Saturday, June 4, 2011

I Will Start Transcribing the Whole of Morton Smith's 1973 Book Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark at My Blog After the Summer

When I was interviewed by Miguel Conner a year or so ago about the "Secret Gospel of Mark" I had to confess that I was not an expert on the subject matter. I am sure Conner was wondering why he was wasting his time interviewing me. Nevertheless this kind of honesty is rare in scholarship. At best we find the standard 'indifference' to the whole question of authenticity. Indeed there really are only a handful of scholars who actually put forward any sort of opinion on 'Secret Mark' (let alone 'the Letter to Theodore'). The whole situation is actually quite bizarre when you think about it.

Just imagine for a moment the same thing happening in another discipline. There can be no doubt that if the Letter to Theodore was authentic it would turn New Testament scholarship on its head. Not only was there a 'longer version' of the Gospel of Mark but a radical new host of other truths become confirmed in one fell swoop - the Egyptian devotion to St. Mark is datable to the early second century, Clement of Alexandria's existing corpus is at best a hypocritical or untruthful testimony to the real beliefs of that Alexandrian community. We also begin to see that the existing New Testament canon must have been imposed by the Roman Church etc.

All these things might be demonstrable without to Theodore but the reality is that Morton Smith's discovery would necessarily change the whole focus of New Testament studies. All of which makes the indifference that is shown to Mar Saba 65 all the more amazing.

Now I have said a lot of mean things about Scott Brown, one of the most vigorous proponents of authenticity. At least part of the attacks have been motivated by the fact that he, Timo Paananen and 'the_cave' seem to be embarrassed by a lot of my antics. This isn't the place to decide whether or not the Mar Saba debate would be better off without me. The point is rather that as I said this is only part of the reason why I take issue with Scott Brown. While I appreciate all that he has done to neutralize Stephen Carlson's disingenuous formulations, I always believed a day would come where Carlson's tricks would be exposed and then we'd be left having to decide between Morton Smith and Scott Brown.

While I do think that Brown has offered some minor 'retuning' of Smith's original translation, it would be a sad day if we followed the tendency in Brown and other authenticity proponents to hide Smith from public view. The reason that I think this would be such a sad thing is that I am one of the few people who has actually read Morton Smith's 1973 book from end to end. I presume Brown has read it, Allan Pantuck too as well as Charlie Hedrick and a handful of others. Yet if we were guesstimate how many scholars have actually read this massive tome from end to end would be far off the mark if I said that less than fifty living souls can honestly claim to have done this. Thirty?

What so amazing about this is of course is that when you read the book it is difficult not to end up admiring the sincerity of Morton Smith. Let's make clear that Morton Smith was not one of these 'modern atheists' who promotes a mythical Jesus in order to trivialize the presumed historical founder of Christianity. There's no obvious agenda here other than to exaggerate the importance of magic in the document (there are references to the magic practices of the Carpocratians but they surely can't be believed to be anything other than typical orthodox propaganda - i.e. we can be certain that the Carpocratians weren't actual 'magicians').

My point again is that if you take Scott Brown's Mark's Other Gospel alongside Morton Smith's Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark you really get the sad sense of how much scholarship has degenerated in recent years - from something gloriously idealistic into something utterly trivial, routine and inane.

For it has to be conceded by one and all that Smith's 1973 book is utterly timeless. Morton Smith was 'reaching for the stars' with this work. He has consulted with some of the greatest minds in the history of scholarship, he has shown them a copy of the Mar Saba letter and takes every opportunity to engage their expertise in order to make sense of the document.

Brown's book has a much more modest approach. It too consults with a variety of published scholarly opinions (it clearly was developed from Brown's dissertation) but with an almost single-minded focus on the question of authenticity. While it is impossible not to recognize that this question became important with the publication of a number of books and articles claiming that the manuscript is a modern forgery, Brown's ultimately victory over Carlson has certainly come at a price. It has had the effect of effectively burying most of the previous discussions of the significance of the discovery.

In the words of Francis Watson's recent work on the subject - the gossip-mongering perpetrated by the hoaxers in recent years has managed to make Morton Smith something of an embarrassment even for those who support authenticity.

So I can't help but think that our enemies have actually won in a way. For even if the document is recovered, tested and proven to be an eighteenth century manuscript, Scott Brown's analysis rather than Morton Smith's might be the one which future generations of scholars will consult. The reason that this is unfortunate is because I can't help but feel that Morton Smith's work is utterly superior to Brown's. I mean Smith was the product of the best universities in the world and well - Scott Brown was the product of the same Canadian school system that produced me.

If you haven't read Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark I highly recommend it. It's not that I always agree with Morton Smith. It's just that I have spend over two years making observations the text and now upon re-reading the material from end to end, I see that many if not most of the things I have said end up being incorporated into this incredibly dense tome.

You know Jesus says, 'my Father's house has many rooms'? Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark is like the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas.

My ultimate point is that I think Scott Brown's Mark's Other Gospel does represent an important historical milestone in the debate about Secret Mark. We should all thank Brown for having played a large part in subduing the many headed beast which is the hoax hypothesis. But now with the dragon almost dead it's time to go back to Morton Smith's original work and finish the job of figuring out how the Alexandrian gospel of Mark fit within the late second century environs of earliest Christianity.

Morton Smith's work represents the proper starting point for this discussion because the book really isn't even properly described as 'his book' per se.  He consulted so many experts that in many ways it should be viewed as a collective effort guided by Morton Smith's editorial hand. I happen to liken the book to the Mishnah (Smith was so obviously influenced by rabbinic literature) and Smith was a modern Judah ha Nasi. To continue the analogy, with Smith's exhaustive book we now know all (or at least many) of the most reasonable opinions with respect to the Letter to Theodore and Secret Mark. It is time to go about establishing the gemara (= perfection). The question now is who among us will be the modern Johanan ben Nappaha.

When such an individual emerges, s truly messianic figure, the process of overturning and expelling almost two thousand years of absolute lies and drivel at the heart of the Jewish messianic faith that became Christianity will finally be complete. Let us hope that we will alive to hear him declare "When the daughters of Israel come up from bathing they look at me and they have children as handsome as I am."  

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