Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Thomas C Oden's Embracing of the 'African Testimony' of Clement's Letter to Theodore

The more controversial source connected with Clement is his alleged Mar Saba “Letter to Theodore.” Naming this document objectively as "Letter to Thedoore" is in my view greatly to be preferred, rather than tendentiously as “Secret Gospel of Mark,” which limits attention only to one portion of the letter, and is not in fact its most crucial historical contribution - which the pre-Eusebian testimony to Mark in Africa. The text of the letter expresses historical and theological concerns of equal or greater importance than an alleged secret Gospel corrupted by heretics.

Here we enter into highly controverted territory: The text of the purported letter from Clement was found handwritten into the endpapers of Isaac Vossius's 1646 printed edition of the works of Ignatius of Antioch. The scarcity of paper in Palestine in the mid-1700s explains why the original version of the letter, presumably in the Mar Saba library, was copied on to a free sheet of paper of a book already located in the library.

The letter is addressed to an unknown recipient named Theodore. He had asked Clement to comment on an unusual, noncanonical version of Mark. Clement was familiar with this version, as well as the canonical version accepted for reading in the churches. Two excerpts are quoted by Clement in his critique of the noncanonical version. We are now working from photographs (made earlier by Morton Smith and later by the Jerusalem monastic librarian), since the original document remains either purposely hidden from public view, or misplaced, or lost, or for whatever reason inaccessible.

Morton Smith published a portion of this purported letter from Clement under the title Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark. Smith presents the Greek text with a critical commentary. It tells of the 1958 discovery in Mar Saba Monastery in Palestine of a letter that according to Smith was written by Clement of Alexandria. Its genuineness has been argued on the basis of language ideosyncrasies Clementine style and intellectual content.

Why it should not be prematurely dismissed.

Distinguished patristic scholars have examined the language of the letter for its literary and stylistic correspondence with other extant writings of Clement. Included among them are Werner Jaeger, Cyril C. Richardson, W H C Frend, RPC Hanson, Robert M. Grant, Guy G. Strousma, Annewies van den Hoek, Scott G. Brown and Judith L. Kovacs. However different their perspectives may be, they have on the whole found it hard to believe that it was crassly counterfeited. Since the arguments on behalf of Clement's authorship of the Mar Saba Letter to Theodore have been Thoroughly explored in the literature. I will not here repeat those arguments.

Despite fierce episodes of controversy, many leading Clement experts agree that the letter could have been written by Clement. It corresponds with the style and content of Clement's other writings. Stephen Patterson, in 1994, wrote, “The handwriting can be dated to around 1750. Smith published the letter in 1973. Early discussion of it was marred by accusations of forgery and fraud, no doubt owing in part to its controversial comments. Today, however, there is almost unanimous agreement among Clementine scholars that the letter is authentic."

More recently that evidence has been exhaustively reviewed by Scott G. Brown, in Mark's Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith's Controversial Discovery, with positive conclusions about the authenticity of the attribution of authorship to Clement. An even more recent and somewhat tendentious study by Peter Jeffery, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, has focused so narrowly on sexuality issues that the more consequential questions relating to the African memory of Mark have been left unattended.

Some of the attacks on the authenticity of the letter are exaggerated and at times a bit hysterical. What follows will be regarded by some as speculative, but it is far less speculative than the conjectures of the detractors of Morton Smith. References to Clement below should be qualified, since I am referring to the Clement as portrayed in the Letter to Theodore. [Thomas C Oden, the African Memory of Mark (2011) p. 199 - 200]

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.