Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On Winning Arguments

I could have written down some thoughts on Agamemnon Tselikas' Handwriting Analysis Report published last week by Biblical Archaeology Review; the report contains a host of observations ranging from palaeographical ("the hand of the scribe was not moving spontaneously") to tracking down Morton Smith's trips of manuscript hunting, leading Tselikas to conclude that Clement's letter to Theodore "is product of a forgery and all the evidences suggest that the forger can not be other person than Morton Smith or some other person under his orders".

It will take some time to begin and evaluate the contents of Tselikas' report. In the meantime -- apart from perusing what others have thought of it (in chronological order: Roger Viklund, Stephan Huller (three good observations), the_cave) -- here's my today's fix of Wiley Miller (original here)

Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller 31/5/2011

Monday, May 23, 2011

Comment Policy on Salainen evankelista

Blogger (the platform on which this blog rests) may be acting up again, discarding comments, labeling them spam and counting them wrong, and there is not much I can do about it at the moment. For more information, consult e.g. this thread and myriad others on Blogger's support forums.

The general comment policy on this blog is, however, clear: no comment, EXCEPT those made by advertising bots, is ever deleted, censored or otherwise modified, despite its contents. I even encourage anonymous commentators to share their insights and information leaks, and apart from the Google staff (the current owner of Blogger) no one can compromise the privacy of commentators, as spy-apps (which collect user information) are not present on this blog's layout.

That is to say, if anyone thinks their comment has gone missing, contact me via email (found in my User Profile) and we'll let the world know of your thoughts.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Toronto Conference In Review - A Summary

Here are the various reports on the Secret Gospel of Mark Symposium, part of the York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium Series, held on April 29th in Toronto, followed by some further reflections from my part (as far as the conference reports allow me to join in).

Burke, Tony:
Reflections on the Secret Mark Symposium, part 1
Reflections on the Secret Mark Symposium, part 2
Reflections on the Secret Mark Symposium, part 3

Miceli, Calogero A.:
Secret Mark Symposium: A Student’s View

Secret Mark in Toronto

Veale, Sarah:
Thoughts on the Secret Gospel of Mark Conference

Wettlaufer, Ryan D.:
Report on Secret Gospel of Mark Symposium Pt 1
Report on Secret Gospel of Mark Symposium Pt 2
Report on Secret Gospel of Mark Symposium Pt 3


One of the stated objectives for the symposium was that "some progress can be made by bringing these scholars together to present their latest work on the gospel". Previously, there was no consensus amongst the scholars, and -- as I have noted elsewhere -- no engagement nor venue for such a consensus to emerge. Clearly then, a symposium on the subject was most useful to have, even though few people (reportedly) came and changed their minds.

Indeed, it is almost six years since Stephen Carlson's The Gospel Hoax came out. Some of the reports above state that many of his claims have been dropped for good, but this does not seem to be exactly the case. Roger Viklund raised the issue a few days ago, and I tend to agree, that many of Carlson's claims have simply been redecorated and occasionally slightly elaborated, hanging along despite the criticism scholars have presented in recent years. There is a desire to move onwards already (Hedrick's paper comes to mind), but at the same time a tendency to travel in circles: since Jenkins raised the issue of Hunter's novel in 2001 how many iterations of that particular argument have we gone through (Carlson, Watson, Evans etc.)? Furthermore, I cannot but perceive a widening gulf between scholars working directly with the Mar Saba manuscript and scholars writing secondary reports on the debate; in recent secondary literature Carlson's arguments still remain the last word on the subject.

Of the individual papers I cannot comment much since I have not seen most of them, but "The Peter Jeffery Challenge" -- go and check how Morton Smith utilized ancient sources in his works and whether one finds him deceptive -- is an interesting proposal. Particularly since I have already done at least the minimum of one hour of checking them. More details regarding the challenge are found here (in the comments), along with Ryan Wettlaufer's question whether the Jeffery challenge is actually begging the question -- further developments may be taking place. [EDIT: Don't forget to check out Jeffery's comment below!] In itself, however, the question of the usage of ancient sources is a legitimate one. But I propose there are limits to the possible conclusions we can arrive at with such questioning.

On a general level, two things seem to be off. First, scholars are trained to disagree with each other; at least this is a big part of the education I have received from Helsinki University. As coming up with original ideas is much more difficult than pointing out weaknesses in other's arguments, the journey into academia begins with referencing and criticizing. It is also self-evident that without disagreement there is no discussion to be had. For a trained scholar, spotting things to disagree with becomes almost trivial and in the end one usually comes to the conclusion that no death nor living scholar is to be found with whom one does not -- cannot -- but disagree with. Not with every single point, mind you, but with many of them, nonetheless.

The other difficulty with Jeffery challenge is the manner with which scholars normally handle their enormous differences in opinion. They soften their responses. They avoid harsh statements. They try to moderate the differences and reach some sort of a compromise. They do NOT call other interpretations Bullshit! They do NOT claim to have solved the question once and for all. Instead, they use a lot of words such as 'probably', 'plausibly', and 'almost certainly' (the more adventurous ones). They do NOT voice their initial, knee-jerk reaction to a point they disagree with, but open their mouths only when they have applied the necessary manners & decorum on top of it. These features of discussion have a simple psychological foundation: they enable scholars to have a dialogue instead of merely shouting at each other. In effect, they are signs with which we can distinguish between academic and non-academic discourses.

