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A Follow-up on “Secret Mark”

May 20, 2011

In a posting a few days ago on this site, I commented on the recent conference on “Secret Mark,” observing that from reports not much seems to have changed on any side.  I then  reiterated some observations of my own, which are independent of (and were published originally prior to) the current controversy over whether Morton Smith concocted the letter.  Mr. Roger Viklund is a now-familiar zealous advocate of the authenticity and importance of the purported letter of Clement of Alexandria and, more important still, the putative “Secret Mark” excerpted in the letter.  Unable, thus, to tolerate any hint of suspicion about the text, he has posted a refutation of my “arguments”.

Oh dear!  I fear that his charming devotion to “Secret Mark” has led him to misconstrue my posting, which obviously was not a set of “arguments” but merely some observations, that I contend give us cause to hesitate to embrace the Clement letter and its purported excerpts as much of a basis for grand theories about the Gospel of Mark and Christian origins.  Mr. Viklund does not correct my observations (they stand as valid), but instead tries to minimize their force as “arguments”.  Of course, they do not build a case for the inauthenticity of the Clement letter (I never stated that they did), so Mr. Viklund’s anxiety and zeal to refute these “observations” is misplaced.

I must also correct him on another point:  The position I have taken up on the “Secret Mark” controversy is one of withholding judgement.  I wrote the foreword to Carlson’s book because I found his arguments sufficiently forceful to justify publication and to raise questions that needed to be addressed.  As Carlson’s book has in fact generated a good deal of subsequent debate, it is obvious that it was correct to publish it.

I’d also like to correct Viklund’s construal of a few of my observations in my previous posting.   My observation that it is curious that this is the only letter of Clement to survive stands.  That is, of all that Clement corresponded about, that only this letter with its tantalizing references to an otherwise unknown text should somehow survive is . . . . curious.  That’s not an “argument” that it’s inauthentic, but it is a reason to wonder why it is that only this purported letter survived, and a reason to treat it with some caution.

Likewise, my observation that it is curious that this apparently free-floating letter, supposedly written ca. 200 CE, survived for ca. 1500 yrs (till the putative 18th century copy was made) and yet only this one copy is extant remains valid.   There are other examples of ancient texts for which only one or two copies survive, and from much later, but it is always appropriate to note the lengthy centuries separating the supposed composition and the extant copy.  A lot can happen in that length of time!

Mr. Viklund points to texts such as the Egerton Gospel, but this is a late 2nd or early 3rd century copy of the text in question, not an 18th century copy.  Viklund is correct that there were many more ancient Christian texts than survive.  But that is no reason to treat this letter of Clement as authentic.  In other cases we have later copies of texts referred to in ancient Christian sources, but neither this putative letter of Clement nor the “Secret Mark” excerpted are referred to in any ancient sources.  Curious, yes??  Of all the many various Christian groups and views and texts referred to by, e.g., Irenaeus, Eusebius, & Epiphanius (who unhesitatingly referred to people and texts they regarded as “heretical”), nothing about this text.   Hmm.  A reason to be a bit cautious, I’d still say.

The observation that some scholars make these putative excerpts so important when a number of other scholars point to indications that the excerpts have an indebtedness to GMark and GJohn, also remains valid.  Of course that’s not an “argument” against authenticity of the text, but it is a damn good reason to hesitate andponder why some scholars are so ready to use this rather poorly provenanced (and now inaccessible) copy of a supposed letter of Clement for such dramatic constructions of the history of GMark, when the scholarly jury remains divided on some basic issues of authenticity.  It’s particularly odd, when the same scholars who seem so enthusiastic about the Clement letter show very good critical attitudes about some other early Christian texts, for which in fact we have hugely more (and much earlier) evidence.  Why such readiness to embrace this curious text with such enthusiasm (and in Viklund’s case with such desperate zeal)?

So, I reiterate my hope that further light can be shed.  Mr. Viklund’s excited attempt to refute my observations reflects the “heat” about which I complained.  Let’s have more light, and less heat.

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  1. Bo Grimes permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    As a layman who knows only English, I can not contribute to any of the debate, but I found this point less than convincing, even as an observation rather than an argument:

    “That is, of all that Clement corresponded about, that only this letter with its tantalizing references to an otherwise unknown text should somehow survive is . . . . curious. That’s not an “argument” that it’s inauthentic, but it is a reason to wonder why it is that only this purported letter survived, and a reason to treat it with some caution.”

    I don’t find it any more curious than the fact that the Rosetta Stone was once completely unique (to us, but probably not for its time) and still exceeding rare. To “wonder why” about something we can not know does not affect the letter’s authenticity; in fact, the very phrasing of “only this purported letter survived” is at best muddled language–either the letter in fact survived, no matter how, or it didn’t ‘survive’ because it wasn’t from Clement.

    Despite the protestations that this is not an argument, it sounds like one cloaked in ‘cautious’ language to suggest one is open to an idea he has already drawn conclusions about.

