Friday, December 05, 2008

SBL 24-97 Secret Mark after Fifty Years

This was another interesting session which also dealt with a manuscript: the 18th Cent manuscript of a letter by Clement of Alexandria to Theodore in which he refers to and quotes from a secret gospel of Mark (discovered by Morton Smith in 1958). But is it really an ancient document or is it a fake or fraud or hoax?

The session featured contributions from Birger Pearson (who has changed his mind and now regards the letter as a twentieth-century fake); Stephen Carlson (who has written a book arguing that it is a hoax perpetrated by Morton Smith); Allan Pantuck (who was a student of Morton Smith and has done some interesting work in the Morton Smith archives); and Scott Brown (who has written a book on the Secret Gospel of Mark material; and has numerous articles disputing with Stephen Carlson).

Tony Chartrand-Burke has a useful summary of what was said in the session (here), to which I would only add:
a) that among Allan Pantuck's interesting points, he made the point that Morton Smith purchased his edition of Clement's writings (ed. Stahlin) second-hand from Heffer's bookshop in Cambridge (which I frequently cycle past). (I shall go in soon to check whether they kept any records of sales of second hand books to Morton Smith - don't hold your breath!)
b) that I enjoyed meeting Scott Brown (funnily enough) during the ETC dinner and had a brief chat about things with him;
c) that I once wrote to Q. Quesnell about his objections to Morton Smith's study of the letter; and received the reply (in 1987) that Quesnell himself had actually seen the document (in 1983), but had not been allowed to undertake any tests.

Mark Goodacre had some early reflections on this session (which he chaired), here; and responds to the tone of Chartrand-Burke's post (especially w.r.t. Stephen Carlson) here. That is fair enough, although from my reading Brown has punctured quite a few of Stephen's ideas (so we wait for his promised? response/s in due course).

Up-date: I noticed some more discussion of this session by Josh McManaway at NT Student (defending Carlson [wrongly] as using the method of a biblical scholar [I say wrongly, not because I think there is some secretly accurate scholarly method that biblical scholars learn only by doing a proper doctorate, nor because I think all lawyers are inherently dim, nor because I don't respect Stephen Carlson and know him to be very sharp; but simply because Stephen says in his book he will be applying the methods he uses as a lawyer: hence 'a fresh look from a different approach', p. xvii]) and Michael Barber at Singing in the Reign (picking up Neusner's entertaining repentance/critique of Smith's review of Gerhardsson's book - although any tendency to see Neusner as a neutral observer of Smith ought to be resisted) .
Up-dating the up-date: Stephen Carlson has posted on this session (with interesting comments from Peter Jeffery and Allan Pantuck)


  1. I don't think Carlson's look at it from a lawyer's perspective is necessarily exclusive to him using the methodology of Biblical studies, though.

  2. An essay on the subject, "A Letter to Theodore," is up at It focuses on Smith's defense of the letter and traces the controversy through the recent BAR articles and Stroumsa's publication of the Smith/Scholem letters. Pointed criticisms of Carlson and Jeffery's methods are included.

  3. Hi I just read your post and I wanted to alert you that a scholar has PROVEN that Carlson's methodology was fundamentally flawed to 'prove' the forgery hypothesis.

    As David Trobisch, the eminent expert on Biblical manuscripts notes, "His arguments are absolutely clear and convincing. The "forgery" accusations only works with the low resolution photos. An excellent article."

    Please go to the attached link and see how no one actually checked Carlson's methodology.

  4. Thanks Stephan,

    Roger Viklund's argument does look very helpful, and does show examples where the black and white images seem to exaggerate the features Stephen Carlson was looking at (for?).

    The methodological problems of working with the black and white photos provided has been noted before (in the textual criticism discussion group there was a long discussion, with Stephen responding, back in Oct - Dec 2005, where some of these issues came out).