Friday, June 22, 2012

Chapter One of My New Book

How Gay Was the Early Church?

In summer of 1958 an incredible discovery was made by a most intriguing individual. The man was Morton Smith, a first year Associate Professor of Ancient History at Columbia University and his discovery was the Letter to Theodore, a previously unknown correspondence from the third century Church Father Clement of Alexandria.  He found the text while cataloguing the books of an the Mar Saba monastery near Bethlehem. Smith had been invited to come back to the library by the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, a man whom he had befriended during his residence in the Palestine during the Second World War.

Smith knew that monks tended to hand copy manuscripts into the unused pages of old books.  He hoped to discover something noteworthy during his three week stay.  One day toward the end of his stay at the monastery he was rewarded for his diligence.  While sitting in his cell he began puzzling over a text written in a tiny scrawl.  The manuscript he was reading turned out to be a fragment of a letter written by a well known early Christian named Clement of Alexandria to an otherwise unknown Theodore. It appeared at the back of an edition of the letters of the second century Church Father Ignatius of Antioch published by Isaac Voss in 1646.  As Smith later recalled it was "written over both sides of the last page (which was blank) of the original book and over half of the recto of a sheet of binders paper."[1]

The Columbia professor photographed the text "three times for good measure" hoping that at least some of his images might be usable.  When he started transcribing the Byzantine script he knew he had stumbled on to something important - a discovery which would change the course of history, as well as his own career.  He published his results in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate Journal Nea Sion, and later announced his find at the 1960 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.  It was at that gathering that Smith presented a full translation of the Letter to Theodore and a presided over a lengthy discussion over the significance of his find.  The next morning he published written account of his presentation on the front page of The New York Times and newspapers around the world soon picked up the story.

Smith went on to publish two books on the subject of his discovery.  The first entitled Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark was a massively dense scholarly tome delivered to the Harvard University Press in 1966 but only arrived on bookshelves seven year later.  While waiting for its release, Smith got the idea to quickly put together an account of the circumstances which led to his discovery aimed at a general readership. This book entitled the Secret Gospel was released by Harper and Row in the summer of 1974.

Smith was well aware that his exegetical efforts represented only the most recent interpretation of the material from the longer gospel of Mark from Alexandria.  In the story cited by Clement, a dead youth is brought out of his tomb by Jesus to learn the 'mystery of the kingdom of God' after six days of preparation.  Only two other interpretations of this narrative are known to have existed before Morton Smith. Clement of Alexandria begins his letter by rejecting the claims of a contemporary heretical group whom he opposes numerous times in his other writings.  The plain reading of what is said in the Letter of Theodore makes clear that the heretics understood this 'mystery' involved some sort of ritualized form of same sex attraction.[2]

If this is the earliest interpretation of the material from Secret Mark, Clement offers up an explanation of his own to counter this understanding.  The Alexandrian presbyter says the mystery of the kingdom of God taught by Jesus had nothing to do with 'naked man and naked man,' rejecting the very words cited by Theodore from the lips of the heretics in a previous letter.  It would be priceless to know how Clement originally argued the material should be interpreted, but we aren't so lucky. The handwritten transcription of the original manuscript ends abruptly at this very point.  .

It would have been wonderful if modern scholarship treated this discovery as it would have any text that didn't make reference to homosexuality.  Nevertheless this isn't even worth considering given the long and extremely difficult relationship that Christianity and same sex love have had over the centuries.  Only Jews, witches and heretics had a worse experience with Church morality.

Nevertheless it is quite startling to see how infrequently the actual letter make their way into discussions about the discovery in modern scholarship.  The debate inevitably shifts to discussions about Morton Smith, why he did this, why he didn't do that all because the experts already know that homosexuality is utterly incompatible with the early Church.  It sometimes feels like the actual color of the sky is being determined by a roomful of blind men.

Homosexuality is the eight hundred pound elephant that is in the room whenever the Letter to Theodore is brought up.  The question that inevitably gets raised by troublemakers is whether Jesus was gay.  Morton Smith's discovery cannot hope to answer that query.  Nevertheless it can help to shed some light on a less ambitious inquiry - how gay was the early Church?  The knee jerk reaction of conservatives is of course that Christianity never condoned homosexuality.  It was never 'gay' or at the very least, it cast away the unrepentant sinners to become heretics like 'Carpocratians' of the Letter to Theodore.  Yet how sure can we be about an answer which presents itself before we have even considered the question?

