Peter Jeffery’s take on the handwriting of the Mar Saba letter

Peter Jeffery

As I said in my previous post (Scott Brown’s take on the handwriting of the Mar Saba letter), Peter Jeffery seems to be the “only” advocate of the theory that Clement’s letter to Theodoros (the Mar Saba letter) is a forgery, and at the same time also being willing to defend his position. Yesterday, the same day as Scott Brown published his Thoughts on the Reports by Venetia Anastasopoulou (which I commented upon earlier today) also Peter Jeffery had a short text published at BAR’s website: Additional Response to Handwriting Analysis.

Peter Jeffery, Scheide Professor of Music History Emeritus, Princeton University, wrote in 2007 The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery (New Haven: Yale University Press). Together with Stephen Carlson, who seems to have vanished from the scene, he was, and still is, a leading forgery proponent.


Peter Jeffery’s main thesis is that the Mar Saba letter reflects homosexual ideas which best are to be seen in the light of the twentieth-century gay movement, and which also corresponds to the ideas held by the late Professor Morton Smith. In a previous contribution at BAR, Response to Handwriting Analysis, he said that he believes that Venetia Anastasopoulou’s handwriting analysis “does raise the bar for those who argue that Smith penned the Mar Saba document in his own hand (a claim I never made myself).” Be as that may, his whole book circled around one issue; i.e. Morton Smith being the forger.

In his new Additional Response to Handwriting Analysis, Jeffery seems to advance his position even further. Given the additional explanation presented by Venetia Anastasopoulou in Can a Document in Itself Reveal a Forgery? – Jeffery says that if “Anastasopoulou is right, therefore, we are left with a text that was transcribed by a Greek”. Although he never says it out loud, he still silently seems to accept Anastasopoulou’s conclusion that Smith did not write the letter. Jeffery said in his previous post that he never claimed that Smith himself penned the Mar Saba letter. But as he never seems to have said the opposite and he used most of the space in his book for accusing Smith of being a forger, I consider his “acceptance” that Smith did not write the letter himself as a small conversion. His willingness to adjust his theory, if only marginal, still is commendable.


Peter Jeffery

But Jeffery still withhold that Smith probably was the counterfeiter, although he probably did not write the letter in his own hand. He says that the reason for suspecting the Mar Saba letter of being a forgery “is not the handwriting, but the content”. He considers it to be “more consonant with Morton Smith’s opinions than with the early Christian period.” He further claims that “proponents of an early Christian origin need to start explaining why a second-century date that leaves the text uninterpretable should be preferred to a twentieth-century date that renders it perfectly clear.” I consider this to be an inference based on Jeffery’s own reading of the letter and his own perception of what Christianity looked like in the first centuries; and then especially in Alexandria. Stephan Huller has in his “zealous” blogging made it quite clear that the Secret Gospel of Mark fits perfectly well in the context of early Alexandrian Christianity.

Jeffery refers to Scott G. Brown’s interpretation of “the document as an early Christian text” in the latter’s book Mark’s Other Gospel. He considers it to wish away all difficulties by means of “retranslation and bald-faced denial: Mark’s other gospel was mystical, not secret; it was not controversial despite Clement’s fulminations against heretics; it does not hint that Jesus practiced homosexual rites; it says nothing, in fact, that can’t already be found in canonical Mark.”

Now, this is really not what I found in Brown’s book. But of course he denies to have seen any “homosexual rites” as such are not to be found in the text and can only be visualized through the eyes of the beholder. I do not always agree with Brown, especially on his view that Clement was right and the Secret Gospel was an expansion of the canonical Mark, when it probably was just the opposite and canonical Mark was a reduction of Secret Mark (I am not convinced that Brown maintain this position today). (Update, January 27: Scott Brown sent a word that he still believes that canonical Mark preceded secret Mark.)

