Neither forged, nor authentic? Thoughts about the status of the secret Gospel of Mark as a source of ancient Christianity, by Eckhard Rau.
I have read Eckhard Rau’s Weder gefälscht noch authentisch? Überlegungen zum Status des geheimen Markusevangeliums als Quelle des antiken Christentums. Published in Jörg Frey & Jens Schröter (ed.), Jesus in apokryphen Evangelienüberlieferungen: Beiträge zu außerkanonischen Jesusüberlieferungen aus verschiedenen Sprach- und Kulturtraditionen. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 254. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
The following could possibly more be seen as a summary of what Rau writes, than as a proper review.
Eckhard Rau begins by saying that Stephen C. Carlson with his book has taken the controversy to a level where it is hard to distinguish fantasy and fiction from facts and exegesis.
Rau says that he is trying to walk a middle course. He says that he personally, on the condition that Secret Mark might be authentic, tries to explain to what extent Secret Mark can cast light on the cooperation and opposition between community Christianity and Christian Gnosticism in Alexandria in the 2nd Century.
Rau refers to Charles Hedrick and the stalemate he depicted in his 2003 article. Rau does not think that this stalemate is overcome yet. He also confesses to the obvious, that as long as the original is not available, neither the falsification theory nor the authenticity theory is “provable”.
Rau goes on to give the background information of Morton Smith’s discovery at the Mar Saba monastery back in 1958, and how he presented his finding. Further he refers to the scholars who have visited the monastery and the Patriarch’s library in search for the Clement letter. He deals with Stroumsa’s report of his, David Flusser’s och Shlomo Pines’ visit in 1976, where they actually saw the manuscript themselves. He also mentions Thomas J. Talley’s, Charles W. Hedrick’s and Nikolaos Olympiou’s unavailing attempt to locate the Clement letter. He does not mention the visit by Willy Rordorf or by James H. Charlesworth and he is obviously unaware of Quentin Quesnell’s visit at the library in Jerusalem in 1983, when he also was allowed to take the leaves containing the letter to a “firm” and have them photographed. (See my Swedish blog post: Det undflyende Klemensbrevet)
Rau then makes a survey of the critics of Smith and the letter. He deals with Jacob Neusner’s turnaround in regard to the authenticity of the letter. In 1973 Neusner wrote:
“The discovery itself ranks with Qumran and Nag Hammadi, Masada and the Cairo Geniza, but requires more learning and sheer erudition than all of these together, both in the recognition of what had been found, and in the interpretation and explanation of the meaning of the find“
Later Neusner charged Smith of forging the letter. Rau finds it odd that what Neusner in 1973 praises as a discovery which puts Qumran and Nag Hammadi in the shade, in 1994 has mutated into the greatest forgery of the century.
Next Rau deals with Quentin Quesnell. He writes that since Quesnell was so sharp and so dissociated, he probably also was totally convinced that Smith forged the letter.
Quesnell complains for not having access to the actual manuscript and that Smith did not se to it that the manuscript was made available for investigation. Rau wonders why Quesnell or others did not visit the monastery themselves if they were so keen on examining the manuscript? He also wonders why Stroumsa and Flusser so easily gave up, and did not try harder to have the ink and the paper properly examined.
Rau’s opinion is that if one makes a close examination, hardly any of Quesnell’s argument really passes. Quesnell’s main arguments according to Rau is:
1) No one except Smith has seen the manuscript, which we now know is not true.
2) Bad photos; but this is no argument for a forgery.
3) The possibility to forge the letter by using Stählin’s concordance. This is also no argument for a forgery.
4) Smith held similar ideas as those put forward in the letter. But these similarities are according to Rau very farfetched.
Rau also has a second number 4. He says that the dedication in Smith’s popular version “for the one who knows” still is an unsolved riddle.
This dedication has been interpreted as a confirmation by Smith that he forged the letter and that the book was dedicated to the one who knows this.
If I may make a personal reflection; I do not think this is an unsolved riddle. Perhaps my memory fails me and someone already has suggested what I am about to suggest, but I cannot remember to have seen anyone propose the obvious solution.
Smith was for sure influenced by Gnosticism. How this actually manifested itself in Smith is something I do not know. But simply the fact that he was interested in Mysticism and Gnosticism ought to be enough to explain the expression “for the one who knows”. The Greek word gnosis (γνῶσις) of course means knowledge. When a Gnostic reaches gnosis (enlightenment) he literally receives knowledge about life and about himself. The Gnostic is “the one who knows” and it would be obvious for Smith to dedicate a book about secret knowledge to the one who knows, that is to the Gnostic.
