Sunday, August 21, 2011

James McGrath is Becoming My New Hero

I hate the cliquishness of bloggers generally and I have written about this extensively. I think when you start trying to figure out the truth about the gospel, the New Testament and early Christianity you can't have 'sides' because the truth isn't partial to a particular group. To this end I find James McGrath's recent defense of the authenticity of Morton Smith's discovery at Mar Saba particularly refreshing and welcomed.

I have been fighting on behalf of Morton Smith's basic truthfulness with respect to discovering a hitherto unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria in the Mar Saba monastery in 1958. This doesn't mean that I know the letter is authentically Clementine. It just means that the way the evidence shapes up I think he was telling the truth in his two 1973 books which detail not only the circumstances of his discovery but also his eighteen year attempt to make sense of the material.

In the thick of this battle with a lot of scholars and bloggers who won't even consider the possibility of authenticity comes James McGrath. I only knew a couple of things about James McGrath before last week.  Now after reading him weigh into the whole 'Secret Mark' debate, I can honestly see him becoming my new hero.

You see I really am not partisan by nature.  I am not an atheist. I won't tell people my personal beliefs about God, history and salvation because I have always treated this topic as something very private for me. Indeed if the truth be told, I think such discussions would get they get in the way of the whole purpose for the creation of this blog in the first place -i.e. to establish a place for 'observations' of mine. This was not intended to be a megaphone for dogmatic thinking.

I guess I just happened to have had a series of hostile attacks by people claiming to 'defend' Christianity or whatever misguided Quixotic enterprise they saw themselves on. Sometimes I came out looking like a monster.

In any event, enough about me.  I was going to write a post today about why Craig Evans arguments for forgery based on Morton Smith's 1958 article on Vincent Taylor's Commentary on the Gospel of Mark are completely deceptive.  But in the end, I didn't have to finish it because McGrath ended up doing a much better job than I would have done.  Indeed the argument is better than the argument Allan Pantuck came up with in his previous article for BAR to dismiss Francis Watson's retreading of the same argument.

McGrath writes in his latest post clarifying his rejection of Evans claims in the following terms:

Smith’s response to Taylor’s book also included a rejection on Smith’s part of Taylor’s rationalization of miracle stories as having derived from actual events that had more mundane, natural explanations. And that fact makes it striking that Secret Mark’s account of a resurrection akin to Lazarus’ has elements which would allow for the young man to have been alive and misdiagnosed as dead – precisely the sort of thing that Taylor proposed and which Smith objected to. And so here we would have Smith forging a document which would play right into the hands of his opponent. Why would he have done so? Why would he have pared from John those very details that could help Taylor or someone with a similar viewpoint counter Smith’s own argument?

Then he follows this up with his own general assessment of the authenticity of Morton Smith's discovery:

I must confess that, having taken the time to think through a number of the points Evans made, the result is that I find myself less skeptical about the Secret Gospel of Mark than I was previously, rather than more. When I consider the above in tandem with recent handwriting analysis and the considerations I mentioned in my previous and other posts, my inclination is to view Morton Smith as having been essentially truthful about his find. But having said that, there are still many questions about Secret Mark and the letter of Clement that mentions it which remain to be answered, and among them is the possibility that, while the work may not be a forgery of Morton Smith’s, the Clementine letter and/or the Secret Gospel might be ancient forgeries. But that is a separate matter, best left for another time.

This is a clear demonstration that those holding high places in academic institutions are better at formulating arguments for Morton Smith's innocence than yours truly.

I have linked McGrath's original argument here. The only thing I might want to add to my citation of the original material from Morton Smith's original argument is that Smith is only repeating the kind of argument developed by Boismard and others with respect to the existence of an Aramaic gospel related to the Diatessaron. An English summary of Boismard's theories is linked here from Google books. The point is that Smith wasn't alone in postulating the existence of some kind of Aramaic 'super gospel.'

Petersen provides an extensive bibliography in his classic work Tatian's Diatessaron: its creation, dissemination, significance, and history of a small group of scholars who date back to the nineteenth century who have postulated the existence of such a text. I am not sure that Smith is necessarily thinking in terms of the Diatessaron specifically when he wrote Comments on Taylor's Commentary on Mark but the parallels with Boismard are striking. Yet Boismard wrote subsequent to Smith but was part of a tradition of scholars interested in some original ur-text behind both the canonical gospels and the Diatessaron.

The point is that if such a text really did exist it really isn't that surprising when Smith brings forward a similar possibility with respect to a common source behind the gospels of Mark and John. As I said these ideas have been bouncing around for centuries before 1958 in this ignored tradition in scholarship. In fact, as I have noted many times before, the second addition to 'Secret Mark' bears a striking similarity to the insertion of the Zacchaeus narrative into the very same place (i.e. Mark 10:46). Indeed Clement never confirms what immediately followed the additional material here (i.e. whether it was the text followed with the rest of Mark 10:46 or went on to the Zacchaeus narrative).

I have argued that Clement's Alexandrian Gospel of Mark, the one used to right Quis Dives Salvetur, seemed to have the Zacchaeus narrative (Luke 19:1 - 10) 'conclude' the section which starts with Mark 10:17 - 31. But that is another story for another time.

Great series of articles James McGrath! I have long complained that there is a misguided perception that all the people supporting authenticity are atheists and all those arguing for forgery are Christian believers. Jacob Neusner wasn't always kosher let alone Christian. Bart Ehrman is a self-described agnostic. Robert Price an atheist who buys into all this forgery nonsense. Now this month we have Thomas C Oden and James McGrath representing men of faith who are open to arguments for authenticity. This is a good thing for the debate. It is a very, very good thing.

Oh and look! Here is another 'forger of Secret Mark' from Borgen's book:

An alternative hypothesis is suggested by Lindars (The Gospel of John, New Century Bible, Oliphants, London, 1972 p. 209). According to him, the verbal similarities between John 5:8-9a and Mark 2:9, 11-12a are so close that it can scarcely be doubted that an almost identical source lies behind them both.

Oh yeah. It was Morton Smith's study which 'suggested' the parallel. It hypnotized him.

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