Last month (April 2023) I published a thread of blog posts on the intriguing and controversial Secret Gospel of Mark, allegedly discovered by Columbia University scholar Morton Smith in the library of the Greek orthodox monastery Mar Saba twelve miles southeast of Jerusalem. He did not actually discover the Gospel itself, but (allegedly) discovered a letter that described and quoted it, allegedly written by the church father Clement of Alexandria (200 CE or so), allegedly copied by a scribe of the eighteenth century in the back blank pages of a seventeenth-century book otherwise (actually) containing the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (110 CE or so), in which Clement allegedly discusses a potentially scandalous edition of Mark’s Gospel allegedly used by a nefarious Gnostic group called the Carpocratians. Confused yet? Read the posts, starting with this one from April 12:
In my posts I did not give any evidence to show that this “alleged” discovery might not have been a discovery but a forgery, possibly by Smith himself, even though from the outset some (many?) scholars suspected it. I myself suspect it. Yet other scholars are quite vehement that it is absolutely authentic and that those of us who wonder/suspect otherwise are barking up the wrong tree. It is a hot debate.
A new book has just come out on the matter, by two scholars of early Christianity at University of Texas, Brent Landau (whom I’ve known for years) and Geoffrey Smith (whom I know just a bit) The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Controversial Scholar, a Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, and the Fierce Debate over Its Authenticity. They argue a new view, that the Secret Gospel is not authentic and is not a forgery by Smith, but a forgery by monk living at the monastery in late antiquity.
I’m completely open to this idea, but I don’t find their book convincing. I have to admit I was a bit surprised by parts of it. Landau and Smith maintain that my publications on Secret Mark were influential in re-kindling the debate on it and they take a good bit of time discussing and dismissing my arguments. I was mainly surprised because I actually don’t think my publications played much of a role at all in the debates (like most authors, I always thought they *should* have made an impact, but I never noticed that they did 😊 ). More than that, I was a bit disappointed in their discussion of my arguments because they didn’t seem to understand them, or if they did understand them they didn’t quite explain them correctly (making it a bit easier to dismiss them).
In any event, I’ve only published on the matter twice, in my book Lost Christianities (a chapter on the matter, see my earlier posts) and in a more scholarly article that came out about the same time:
“Hedrick’s Consensus on the Secret Gospel of Mark,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 11 (2003) pp. 155-64.
Since blog folk have asked, I’ve decided to lay out some of the reasons that I suspect Smith may have forged the work. I’m not definite about the matter, and never have been. But I do have my suspicions. Here is how I lay out the the matter in the second half of my article mentioned above. This will take two posts.
Let me state as clearly as I can: I am not saying that I think Smith forged the letter. I think the jury is still out. But instead of rendering a judgment before the case is fully considered, I think we would do better to deal with the evidence and to see if any (genuine) new evidence can be found.
Let me summarize what strike me as the issues, under three rubrics: one matter that is hard to understand; several matters that are hard to explain; and a couple of matters that are hard not to find amusing.
(1) What is hard to understand involves the circumstance that Smith knew a lot about Greek manuscripts and ancient forgeries, and must have known full well that in order to detect a forger at work, one needs to examine carefully the physical evidence itself, the manuscript, in hand, under microscope if possible, looking for characteristics of the pen, stray marks, ink bleeding into lines, hard to detect smudging. In a famous interchange, Q. Quesnell objected to Smith’s claim that the letter was authentic without a scientific evaluation of the physical piece itself. Smith rightly claimed that he didn’t have the physical specimen, just the photographs he took, but that if anyone wanted to see what it looked like, s/he could go to the monastery of Mar Saba and find the book and see for him or herself. Fair enough. But given everything Smith knew or came to know about manuscripts and their forgeries — why did he himself show no interest in going back to examine the manuscript? He admits that at the time of the discovery he was rushed, and so he took his pictures and put the book back on the shelf. But why would he spend fifteen years of his life reading and analyzing the words in the photographs knowing full well that the clues to forgery could not be found in the photographs but only in the physical specimen?
In any event, if the manuscript is ever “re”discovered, someone will simply need to test the ink; to argue that Smith fabricated eighteenth-century ink would be a bit of a stretch. (It is not hard, by the way, to think that he fabricated an eighteenth-century hand; with some knowledge of palaeography, a few dated specimens, any skill at all, and a little practice, it could be done easily enough. There are certainly plenty of modern instances.)
At the end of the day, I don’t think we can say whether or not Smith forged the letter. We won’t know until, if ever, the manuscript is found and subjected to a rigorous investigation, including the testing of the ink. Until that happens, some will continue treating the piece as authentic, others will have their doubts. But to urge that we declare the problem solved on the basis of no new evidence (Hedrick) or to label the question itself “absurd and slanderous”(Stroumsa) seems to me wrong-headed and ahistorical. The discussions should deal with the issues, rather than pretend they do not exist or wish them away.
He himself indicates that during his second PhD at Harvard he was influenced by Prof. Werner Jaeger, and “became interested in Greek manuscripts and manuscript hunting” (Secret Gospel, p. 8). Of course he became yet more expert after he discovered the Clementine letter at Mar Saba.
Examples of the phenomenon abound, ancient, late ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern – as the abundant literature on forgery attests. Anyone who suspects that such a thing never could or never would be done, should simply read the massive documentation. The classic study remains J. A. Farrer, Literary Forgeries (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907); for the ancient materials, no one has surpassed Wolfgang Speyer’s magisterial Die literarische Fälschung im heidnischen und christlichen Altertum: ein Versuch ihrer Deutung (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1971). For some amusing modern instances — including one perpetrated by two seminary students in the 1930s who managed to fool for a time one of the great experts on ancient Greek uncial manuscripts — see Bruce M. Metzger, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (Peabody, Mass: Hedirckson, 1997), chap. 11.
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