It is time for someone to question the assumption that "a homosexual [reference] only adds to the suspicion that this Clementine epistle may be a fake."[3]  This kind of circular logic serves only one purpose and that is to perpetuate the status quo. Indeed Morton Smith was culpable of cowering before the same social norms when developing his interpretation of the material as he almost wholly ignores the homosexual interpretation of the Carpocratians.  To be certain he makes many reference to 'libertine Christianity' in his studies.  Yet this is such a generic and meaningless terminology.  It raises serious questions about the value of his research if it does its best to avoid the plain meaning of the text.

Morton Smith was entirely uncomfortable with the gay implications of the text no less than Smith despised homosexuals, 'negroes' and other special interest groups whom he felt were taking over the university system. [4]  The Columbia professor was an arch-conservative, some described even by his friends as having a political ideology "to the right of Genghis Khan."  Yet Smith wasn't alone in this avoidance of the original homosexual interpretation of the material.  Since 1974 there have been been only a few notable attempts to make sense of the discovered material.  Helmut Koester, Hans-Martin Schenke, John Dominic Crossan and the Canadian scholar Scott G Brown have all developed theories about how the longer text developed in relation to our familiar canonical gospel of Mark. Yet no one seems to want to acknowledge what Clement is actually saying about the eight hundred pound gay elephant in the room.

Scott Brown epitomizes the attitude of 'serious scholarship.'  There is a continual 'bait and switch' with respect to the actual material cited from Secret Mark which does not explicitly reference homosexuality and the original interpretation of the material put forward by the Carpocratians which certainly did.  Indeed Brown only makes mention of the original homosexual interpretation in the very last paragraph before the conclusion of his study of the letter in Mark's Other Gospel in the most indirect manner possible. "Many other scholars declared the text to be self-evidently gnostic," Brown writes "and some supposed that the incident has homosexual overtones. The gay reading of [the material] is very popular among non-scholars."(p. 142)

Indeed these dismissive comment are only a further refinement of the kind of intellectual dishonesty that Brown engages in his 1999 PhD thesis.  We are told for instance that "though an unusual encounter, the sense that Jesus is enacting a ritual with homosexual overtones is no more a necessary implication of this story than it is in, say, the Gethsemane scene, where a youth appears dressed in the same way, or the last supper scene in John, where a disciple whom Jesus loved lies against Jesus'  bread."  Yet this is not a fair representation of the Letter to Theodore.  The entire narrative cited by Clement from the secret gospel is explicitly connected to the 'naked man with naked man' interpretation put forward by the Carpocratians.

In fact it is easy to discern a difference between the passage from Secret Mark and the Gethsemane scene or the last supper insofar as there are no ancient witnesses to the claim that the Gethsemane scene or the last supper scene involved homosexuality.  As such, the idea that these 'libertine Christians' mentioned by Clement were not developing a homosexual interpretation of the material Secret Mark is simply absurd.  The proper way to interpret the Bible has always been defined by how the earliest exegetes explained the passage.  This is how Judaism, Christianity and Islam were defined in the modern age.  To argue that the Carpocratian exegesis of Secret Mark should be discounted merely because what it tells us is inconvenient is utterly absurd.[5]

The idea that 'naked man with naked man' might mean something other than homosexuality has always been a sort of 'break glass in case of fire' tactic.  Such an approach was floated by the Hollywood actor Matthew McConaughey during his arrest in Austin in 1999.  In newspaper accounts of the incident developed from the original police report it was noted that McConaughy was "arrested early Monday during a disturbance at his home in which police said he was dancing naked and playing the bongo drums.  McConaughey, 29, was arrested at around 3 a.m. and booked into the Travis County Jail on suspicion of possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and resisting transportation, according to a police statement ... Police said they were called to McConaughey's home in an upscale neighborhood in west Austin after receiving a complaint of loud music. Police saw him through a window naked and playing drums and another man dancing and clapping."[6]

McConaughey's career of course took a huge hit after his arrest as the circumstances 'proved' at least in the public eye that he was caught in a homosexual act.  The question here no less than with Secret Mark isn't whether he was 'really' gay or not.  Perception is everything in public life.  McConaughey's efforts to resurrect his career were almost more shameful than the original arrest with the actor adopting a overt 'stoner personality' in all interviews to distract attention from the implication of his being naked with another man.

