Allan J. Pantuck on the Secret Gospel of Mark

A review of Allan J. Pantuck’s latest article published at Biblical Archaeology Review, Solving the Mysterion of Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark.

Allan Jonathan Pantuck, MD, MS, FACS. Associate Professor of Urology, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

And so it finally came out. Having had the privilege of reading Allan Pantuck’s latest article in advance, I have been eagerly waiting for it to be published in Biblical Archaeology Review. Pantuck makes no great fuzz, but his arguments are very persuasive.

The article is mainly a response to two of Francis Watson’s arguments in his article Beyond Suspicion: On the Authorship of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark, JTS 61 (2010); and then the two arguments which Hershel Shanks “appears to have found most persuasive”.

In the first part of the article, Pantuck deals with Watson’s assumption that Morton Smith made an idiosyncratic analysis of the Gospel of Mark in which he laid out arguments that according to Watson also was confirmed by Smith’s discovery of The Secret Gospel of Mark. In the second part Pantuck deals with the purported similarities between Smith’s discovery of Clement’s letter to Theodoros and the plot in James H. Hunter’s 1940-novel The Mystery of Mar Saba.

The analysis of the Gospel of Mark

In The Secret Gospel of Mark Jesus is said to have taught the youth the “mystery of the kingdom of God”. In the years before his discovery, Smith made some exegesis on Mark 4:11, where Jesus says that also his disciples had “been given the mystery of the kingdom of God”. Pantuck writes:

“While Watson acknowledges that there would be nothing unusual in finding some points of continuity between Smith’s prior views and his later interpretation of the Secret Gospel, he finds a scenario where these views themselves coincide so closely to the contents of the letter as to be suspicious. However, he does not consider how one should view significant discontinuities between Smith’s pre-discovery views, the contents of the letter, and Smith’s subsequent post-discovery interpretation. Yet, contra Watson, it is such discontinuities that we in fact find, lending support to the notion that Smith’s discovery led him to reevaluate and alter his prior views in significant ways.”

Pantuck shows that prior to Smith’s discovery of the Secret Gospel of Mark, Smith held to the opinion that the word mysterion in the context of Mark 4:11 meant that Jesus was teaching in secret, and therefore “the mysterion of the kingdom of God concerned secret teachings and not secret rites.” But after Smith made the discovery he also changed his opinion in this matter and instead claimed that the opinion “that mysterion can never mean ‘secret rite,’ was ‘false’ and, in one aspect, ‘incredible.’”

Further Pantuck deals with Smith’s view on the relation between the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John. Watson claims that Smith was of the opinion that parts from John and Mark 2:1–3:6 “may derive from a common source.” But according to Pantuck Smith instead showed in detail, that “they completely lack Johannine traits.” But after his discovery, Smith thought that there was a common Aramaic source behind the two gospels. In fact it was only in 1963, after three years of frequent discussions with Cyril Richardson, that Smith changed his understanding and came to the conclusion that there probably was a common source behind John and Mark.

Both of these two examples show that Smith changed his opinion on fundamental issues due to his discovery, and such turning of the tide is far more persuasive in order to establish authenticity, than any number of superficial similarities between Smith’s prior views and his later interpretation of the Secret Gospel of Mark are to establish forgery.

James Hogg Hunter’s novel The Mystery of Mar Saba

I guess that not many of today’s advocators of pro and con forgery, actually have read The Mystery of Mar Saba by Hunter. Perhaps if they did, not so many would argue that Smith used the novel as a template to forge the letter; both its content and the way it was discovered. Many things can be held against such a fanciful idea, although it seems to have persuaded among others Francis Watson, Stephen Carlson and Robert M. Price. But Pantuck tackles the problem from a different perspective. Instead of putting too much effort into dealing directly with the similarities which Watson has elaborated upon, Pantuck lists a few examples of extraordinary similarities in other areas which for certain have happened by chance. If such extraordinary similarities can occur by chance, why would we not be able to come up with some similarities also regarding Smith’s discovery – Pantuck seems to say.

