Two Recent Discussions of Secret Mark

Recently I have read two treatments of the Secret Gospel of Mark, one brief (a few pages from Robert M. Price’s Secret Scrolls: Revelations from the Lost Gospel Novels [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011]) and one more detailed (Edward Reaugh Smith’s The Temple Sleep of the Rich Young Ruler: How Lazarus Became the Evangelist John [Great Barrington, Mass.: SteinerBooks, 2011]). One merely presents old and erroneous arguments for the forgery of the gospel, the other offers a thorough overview of recent developments in the study of the text.

Price’s book is a comprehensive study of novels based on the notion of the possible impact on Christianity of the discovery of a lost gospel. It is a sequel of sorts of his earlier book The Paperback Apocalypse: How the Christian Church was Left Behind (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007). In chapter three Price discusses J. H. Hunter’s 1940 novel The Mystery of Mar Saba, which Price and others (notably Craig Evans in his paper for the Secret Mark Symposium back in April; summarized HERE) believe gave Smith “the idea for a real live ‘lost gospel’ hoax of his own” (p. 28). Despite acknowledging the existence of photographs of the manuscript, Price remains “unconvinced” of the genuineness of the text. He postulates: “Suppose Smith found some blank pages at the end of that library book, and they spoke eloquently to him nonetheless, whispering to him of an opportunity for a rich joke. And then perhaps he got to work composing the Clement piece with its implied homosexual evangel. If so, he would have been following he precise strategy employed by the scheming forgers of the Shred of Nicodemus in The Mystery of Mar Saba” (p. 30). If this statement sounds familiar, it is drawn from Price’s article “Second Thoughts on the Secret Gospel” from Bulletin for Biblical Research 14 (2004): 127-132 (cribbed entirely for his discussion of Secret Mark in Secret Scrolls, showing that Price’s views have not changed in the intervening years; you can read the entire article HERE). Both the book and the article make two arguments (among others) for forgery that must be dispensed with. First, he says, “if anyone could mimic the handwriting style of a desired period, it would be the erudite Smith” (p. 31). This makes Smith out to be superhuman, and it is an argument that has been effectively countered by Allan Pantuck in his paper for the Secret Mark Symposium (and hinted at in a recent contribution to Biblical Archeological Review). Hopefully the publication of Allan’s paper will put an end once-and-for-all to the belief that Smith had the ability to forge the document. The second of Price’s arguments is the following: “If Smith had forged the text, a few items would make additional sense. For one, it would be a bit less surprising to see that Smith presumed to print his name on one of the previous printed pages! ‘Smith’ along with the manuscript number he assigned it, 65, is plainly visible in the photographs. Was he signing his own work?” (p. 31). This is another statement made at the Secret Mark Symposium (though I forget who made it). To anyone who works with manuscripts, this is patently ridiculous. Catalogers of manuscripts routinely make some indication in the manuscript to identify it for future scholars. The British Library, for example, will stamp a manuscript with the name of the library and write in a shelf mark (e.g., Add. 2274); without this, how will scholars distinguish one manuscript from another? Smith wrote his name and an identifying number in all the manuscripts he catalogued at the monastery (and, I presume, other monasteries) so that a reader of his catalogue could find the manuscript in question (well, until it was removed and became inaccessible to scholars).

Juxtapose Price’s treatment of Secret Mark by E. R. Smith’s lengthy treatment in The Temple Sleep of the Rich Young Ruler. E. R. Smith approaches the text through a particular theological perspective—namely, the “spiritual science” of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy. I admit to no attraction to Steiner’s theology, nor to any theology as a method for reading and interpreting ancient texts, but that does not detract from the value of E. R. Smith’s appendix on Secret Mark scholarship (p. 208-265). This is the first lengthy evaluation of recent major works on the text by Scott Brown, Stephen Carlson, Peter Jeffery, Allan Pantuck, and Francis Watson. Admittedly, it is somewhat one-sided: E. R. Smith heaps criticism upon Jeffery and Carlson, but (again admittedly, for my part) the criticism is deserved. Particularly captivating is E. R. Smith’s careful refutation of Carlson’s arguments for forgery (or, as Carlson prefers, hoax); Carlson approached the problem as a lawyer, not a scholar, and Smith counters with arguments demonstrating his own legal expertise. E. R. Smith includes also the first published comments by Roy Kotansky, a scholar who knew Smith, about Smith’s  Greek capabilities—apparently sorely inadequate for forging the document (these comments were e-mailed by Kotansky to Scott Brown)—and E. R. Smith’s and Brown’s discovery that Smith did not understand the geographical setting for the resurrection story in Secret Mark even five years after its discovery. E. R. Smith also responds to the recent handwriting analyses commissioned by BAR and to Carlson’s misuse of professional document examiner Julie C. Edison’s letter to him about his methods (discussed in an on-line article by Brown and Pantuck on Salainan Evankelista). The only stone left unturned in this overview is Roger Viklund’s refutation of the “forger’s tremor” (found HERE).

E. R. Smith’s appendix is praiseworthy for its expansiveness and for its currency. It would make an excellent companion to discussions of recent scholarship on Secret Mark.

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