Philip Jenkins’ New Parallel to Secret Mark: “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes”


Philip Jenkins

Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, has published the article Alexandrian Attitudes: A new source for the “Secret Gospel of Mark.” in Books and Culture: A Christian Review.

I read the article yesterday and commented upon it today on Tony Burke’s blog Apocryphicity; Philip Jenkins’ New Parallel to Secret Mark: “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes”. I decided to turn my comment into a regular blog post.

Jenkins was the one who first (in 2001) suggested that Morton Smith had read Hunter’s novel “The Mystery of Mar Saba” and from that got inspired to forge Clement’s letter to Theodoros including quotations made from a Secret Gospel of Mark. I have dealt with that so-called parallel to some degree in my blog post Allan J. Pantuck on the Secret Gospel of Mark.

In Alexandrian Attitudes Jenkins has found a new parallel to the Secret Gospel of Mark in Angus Wilson’s 1956 novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. The plot in Jenkins’ own summary is as follows:

“Wilson’s novel synthesizes these three episodes. He describes the 1912 excavation at the Anglo-Saxon site of Melpham, which features the grave of a celebrated 7th- century missionary bishop named Eorpwald. (The date recalls Piltdown, the setting suggests Sutton Hoo.) To the astonishment of the chief excavator, Lionel Stokesay, Eorpwald’s grave includes a phallic fertility idol. The only explanation the archaeologists can suggest is that, in these dark early centuries, even the leaders of the venerated Anglo-Saxon church practiced a clandestine syncretism, a dual faith. The heroic Eorpwald was an apostate.

By the time of the novel’s main action in the 1950s, that shocking theory has achieved a grudging consensus status among British historians. It is particularly welcomed by ”Rose Lorimer,” a thinly disguised version of the eccentric real-life scholar Margaret Murray, the inventor of many modern theories about the history of witchcraft and neo-paganism.”

To learn the plot more thoroughly you could read this Wikipedia article. I’ll turn to Jenkins’ arguments.

The parallels presented by Jenkins are as follows:

1)      Gilbert in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes sought to disgrace and embarrass the historical establishment who was stupid enough to believe an obvious hoax. Also Smith did the same thing.

2)      Wilson was openly gay and also Smith was (possibly) gay or at least bisexual.

3)      The items were in both cases “faked” in order make the church confront the possibility that those early predecessors themselves were open to unrestrained “pagan” sexuality.

4)      Anglo-Saxon Attitudes had a particular appeal for readers interested in scholarship or in accurate accounts of the scholarly world and for those who were gay. Smith would then have had a particular interest in such a novel.

5)      Both were forgeries planted in early Christian sites.

6)      In both plots there was a man named Theodore.

7)      The intrusive item promises to rewrite church history, by proving that Christian orthodoxy co-existed with controversial clandestine practices.

8)      Both cases include dual religions where both shadow religions have a strong sexual content.

The first five arguments are only focused on Smith and not on the artifact itself. Also, the arguments presuppose that Secret Mark in fact IS a forgery and that Smith was the culprit. But they are only relevant if Smith was gay (for which there are no proofs, and even if he were, would it be relevant?), that he would have been interested in that book and its themes, that he wanted to embarrass the establishment and to promote a gay view; all which are unsupported suggestions which need to be proven before they can be used as proof (to avoid circular reasoning).

The remaining three arguments focus upon the parallels between “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” and “Secret Mark”. In “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” the forged phallic fertility idol is placed in the grave of bishop Eorpwald, “who is identified as a disciple of the great English Archbishop Theodore.” In both plots there is then, according to Jenkins, a man named Theodore. This, however, is only true to some degree. The otherwise unknown person that Clement is writing his letter to is named Theodoros and not Theodore. Theodore is of course an English (or proto-English) adaption of the Greek name. I doubt that the Theodore in “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” also was known by the name of Theodoros. At least that name does not occur in the book and if that Theodore is based on an actual bishop (i.e. Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury), that man was probably also known by just the name Theodore.

Jenkins suggests that both findings promise to rewrite church history, by proving that Christian orthodoxy co-existed with controversial clandestine practices. And that is true. But seriously, how strange would that be? Secret Mark is a controversial text. But how difficult would it be to find a novel in which there is a controversial discovery made? Any thrilling novels in which discoveries are made are bound to include controversial discoveries. That is the genre of such novels.

Finally both shadow religions have, according to Jenkins, a strong sexual content. But then of course there is nothing sexual at all in Secret Mark. In the letter, Clement deals with an alleged sexual plot with a naked man with a naked man, but he strongly opposes that such a text was part of Secret Mark and the quotation he presents shows nothing of the kind.

So this so-called parallel is even more far-fetched than the one with “The Mystery of Mar Saba” and the only relevant parallel are the names Theodore – Theodoros. The name Theodore is though a very common ecclesiastical name.

However, I do wonder a bit about the mathematics in the scenario put forward by Jenkins. I have a really hard time understanding how he can envision that this “parallel” would make it more likely that Smith was influenced by fictional novels to make a forgery. Let’s follow Jenkins in his logic and see where it ends. He writes the following:

“In order to grant the truth of Morton Smith’s alleged discovery of the Mar Saba letter, at the particular time and place, we must accept an outrageous series of coincidences, to which we must now add explicit echoes of two separate contemporary novels. At some point, surely, Occam’s Razor requires us to seek the simplest explanation for the whole Mar Saba affair.”

Jenkins accordingly thinks that two parallels would be a stronger proof that Smith was influenced to forge the Mar Saba letter. Even though this parallel is a really weak parallel, for the sake of argument let’s presume it was a strong one. So, then we have two novels that might have influenced Smith. Which one was it then that influenced him? Is Jenkins suggesting that it was both and that they combined made a stronger impact than they would have done separately? Let’s say that we find another novel and another novel and another novel with parallels. Would it then be even more likely that Smith forged the text if we have five parallels? If we found a hundred novels (which possibly could be made if we simply need to find such superficial parallels as the ones found in “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes”) would it then be almost impossible that Secret Mark was genuine?

The truth is that the more parallels we can find, the less likely it is that Smith was influenced by anyone of these. Instead it shows that forgeries are a common theme in many novels and given that many tens of thousands such books has been written, there is nothing strange that occasional parallels to genuine events and artifacts can be found if you search through all the books available.

Roger Viklund, April 20, 2014