Anyway, Jeffery is arguing that although Smith might not have written the letter in his own hand, he still was the master behind its design. He rightly says that although Anastasopoulou stated that “it is the hand of someone who wrote with the fluency of a native Greek; she does not know who or when. Nor does she know if this Greek was the text’s author, or was perhaps copying it from another source, such as an earlier manuscript or a draft by Morton Smith.” This now seems to be Jeffery’s main theory, as he accepts that Smith could not have written the letter in his own hand, but still is convinced that the ideas presented are Smith’s.

However, Jeffery’s “new” proposal (and I believe this will be the future forgery theory, since it from now on will be difficult to claim that Smith himself could have imitated this extremely skilled eighteenth century Greek monastic hand) is that Smith had an assistant or an accomplice. This really is the only alternative if he shall withhold that Smith both did it and did not do it. It then had to be a Greek (or someone extremely versed in eighteenths century Greek monastic writing) accomplice. How Smith then managed to find such a person, who was both skilled enough and at the same time willing to take part in Smith’s personal vendetta against Christianity, remains a mystery. Why would anyone have participated in Smith’s personal vendetta and then kept this a secret for the rest of his or her life? Since there could not possible have been any money in this, there really seems to be no motive at all for such an act. This is by far more unlikely than Smith pulling this off by himself.

In his previous contribution, Response to Handwriting Analysis, Jeffery also suggested other alternatives. He claims that if “the Mar Saba scribe was not Smith” we do not know who it was. Besides being an “unknown Greek accomplice of Smith” it could have been a “rival of his who successfully deceived him?” But one has to ask oneself what motive of “hate” could have motivated one of Smith’s colleagues to do such a thing? The task of accomplishing this perfect forgery will then stand out as even more improbable. Since it already is extremely unlikely that Smith could have acquired all these incredible skills, and invested such a massive effort in order to produce a forgery that no one could disprove and took the secret with him to the grave; then how unlikely would it not be that a colleague of Smith would have done all this and taken his secret with him to the grave? Why then did not the colleague reveal his “prank”? What is the point of deceiving someone without ever revealing this deception or trick? And are we also to suspect that this colleague who deceived Smith also hired an accomplice, a Greek with firsthand knowledge of how to fake an extremely skilled eighteenth century Greek monastic hand? And how did this colleague manage to smuggle the book to the Mar Saba monastery, as outsiders seldom were allowed to visit? This scenario creates far more problems than it solves.

The third alternative would then, according to Jeffery, be that the person who wrote this really was “an 18th-century monk” who had mastered this style of writing. But if so, we have immensely dissociated ourselves from Jeffery’s original thesis on Morton Smith as the malicious gay loather of Christianity. On top of that, also all the other problems arise – how someone in the 18th-century would have managed to create this letter in the spirit of Clement; a letter which according to several experts would have been almost impossible to create until Otto Stählin’s concordance of Clement’ vocabulary was published in 1936.

Roger Viklund, 2011-01-25

13 kommentarer

  1. 26 januari, 2011 den 10:25

    ‘zealous’ blogging! More like ‘too much time on his hands.’ It is so utterly amazing that none of these idiots put Clement as one of the possible authors. Oh, but then they would actually have to READ Clement. If they actually attempted to do that – that is, try to make sense of this very enigmatic 2nd century Alexandrian writer – they would realize at once that Clement IS THE MOST LIKELY author of the material. Remember Criddle’s ‘too Clementine to be Clement.’ That’s another way of saying – it probably was Clement.


