Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Report on Secret Gospel of Mark Symposium Pt 3

Report on Secret Gospel of Mark Symposium Pt 3 by Ryan Wettlaufer (pt 1 here; pt 2 here)

By the time I made it back to the conference they were in the middle
of Pierluigi Piovanelli's paper on Morton Smith and Aleister Crowley.
Yes, I do mean that Aleister Crowley. Piovanelli seemed to be trying
to establish the events and trends in Morton Smith's life that would
both motivate him and enable him to create a forgery like sm. For
example, Piovanelli pointed out a time when Smith was studying
Clement, thus giving him the knowledge necessary to forge a letter of
Clement. The titular event, however, was when Smith became fascinated with the life of Crowley, who - as Piovanelli documented - Smith appreciated as having a certain kind of edgey realness that was missing from other religious folk. In Crowley, Piovanelli argued, Smith found an archetype of the kind of Jesus he would really like to see, and so Smith invented the sm excerpts - with their edgey sexual elements - to create that Jesus. At least I think that's what Piovanelli was arguing, he went well past his allotted time and Phil Harland, who was chairing at this point, eventually cut him off.

Next came Allan Pantuck, who, surprisingly, is actually credentialed
as a medical doctor and a urologist. I wondered then what kind of
biblical studies chops he might have, and the answer was pretty
impressive ones. His work was well disciplined, well researched, and
very well ordered. If anyone could convince me of the authenticity of
sm, I think it would be this guy. He presented - with very nice
images of photos and scans - a survey of Morton Smith's own personal
writings. The point of this survey was essentially the opposite of
Piovanelli's: he wanted to show how Smith's life would have left him
ill-equipped to create a forgery like sm. For example, Pantuck showed
several personal letters wherein Smith lamented his poor Greek skills.
He confirmed this with personal writings of other scholars who
commented on Smith's poor Greek skills. These poor skills, Pantuck
argued, mean that Smith could not have had the ability to compose a
fake letter of Clement. Over all it was a strong presentation, though
I wonder what Smith would have thought about his integrity resting on
his incompetence!

Next came Peter Jeffery from Notre Dame. He was supposed to present
on Clement, and he may have been doing that in the first half of his
paper. It was rather quiet, and so I went to look in the back in the
vain and unfulfilled hope of replenished coffee. Suddenly, though,
Jeffrey came quite alive, and the second half of his presentation was
spirited to say the least. He exclaimed with more than a little
excitement that Smith's writings were full of "bullshit! just
bullshit!" and challenged anyone in the room to take "the Jeffrey
Challenge" wherein if you could take a copy of Smith's work, spend an hour in the library checking each one of his ancient source references, and not come to the conclusion that he was a crazy charlatan, then Jeffrey would write you a glowing recommendation on official Princeton letterhead to the business school of your choice! Jeffrey repeated this challenge several times, noted that he could use Princeton letterhead because he was emeritus there, and was, well, full of twitchy glee. Honestly, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it all,
except that I might have figured out where all the coffee went.

Finally Scott Brown gave a very quiet and studious paper on the seven
veil motif in sm and how it compared to Clement. It seemed like a
fine study, though at the end Brown admitted that, as there were no
Clement scholars there, no one was really qualified to evaluate his

That was it for the main conference. There was a public debate later
that night, but I did not attend that. What was my reaction? I
suppose I now lean towards some kind of inauthenticity. What I really
came away with, however, was a better realisation of the variety of
options outside of the "hoax or real?" binary offered by the
conference's title. It could, at one end, be a real letter of Clement
with real, secret excerpts of Mark. Or, it could be a real letter of
Clement with nevertheless fake excerpts from Mark. Or, it could be a
fake letter of Clement with fake excerpts from Mark. If the latter,
however, the forgery could have been carried out by Smith, or it could
have been carried out by someone prior to Smith - even long prior - so
that Smith's discovery was, for his part, quite sincere. Finally, all
of those options could be further mirrored into two versions: the one
that sees the sm excerpts as describing a homosexual encounter, and
one that sees it as an innocent reference to teaching at night. In
other words, the sm subject is more complicated than I'd realised.