Next in line is Andrew Criddle and his statistic evaluation of the letter; i.e. his evaluation of the ratio between the words Clement previously used only once and the words he never used. Rau confesses to know only a little about statistics, but wonders why the 0-words and the 1-words are that important? Why did not Criddle also examine the 2-words, 3-words, 4-words and 5-words?
Rau then turns to Bart D. Ehrman. He notes that Ehrman is cautious and only expresses suspicion. That suspicion includes the fact that the Clement letter is inscribed in a book in which the forged letters of Ignatius for the first time have been excluded. According to Rau Ehrman’s suspicion still leads to a complex scenario. Either someone already has a copy of Vossius’ book from 1646, reads its last page and gets inspired to forge a Letter of Clement, which he then scribes into the book. Or this person has already decided to make a forgery, recalls what Vossius has written and searches and acquires an appropriate copy of the book. Rau considers both options to be too fantastic to be probable.
Next is Arthur Darby Nock who held the letter to be no earlier than from the fourth century and furthermore a “mystification for the sake of mystification”.
Rau also deals with Robert M. Price, who wrote that Smith “had a poisonous hatred for the Christian religion, especially for its historic homophobia.” Rau finds it far-fetched to think that Smith would have been persuaded to make a forgery by reading James H. Hunter’s novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba, or that Smith would have signed his own book with “Smith 65“. Rau says that Price is working through moral suspicion, by which a mix of homosexuality and crime arises; a mix that is so necessary for the detective novel. For that reason alone, Price’s contribution should, according to Rau, not be taken too seriously.
One can add to this that when I contacted Robert Price in December 2009 and pointed out the many errors in his review of both Stephen Carlson’s book and Scott Brown’s book, he told me: 1) The information I gave was more recent than his reviews. 2) He said that he hopes that I am right because “it would serve me better if the Secret Gospel were authentic!”
After that Rau goes on to ask: “Was spricht für eine Fälschung?“; i.e., what speaks in favour for the letter being a forgery? He says that most people never openly accused Smith for having forged the letter. They only pointed toward suspicious circumstances. He takes Ehrman as an example, who in his “Response to Charles Hedrick’s Stalemate” lists seven reasons to be suspicious. Rau says that Ehrman’s point of view does sound plausible, but loses its persuasive force as he only accounts for the doubt, and deprives us the arguments which could speak for authenticity.
According to Rau, the arguments in favour for Smith having forged the letter can be reduced to three points. 1) Smith has not provided the letter itself. 2) He has not explained who the ”one who knows” is. 3) The manuscript shows no sign of having a history of being copied many times. According to Rau the first two points lack any weight as evidence.
Rau then contiues: ”Was spricht für die Authentizität?“ He claims that there are five circumstances which point towards authenticity and against forgery, especially against Morton Smith having accomplished it.
1) Morton Smith’s correspondence with his friend Gershom Scholem shows that Smith changed his opinion over time.
2) The dedication in Smith’s scholarly book ”Clement of Alexandria”: “This book was written for Arthur Darby Nock and is dedicated to his memory”. Rau thinks that this is Smith’s way of paying reverence to a dead colleague who accused him of forgery. Rau believes that this speaks for authenticity and also that this has previously been overlooked.
3) Smith’s dedication for several years in investigating and writing an extensive scholarly commentary on the letter. According to Rau there seems to be no motives that are strong enough to have motivated Smith to do all this hard labour on his own forgery.
4) That the content of the first Secret Mark passage does not suit Smith’s theories and that his interpretation of it does not correspond to its content. If he would have forged it, he ought to have designed it more in line with his own views.
5) According to the letter, Secret Mark was a spiritual addition to a traditional Gospel, an otherwise unknown literary form. Forgers rather tend to follow a known pattern than to invent new forms of expression.
Rau again emphasises how little evidence that can be presented both in favour and against the authenticity of the letter. The aura of suspicion which he refers to and which he thinks has accompanied the fascinating finding already from the start, tend to attract everyone. This creates a risk that “proof” is produced.
As we cannot test the ink and the paper – and Rau fears that the letter is lost forever – we cannot know whether it is a forgery or an authentic letter. Still, according to Rau, we have the obligation to interpret the text as if it was an ancient Jesus tradition from where Clement lived.
In my blog post in Swedish Varför denna tystnad rörande Hemliga Markusevangeliet? (Why this silence on the Secret Gospel of Mark?) I conveyed this same view. If we can perform such an extensive exegesis on Q, which we have no external confirmation of, why should we not be able to do the same on Secret Mark?