In many ways the efforts of Brown and others to avoid the obvious implication of two men being naked together deserve the same kind of ridicule as the hopelessly contrived efforts of McConaughey.  One comment from many in the recent comments section of a recent Los Angeles Times story about the actors marriage confirms the social implications of 'naked man with naked man' remains the same - "such a cover marriage.  She is totally his beard.  He is gay as can be.  I know one of his exes.  Think back to when he was busted for pot in Austin - he and a 'male friend' were completely naked in Matt's bedroom together, yet all the media focused on was that he was smoking pot.  How many straight men do you know that sit around naked when they drink beer or smoke pot together?"[7]

Brown's thesis was published in the very same year as McConaughey's arrest.  Both examples point to the same underlying social stigma associated with homosexuality.  Religious scholarship is by its very nature quite conservative.  As such Scott Brown no less than Morton Smith before him, in desiring to have 'serious scholarship' take the discovery seriously, felt compelled to down play some of the inherent 'queerness' in the text.  Indeed it almost seems as if we have an academic adaptation of one of the great pieces of social legislation during the Clinton administration commonly references as 'don't ask, don't tell' but actually officially called 'don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue.'[8]

The murder of gay U.S. Navy petty officer Allen R. Schindler, Jr. on October 27, 1992, brought calls from advocates of allowing open service by gays and lesbians for prompt action from the incoming Clinton administration.  In order to balance the hostility that was directed toward homosexuals by religious conservatives in particular, don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue was hailed as the perfect compromise position.  In short, it made ignoring homosexuality, official government policy.  The point of course is that we now live in an age which looks back at such 'necessary political compromises' with an air of incredulity.  Shouldn't we be able to go beyond 'don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue' with respect to the beliefs of early Christianity?

The truth is that denying that 'naked man with naked man' means homosexuality is dishonest.  It would be like historians from some future age coming to the conclusion that the popularity of contemporary pornography was wholly attributable to its witty sexual double entendres and attempts at social satire.  The reality is of course that the social environment in which previous generations of scholarship discussed the implications of the Letter to Theodore was very different from our world today.  The opponents of the discovery could count on 'proving' the text a forgery merely by uttering the words 'gay gospel.'  Indeed it can't be seen as entirely coincidental that one of the most widely read attacks against the authenticity of the discovery was published under the banner of a conservative university now headed by famous conservative and consistent Clinton nemesis Ken Starr and promoted as an "academic dog-fighting over its authenticity and its homosexual innuendo."[9]

One cannot fault Smith and Brown for avoiding the topic of homosexuality given the cultural climate they worked under.  It wasn't that long ago that George W Bush was winning elections to a large degree placing 'gay marriage' on the ballot.  Indeed it was only as recent as the 2012 election that a presidential candidate could come out in support of the right for individuals to marry same sex partners. As such it is only because we live in an age where the fear of religious conservatives no longer controls public policy that we can even begin to address the original homosexual interpretation of the secret gospel of Mark.  Nevertheless sixty years of prejudice and adapting arguments to bigotry has taken a deep toll on the shape of the debate.  We will have to start over again, taking advantage of our new found freedoms in order to place the document in a broader and unrecognized early Christian interest in same sex unions.

Perhaps the case can be made that the York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium on Secret Mark which took place in Toronto in April of 2011 was the last gasp in the sixty year history of ignoring the original homosexual interpretation of the text.  Instead of talking about what Clement actually says about traditional exegesis of the material the 'serious fare' served up by this conference included sparing over the question of whether the circumstances of the discovery resembled an ignored 1940's pulp fiction novel, or whether Morton Smith might have been inspired by modern magicians like Aleister Crowley, a man famous for inspiring various hard rock performers ranging from Led Zeppelin to Ozzy Osborne.

