Larry W. Hurtado has published a blog post on the Secret Gospel of Mark (“Secret Mark”: Heat and (Insufficient) Light), being called attention to by the recent conference at York University Toronto on Secret Mark, which he did not attend. I first spotted this at Stephan Huller’s blog.
Hurtado who wrote the foreword to Stephen Carlson’s book The Gospel Hoax, continues to support Carlson’s argument and he is a firm believer in the letter’s inauthenticity. He also says that the “hoax question … isn’t the only question, and it certainly isn’t the case that everything else depends on”. He therefore reiterates a few points from his own book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), 433-37 and lists them in four points.
- It remains curious that this is the only putative letter of Clement of Alexandria to survive, when he is reported to have written many.
Is not this a rather odd argument? Statistically and mathematically this is not an argument at all in favour of inauthenticity. If this letter would never have been found, then no letter at all would have survived and yet this would also have been quite normal, since this then would have been the way it was. And how many letters should have survived, before the one containing Secret Mark would not have been curious? One, two, three …?
- It is also curious how this putative letter would have survived somehow from ca. 200 CE down at least to the date of the printed book into which it was written, with no other reference to it (even though it purports to refer to an otherwise unknown version of Mark).
This on the other hand could be seen as a valid argument, at least superficially. Yet it still is not an argument strictly statistically, since you always need to compare it to something else. It is all about probabilities.
In Sweden we had a comedian (among other things he was) named Tage Danielsson, who performed a very famous sketch regarding the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Harrisburg. He said in my translation the following on probability calculus:
“They are for example very different before and after. I mean, before Harrisburg, it was highly improbable that what happened in Harrisburg would happen, but as soon as it had happened, it suddenly became so one hundred percent probable that it was almost certain that it had happened. But only almost certain. This is the strange part. It is as if they mean that what happened in Harrisburg was so incredibly unlikely so in reality it probably did not happen.”
All the Christian scriptures we know of and have references to are scriptures that we know of and have references to. Then there are those Christian scriptures which we do not know of and have no references to. They are probably in number exceeding those we know of. And then there are scriptures which we previously did not know of but have come to know of – for instance the Egerton Gospel. This does not mean that this Gospel fragment is an alleged forgery. As soon as we find a new text which we previously did not know of, then in Tage Daniellson’s words, it suddenly becomes so one hundred percent probable that it is almost certain that it has existed. But only almost certain.
- It is further curious that some scholars (e.g., Helmut Koester) take the purported excerpts of a “Secret Mark” as stemming from a version of Mark supposedly earlier than the familiar text. Analysis of the excepts [sic! excerpts] has convinced a number of scholars that it is a pastiche of phrases from Mark and John in particular. Also, the excerpts seem to depend upon and expand passages in Mark, especially the reference to the unidentified “young man” in Mark 14:51-52 where Jesus is arrested. The ancient copying/transmission of texts tended more to resolve difficulties rather than to create them, and to explain/expand narrative scenes, not so much to make them puzzling. So, on these bases, the purported excepts [sic! excerpts] of “Secret Mark” are (whether ancient or modern in origin) more likely secondary, not indicative of a version of Mark earlier than the familiar text.
What an argument! How could Koester (and also someone like me) take “Secret Mark” as stemming from a version of Mark supposedly earlier than the familiar text when “a number of scholars” are convinced “that it is a pastiche” forgery? The argument that “Secret Mark” would be a pastiche “of phrases from Mark and John in particular” are not convincing (see my article The pastiche forgery of Secret Mark, as presented by Francis Watson). Yet, this is not the startling assertion, but that the fact that it even could be considered as an argument that a number of scholars are convinced. Of course this is no argument at all; no more than an argument that a number of scholars are convinced of the opposite is.
It is also no more than a suggestion that “the excerpts seem to depend upon and expand passages in Mark”, since the most obvious interpretation is the other way round. They look Markan because they were written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Mark. It is strange how often forgery proponents try to turn the arguments upside down. What looks Markan or Clementine are forgeries, since a clever counterfeiter would have known how to imitate Mark and Clement. But the best these types of arguments could do is to oppose the argument of authenticity. If something looks like it was written by a certain author, then this strengthen that this author also wrote this. To say that a clever forger could imitate the style only shows that it could have been a forgery. But in itself it is no argument for inauthenticty.
- It is finally curious that some people seem to stake so much on an unprovenanced and unverified text, for which we now have available only purported photos. This hardly seems a promising basis on which to build any theories about Mark or early Christianity.
Here of course Hurtado does not even try to argue for inauthenticty. He only tries to throw suspicion on the text and suggest that we should not deal with it. But if Clement attests to this Secret Gospel of Mark, this of course would give the text both provenance and verification.
But this is really not that important, because one wing among the Christians prevailed, and they decided what was authoritative and what was not. Just because the Church Fathers did not deal with some of the scriptures (at least not openly), does not mean they did not exist.
So neither of these arguments gives any strength to the forgery hypothesis.
Roger Viklund, 2011-05-13