Monday, July 11, 2011

The Rough Beginning of a New Book on Mar Saba 65

It's been over fifty years since an American scholar found three pages of Greek written on the endpapers of an old, beat up copy of a seventeenth-century book. If this discovery did not have a transformational effect on the study of the way the gospel developed no one would have given the text a second look. It would have been noted, catalogued and ultimately ignored.

There are literally millions of Greek words written into the blank pages of books in the various libraries of the old Hellenistic world. For the most part they record trivial details of the life of the owner of the book and are called 'marginalia' by scholars. Yet there are a surprising number of examples of whole treatises being recorded in the backs and fronts of old books.

What made this discovery so interesting is that the text purports to be a copy of an original document from around the end of the third century. If one accepts the authenticity of the discovery, the discoverer - Morton Smith of Columbia University - just happened to be at the right place at the right time to change history. For the document opens the door to new information about Christianity in its earliest recorded period.

It should be noted that not everyone took for granted that Smith discovered this text in the monastery. A number of prominent scholars - including many conservative religious voices - cast doubt on the authenticity principally owing to Smith's later interest in magic and the occult. Is it really just a coincidence that a man interested in mysticism would find a text which draws attention to mystical practices within the early Church? For some, the chance 'agreement' of discovery and discoverer sharing the same interest were simply too good to be true.

In the end, a division now exists in scholarship between those who accept the letter found at the Mar Saba monastery near Bethlehem as genuine and those who infer that it was some kind of hoax perpetrated by Morton Smith. There is no difference in terms of the qualifications of those who line up for and against the document. There are experts from the very best schools in the world who will tell you with absolute certainty that the text is a genuine copy of a third century document as well as those who will confirm that it is a forgery perpetrated by Morton Smith.

A line in the sand, as it were, has been drawn with respect to 'accepting' or 'rejecting' the authenticity of this letter - something unprecedented it would seem in the history of academia. For Morton Smith wasn't just some 'quack' from a second rate college. He was among the most learned and accomplished scholars of his generation. One could not ask for a more qualified or respected academic to have made such a discovery.

To this end the situation with respect to the so-called Mar Saba document has come to something of an academic stalemate which - it may be argued - is exactly what most of those arguing for forgery have wanted from the beginning. One recent academic concluded his arguments for the rejection of the authenticity of the document by saying "while discussion of the Secret Gospel will no doubt continue, my hope and expectation is that it will be increasingly ignored by scholars who fear, with good reason, that their work will be corrupted by association with it." These is a surprisingly candid and honest admission of the tactics that have pervaded the hoax hypothesis from the very beginning.

Shaye Cohebn, the Harvard University professor often described as Smith's protege takes a similar opinion but from the opposite perspective. Cohebn makes clear that he believes that his teachers opponents want to discredit discovery and to do so "they need to discredit morton smith." What has been perpetrated among academics is nothing short of a posthumous smear campaign against his former mentor where the main issue is the discovery and all that it implies, "and only secondarily Morton Smith."

Yet why should people want to vilify a well qualified and respected scholar merely for uncovering a copy of an ancient letter inscribed into the back of an old book? As hard as it might be for some to believe many regard the discovery as nothing short of cataclysmic for the study of earliest Christianity. Almost the entire study of how the gospel came to be hangs in the balance. For the Mar Saba letter claims to make reference to the existence of another gospel written by St. Mark which was 'mystic' and ultimately 'more spiritual gospel' in nature than the gospels which now appear in our New Testament.

Indeed the discovery of an ancient text which tells us anything new about the way the gospels were written was bound to be controversial from the outside. Let's not forget that the word of God to many is not something which can possibly be understood by ordinary lay people. It is not something to be examined by science and rational inquiry but by belief in established tradition and orthodoxy.

This argument comes up over and over again among the most conservative of detractors of the discovery - "'so and so' could never have been associated with this text because he was a man of God." Yet was being a Christian in the late second and early third centuries so cut and dry that we could know for certain that the beliefs described in the Letter to Theodore would never have been held by people of that period? There were in fact thousands of individuals outside what we now identify as 'normative' belief who are referenced in disparaging references by the authorities of that period - i.e. the so-called 'gnostics.' Couldn't the beliefs and traditions associated with this text be ascribed to some of them?