The time has come to develop an argument that the plain meaning of the Letter to Theodore should be accepted.  From the earliest period of its existence, Christianity sanctioned same sex unions.  The conjoining of men with other men wasn't merely a copy of traditional marriage but understood to be something better, something of greater spiritual significance - indeed something resembling the union of angels in heaven.  These ideas weren't the invention of a sect or even a heresy, let alone a modern individual but were understood to be derived from the very practices of Jesus and witnessed by an Alexandrian gospel written by St Mark.

If we answer a thousand other questions about the discovery without tackling the central question of its homosexuality we do a disservice to ourselves.  For we only prove that humanity is incapable of standing up to bigotry and oppression.  For the last sixty years we have stayed within the comfort of human opinion - even expert scholarly debate - rather than the truth itself.  Morton Smith must have caught a glimpse of that truth when he first read his discovered text, yet he chose to make only a few, brief comments about homosexuality as an aspect of the ritual.[10]  Indeed he even goes so far as to claim that he idea the material depicts Jesus as a homosexual was first suggested to him by conservative scholars and that he offered the interpretation of baptismal and spiritual union as an alternative.[11]

Morton Smith abandoned the pursuit of truth because he feared what that sort of consequence that idealism would have on his career.  There are two components to Clement's description of the practices of the Carpocratians in relation to Secret Mark - homosexuality and magic.  A harsh view of Morton Smith might argue that he merely took the path of least resistance by focusing on the latter.  Yet the reality is that even 'water-down' Jesus the Magician hypothesis subjected him to ridicule.  As he noted in an interview with The New York Times just before his books were released - "Thank God I have tenure." [12]

The history of the study of the Letter to Theodore can be read as an indictment of the cowardice and narcissism of scholars.  Take the example of Quinton Quesnell, a defrocked priest who penned a 1975 article which appeared in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly which questioned the authenticity of the discovery.  Quesnell was struck by the manner in which Smith used the Letter to Theodore to suit his own emerging theories about Jesus.  Indeed he even went so far as to take Smith to task for not taking the manuscript out of the monastery to prove that it wasn't a modern composition.  The irony of course was that less than a decade later Quesnell was standing in the same monastery with the same manuscript and failed to subject it to scientific examination.[13]  Moreover, with respect to the criticism of the subjectivity of Smith's research there is further irony given Quesnell famously twisted scriptural passages to justify his renunciation of his vows of celibacy.[14]

At every twist and turn we see that these academics have not only failed to understand the Letter to Theodore, they have done something far worse to the discussion.  They have forced any discussion about the text to naturally shift to the scholars who make reference to it.  In some limited sense this sort of thing happens with respect to the study of any phenomenon.  Scholars simply love to talk about the work of other scholars.  Yet the case of the Mar Saba document takes this narcissistic tendency to a whole new level owing to the bizarre set of personalities associated with the text.

It would be impossible to introduce the discovery without making reference to the first scholar to actually utter the word 'homosexual' in the same breath as Secret Mark - Jacob Neusner.  Neusner was one of Morton Smith's most devoted students.  He was also a complete mental case.  One could write a whole book about Jacob Neusner and the reader would likely develop a headache after the tenth page.  In the course of researching this book a great many former colleagues of Neusner's were contacted by telephone and they all seemed to have the same hesitation in their breath whenever the question of 'what was he like' was raised.  It was if they were brought back to the time that they worked in the same university as 'Jack' and they dreaded running into him in the hallways.

One can make the case Neusner really did his best to model himself after his great mentor Morton Smith only that he substituted quantity of work for quality.  Neusner is now most famously remembered for being the most published authors in history.[15]   It is almost impossible to count the number of things that Neusner has written if only because he often reprinted the same work in many different forms.  Nevertheless this productivity led to serious questions about the quality of his work, most famously in a scathing review of his translation of the Palestinian Talmud by a noted expert on the history of rabbinic Judaism Saul Lieberman.  This article figures prominent in the story of the Mar Saba document because of a very dramatic episode at the Society of Biblical Literature in 1984.