  2. Den andre BB said,

    26 januari, 2011 den 14:38

    Det förefaller, vilket Huller väl menar ovan, onekligen som om förfalskningsförespråkarna uppställer alla tänkbara hypoteser utom just äkthet. Allt kan vara sant, UTOM att brevet är äkta, tycks de mena. Att innehållet skulle vara avgörande är ett argument jag inte begriper; även om Klemens aldrig förr skrivit om bögorgier (därmed inte sagt att han gjorde det nu), så måste han rimligen ha gjort det en endaste gång om man hittar en skrift om bögorgier som allt talar för att Klemens skrivit. Att visa att Smith skulle ha tillhört någon gayrörelse ankommer rimligen på den som påstår att han gjorde det, och jag har hittills inte sett några belägg för den saken. Personliga brev (som detta brev synes vara) torde ju dessutom inte alltid vara jämförliga med litterära verk (som Stromata), så man får inte förvänta sig för mycket vid en jämförelse däremellan. Beträffande innehållet i brevet kan jag emellertid inte släppa det märkliga slutet, vilket får mig mer skeptisk än de påstådda böganspelningarna.


  3. 26 januari, 2011 den 17:45

    Jo, brevet kan eller får inte vara äkta. Jag kan se hur man förenar sig från delvis olika håll, där vissa gör en homosexuell läsning av texten (trots att Klemens påtalar att texten absolut INTE ska tolkas så) och andra påstår att innehållet inte stämmer med den kända kristna läran (vilket ska förstås som den doktrin som den segrande falangen inom kyrkan kom att slå fast som den ”enda sanna”). Men alla är de överens om att en hemlig lära förunnad endast vissa utvalda och som dessutom är nedtecknad i ett evangelium före de övriga evangelierna av en av apostlarna, omöjligt kan komma på tal.

    Vad gäller det avkapade slutet just innan Klemens skulle ge den rätta uttolkningen av perikopen om uppväckandet av ynglingen, har jag länge hävdat att den rimligaste förklaringen är att brevet beskars redan när man bestämde att det skulle bevaras, så att ingen ”ovärdig” skulle få ta del av den rätta uttolkningen. Men kanske är Charles Hedricks förklaring, såsom han uttryckte det i ett brev till mig, det mest rimliga sättet att betrakta det ” märkliga slutet”: “It really is not possible to know why the letter ends where it does—unless you happened to be there at the time of the writing/copying”.


  4. 27 januari, 2011 den 03:36

    Without sounding like Cato the Elder, let’s put it another way. If someone discovered a letter purporting to be from Clement where he confirmed that he only used the fourfold gospel, where he attacked gnostics and acted every bit like Irenaeus WE”D KNOW FOR CERTAIN it was a fake. As it stands the letter seems to utterly Clementine and authentic. I can’t see what the purpose would be for Smith or someone like him to have spent all this time perfectly imitating a Markan gospel fragment, perfectly imitating a letter from Clement, perfectly imitating an eighteenth century handwriting – all to produce a letter than no one can understand. I defy anyone to demonstrate a forgery which wasn’t done for money, which wasn’t done to argue on behalf of a particular political point of view. There is nothing new in this letter which would advance the cause of ‘libertinism.’ I have never seen anyone demonstrate a plausible motive for forgery here. As such the letter that sounds like Clement probably is by Clement. Unless you want to buy into all the foundationless conspiracy theories out there.


  5. jimmy said,

    27 januari, 2011 den 14:13

    Vi får väl aldrig någonsin veta hela sanningen, men det är märkligt att Klemens är så privat i ett brev som han vet kommer att passera många händer innan det når hans vän och att det kan hamna hos någon annan talar för en förfalskning,enligt mig.

    De som menar att brevet inte har något motiv,tycker inte att det spelar någon roll för världen i stort, men det får det ju stor betydelse för kristna.


  6. 27 januari, 2011 den 23:45

    For what it is worth I think Scott Brown is right about this too. The parallel in the anti-Marcionite writings is decisive here. While the Marcionite tradition points to the Pauline writings as a witness to the idea that Peter and his followers put forward a false gospel filled with Jewish ideas which were corrected by the apostle, it is hard – even for a Marcionophile like myself – to avoid noticing that the rival gospel presupposes and predates the creation of ‘my gospel’ (Rom 2.16 et al) – i.e. the gospel which the Apostle accepted and approved. Even the Marcionite interpretation of certain sayings in the gospel presuppose Petrine primacy – i.e. Jesus saying ‘Many will come after me saying I am the Christ … don’t believe them’ (loosely quoted). The line seems to imply that an editor is correcting the point of view expressed by Peter before the Transfiguration and also assumes that such an opinion became widespread after the crucifixion.

