Francis Watson on the Secret Gospel of Mark

“While discussion of the Secret Gospel will no doubt continue, my hope and expectation is that it will be increasingly ignored by scholars who fear, with good reason, that their work will be corrupted by association with it.”


Francis Watson

This is how Francis Watson, Chair of Biblical Interpretation at Durham University, England, ends his response to Allan J. Pantuck, in a new article in Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR). And this should perhaps also have been the end of my blog post, since Watson’s closing remark really says it all. His “hope” is that the Secret Gospel of Mark “will be increasingly ignored by scholars”. I found the current article, Beyond Reasonable Doubt: A Response to Allan J. Pantuck, to be biased by Watson’s conviction that Morton Smith forged the Mar Saba letter and that the article therefore was lacking even more in substance than his previous, longer and fundamental paper (Beyond Suspicion: On the Authorship of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark, JTS 61, 2010), to which Pantuck was replying in the first place in Solving the Mysterion of Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark (see also my review: Allan J. Pantuck on the Secret Gospel of Mark).

Maybe Watson meant to say that the Mar Saba letter for certain is a forgery and that he therefore is hoping that no one would be wasting efforts on interpreting a forgery. But the sheer lack of evidence presented by Watson in favour of the letter being forged and his total confidence that so also is the case, speaks against such an interpretation. Instead Watsons sets out from the expectation that we should ignore Secret Mark and that it is a fact that Morton Smith made it up; and from this conviction he tries to support his view.

Allan Pantuck choose to refute just two of the many arguments Watson presented in his fundamental paper; the ones that Hershel Shanks, the editor of BAR, found most persuasive. That is the parallels between Smith’s discovery and the plot in James Hogg Hunter’s novel The Mystery of Mar Saba, and 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.

Watson claims that Pantuck’s isolating of “two of the more accessible bits of this argument, and then speculating on the probability or otherwise of striking coincidences, does little to further the debate”. He believes “that Morton Smith’s authorship can be established ‘beyond reasonable doubt’” only if all of his arguments are “considered in full”.

This is a very strange way of arguing. Of course it is legitimate to refute individual arguments within a complex of many more arguments. And why would the full consideration of every argument show that Watson is right, if it can be shown that the individual arguments he presents cannot withhold a critical examination? In fact Watson presented very few new facts in his paper. Most of what he presented was the same old arguments already laid out by others, such as Stephen Carlson; and many of those has already been refuted. Just because Watson rehashed some of those and made them even more improbable, does not mean that they were new.

For example, Watson presents parallels between the Secret Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Mark and claims that the pericope thereby “would seem to be the work of an author determined to pattern his own work on mainly Markan phraseology.” But he does not even suggest the most obvious explanation; that the phraseology was Markan BECAUSE it was written by the same person who also wrote the Gospel of Mark. In The pastiche forgery of Secret Mark, as presented by Francis Watson, I showed that I could find even closer parallels in the Gospel of Mark to the parallels presented by Watson than he himself could find to the Secret Gospel of Mark. Of course you will find parallels to a certain writer if in fact he is the writer. In any normal circumstances a close parallel between a text and the genuine writing of a certain author is an indication that this author also is the author of the text. But this is not the case when it comes to the Mar Saba letter, because it has to be a forgery, and therefore also the things which indicates that it is genuine is used to argue that it is a forgery. Stephan Huller has repeatedly noted on his blog the same thing when it comes to the writing of Clement; that although everything is typical of Clement, it is nevertheless interpreted as a clever forgery by those who so badly wants it to be a forgery.

Pantuck objected to Watson’s claim that in the Mar Saba letter does Smith’s earlier view finds its confirmation, by showing that Smith’s view actually changed by his discovery. Watson agrees that there “is indeed a shift of emphasis at this point” but he retorts by saying that it “does not amount to much”:

“For one thing, the Secret Gospel still has Jesus teaching the mystery of the kingdom of God, even though the nocturnal setting and the partial or complete nudity of the two male participants hint at “rites” of a strictly private nature.”

Now, I have no great expectations for the forgery-proponents when it comes to making solid arguments for their case. But I become a bit surprised when someone is actually not telling the truth. What on earth does Watson suggest when he writes: “the partial or complete nudity of the two male participants”? Let me quote the actual passage from the Secret Gospel of Mark:

“And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God.”

Without any restrictions, Watson says that both Jesus and the youth are either partially or completely nude. Let us begin with Jesus. Where is it said that Jesus was either partially or completely nude? It is said that Jesus taught the youth the mystery of the kingdom of God, probably during the night. But nothing is said about Jesus taking off his clothes. What about the youth then? Is it said that he is naked? Not at all, only that he just wears a linen cloth. Does this mean that he is partially naked? Of course not. It is suggested that the linen cloth coved the entire body, and thereby you are neither partially, nor totally naked. This clearly untrue statement by Watson is really poor scholarship. How can you argue with someone who is not paying regards to the facts?

Watson’s first objection is obviously nothing to pay attention to. What about his second objection?

“In addition, my argument does not assert or require a total continuity between Smith’s views pre- and post-discovery, only a high degree of continuity. The full force of this point is only evident if one grasps how unusual Smith’s esotericism is within the context of New Testament scholarship in the 1950s and indeed today.”

Okey, but Pantuck’s objection was that Smith changed his opinion on this matter after the discovery. To this Watson gives no reply apart from saying that Pantuck’s objection “does not amount to much” and then he says that his argument does only assert or require “a high degree of continuity”. This of course is no objection at all and Pantuck’s argument is still valid.

The second subject is the alleged parallels to Hunter’s novel. Interestingly, Watson presents another parallel in order to show that “coincidences do happen in real life”. He then makes up a story of a hypothetical novel written in c. 1895 before the “Piltdown Man hoax of 1912”. Watson obviously suggests this to be a better parallel to Morton Smith’s discovery and that this example therefore would be refuting Pantuck’s parallels. I must say that I find it difficult to follow Watson’s logic. How can you prove something by MAKING UP a parallel and showing this to be similar to an actual incident? I would for sure have preferred a parable by Jesus.

The Hunter novel parallel is really stupid. If you only think for yourself, it is so plain meaningless. How on earth can one believe that Morton Smith would have modeled a forgery upon the plot in a spy novel? Of course you can model a novel upon an actual event. It is just to make up that story. But if you are imitating a novel, you also need to act like the novel, such as searching and be given access to the library at Mar Saba in order to plant the forgery; and like Watson claims, also express yourself in similar terms when you describe how you made your discovery.

Watson totally fails to refute anything presented by Pantuck.

Roger Viklund, 2011-04-22

2 kommentarer

  1. 22 april, 2011 den 23:28

    I think you hit the nail right on the head when you took exception to Watson’s ‘hope’ is that he can make everyone so ashamed of the text that no one uses it. Imagine if one company wanted to disprove the use of another company’s product by making up claims that it caused cancer or it was made with child labor in India. In a way this is what these hoaxers have been doing from the start so we might commend Watson for his honesty. Perhaps he has to be so honest because he’s having difficulty making up new stupid theories. Although there’s the Jaeger = hunter discussion that takes up a large part of the paper. Why not just send people over to punch people like you and me in the face? (they can’t burn the text because it’s already disappeared).

    Watson is recognized for his originality in his other works. At the same time many commentators have notice there is something of a manic absurdity to many of his positions. Nevertheless I say continue to bring on the crazy. The authenticity position looks all the more reasonable when the other side can only come up with rejected material for the Da Vinci Code …


    • 23 april, 2011 den 09:39

      It is though amazing that he manages to produce so little of substance when he is given the opportunity.



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