After this Rau turns to Stephen C. Carlson. This is by far is the most comprehensive section. Rau wonders whether one really needs to join in into the boundless enthusiasm of Larry W. Hurtado, who in the foreword of Carlson’s book The Gospel Hoax speaks of a “powerful punch“ against the authenticity of the letter, a punch which is “persuasive, decisive, practically unanswerable”. Rau does not think that one has to join in into this boundless enthusiasm.
This part is the most venomous part of Rau’s survey. After having dealt with Carlson’s methodology, he wonders if the ironical remarks he has made on Carlson’s methodology do Carlson justice? He says however that he is inclined to believe that the forger Carlson caught, only is a 21 century construction prompted by the imagination of a trained lawyer.
Rau then goes on to deal with the Swindler M. Bald. Strange enough, Rau does not refer to Brown’s and Pantuck’s article Morton Smith as M. Madiotes, which was published already in 2008. He only refers to Scott Brown’s report in Factualizing the Folklore that Allan Pantuck is about to publish two documents which will show that Carlson misattributed the top handwriting to M. Madiotes. Maybe Rau wrote this before 2010?
Being unaware of what Pantuck and Brown dealt with in the article, Rau lacks the decisive tools to fully uncover Carlson’s mistakes. Yet he manages to bring forth many insightful comments. Among others, he wonders how it could be that Stephen Carlson settled for examining the cropped image of MS22 (MS = manuscript) that Smith published. Why did the man who so forcefully insisted that we should look for the hard evidence, not come up with the idea of going to Jerusalem and himself examine the manuscript he put so much reliance in? I believe the question is more than justified, given the fact that because of this omission, Carlson made several crucial mistakes.
Rau next turns to Carlson’s handwriting analysis. As with Madiotes, he is also unaware of the latest breakthroughs in this area, to which also I have contributed. (See Reclaiming Clement’s Letter to Theodoros and Tremors, or Just an Optical Illusion?). He has moreover not yet heard of the Document Examiner Venetia Anastasopoulou’s report , where she claims that “it is highly probable that Morton Smith could not have simulated the document of ‘Secret Mark”.”
In spite of Rau’s unawareness about all this, he nevertheless makes many of the relevant critical observations, which I in my Swedish blog post Hur objektiva och analyserande är egentligen NT-forskare? (How unbiased and analytical are New Testament Scholars really?) claimed that many scholars did not make. For instance, Rau points to the obvious that most of the time Carlson only claimed to have seen signs of tremors etc. in the handwriting, while the small low-resolution images he published in his book did not have the quality or was large enough to make it possible to evaluate Carlson’s assertions.
Also I asked the same question and wondered how so many could be persuaded to believe in Carlson’s assertions that all these signs were in the text. Especially since they could not possibly have verified it themselves. As Carlson was not an authority, neither as a New Testament scholar, nor as a document examiner, they could not very well have relied on his authority. The only reasonable conclusion is therefore that Carlson’s conclusions were in line with what many wanted to be the truth, and that those who let themselves be persuaded by Carlson did so precisely because he claimed to have discovered what they deep down inside wanted to be the truth.
Rau continues with Morton Salt Goldsmith and all the clues Smith according to Carlson has left behind for us to discover. Rau admits that despite having repeatedly read about this, his mind boggles at the thought of all the unfathomable clues that Smith is said to have laid along the track for us to follow. Rau finds the Salt Goldsmith confession to be too fantastic in order to convince.
Rau also discusses Smiths alleged homosexuality, but I will not go into that swamp here.
In his summary Rau once again emphasizes, that only by examining the real document will we possibly be able to decide if the letter is authentic or not. There is really so little evidence that nothing can be said for certain:
“Es ist wenig, was gegen, und wenig, was für die Authentizität des Briefauszuges von Clemens von Alexandrien an Theodoros auf die Waagschale gelegt werden kann, darunter nichts Spektakuläres und nichts, was die Sache entscheidet, zumal die Gesichtspunkte der einen Seite die der anderen nicht neutralisieren. Solange eine Untersuchung des Manuskripts im Blick auf Feder, Tinte und Schrift nicht möglich ist – ich fürchte: für immer – und keine neuen Argumente vorgebracht werden können, empfiehlt es sich deshalb, den Text so zu interpretieren, als ob er ein antikes Dokument aus dem Umkreis des Clemens von Alexandrien wäre.”
It is probably so that one’s appreciation of a work differs depending on how well the author’s views are consistent with one’s own. I can only say that I very much appreciated Eckhard Rau’s Weder gefälscht noch authentisch?
Roger Viklund, 2010-08-26