As for the conference, I thought it was well organized, but overall I
wasn't impressed by the level of debate. There seemed to be a lot of arbitrary back-and-forthing. One person argued that the style of sm proved authenticity because it matched the style of Mark. Another argued that the style disproved authenticity exactly because it matched the style of Mark - that's exactly what a forger would do! One argued that handwriting analysis proved that it was a forgery. Another
argued that different handwriting experts could show that it was not a
forgery. One argued that Smith studied Clement and was skilled at
Greek. Another argued that Smith did not study Clement enough and was unskilled at Greek. All told, it reminded me of a rather frank admission by the Lawyer Allan Dershowtiz that I read the other day (just don't ask why I was reading Dershowtiz!), who said "when you read opinions like this, you get the sense of philosopher-kings sitting around deciding how to arrive at the right result by a series
of inductive and deductive reasonings and analogies. In fact, that is
not how legal thinking generally occurs. People start with a
preference for having the case decided in a certain way... We start out
with points of view and then we search the literature. We search
philosophy, we search science for ways of rationalizing our
conclusion" (Thinking About Thinking, p. 15).

Other reports from the symposium:

Sarah Veale

Guestpost at Apocryphicity by Calogero A. Miceli

Tony Burke (Apocryphicity)

Idem, pt 2


  1. Loved the comment about the PJ and the coffee.

  2. May I suggest a French-language book titled 'La Musique et le Ballet -- La Revue Musicale' Dec-Janv 1953 No.219 Editions Richard-Masse [at] Saint-Sulpice Paris? One chapter contains description of King James as someone who in some way was known as a killer of many old women.

  3. Actually I rarely drink coffee. I only had 15 minutes and I was under the impression everyone had already read my paper, so I wasn't just going to rehash what I wrote, which was too complex for 15 minutes anyhow.

    The point of the Jeffery challenge is: people want to be fair and reasonable by giving Smith the benefit of the doubt and assuming he was sincere. But if you spend as many hours as I have (not just one, at least ten) actually checking his sources, you will learn that many of his publications are deeply deceptive, with much twisting and misrepresentation of the material in order to give the impression that "magic" all over the ancient world actually meant ritualized pedophilia. People who don't think so have simply not spent enough time reading Smith's writings carefully and checking the sources -- or else they really do not understand how humanistic research is done. The fields of Biblical and early Christian studies absolutely do not need any more people who can't figure out that Morton Smith's publications are fraudulent, and that their fradulent characteristics are shared by the Mar Saba text itself. Put ten hours into walking around the library checking the sources Smith cites and see for yourself. If you're not shocked (by the dishonesty, not the homosexuality) you are in the wrong field.

    Peter Jeffery

  4. Thanks for the comment Peter. It is interesting that not only was Stephen Carlson absent, but that his arguments were also absent, even from those who were arguing against the authenticity of the letter. Presumably Brown's unanswered critiques have taken their toll.

  5. "... by checking his sources you will learn that many of his publications are deeply deceptive, with much twisting and misrepresentation of the material in order to give the impression that "magic" all over the ancient world actually meant ritualized pedophilia. People who don't think so have simply not spent enough time reading Smith's writings carefully and checking the sources -- or else they really do not understand how humanistic research is done. The fields of Biblical and early Christian studies absolutely do not need any more people who can't figure out that Morton Smith's publications are fraudulent, and that their fradulent characteristics are shared by the Mar Saba text itself. Put ten hours into walking around the library checking the sources Smith cites and see for yourself."

    Does this even need a rebuttal? Is this what the forgery argument has been reduced to? Pedophilia accusations against a dead man? What's next - Smith was a guard at Auschwitz? He's a serial killer? Hasn't this gone on long enough now? At least pretend to put together a rational argument.

  6. Fascinator:

    All you have to do is read Smith's publications, and every time he mentions a source, look it up and see for yourself if it supports what he's saying. Don't skip any; walk all over the library and check everything. Frequently his claims are highly distorted or his sources wildly misrepresented, in his perennial attempt to argue that . . . well, I already said what. Try it yourself. I hold the world record for Smith citations checked by a single individual, and anyone who takes the challenge should be able to see for himself what Smith is really saying. From that point it is not hard to see that the deceptive characteristics of Smith's publications are found in the Mar Saba text itself: too many words, phrases, concepts taken from ancient sources and mashed up together to present a highly personal message that could only have been composed in the twentieth century. If you can't see that Smith was extremely untrustworthy and dishonest, you either haven't really read his publications carefully or you're not capable of doing so. There is no third possibility. My paper was full of examples that went beyond the ones in my book, and I'm sorry my paper was not distributed, though I expressly stated that it should be. Go ahead, take the challenge and prove me wrong. No one has tried, not even my esteemed fellow panelists. No one could possibly succeed, because anyone who knows how to read a scholarly book and actually takes the trouble can determine for himself that Smith's publications are just one falsifaction after another, as the reviewers of his books have been pointing out for over forty years.

