Thoughts on the Secret Gospel of Mark Conference

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Secret Gospel of Mark conference at York University. To give some background: the Secret Gospel of Mark was found by a professor named Morton Smith, who chanced upon it in a Middle Eastern monastery. Secret Mark is a non-canonical (i.e. apocryphal) Christian text whose origins are highly debated. The goals of this conference were to get the leading thinkers on the issue to hash out the authenticity of the document and its value as a possible lost text of Christianity.

Though technically broken up into two sections (one on authenticity, the other on interpretation), the majority of the conference focused on one question:

Was Morton Smith guilty of forging Secret Mark?

So, was he?

Here are, in my opinion, the highlights. Please note, I am not a scholar in Christianity, or anything else for that matter. My interpretation may differ from another’s perspective.

Attendees were probably most looking forward to hearing what renowned scholar Hershel Shanks had to say about Secret Mark. Shanks, however, keep the objectivity at arm’s length and appealed to Morton Smith’s character as “proof” he could not forge the document. While a touching tribute to Smith, the argument was basically, “A professional in a high-ranking position would never risk their career and do anything unsavoury.” While I applaud Shanks’ stalwart insistence that Smith is innocent, he also apparently never heard of Richard Nixon, Larry Craig, or Jayson Blair. Sorry, Herschel, fancy degrees don’t inoculate one from doing shady things. I get the feeling, after talking with some people, that this presentation was a bit disappointing, as Shanks is quite the expert on Christian texts and I think people were expecting something more.

I was really impressed with Bruce Chilton, who focused on the subject of forgery.  He gave several examples of other authentic documents that turned out to be bogus, and punctuated his observations with enough snark to keep things interesting. Though he could be a bit caustic at times, he was the true skeptic amongst the bunch.

I read Craig Evans’ paper beforehand, which pointed to Smith’s a priori knowledge of Secret Mark’s contents before the discovery as evidence of its forgery. While I think the Conjunction Fallacy supports Evans’ view, some of his evidence, such as why Smith wrote his name in the book, fell apart with input from other scholars. Shaky evidence, great theory.

Allan Pantuck really knocked his presentation out of the park by presenting the most solid case for authenticity. The reason? Smith could not have forged Secret Mark with his subpar Greek skills.  Pantuck catalogued letters from Smith to his mentors, meticulously dating Smith’s foreign language acquisition and bringing in expert testimony on Smith’s handwriting. This was a really impressive and thorough exposition.

I was really looking forward to Pierluigi Piovanelli’s presentation, as it was titled “Halfway Between Sabbatai Tzevi and Aleister Crowley.” However, the connections here seemed to me disorganized. Maybe that’s because I also expected the thrust of the paper to be something totally different. I’ll give my thoughts on that in another post.

There were some other presentations that compared ideas within Secret Mark to Clement of Alexandria’s esoteric cosmology (waaay over my head!), and the soft-spoken, yet earnest pleadings of Charles Hedrick to just get on with analyzing the text already, for the love of God.

This being my first academic conference, I was shocked at how the critique could quickly go from congenial to acerbic. Some presenters were more caustic than others, and those who were not ready to defend their position with vigor got steamrollered by some of the stronger personalities in the room. Some of the presentations were kind of “meh” while others were really well thought out and interesting regardless of which side you took. I think I expected this conference to be more consensus based, i.e. what sort of conclusions can we all agree on. The only thing that everyone conceded was that the document existed. That’s pretty far from being able to say for sure whether or not it deserves study as an official document!

All in all, it seems Secret Mark has too many variables to pronounce judgment on it at all. It was a book found in a questionable location, that probably originated elsewhere, that came to public light through questionable means, and has never been tested in any way that could scientifically date the document. Also, the document is now lost.

To paraphrase Hershel Shenks: Perhaps Morton Smith has it.

Photo via Wikipedia Commons.

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