On the subject of Clement of Alexandria and the Gospels, Tony Burke has announced the release of his edited volume Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery? The Secret Gospel of Mark in Debate with some glowing endorsements. If you have read nothing else on the Letter of Theodore, this is the book to read because it has an up-to-date summary of the history of the scholarship of the letter since Morton Smith and it brings the best arguments of both sides of the debate (table of contents). To summarize:
- Charles Hedrick updates his work on the stalemate (including an interview with Agamemnon Tselikas). He compares the discovery to other dramatic late discoveries of ancient Gospels (some like the Egerton Fragment lack provenance but never accussed to be a forgery) and considers Secret Mark to be a later expansion of canonical Mark as imitation was taught in rhetorical schools, though it may be by the evangelist as he challenges Best’s view that it is “too Markan to be Mark.”
- Bruce Chilton cautions that provenience is important, especially in light of other forged archaeological discoveries.
- Craig Evans seems to update the hoax hypothesis as he opens with the amusing agraphon (a scholar who faked discovering a amusing saying of Jesus based on a joke he had earlier told). He emphasizes parallels with the fictional novel The Mystery of Mar Saba, how the contents of the letter align with Smith’s views prior to the discovery and other suspicious features as well as pointing out the stalemate over the handwriting analysis. His article is online.
- Scott Brown and Allan J. Pantack offer a point-by-point rebuttal of Evan’s article as well as more recent objections (e.g., Watson’s “Beyond Suspicion”). They poke holes in the clues for forgery, show that parallels with the novel have been exaggerated and argue that Smith’s views actually changed considerably after the discovery.
- Hershell Shanks is the most conversational and personal in tone, complaining about how scholars have tainted a good scholar’s career with accusations of forgery. Although I sympathize with his point, this is the weakest contribution to the debate though it does include an updated summary of Agamemnon Tselikas‘ findings.
- The late Marvin Meyer follows Helmut Koester in seeing the Secret Mark excerpts as original and edited out by the canonical editor of Mark. He argues that when the excerpts are added back into the text, there is a connected sub-plot about a rich youth that only now appears in truncated form in the canonical version (e.g., the rich man obeyed the Law since he was young, the youth who flees naked in the Garden, the youth at the empty tomb).
- Pierluigi Piovanelli challenges the view that a consensus of Clementine scholars accept the authenticity of the letter and shows other suspicious things about how (copied on the back of a book) and where (Mar Saba) it was discovered. From Smith’s correspondence with Scholem, he argues it was not just a playful hoax but Smith forged evidence to support his image of Jesus as a libertine messianic figure like Sabbatai Tzevi, though he ends on a positive note on Smith’s contribution to rediscovering the Jewish roots of Jesus that influenced the likes of E.P. Sanders.
- Allan Pantuck writes a biographical portrait of Smith, emphasizing that Smith simply did not have the time in his busy schedule to have mastered all the technical skills necessary to pull off the composition of the Letter to Theodore.
- Peter Jeffrey defends his view that the Clementine letter envisions a liturgical and baptismal context, which is anachronistic when placed in that context in 2nd century Alexandria, and tries to show throughout Smith’s writings that he misreads and misconstrues primary source material in support of his idiosyncratic theories (e.g., sexual libertinism).
- Scott Brown has an in-depth study of how the letter fits in with Clementine views about the stages of progress of the Christian gnostic, particularly its imagery of the mystagogue who leads the hearer to the innermost sanctuary hidden behind the seven veils. The life setting presumes an advanced Christian Gnostic reading the mystic text and thus unlikely part of the catechesis for elementary Christians undergoing baptism.
- Stephen Carlson has also contributed a piece from his SBL conference paper where he defends the hoax hypothesis. It also concludes with a fascinating Q&A that gives a glimpse into the motivations of scholars of a variety of issues (e.g., canonical versus non-canonical texts, Smith’s contribution to scholarship, etc).
In my opinion, the strongest arguments for authenticity are from Brown and Pantuck and the strongest arguments for forgery are from Piovanelli or Jeffrey (though the former is much less polemical than the latter). I only hope that people will read all the arguments with an open mind and will be interested to see if it tips the scholarly majority opinion to one side or the other.