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.
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