The latest issue of Biblical Archeological Review (Nov/Dec 2009) features a series of articles on Secret Mark. This is the second time in recent memory (Scott Brown contributed a piece back in 2005) that BAR has looked at the text. Presumably the topic is attractive to BAR editor Hershel Shanks, who is a vociferous supporter of the authenticity of certain artifacts such as the James Ossuary. Several other bloggers have commented on the articles (including James Tabor at Taborblog, and Timo Paananen at Salainen evankelista; note also Mark Goodacre at NTblog has recently posted a clip of an interview by Morton Smith from 1984); I’d like to offer a few comments on them also.
The first article, available for free on the BAR web site, is an overview written by Charles Hedrick of the discovery of the manuscript. Hedrick has been one of the most vocal supporters of the manuscript’s authenticity but his task here was to provide a neutral discussion of the basic facts of the discovery, Smith’s early work on the text, the scholarly reaction to this work, and the three recent monographs on Secret Mark written by Scott Brown, Stephen Carlson, and Peter Jeffery.
The second article presents the case for the forgery of the text. It is written not by Carlson nor by Jeffery nor by any other supporter of the forgery hypothesis (such as Birger Pearson or Bart Ehrman) but by Hershel Shanks. Shanks’ requests to such scholars were turned down for various reasons, so he was forced to write the piece himself. It is particularly unfortunate that Carlson refused the request; according to Shanks, Carlson “declined because he understandably felt it would be unfair to put him up against two giants like Helmut Koester and Charles Hedrick” (p. 52). But Carlson has “put himself up” against such giants simply by publishing his book on the text (The Gospel Hoax). Perhaps Carlson’s reluctance is more due to his general shying away from defending his position against criticism. At the Secret Mark panel at last year’s SBL, Carlson seemed unable or unwilling to answer Scott Brown’s and Allan Pantuck’s concerns about the case for forgery (or better, in Carlson’s argument, “hoax”). Carlson also rarely discusses the text on his own blog, Hypotyposeis; one rare Secret Mark post summarizing the SBL panel led Pantuck to add numerous comments challenging Carlson, but Carlson barely acknowledged them, leading Pantuck to write, “Steve C. seems to have disappeared–should we send out a search party for him?”
Pearson declined the offer because he, “was reluctant to write in opposition to the conclusion of his Doktorvater, Helmut Koester, for whom Pearson has enormous respect” (p. 52). Shanks doesn’t buy Pearson’s excuse, particularly since Pearson appeared opposite Koester at the SBL panel (as did Carlson). Why such hesitation? Is it because these scholars are starting to rethink their positions? Or could it simply be because they don’t want to write for BAR? Whatever the reason, the forgery position is not served well by Shanks’ presentation, as he consistently argues against each of the arguments as he discusses them.
The third piece, “Was Morton Smith a Great Thespian and I a Great Fool?” is by Helmut Koester. It is essentially a summary of his presentation at the SBL panel, which itself was a statement of his long-held theory about the development of Markan traditions (a Proto-Mark lacking certain details including the naked young man of Mark 14:51-52 was used by Matthew and Luke, this was expanded into an Intermediate-Mark as we find it in Secret Mark, and then truncated with the removal of the Secret Mark material to form Canonical Mark). It is an interesting hypothesis, and one that accounts well for the minor and major agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark. But it is not an argument for the authenticity of Smith’s text, just a compelling use for it if indeed it is legitimate.
The final article, “Restoring a Dead Scholar’s Reputation,” is a conclusion to the debate written, again, by Shanks. As the title suggests, Shanks places his support behind the case for authenticity, citing among his evidence Scott Brown’s response to Carlson’s argument that the text’s reference to adulterated salt is an anachronism and a joke planted by Smith and casting doubt on Carlson’s claim that the manuscript shows signs of a “forger’s tremor.” BAR has gone so far as to enlist the services of two Greek handwriting experts to examine the manuscript and determine if it is a forgery; the magazine is hoping to raise money for the examination through donations. Of course, they are limited in their efforts by having to work only with photographs of the manuscript; so their results may not be conclusive.
The BAR articles succeed at bringing the text to a wide audience and at keeping the debate in the attention of academics who read the magazine, but it fails in advancing the discussion beyond the impasse that has gripped it for decades, even despite the important works in the last decade by Brown, Carlson, and Jeffery. The real debate should involve the principle writers on the text—including the aforementioned scholars, Allan Pantuck, and a few others—but they either refused or were not asked to participate. Last year’s SBL panel was a well-meaning effort to get the scholars in a room to discuss the text, but Carlson largely refused to answer Brown’s and Pantuck’s criticisms, and most of the others who spoke (including Pearson and Ehrman) were not aware of the current arguments about the text. When is a real scholarly debate about Secret Mark going to happen?