Indeed almost all those promoting the idea that the discovery is a modern forgery do so on the basis that the letter found by Morton Smith challenges the story that comes from all our most trusted ancient sources - viz. the Fathers of the Catholic Church. All these early witnesses make mention of Mark writing only one gospel, the text which appears second of four gospels in our familiar New Testament canon. There is no evidence to suggest that the Gospel of Mark was especially dear to anyone in antiquity. It is in fact the gospel least likely to be referenced by early Christian writers.

What's more, the detractors note, the very idea that the 'Gospel of Mark' was written by St. Mark is something of a misnomer. The earliest witnesses of the Church make absolutely clear that what has become known as 'the Gospel of Mark' really belonged to St. Peter. We are told by authorities as early as the fourth century that St. Mark was only something of a secretary to the great head of the true head of the Church - St. Peter. The idea that this same St. Mark would have went on and written something else almost entirely based on his own authority is clearly a complete fabrication as it is unattested by any ancient witnesses.

So we are left with a very strange situation with respect to the tradition associated with the Gospel of Mark. On the one hand, we are told that the oldest witnesses tried to correct a seeming misnomer - i.e. that there was ever a text written by St Mark - but their efforts proved unsuccessful. St. Peter never got his due for the gospel which now bears Mark's name. To understand this situation a little better it might be useful to point to a similar situation with respect to the gospel of St. Luke.

While most of us take for granted that someone named St. Luke wrote the gospel with his name on it, there was a very ancient controversy with respect to this text too. A very ancient sect known to early Catholics as the Marcionites repeatedly emphasized that they possessed the original gospel written by the apostle who first established Christianity as an organized religion. The Catholics however rejected the claims of this sect and said instead that they possessed the original text of this gospel purified of Marcionite 'corrections.' This holy Catholic text was that of the canonical Gospel of Luke.

In a very similar situation to what we have noted with respect to the Gospel of Mark the Catholics developed a scenario where St. Luke acts as the secretary to another famous apostle - in this case St. Paul. In other words, the Gospel of Luke is really the 'Gospel of Paul' in the same way as the Gospel of Luke 'is really' the Gospel of Peter. Both Luke and Mark aren't really counted as disciples of Jesus. They were at best editors or secretaries for the two founding heads of the Catholic Church centered in Rome.

In either case then there is something inherently untrue and inaccurate about describing either canonical gospel associated with two alleged secretaries as either the gospel of St. Mark or St. Luke. Instead they are in fact copies of the dictations from two much more important figures - St. Peter and St. Paul - who happen never to have written gospels themselves.

While none of this strikes the ears of religious-minded people as at all strange, those of us whose inquiry is not guided by conforming to centuries of established faith might begin to discern something very curious here already. For it is one thing to accept the idea that Jesus Christ himself left no written record of his teachings and another thing still to accept the idea that his two principle spokesmen - Peter and Paul - also decided to leave dogmatic letters but ultimately failed to pen some definite text such as the gospel to distinguish Christianity from Judaism. Yet it is another thing completely to go so far as to reject sects like the Marcionites who point to explicit passages in the apostolic writings which point to the existence of a such a text.

In other words, the letters of the New Testament make clear that the gospel was known to the founding apostles. The Catholic tradition has just decided to read these allusions in the loosest and most self-serving manner possible to counter the establish tradition of its opponents. Nevertheless it is difficult to go along with the argument of those who promote the forgery hypothesis with respect to the letter which makes reference to an 'other gospel' of Mark, that such a scenario is altogether untenable. The various sects outside of the Catholic Church certainly did attest to 'other' gospels written in the name of apostles including St. Mark. Conservative scholars willfully seem to ignore this evidence in order to whip up 'outrage' over the discovery.

So it is that while we are often told that Mark couldn't have written another gospel, the testimony of the Church Fathers actually points to the existence of just such a text in the hands of the enemies of the Catholic tradition. When confronted with this evidence those promoting the hoax hypothesis will inevitably fall back on a distinction between 'orthodoxy' and 'heresy' - viz. 'believers' in the true faith and the 'gnostics' who were into the occult and mysticism. They effectively declare - why should anyone believe, even for a moment, the testimony of a letter written on the back of a beaten up old book over the collective testimony of the most trusted voices of the Catholic faith? Indeed, they argue, that it would be impossible to describe these beliefs to a Church Father in the Catholic tradition.