    The Marcionites also denied (a) that the disciples wrote ‘gospels’ (cf. Dialogues of Adamantius) and (b) that the canonical gospels were written by the individuals associated with them (especially Matthew and John).

    I wonder though whether the Marcionites would have expressed such reservations about the idea that some of the disciples – Peter in particular – wrote ἀπομνημονεύματα or υπομνηματα? I think this is the decisive issue.

    When the Letter to Theodore identifies the stuff that goes into the sausage which is ‘secret Mark’ it does so by using the same terminology as Justin, Papias and Eusebius – υπομνηματα or ἀπομνημονεύματα (terms which mean the exact same thing cf. Xenophon whose work is identified alternatively by both names).

    While some might argue that Eusebius’s identification of Mark’s text as a υπομνημα (Church History 2.15) doesn’t prove anything because Smith could have used this as the basis to his formulation in to Theodore, it is starting to get ridiculous how many dimensions there are to this conspiracy

    Moreover the consistent identification of Mark’s work as a memoir is coupled by the fact that the canon curiously doesn’t have a ‘gospel’ associated with Peter. It would have been only natural for the Roman Church to put up a ‘gospel of Peter.’ It is hard to imagine that it was solely handcuffed by ‘truthfulness.’ The reality must have been that the story that Peter and Mark only established υπομνηματα or ἀπομνημονεύματα (i.e. something imperfect) must have been very old and very established.

    It is very hard to reconcile the concept of υπομνηματα or ἀπομνημονεύματα with divinely created texts ‘established by the Holy Spirit’ to accord with supernal patterns of ‘four’ in heaven (as Irenaeus declares in Book Three of his Against Heresies. Indeed Justin, Papias choice of terminology makes Irenaeus’s inclusion of this υπομνημα as part of the divine ‘four’ is highly suspicious as υπομνηματα and ἀπομνημονεύματα are terms which are incompatible with divinity. They are wholly human creations.

    So we see Irenaeus avoid the terminology completely and instead focuses on developing Mark into an ‘interpreter’ of Peter.

    Everywhere we look though there is the strong sense that some sort of uneasiness exists about the relationship between Mark and Peter and the υπομνηματα or ἀπομνημονεύματα which eventually became refashioned into perfected gospels. I think this is decisive. The υπομνηματα or ἀπομνημονεύματα necessarily came first as Clement reports in to Theodore.


  7. jimmy said,

    28 januari, 2011 den 15:22

    Comments to Stephan: (Use translation,my english is terrible

    ”Vad nu gäller Markus, skrev han under Petrus’ vistelse i Rom
    om Herrens gärningar, berättade dock inte om alla och antydde inte heller något om de mystiska, utan valde ut dem som han ansåg nyttigast till att öka katekumenerna tro. Men sedan Petrus lidit martyrdöden, kom Markus till Alexandria och medförde både sina egna och Petrus’minnesanteckningar, varav han till sin första bok överflyttade det som passar med sådant som främjar kunskapen och sammanställde ett andligare evangelium till bruk för dem som var i färd med att fullkomnas.”

    Att Markus när han kommer till Alexandria skulle förväxla vem som är frälsaren vore lika komisk som om Morton av misstag satt dit sitt namn i överskriften till brevet ” Mortons brev till Teodoros” och inte upptäckt det förrän det för sent.


