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).
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
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.
Christian Apocrypha Sessions at 2014 SBL
1 day ago