New Book on the Letter to Theodore

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.

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8 Responses to New Book on the Letter to Theodore

  1. Paul J says:

    It’s a sophisticated literary hoax by Morton Smith. Or rather, its a puzzle, a riddle. There’s a solution to it, an answer. The letter contains within it the clues to unravel the proof that it isn’t genuine.

    • Mike K. says:

      Thanks Paul J. for your comment. It could be, but I am not so sure. The best part of a hoax is to reveal how you fooled all the experts, but Smith vehemently protests his innocence and takes the secret even from his closest scholarly peers to the grave. I am also not sure what the motivation for this hoax would be as it could have cost him any sort of career and reputation (and for many scholars, it did cost him the latter). So I think the only two options is that Smith deliberately deceived his colleagues, which would be regrettable as it may detract from his other scholarly contributions, or that he genuinely discovered this text as he reported it. I just invite readers to check out this book and see what they think of the arguments of both sides.

      • Paul J says:

        I don’t want to get into cod psychology here, but Morton Smith was rather an odd individual. His motivation was, i would argue, to prove himself cleverer than his colleagues and the rest of the Academy.
        There was a comment thread over at Salainen Evankelista a while back that discussed Smiths character. “The end result was summarised by Theodore Gaster, another Columbia colleague of Smith, by these words…
        Morton Smith is like a little boy whose goal in life is to write curse words all over the altar in church, and then get caught.”

        I think he also wanted to leave an”interesting puzzle to solve”

        • Mike K. says:

          Thanks for the link (Timo definitely has the must-read blog on this subject). Whatever one makes of the letter, Smith certainly was a fascinating individual

        • Robert Mathiesen says:

          Why should Smith’s character or psychology have anything whatever to do with the soundness (or not) of his scholarly results? Arguments stand or fall on their own merits, whether or not one can trust the person who made them. If one grants, ex hypothesi, that Smith had both the skills and the motive to forge the Letter to Theodore, it hardly follows that he actually did forge it.

          • Mike K. says:

            Hey Robert, fixed the typos in the comment above. You are right that just by making a case Smith had the ability and a plausible motive does not prove forgery. It might help as part of an overall case against Smith (some of the contributions in this book scour Smith’s other writings to try to establish a motive), or alternatively if it can be demonstrated that Smith had not yet acquired all the skills necessary to compose the letter or even to get someone else to do it (as Allan Pantuck argues in his article) that may be important way to vindicate Smith. But ultimately short of scientific tests the only way to demonstrate this letter is a forgery may be to expose historical anachronisms in the text, but I think they will have to find a plausible way to refute Scott Brown’s fairly compelling case for Clementine authorship.

  2. allan pantuck says:

    It’s funny to read back that link from Timo so many years ago. Albert Baumgarten is a wonderful historian and a great source of Smithiana.

    • Mike K. says:

      Thanks Allan. I enjoyed the link as well and knowing that it is from years ago reminds me how I have just started researching this area while you all have been debating it for years now :)

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