  8. 28 januari, 2011 den 16:56

    Well Stephan, concerning my update that Scott Brown still believes that canonical Mark preceded secret Mark, and you also believes this; I would like to emphasize that my reason for believing the opposite has nothing to do with the things the early Christians maintained. My reason is solely based on internal observations within the body of the Gospel which in the Bible is known as Mark and in a longer version was quoted by Clement. If you do not know what will be in SecMk1 and how it will interact with the surrounding material in Mark, how could you then compose the grave-act (Mark 16:1–8)? How could you compose the grave-act if you later are to compose a framing story? And if SecMk2 is part of the original version and interacts with SecMk1 which in turn interacts with the intersecting material, how could SecMk1 then not have been written? If one solely studies how the Secret Gospel material interacts with the material in the Gospel of Mark, I find it difficult to reach any other conclusion than that the original composition of the Gospel of Mark also included the additional secret/mystic material. Scott Brown is aware of this, and in a recent paper (which I have not read yet) titled “The Longer Gospel of Mark and the Synoptic Problem” published in the book “New Studies in the Synoptic Problem”, pp. 753-81, he is suggesting that there might be a way to solve this with a slightly later date for the secret Gospel. I could consider to go as far as both gospels being composed at the same time.


  9. 28 januari, 2011 den 17:10

    Jimmy, angående brevskrivandet! En kyrkofader som Klemens skulle ha haft en assistent som måhända också kontrolläste brevet innan han personligen reste till Theodoros och egenhändigt överlämnade det. Som regel lät också uppsatta personer som Klemens, vilken kan jämföras med en nutida biskop, spara en kopia av varje brev han skrev. Ett brev var många gånger mer än ett brev och det skrevs också för att bevaras för framtiden. Att Klemens var privat hänger sannolikt samman med att han också i brevet (eller i ett medföljande brev) givit instruktioner för hur det skulle behandlas och vilka som skulle tänkas kunna få tillgång till innehållet. När Klemens dog hade han sannolikt redan en färdig samling som han godkänt för ett framtida bevarande. Man kan också tänka sig att Theodoros och andra uppsatta, vilka kan tänkas ha delgivits innehållet, sparade Klemens’ brev. På 700-talet fanns en samling bestående av minst 21 Klemensbrev i Mar Saba, och trots att inget enda brev har överlevt till vår tid, kan man tänka sig att det brev Smith påträffade var en avskrift av ett av de brev som en gång funnits på Mar Saba.


    • jimmy said,

      30 januari, 2011 den 11:28

      Det kan ha gått till så som du beskriver:

      ”Man kan också tänka sig att Theodoros och andra uppsatta, vilka kan tänkas ha delgivits innehållet, sparade Klemens’ brev. På 700-talet fanns en samling bestående av minst 2 Klemensbrev i Mar Saba.”

      Men vi vet inte hur detta brev kom till Mar Saba.

      ”En kyrkofader som Klemens skulle ha haft en assistent som måhända också kontrolläste brevet innan han personligen reste till Theodoros och egenhändigt överlämnade det.”

      Det kan ju tänkas att det är han som är orsaken till att brevet blev känt eftersom växlingen går via assistenten. När han läste att Klemens bekänner att det finns ett annat evangelium av Markus inte åtog sig att gå med bud till den där Theodoros. Han ville inte göra sig själv delaktig i hemlighållandet utan lämnade istället över Klemens brev till någon annan uppsatt som lärde ut om Jesus.


      • 30 januari, 2011 den 13:02

        Visst. Men allt detta blir ändå bara spekulationer då vi inte har något som stöder vare sig det ena eller det andra. Om brevet är äkta (som jag tror) får vi tills vidare nöja oss med att vi inget känner till om dess vidare historia.


  10. jimmy said,

    30 januari, 2011 den 19:27

    Jovisst är det spekulativt men eftersom det äkta brevet inte beskriver vanliga människor och händelser, och många av dem som läser är van vid det, så är det väl bättre att göra något med tiden medans man väntar,tex ett försök till förklaring hur brevet kom till Mar Saba.


  11. jimmy said,

    30 januari, 2011 den 21:16

    Obs Roger, kommentaren 19:27 är bara en förklaring till hur jag tänkte när jag skrev inlägget om assistenten.



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