Pantuck gives a five examples. He compares Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, in which there is a shipwreck and four survivors are stuck in a boat. After a few days of hunger they killed and ate a cabin boy named Richard Parker. And forty years later there was an actual shipwreck with only four survivors stranded in an open boat and eventually three from the crew did kill and eat a cabin boy named Richard Parker.

Then there is Morgan Robertson’s novel Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan where a ship named the Titan sunk after hitting an iceberg. 14 years later Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg in the same month and at the same place. The ships were both unsinkable, of almost equal size, and both had too few lifeboats.

Pantuck also finds another striking parallel to Smith’s discovery, but this time made by a certain Sophronius in the monastery of St. Catherine’s. Pantuck says that the “parallels here are more substantial than those Watson proposes”. But since this discovery was made in 1975, Smith could not really have imitated the story. And no one has suggested that Sophronius imitated Smith.

The fourth example deals with a letter written by an editor by the name of Clement Alexandre; a letter found by Pantuck in Morton Smith’s archives at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Pantuck asks himself:

“What are the odds that I should discover in a seminary library a previously unknown letter of Clement Alexandre requesting permission to publish the writings of Morton Smith”?

And the final example has to do with Pantuck searching the archives in order to find material regarding Morton Smith’s time at Brown University. He did for sure find a letter written by Morton Smith to the president of Brown University, but it was another Morton Smith, obviously “living in Providence, Rhode Island, at the same time”.

I have never been impressed by these forced parallels, perhaps because I have read the book and really thought the similarities were superficial. But Pantuck has in my opinion hit the Hunter novel parallel paradigm and sunk the Titanic.

My own take on this issue

Although Pantuck to some degree also makes a critical examination of some of Watson’s arguments concerning the similarities between the plot in the novel and the real discovery made by Smith, more can be said. And, for what it is worth, here is my take on this issue …

The similarities between Smith’s discovery and James Hogg Hunter’s novel from 1940 are purely imaginary similarities. The purported similarity between The Clement letter and Hunter’s novel is based on mathematically flawed statistics. You need to take into account every other novel that has been written before 1958, because if you start by looking for a novel with a content that resembles the Clement letter and its discovery, the chance of finding one that shares some similarities rapidly increases with the number of books you put into the calculation. I believe Alan Pantuck has shown this beyond any doubt. If you’re allowed to use the whole world literature with its vast number of novels counted in hundreds of thousand or perhaps millions, the chance of finding a novel which at least superficially resembles the discovery of Clement’s letter to Theodoros seems to be fairly high.

Further you have to take into account that both The Shred of Nicodemus (the text found in the novel) and Clement’s letter to Theodoros with extracts from the Secret Gospel of Mark are, and are relying upon, Gospel material, and therefore are bound to show similarities. Further the purported similarity that both are forgeries made at Mar Saba is not to be dealt with in a statistical analysis, since the suggestion that Clement’s letter to Theodoros actually is a forgery cannot be part of any parallels when in fact this very issue is the thing that is proposed and therefore the object of the investigation. If that is put into the calculation, it will be part of a circular reasoning. The question we should ask ourselves is if we were to take any event in modern history and tried to find a novel written before that event with a content that resembles it, would we likely come up with a parallel?

Francis Watson in the article, Beyond Suspicion: on the Authorship of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark (JTS 61, 2010, 128-170), further elaborates on these purported similarities. After Francis Watson has summarized the plot of Hunter’s novel, he says: “Thus far, the parallel with Smith’s Mar Saba discovery is intriguing but inexact.” Yes, because the only real similarity he presents is the place of Mar Saba, where of course you could make a discovery of this magnitude and also a place you easily would chose in a novel for the same reason. And there is no similarity that both documents are forged (as he suggests), since we do not know that Clement’s letter to Theodoros is forged and as I said, one cannot simply assume that and use this as evidence when the actual issue is whether or not it is forged. If so it is a circular reasoning.

