.e., forgeries). Watson extends this logic to the letter: anything similar to Clement (or another author) is borrowed, and anything unique is invented. So, "Heads I win, tails you lose."

    What you call "the hermeneutics of suspicion in its most Ricoeurian sense," I think of as, "If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's probably an extremely clever decoy."

    P.S. If you ever debate my brother on this subject, do bring your bastard sword.

  3. Stephan, I think I'm just being polite. What I mean to convey is that we cannot just go on our merry way and pretend that the support for the hoax hypothesis does note exist - as much as we'd like to. Sure it does, with big names attached to it. That the authenticity debate should continue really means just that we should continue pounding our drum in our cosy corner. During the first five post-Carlson years the hoax idea went straight through and became the norm. In the next five years I'm positive it will keep that momentum and exit the scholarly scene. But someone has to keep that monotonous rhythm going, until the issue is cleared to the satisfaction of most participants.

    Watson's approach reminds me of the Finnish research team that published last year a book called A.D. 30 about the historical Jesus. Conveniently, an incident judged by the criterion of dissimilarity was authentic, while an incident judged by the criterion of multiple attestation was also authentic - and that's about all the incidents one can find in the canonised gospels; going by these two criteria every incident is either authentic or authentic.

  4. There are rumors on the web (see Stephan Huller's contribution on FRBD at that Tselikas, the second expert nominated by BAR, has changed his mind on the possibility that Smith forged the manuscript. Do you know something more? I'm really curious to see the end of this wonderful story. By the way, your website and your blog as well are really enjoyable. Thanks a lot

  5. Thanks for the compliment, Fabrizio. I have tried to reach Tselikas with no success, so I cannot say anything about his position at the moment. The fact that he could not deliver a report to BAR certainly suggests that he has not found the ultimate proof, either.