What does all of this mean regarding Morton Smith and his use of ancient sources? For one thing, as a scholar goes through Smith's interpretations she is bound to find lots and lots of details she disagrees with. Some of these are minor and some display a gross misunderstanding (if not a gross and deliberate misrepresentation) of the sources in question; finding such things is the bread-and-butter of studying ancient texts, after all. Yes, Morton Smith had highly idiosyncratic ideas! But so does every other scholar, quick or death, and in itself this fact is no grounds for holding him more deceptive than any of the others. In my personal opinion (i.e. from my particular perspective) there are far more 'deceptive' scholars out there, big names in the field of biblical studies even. I have strong knee-jerk reactions for anyone who does not buy the 'diversity in early Christianity' argument, speaks about 'mainstream early Christianity' when he merely refers to one of its variants ('proto-orthodoxy') and fails to put the words 'heresy' and 'heretics' into scare quotes, to cite the first three examples that came instantly to mind. These reactions, however, are not good starting points for further dialogue with e.g. scholars whose knee-jerk reactions are the absolute opposite of mine.

I strongly feel that not calling Morton Smith, or any other scholar, 'deceptive' -- whatever our innermost thoughts on the question might be -- is almost a requisite for having an academic debate in the first place. I wonder if that means I have failed at the Jeffery Challenge.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Toronto Conference In Review - Part IV

More and more reviews just keep coming! Calogero A. Miceli, a Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University, wrote a guest post for Apocryphicity, followed shortly by Tony Burke's own reflections, in two parts (for the time being; waiting for the third).

UPDATE: Part 3 of Burke's reflections has recently been published.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Toronto Conference In Review - Part II

Evangelical Textual Criticism has a post with the title Full Report on Secret Gospel Conference (though it is currently empty).

UPDATE: Parts one and two of Ryan D. Wettlaufer's review are now available.

2ND UPDATE: The third and last part of Ryan's report is now available.

Incidentally, Blogger has not yet recovered comments left on this blog since Tuesday, they may or may not become available some time or other.

Toronto Conference In Review - Part I

Of people who witnessed The York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium Series last Friday, the anonymous author of Synoptic Solutions, simply known as the_cave, has written a detailed, illustrated review of the proceedings for the benefit of those who could not attend. Many thanks to the_cave!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hunter's Experience in the Monastery of Mar Saba

The York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium Series seems to have gotten off to a good start with its commencement last Friday, as evidenced by the pictures posted on Facebook (so that's what some of the people look like!), and at least something new has come out of the discussions of the day. Roger Viklund considers a previously unknown fact, revealed by Allan J. Pantuck in his response to Craig A. Evans at the conference, that James H. Hunter, famous for penning the novel The Mystery of Mar Saba featuring a modern attempt at forging taking place in the monastery, had traveled to the place on a donkey in 1931 and met the monks, much the same way Morton Smith would make it in later years. The similarities between the experiences of the two men could be taken as an explanation for the general similarities their writings happen to share.

But were the experiences of Smith and Hunter at Mar Saba that similar? Smith describes his first visit as a 'strange and beautiful experience', explicitly mentioning 'the silence of the desert' and the hours-long liturgy which was 'dazzling the mind and destroying its sense of reality' -- though he confessed that he required a certain amount of 'suspension of disbelief' to achieve the latter state of mind (Secret Gospel, 4-6). How did Hunter perceive the life of the monastery? A clue to his perspective can be gleaned from the pages of his novel, from one of its longest paragraphs.

Hunter begins by narrating the history of the monastery, but goes on to offer an opinion on its current state of affairs (on pages 229-230):

Such was the weird home of Christian men in past ages, now degenerated into a ghastly institution of superstitious formalism lacking soul and heart, of rites performed by monks whose honesty and mode of life left much to be desired.

That's some vicious thing to say. But once started on this track, Hunter gathers steam.

The life of the monastery was as empty as the burnt-out crater of a volcano. What religious life there was had deteriorated into a burden of prescribed, and ungraciously observed, devotions; of dreary ceremonies begun at midnight with weird chants and rites that make the blood of the casual visitor who stays overnight run cold. With nothing to occupy their time, it was easy to see that the monks had degenerated.

When on the roll, let it roll, I guess.

The older monks were crafty and seemed sub-normal; the younger ones for the most part had fled there to escape the penalty of some misdeed committed among the world of men. The effect of the life there was to reduce the anchorites to a state of deplorable baseness and wretchedness. There was nothing in the life of the monastery conducive to the development of either the body, the mind or the spirit.

Think it could not get any worse, would you?

The rankest of moral weeds could only grow in a corrupting atmosphere like this. In such a miasma, man became obsessed with his fellow-man. In their souls was hate instead of love, tumult where peace should have reigned, as they performed mechanical religious duties, and remained ignorant of the blessed Gospel of the Son of God and the transforming power of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The paragraph quoted above stands out even in a novel rife with xenophobia, uncontrollable orientalism and racism. The ending sentence reveals the purpose of this slander: a struggle between Hunter's evangelical Christianity and the Orthodox Christianity of the monks in Mar Saba. Still, one cannot but wonder why Hunter would choose to portray the monks in this manner? If he really journeyed to the monastery, if he really spent a night in there and attended the nocturnal liturgy, as could be concluded from the 'dreary ceremonies.. at midnight' above, and if he really conversed with the monks and heard their stories of transferred libraries and burned manuscripts that could emerge from secret places of hiding after a time, how could he describe them as such? The vitriol is all the more striking considering that Germans, communists, atheists, freethinkers and other bad people receive much, much less vile in the novel.

And if Hunter did journey to the monastery as his travel plans indicate, one has to wonder what events in fact took place amongst those 'sub-normal' monks who 'became obsessed with... fellow-man'.