    Peter Jeffery

  7. Peter Jeffery,

    First, thank you for coming here and commenting, I think that's great.

    Also, thanks for your presentation at the conference. I appreciate it, it was certainly memorable. And thanks of course for being a good sport regarding the coffee joke I made at your expense!

    Your most recent comment has me wondering though.

    And I want to stress here, I'm not arguing the content of your point - whether your conclusion is right or wrong. As I posted about, I tend to lean towards agreeing with you, but that's nevertheless not the point I want to make right now.

    What I'm wondering about now is simply a point of logic in your method.

    Your argument, as you lay it out, runs:

    a. If someone knows how to read scholarly sources and takes the time to do so, then they will see that my conclusion is correct.

    b. therefore, if someone does not see that my conclusion is correct, then they have either not taken the time to read the source, or they don't know how.

    Is that a fair summary?

    Assuming you agree, I want to focus on the "don't know how" part.

    Assuming that the scholars who currently disagree with you have in fact read the sources (granting them that benefit of the doubt for a minute) that would confine them to the "don't know how" option. As you said, there's no third option.

    Once they are confined to that option however, then aren't you essentially saying "since they disagree with me, then they must not know how to read a scholarly source"?

    That seems to me to be what you're saying here:

    "No one could possibly succeed, because anyone who knows how to read a scholarly book and actually takes the trouble can determine for himself that Smith's publications are just one falsifaction after another"

    But if that's what you end up saying, isn't that just a long form of the old "any one who knows what they're talking about agrees with me; if they don't agree with me, then they don't know what they're talking about"? That is, isn't this just a variation of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy?

    Or at least, isn't it slightly tautological?

    We run into the same problem in textual criticism all the time. For example, I might get caught saying something like "no *real* textual critic thinks the long ending of Mark is original" to which someone necessarily responds "but what about so-in-so, who says that the longer ending of Mark is original?" to which I of course reply "obviously so-in-so is not a *real* textual critic!"

  8. Congratulations, we have a Bingo!

  9. Ryan:

    Your a and b are NOT a fair summary of what I said or meant.

    Scholarship is all about disagreement, which is why we have conferences. However, that doesn't mean anyone can publish or advocate anything they like or read anything at all into any text or source. On the other hand, the only arbiter is the scholarly community as a whole, which is why consensus often takes a long time to achieve, sometimes generations.

    Morton Smith's publications, and particularly his book _Clement of A and SGM_ are deceptive on several levels. To begin with, they overwhelm the reader with a barrage of data, much of which is actually inaccurate, irrelevant, etc. Second, he cherry picks details he likes from a wide range of ancient sources, ignoring most differences of context, religion,etc., persistently mashing up unrelated items to construct his alleged ancient ritual of heavenly ascent, which he sometimes hints and sometimes frankly states was really about sexual initiation of a male disciple by a male teacher. Third, if you actually go back and look up and read the early Christian, Jewish, Gnostic, Hermetic, etc., texts that he is talking about, you will find that frequently they do not say what he says they say, and that at least sometimes these are not innocent mistakes but can only be deliberate misrepresentations. I gave numerous examples in my book and many more in my paper (which I thought everyone present had been given). And many of the people who reviewed his books when they came out said the same, perhaps more diplomatically put since he was still alive then (they will also be listed in my paper). And as I have been arguing since my book, the Mar Saba text is constructed by the same technique: words and phrases from the Gospels, Clement, and other sources, ancient and modern, designed to give the impression of a (sexual) master-disciple initiation rite.

    to be continued

  10. Why doesn't everyone see this? First of all, many scholars do but don't want to get publicly involved in this discussion, which they see as a waste of time that will only get them into unpleasant situations. That is why many invitees did not come to the Toronto panel. The second reason is that some people can't. They don't know how to look up the ancient texts Smith cites, they don't know enough about the ancient world to know what is a reasonable interpretation, or they don't know how scholarship is done to begin with. Many commentators in the blogosphere fit this description.

