Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Secret Gospel of Mark in 2011 - A Story So Far

April 29 is closing in fast, the day when The York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium Series presents a day-long conference regarding the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark, with a program featuring the most prominent North American scholars, lots of interesting topics and ample space for pot-shots from the trenches extended discussions between the various parties. If one has not yet behold the glorious programme, one finds it here. There are even rumours of recordings to be made available from the conference, and at the very least a publication of the papers will surely come out sometime in the far future.

In the meantime, Biblical Archaeology Review has almost become the foremost place to catch newsitems regarding the questioned text of Clement's letter, in its page dedicated to the question of authenticity of Clement's Letter to Theodore and Secret Mark. Since Christmas, some new items have been added to the page. The single sentence at the end -- Stephen Carlson declined our invitation to respond -- is one of these. People who have followed the debate since Carlson's treatise turned the tables in 2005 are not surprised. Carlson has withdrawn himself from the debate (presumably) in order to concentrate on other things he finds more interesting, and comments from his part have been extremely scarce for the past few years. It is, naturally, every scholar's prerogative to choose the debates he or she will attend to. York Symposium, likewise, will have to do without him.

Scott Brown's newest published piece, My Thoughts on the Reports by Venetia Anastasopoulou, goes to some length in explaining and elaborating the technical terms Anastasopoulou used in her analysis last year, which caused some confusion amongst the scholars due to the general unfamiliarity with the techniques of QDE (questioned document examination). As Brown notes, Anastasopoulou's verdict is possible only if the manuscript of Clement's letter contains someone’s natural handwriting (p. 10). For Brown, this entails that Morton Smith not only did not write the lines himself, but did not even author them (and put someone else to do the writing): if there are no signs of forgery to be found, the manuscript must be no-one's forgery!

Small wonder that Peter Jeffery, in his new response to Venetia Anastasopoulou's handwriting analysis, effectively discards the whole question of handwriting in favour of the question of what is the text actually saying. For Jeffery, Clement's letter is best understood as a 20th-century composition. The most important bit in Jeffery's response is the ending. For the first time in years, the scholars supporting the forgery hypothesis have to be on the defensive. As Jeffery writes,

If those who think the text was composed in the twentieth century have not explained how the manuscript was created, those who think the text was composed in the second century have not explained what it says.

Yes, the supporters of the forgery hypothesis have difficulties in coming up with a plausible scenario in which a manuscript like Secret Mark could be produced by Morton Smith (now at least one other person must be involved), but those who support its authenticity have likewise difficulties in making sense of the meaning of the text. Both of these statements are probably true. But things have clearly changed. Where once we had crowds cheering for the victory of the forgery hypothesis, we now have people acknowledging openly that both perspectives on the Secret Gospel have their own problems, and that we still are locked in a stalemate (to borrow Hedrick); where to go from here?

The newest exchange in BAR happens between Allan Pantuck and Francis Watson. Pantuck, in his Solving the Mysterion of Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark, chooses two points of interest from Watson's earlier article in JTS (61, 128-170). Did Morton Smith change his mind with his discovery or is the Secret Gospel of Mark saying exactly what Smith was preaching years before its 'discovery'? What to make of the similarities (and differences!) between Smith's story of discovery and Hunter's The Mystery of Mar Saba, a novel depicting a discovery of an unknown Gospel from Mar Saba 18 years before Smith made his?

Pantuck stresses that coincidental similarities do happen, as illustrated by various telling anecdotes including the story of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe, in which a cabin boy named Richard Parker is killed and eaten following a shipwreck by the three other survivors, when years later a cabin boy named Richard Parker was killed and eaten following a shipwreck by the three other survivors of Mignonette; the latter took place in 1884, 46 years after the publication of the novel. Bearing such possibilities in mind, other facts such as

in 1955, the pre-discovery Smith appears to be reading Mark 4:11 as secret teachings for the disciples that placed them under the rulership of God, not as secret rites that freed them from the demands of God’s law (p. 6)

become all the more important. As with handwriting analysis, it is hardly enough to point the occasional similarity. The real magic is to adequately explain the dissimilarities.

Lastly, just a few days ago, Watson's reply to Pantuck appeared on the site. Watson argues that his argument 'does not assert or require a total continuity between Smith’s views pre- and post-discovery, only a high degree of continuity' (p. 3), thus making Pantuck's observations moot. Yet Watson acknowledges, on the other hand, that 'we should not accept all alleged coincidences uncritically' (p. 5). The question then becomes, how high a degree of continuity is enough to make a case? How to find out which of the alleged coincidences are 'true coincidences' and which ones are evidence of one author following another?

One problem with the discussion so far has been the lack of criteria for judging such notions. Whereas biblical scholars have tried to answer the question of literary dependence e.g. holding that it takes 16 (!) words in precise order to establish that one author has used another (McIver & Carroll, JBL 121, 667-687), no one, apart from Andrew Criddle in 1995 (and Brown occasionally), has offered numbers to back their claims up. We recognize instinctively that an argument like the aforementioned survivors of Mignonette were following a model laid down by Poe (they remembered Parker's name from the novel and used it as a basis for deciding whom to kill and eat) is an absurd one. Why do we argue, then, that the common word 'reconcile', and few other similarities, is enough for establishing a definite link between Smith and The Mystery of Mar Saba?

In light of the recent developments it is exciting to see what comes out of the York Seminar.


In other bits of news, Finnish Cultural Foundation has confirmed that I will receive a one-year grant for writing a PhD dissertation from December 2011 onwards. Why not right away? Reasons of bureaucracy no one would believe were possible even if I tried to explain.

And for something completely different, psychologists call 'Change Blindness' the fact that we are many times unable to notice changes around us, illustrated nicely by Daniel Simons' experiment where a clerk behind a desk is suddenly switched to another -- an incident 75 % of the people fail to notice. Video explaining the experiment and the phenomenon is available here (spotted at Montclair SocioBlog, via Sociological Images).