Neusner was the guest of honor at an annual meeting of three religious-studies associations in Chicago. He had been invited to discuss two of his books; two other scholars shared the podium as "appreciators." What happened was reported in Biblical Archaeology Review:

Before the session began, professor Morton Smith of Columbia, where Neusner got his Ph.D., sat down in the front row. He placed a shopping bag containing three cardboard boxes in the aisle beside him. When the moderator invited questions, after Neusner and the "appreciators" had spoken, Smith strode to the podium.

"Since I have often and deservedly recommended Professor Neusner's earlier historical works," Smith said, "so that his reputation reflects to some extent my sponsorship, I now find it my duty to warn you that his translation of the Palestinian Talmud contains many serious mistakes. It cannot be safely used, and had better not be used at all. . . . Please warn your colleagues, your students and your librarians. . . ."

Smith then returned to the floor, reached into the boxes and began passing out copies of the damning Lieberman review to the 400 to 500 stunned scholars. The moderator asked Smith to wait until the meeting had adjourned, but Smith kept right on. Then the nonplussed moderator asked Neusner whether he cared to comment.

"Things don't always turn out the way one expects," Neusner replied. "Professor Smith was my teacher and I honor him. He has helped me in difficult times. I honor and respect his criticism, and I am always happy to hear it." Then he sat down.

Neusner immediately responded by threatening lawsuits against the magazine but his revenge against his teacher would have to wait until after his funeral in 1991.  Indeed he would go on to take 'revenge' on all parties involved in the Society of Biblical Literature episode but was also waging another war at the very same time with the faculty at Brown University where he taught.[16]

Neusner was forced out of Brown and moved to a far less prestigious institution in Florida.  In 1993 he published a claim that he would repeated over and over again in his writings that Smith forged the document in order to insult Christianity with fabricated evidence that Jesus was a homosexual  magician.  Indeed Neusner often added the insinuation that Morton Smith was gay, a charge that was openly presented as a 'fact' by his friend Donald Akenson, a professor of Irish history.[17]  Neusner never provide any proof for his assertion about the alleged 'lifestyle choice' of his former mentor or any justification for claim that the Mar Saba text was a forgery.[18]  Nevertheless Neusner's use of homosexuality as a weapon against Smith and his discovery transformed the debate during the Bush years.

As Scott Brown notes, at least two noted scholars, James Charlesworth and Charles Evans "have also repeated this notion, now filtered through Neusner's  take on  Quesnell ("Jesus in the Agrapha ar;d Apocryphal Gospels,"  526-27):  'That  the epistle apparently (and conveniently) lends a measure of support to Smith's controversial contention that Jesus was a magician, perhaps even a homosexual, only adds to the suspicion that this Clementine epistle may be a fake.'"[19]  Indeed he points to the fact that the two "point out that Neusner 'knew the late Professor Smith as well as anyone' but say nothing about the hatred that fuels Neusner's recent accusations is unfortunate."[20]

It would seem that professional scholarship has demonstrated itself to be incapable of dealing with the question of homosexuality in early Christianity.  It would rather help shoot the messenger - or in this case the discoverer - after finding a willing assassin in Jacob Neusner.  Indeed the inconvenience of the discovery of this lost letter of Clement of Alexandria about a taboo subject matter is nothing short of an opportunity for us to leave the shackles of bigotry, hatred and narcissism and pose again the hitherto unasked question - how gay was the early Church?