    What about people who do know the ancient languages and texts? Many of them recognize and have said that, if the Mar Saba text is ancient, Smith's preposterous interpretation cannot be right. They end up asking, "How could he have forged a text he didn't understand?" But this is a circular argument that presupposes its conclusions and leaves out half the facts, since, if Smith did forge the text, his interpretation is the right one and the text itself is preposterous (That would be my position). The other two problems, for those who have the scholarly competencies, are: (1) It takes a long time and a lot of work to read Smith's work and look up all the sources and think about what they mean. I know because I have spent more time doing this than anybody working today. People who don't invest the time tend to want to give Smith the benefit of the doubt, and assume he was more sincere and doing-his-best than he actually was. (2) The key observation, that the Mar Saba text was constructed with the same techniques as Smith's writings in English, is easier to see if you know how to study rituals, which most scholars of the ancient world do not, for reasons I could go into some other time (and did go into in my book and my paper).

    Anyone who has the capability to read and follow what Smith is saying, and faithfully check all his sources, can only come to the conclusion that, whatever he was like in person, Smith was deeply dishonest as an author. His dishonesty goes far beyond differences of opinion or interpretation or methodology. None of Smith's defenders has ever attempted to disprove this assessment (though some merely dismiss it), and I invite anyone who would like to disprove it to go ahead and try. That is all I have said in my previous comments here.

    I did not say "Anyone who can't see the Mar Saba text is a fraud doesn't know how to do scholarship." Only that anyone with the time and competence can see that Smith's works are undeserving of trust. The ability to see that the Mar Saba text has the same dishonest authorial characteristics as Smith's writings in English is a further step that requires more evidence than the mere observation that Smith's writings are consistently fraudulent. My comments on this blog and "the Jeffery challenge" I made in my talk are only about this first step. But to get to the first step of seeing how fraudulent Smith's writings are, one must first have gone to the trouble of really reading and checking his publications, a daunting effort many are unwilling to attempt. I invite anyone anywhere to really go through his works line by line, footnote by footnote, checking every single reference, and write up an argument that Smith's work was honest, thorough, responsible scholarship, at least by the standards of his own time. It can't be done, and you'll waste a lot of time trying. This is the third option that doesn't exist. But go ahead. Try it. Prove me wrong.


  11. Ryan:

    Your "fair summary" is not what I said or meant at all. My argument is in two stages:

    (1) Smith's publications, time and again, claim to construct a bogus ritual of "heavenly ascent" (actually teacher/disciple sex) by mashing up bits and pieces of ancient texts from all over, without regard for their differing origins, contexts, religions, etc. Anyone who takes the trouble to read carefully and is capable of looking up the texts he cites and quotes should be able to see that this is consistently deliberate dishonesty, not something that can be explained away as a different methodology or interpretation. Careful readers and reviewers of his books have been pointing this out for decades. I did not know that the audience had not been given my paper, but it is full of supporting examples.

    People who do not realize that Smith's entire project was deliberately deceptive either haven't read him carefully or are not capable of doing so. No other explanation is possible because the degree of deceptiveness is just too great. But if you wish to vindicate Smith, go ahead: read his books line by line, footnote by footnote, look up every source, and publish an article demonstrating that it is honest scholarship after all. No one has because no one can. Try it yourself.

    (2) While this should make us suspicious of the Secret Gospel, it is not enough in itself to prove that the Mar Saba text is a fraud, since liars tell the truth sometimes, and Smith might really have discovered something. In fact I can and have shown that the Mar Saba text is constructed by the same technique of borrowing words, phrases, etc. from the Gospels, Clement, Papias, Oscar Wilde, etc. But this requires more argumentation than stage 1 does, especially for people who haven't read Smith carefully enough to realize how true stage 1 is. Therefore I did not say or mean that people who disagree with me must be incompetent, only that there are no grounds whatsover for arguing that Smith's writings and publications in general are honest scholarship. Go ahead and prove me wrong if you wish. Nor did I say that no arguments can be made in favor of the Secret Gospel's authenticity, in spite of its discoverer. No one is more supportive of scholarly disagreement and minority viewpoints than I am, but some positions simply cannot be defended. Read Smith's books and see for yourself.

    Peter Jeffery

  12. Calogero A. Miceli5/21/2011 6:20 am

    Thanks for the great read; not just your summary but also the back and forth in the comments. I stand by my opinion which is that everyone should essentially agree to disagree on SecMark because I don't believe there is enough evidence (at this moment) to sway people either way.

  13. Unfortunately I discovered that several recent comments in this thread ended up in the spamfiljter because they of their length. I just published them (23/5).