Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why Accepting the Existence of Secret Mark Won't Mark the End of the Christian Religion

I think there is a tendency in the study of documents related to early Christianity to see them as static things. Mark said this, Polycarp wrote this, Ignatius said that. The reality is of course is that everything was in a great deal more flux that believers want to believe.

I think that most of the scholars who want to cast doubt on the authenticity of the discovery are themselves disturbed by the ideas contained in the letter.

I am not talking about the 'homosexual' references. I think this is actually thrown into the mix as a kind of red herring. Those of us who are familiar with the early Patristic writings were already aware of the fact that the Carpocratians were accused of engaging in orgiastic rites involving homosexuals. If anything these claims strengthen the authencity of the document because they were present in Irenaeus's source - the hypomnemata attributed to Hegesippus - but not directly referenced in the report that makes its way into Irenaeus's Against Heresies.

The real thing that gets under the skin of believers is the fact that the Letter to Theodore suggests that we might not have the final edition of Mark's gospel. I know for many people who aren't religious fanatics this doesn't seem like a big issue. Yet you have to understand the mindset of these people. Suddenly they are forced to think like the rest of us. Maybe our New Testament cannot isn't so perfect after all. Maybe there are things missing from it. Maybe there were things taken away.

It's one thing if some guy like me writes about this at his blog - who is Stephan Huller anyway? But if the report comes from Clement of Alexandria - a Church Father - now there is something to it. These people must have imagined that the Marcionites or members of some other 'heretical gospel' must have claimed the very same thing. But now we have a Patristic source casually mentioning that everything we knew about the Gospel according to Mark is wrong. This is too much for them.

Yet my feeling on the matter is that there is again nothing really that surprising about the testimony of Clement of Alexandria in the letter when you really think about it. Almost every document in the New Testament, almost every text in the early Patristic catalogue seems to have come in small, medium and large. Why not the Gospel of Mark?

Indeed the fact that Alexandria might have possessed an expanded Gospel of Mark doesn't necessarily mean that our canonical Gospel of Mark is somehow 'wrong.' Very few scholars for instance take seriously the long version of the Ignatian letters to the Romans, to the Ephesians or to the Trallians for that matter. Why does the existence of a longer Gospel of Mark in Alexandria necessarily disprove the shorter version of the text which is still in our possession?

Now the reality is that I happen to think that our canonical Gospel of Mark is a deliberate shortening of the Alexandrian text mentioned in the Letter to Theodore. But this is just one person's opinion on the matter. I am sure that some conservative scholar could come up with an even more compelling case for the fact that Secret Mark was an Alexandrian expansion of the canonical original by some later editor working in the second century. This is academia after all. Almost any point of view can be developed into a publishable paper.

My point is that I think it is about time that even the most conservative scholars should stop burying their heads in the sand and continue to engage in this childish refusal to accept the authenticity of Morton Smith's discovery. The Secret Gospel of Mark does not represent the end of the Christian religion. If anything it adds a new and exotic Alexandrian flavor to a discussion which had gone very stale a long time ago.

Here's to making Christianity interesting and thought provoking again.

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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