[5] Yet what Smith and Brown end up doing is far more contrived.  They argue that when Clement makes reference to "naked man with naked man" he is citing from another version of the text used by the heretics which explicitly alluded to homosexuality.  However Clement's actual words - "but naked man with
naked man, and the other things about which you wrote are not found [in the gospel]" - make it unclear that he is doing anything other than repeating a characterization of the material which Theodore learned second hand from the heretics.  In other words, we are dealing with homosexual interpretation of commonly held material rather than two different versions of the same story - i.e. a 'straight' and 'gay' secret gospel of Mark (!). At least a few scholars have made the case that 'naked man with naked man' doesn't necessarily have anything to do with homosexuality.  Nudity was different in antiquity and a reader might not have assumed that two undressed men in the dark would have homosexual connotations.  This is very difficult to believe given the wide spread reports about homosexuality in the early Church among pagan writers.
[10] Secret Gospel, p. 114, 140; Clement of Alexandria, p. 251
[16] There was a parallel and perhaps related situation at Brown University where Neusner taught.  Throughout the 1980s there was a sustained effort to revoke Neusner's tenure.  The power struggle went on for almost a decade until the former Smith protege left to go to a less reputable university in Florida, a relative academic wasteland.  Whatever happened at Neusner's college have been hidden away behind non-disclosure agreements.  Yet that didn't seem to stop Neusner from lashing out at former colleagues whom he deemed to be conspiring to bring about his downfall.  Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, sees him as a Jekyll and Hyde.  "Both in person and in writing, Jack Neusner can be the most charming, urbane and delightful of companions. To those who are the objects of his invective, on the other hand, he can sometimes seem vicious and hate-filled. Unfortunately, he can switch quickly and often."  In 1985 members of the faculty at Brown had had enough.  In letters to various local newspapers, senior professors openly addressed Neusner's antics and told him bluntly "we're sorry for you, but go away and leave us alone." What accounts for these assaults by Neusner's detractors?  The authors of the letters said that they wanted to expose Neusner's "hidden agendas." Neusner claimed that he was being persecuted. As a 1987 feature article in the Providence Herald magazine notes "Neusner watchers maintain that the real issue is abuse: Neusner's abuse of his colleagues, his students, his position and, ultimately, of the truth. The question, they say, is how to deal with a genius whose scholarship has enriched the world, but whose bitterness has led him to distort the truth and wound the people around him."[9]  According to Brown political science professor Edward N Beiser, even that description is too simple. "His denunciation of Neusner in the Nov. 12, 1985, Brown Daily Herald was the first public airing of a complaint his critics had been voicing privately for years: Neusner often carries out personal vendettas in the guise of rational criticism."  Beiser's letter was prompted by a letter of Neusner's in the Herald of the day before, in which he asked whether the Brown administration had "outlived its usefulness."  "Neusner's letter," Beiser wrote, "appears to deal with ideas on their merits. In fact it is a blatant fraud. . . . The real issue . . . was that they had overruled Neusner in a personnel decision."  As the Herald later reported "the incident Beiser referred to illustrates the complexity, the private and invisible web of emotion, that always seems to entangle the public postures of Neusner and those around him.  Briefly, Neusner and the other senior members of the Program in Judaic Studies unanimously opposed the reappointment of a junior colleague. The rejected candidate appealed, alleging that the problem stemmed from Neusner, who had abused him intolerably. After hearing individual testimony, the faculty-administration committee that was hearing the case took the unprecedented step of reinstating the man, overruling the Program's senior faculty.Neusner, who saw the episode as a personal attack, was outraged. He resigned as co-director of the Program. "(Swearer and Glicksman) accepted my resignation the same day. They didn't even pick up the phone and talk to me," Neusner says. "This was a very pathetic story, a very bitter experience. . . . My sister had died that weekend, so it was a time of considerable stress for me. But I didn't tell anyone except Ernie (Frerichs)."  In his bitterness, Neusner circulated a long memo in which he said the committee was "like a Nazi or Soviet court." He also criticized Brown's administration for various shortcomings. Within days a shorter version of the memo appeared in the Nov. 11, 1985, Brown Daily Herald, in which only the general criticism of the administration remained: "Swearer has not understood the faculty and has as a matter of policy neglected it. . . ."  Not only had Neusner masked his motives, he had done an about-face. Seven months earlier, he had written a letter to the Providence Journal in which he said, "Howard Swearer has secured for himself a position among America's great university presidents." After the incident he referred in print to Swearer's tenure as "a ten-year disaster." That's the sort of unacknowledged revisionism that has led some critics to question Neusner's reliability as a historian.  The reason this is significant is that it underscores the same about face with respect to Morton Smith's discovery.   It is now almost universally acknowledged by all but the most devoted to Neusner that he "resorted to forgery accusations only later and out of spite."  As recently as 1981 he was lauding it as "the discovery of the century."

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