It would seem that the Letter to Theodore would have a hard road to climb going against all these well established authorities of the Church if it were just some anonymous text. Yet there is one further twist in the story which should be noted - the Letter to Theodore claims to be written by one of those same Church Fathers, and one who lived in Alexandria, the very same city which Mark is said to have went off and written a mystic, more spiritual gospel. As a result, the opponents of the letter declare, Clement of Alexandria could not possibly have written a text which went counter to the beliefs of the established faith of the Holy Roman Church.

Yet there is something strangely awkward about this whole formulation which I don't even think those promoting this argument have fully acknowledged. Not only is a bit peculiar that Clement of Alexandria would be a loyalist to the traditions associated with Mark from another city - viz. Rome - but there is nothing at all to suggest that Clement was ever truly 'orthodox.' Of course Clement puts forward time and again in his writings the argument that his tradition represents the 'correct belief.' But what religious writer thinks his belief is wrong or heretical? Finding such an admission in the work of a dogmatic writer such as Clement would be quite interesting indeed!

While Clement certainly thought that he represented the 'true beliefs' of Christianity there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that he thought that Rome was the center of the Christian world. He certainly describes himself and his Alexandrian tradition as 'gnostic' repeatedly in his writings he does so obvious contradiction to the prevailing identification of the term as something negative among Roman writers. One could even make the argument that the Romans were attacking the Alexandrian Church quite specifically whenever using this terminology and their boastful claim to represent a more enlightened, more spiritual faith.

Whatever the case may be it is hard to reject out of hand that this Alexandrian faith promoted by Clement of Alexandria wasn't associated with an apostle. Indeed Clement and other later Alexandrian writers emphasize to a great extent how 'apostolic' the beliefs of their Church really were. The only apostle who is ever identified as having visited Alexandria is of course St. Mark. The fourth century Church Father Eusebius makes absolutely certain that Mark not only visited Alexandria but established a church there as well as many monasteries throughout Egypt.

To this end we are faced with a difficulty accepting the fundamental claims of those who point to something 'implausible' about Clement's interest or knowledge about an apostolic tradition delivered to the Alexandrian Church by St. Mark. Nothing could be more expected. All the surviving evidence points to some sort of early association with St Mark and the city of Alexandria. Even Clement be demonstrated to have had a preference for the gospel associated with St. Mark, which he interesting preserves in a highly unusual form in his known writings. The real difficulty in fact turns out to be that so little information has been preserved about the Alexandrian tradition before the fourth century that we have a very hard time comparing the Letter to Theodore with anything substantial.

In the end we have to wonder at a core basic level, whether it is really that incredible that the people of Alexandria believed that someone from the ranks of Jesus's disciples came to them to write a special gospel? The Romans after all claim that St Peter had a special relationship with their Church. St James is said to have had the same relationship with the church of Jerusalem. Indeed, Alexandrian Christians have always believed that St. Mark was their patron saint as long as there was Christianity in Egypt. There is no reason to dispute that in any way shape or form.

In fact, there are thirteen million or so Coptic Christians in the world today who not only revere St Mark as the father of their Church but go so far as to deny that St Peter had anything to do with his gospel. In the end, with the question of whether Clement and the Christians of Alexandria of his day had any special attachment to St. Mark pushed to the side we are left with only the problem of whether we should expect this faith to represent a wholly separate Christian tradition or something completely compatible with Roman Christianity?

In some ways, the answer to this question is clear and unequivocal. There certainly was a 'separate faith' from a very early period in Alexandria. The Fathers of Church make reference to these 'alternative beliefs' many times in their writings against heresies. Yet was the mystic and more spiritual gospel of Clement of Alexandria's Letter to Theodore part of this 'heretical milieu'? This is very difficult to determine simply because the testimony of the Church Fathers is so ambiguous, hostile and ultimately unreliable.

Yet we should begin to see that there is enough evidence from the existing writings that someone named Mark had a very large following among those Christians deemed 'heretics' by the Catholic tradition. A number of reputable scholars have even went so far as to link Clement of Alexandria to this Mark and count him among his followers. If we are to ultimately square the circle as it were and prove that the real person behind the sterilized image of 'St Mark' was in fact the leader of a rival Church ultimately hostile - rather than aligned - with St. Peter, we would indeed be able to find a historical context for Morton Smith's discovery.

Nevertheless there are so many other questions which we will have to answer before we get there.

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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