Then of course it was no secret that most manuscripts had been carried off to Jerusalem and that Morton Smith therefore would not have had any great expectations to make a major discovery. Watson writes that the “Nicodemus fragment and the letter to Theodore are discovered in similar circumstances narrated in similar language.” But what kinds of parallels are there really when Watson in Hunter’s novel finds that Sir William Bracebridge at a meeting back in London uses the word reconciled, while Smith wrote that he was reconciling himself; both to something negative, yet expressed differently? Really far-fetched! If you search for these kinds of similarities, you are bound to find some. Besides, there really are no “similar circumstances”.

Watson also claims that the “two Mar Saba discoveries are … similar in content.” To show this he says that in both cases a “short but sensational excerpt of an early text is discovered”. Now seriously, this is really generally expressed. What else could they find? In Smith’s case he did find many non-sensational finds and this one was the sensational one. Are we then to suppose that he forged it because of this? Or shall we believe that he was inspired by Hunter to produce a sensational text?

Further Watson claims that the discovery was made “together with a text or texts dating from the second century (manuscripts of Hermas and Barnabas, and of the letter to Theodore, respectively).” This is not entirely correct. It is (as far as I can see) never said in the novel that The Shepherd of Hermas and The Epistle of Barnabas are from the second century and as you probably all know, they could be from the first century. In the novel there are three separate documents, one for each book; and the third, The Shred of Nicodemus, is dated to the first century. This Shred of Nicodemus is never said to be “short” and is for sure no excerpt from a letter of Clement. So The Shred of Nicodemus is not short, not necessarily found together with a text or texts dating from the second century and there are separate documents found. The Mar Saba letter on the other hand is only one letter, with two short excerpts from Secret Mark and the letter could well have been written by Clement in the third century.

But the real problem lies in the causality. We are supposed to believe that Smith read a poor apologetic spy novel, got inspired to make a forgery in a similar fashion, which includes having a similar name as the Chief of the London police, Lord Moreton, a minor character being introduced late in the story, then started to study different fields in order to acquire the competence needed for the task. He then managed to get permission to visit Mar Saba, in spite of their restrictions, in order to plant his forgery. As I understand it Smith was given a special permission as a personal gesture to catalogue books at Mar Saba. What are the odds that someone being inspired by a novel to make a forgery at Mar Saba, also would get permission to examine manuscripts at Mar Saba? Because, one needs to assume that this was the causality in this context.

I would say that the only reasonable influence by the book on Smith, would be if he saw the title and came up with the idea to make a forgery and plant it at Mar Saba, as he was planning on going there anyway. But then he just as easily could have come up with that idea for a number of other reasons.

Roger Viklund, 2011-02-20


6 kommentarer

  1. the_cave said,

    21 februari, 2011 den 02:54

    If Pantuck has been reading my blog, I’d be honored :)

    But if he has been considering the novel Futility under his own initiative, I’m equally delighted. And these are wonderful other examples he’s uncovered.

    (At any rate I currently plan to attend the conference in Toronto, and hope to meet him there.)


    • 21 februari, 2011 den 19:03

      You can say hello to him from me. If I were a bird I only had 6,182 kilometers or 3,841 miles to fly to get there :)


  2. Den andre BB said,

    21 februari, 2011 den 08:14

    ”Further the purported similarity that both are forgeries made at Mar Saba is not to be dealt with in a statistical analysis” – I cannot agree here. The similarity is that both documents are found at Mar Saba, not that they are forgeries found there. The title of Hunter’s work even contains the monestarys name. I do not believe it is circular to claim similarity here, but rather that the claim of circularity is an avoidance of the issue… Regarding the Shred of Nicodemus being ”short”, I believe the document is presented in Greek and English in one of the first pages of the book, and that it indeed is short.


  3. 21 februari, 2011 den 18:07

    “Regarding the Shred of Nicodemus being “short”, I believe the document is presented in Greek and English in one of the first pages of the book, and that it indeed is short.“

    You are correct in that the essential passage is illustrated on page 8, before the prologue. It is depicted as a fragment written in Greek Uncials with an English translation presented beneath.

    But this is not the actual text that was found, but simply the part that Sir William Bracebridge at the time had been able to decipher of the manuscript (p. 280). It was the part that was of interest for the readers to be informed of. The whole finding consisted of …

    “three manuscrips … Two of them were exact duplicates of ‘The Shepherd of Hermas’ and ‘The Epistle of Barnabas and the other … I have called ‘The Shred of Nicodemus’” (p. 279)

    When the finding is presented in London …

    Sir William lifted a bundle from the brief case, and coming forward placed it on the table. He lifted the top sheets of the pile. “Here is the one I speak of. The other two need not concern us, since they are duplicates of the other already extant and known, and do not invalidate any doctrine of Scripture. It is this one, gentlemen, that may change the history of the world.”
    Alderson lifted the document from the table. It consisted of only one sheet of parchment. That it was of great age was obvious. The writing was in Greek Uncials, and was on both sides of the manuscript. Some parts of it were almost faded out of existence, but with the application of certain chemicals he knew that the writing could be revived. He turned again to Sir William.
    “Have you read it all?“
    The other shook his head.
    “As you can see, it cannot all be deciphered yet. We can do it, however, with time. It was the part I did read that brought me herein such haste.“
    ”What does it say?”
    Sir William took the manuscript from his friend’s hand, and pointed to certain lines in it. “Here is the translation of these lines, and you people, I may say, are the first in the world outside of myself, to know them. It is understood, of course, that no word of this must cross your lips until I lay the matter before my patrons in London.“
    The others nodded, and the archaeologist went on:
    “Here, then, is the translation of this part that so vitally concerns the destiny, of the world. It reads:

    ’I, Nicodemus, in company with Joseph of Arimathea in early morn of the first day of the week removed the body of Jesus. Coming forth we found the tomb opened and the stone rolled away after the earthquake. We left the linen cloths in the tomb and carried Him forth lest profane hands desecrate His body. We buried Him in the sepulchre near the garden over the Kedron where standeth the pillar Absalom reared for himself in the King’s Dale.’ (pp. 282-3)

    As can be seen “The Shred of Nicodemus” is said to be …

    1) a manuscript
    2) consist of several sheets as he “lifted the top sheets of the pile” and said: “Here is the one I speak of”.
    3) The sheet that contained the interesting part and the part that Sir William had deciphered “consisted of only one sheet of parchment” and the writing “was on both sides of the manuscript”. It was “the translation of this part that so vitally concerns the destiny, of the world.“

    The actual quoted part could only have consisted of a minor part of the parchment and of course an even smaller part of the whole manuscript.

    Watson says this:

    “The two Mar Saba discoveries are also similar in content. In both cases, a short but sensational excerpt of an early text is discovered, together with a text or texts dating from the second century (manuscripts of Hermas and Barnabas, and of the letter to Theodore, respectively).”

    And I am saying that this simply is wrong.

    1) The discovery made is NOT of a short excerpt of an early text, but of at least a large part of a manuscript from which a short excerpt is quoted in the book. Would anyone expect that the entire manuscript would be quoted in the novel?

    2) There is no proof that Hermas, Barnabas, and the letter to Theodore are from the second century. Both Hermas and Barnabas could very well be from the late first century. And since Clement lived until c. 215, his letter could very well or rather probably be from the third century.


  4. 21 februari, 2011 den 18:59

    “Further the purported similarity that both are forgeries made at Mar Saba is not to be dealt with in a statistical analysis” – I cannot agree here. The similarity is that both documents are found at Mar Saba, not that they are forgeries found there.

    Well, that was what I intended to say also. It is the forgery-part that cannot be part of a statistical analysis.

    Watson never says it out loud that the issue of forgery is to be included in “the calculation”, but he depicts it in such a way as if it would be intriguing. Among other things he says regarding The Shred of Nicodemus:

    “This twentieth-century forgery is as good as it needs to be in the context of a popular novel; only a fictional scholar would be deceived by it. Yet the parallels between the two Mar Saba fragments are intriguing.”


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