    It suggest reading the text through certain ‘concerns’ that are projected upon it and therefore influence the way it is read. That there is no other surviving copy currently discovered is not by itself evidence of anything. The Hackensack mummy forgery, for example, was determined to be ‘rag-stuffed fake’ not because it was rare but on the basis of other evidence.

    • Of course (to repeat my previous statements) this observation is not a clinching argument, so I’m not surprised that you don’t find it . . . clinching. But you are correct that the observation is intended to give one of a number of reasons (many published over the years in the scholarly debate) for caution in treating this purported letter of Clement as a basis for much. And I say “purported” letter precisely because it is presented as one but there are reasons to hesitate about its authenticity.
      I have to say that we differ over the force of the observation in question. Clement wrote many letters (from reports about him), and yet none survive, except this purported one. This makes it impossible to compare it with other Clement letters, which is one of the standard ways that scholars investigate the authorship of other purported letters of ancients (e.g., the Pauline letters in the NT, or the Ignatian letters).
      And it’s just plain curious that of all Clement’s many letters in which he likely responded to questions about Christian faith or whatever, the only one to survive (it is claimed) is this one, with its tantalizing bits of an otherwise unattested text. On the one hand, if authentic, it’s a real find, and against all the odds (given that none of Clement’s other letters survive). On the other hand, it is against the odds.

      • Bo Grimes permalink

        Life is against the odds, Dr. Hurtado; therefore I find your purported existence “just plain curious.” Against the odds never has any bearing on what *is,* only what we *think* may be likely for the future. It either is or isn’t despite the odds.

        I’m not sure the odds you find so curious are even calculable. Odds are merely an intellectual construct anyway. The odds of 5 apples falling from the same tree at the exact same moment say nothing about the apples after such an event actually happens, or doesn’t.

      • My friend, you’re playing mind games, abstract thought experiments, and I’m into historical likelihood and how to treat purported artifacts of early Christianity. If all we’re doing is saying “what’s the odds of X happening,” that’s a parlor game. But the question is whether to treat this unprovenanced and now inaccessible item as a basis for a re-configuration of the textual history ff the Gospel of Mark. I’m saying (as I do in my classes), anything is possible; the job of the critical scholar is to distinguish what is more or less probable. I reiterate that there are reasons aplenty for remaining cautious about building too much on the purported Clement letter. Practical reasons, not thought experiments.
        In any case, the Clement letter gives slender basis for much, as I contended in my book, Lord Jesus Christ. I treated it there cautiously as genuine, just for the sake of argument, and judged that it actually doesn’t provide the bases for the rather sweeping claims made by some.
        I’m from Missouri, and so I have to be shown! You’re obviously free to believe what you like. 10-4 good buddy.

  2. Fabrizio Palestini permalink

    Dear Prof. Hurtado,
    I found it rather surprising that, while complaining about the “heat” in the Secret Mark debate, your response to Viklund seems to me to be full of rethoric and sarcasm:
    “Mr. Roger Viklund is a now-familiar zealous advocate of the authenticity”, he is “unable, thus, to tolerate any hint of suspicion about the text”, expressions such as “oh dear!”, “his charming devotion to “Secret Mark””, “Mr. Viklund’s anxiety and zeal”, Viklund’s “desperate zeal”.

    My question is: who is heating the debate here?
    Viklund’s comments on your points are critical but totally unpolemical, what makes your reaction here even less understandable, in my opinion.
    Could you explain the reason of your tone?

    In bringing to your attention Viklund’s observations, I was simply trying to start an interesting scholarly exchange, not a rethorical outburst.

    A previous comment by me (similar to this one) apparently did not show out, but I’m being very polite in expressing my own considerations, even if they are somewhat critical. Maybe the disappearence is due to technical problems.
    Best regards

    • Oh dear! (Ooops, sorry, no sarcasm intended, either here or previously.) I’m sorry if my tone seemed “heated”, as it certainly wasn’t. But all that I said is true. Mr. Viklund is a well known SM advocate. Is that sarcasm? He does treat my rather obvious “observations” as if they were “arguments”, which he then refutes. Were they my “arguments”, his response would be more effective. But he doesn’t disprove my observations; he merely gives his arguments for why we should ignore them and treat SM as a new and important basis for reconstructing the literary and religious history of earliest Christianity. I’m sorry, but his enthusiasm does strike me as misguided and yet “charming” in a certain way.
      The substance of my posting was essentially to underscore that my observations remained valid, and had not been “refuted”, and that in spite of his enthusiasm for SM, I remain one of many who take a more agnostic stance on the item. My observations explained some (there are other) reasons.

  3. I especially liked your final paragraph. I have always found it curious a) that Clementine scholars accepted the letter so readily and b) that others like Koester and Brown among others not only accepted SMark as authentic but then used it to build a history of the gospel and of early Christianity as if it were as well provenanced as other early Christian texts.

    I think that my *b answers part of the issue you raise in the final paragraph: those who have been the most vocal in the last decade regarding authenticity are those who for whatever reason invested a significant part of their scholarly capital in SMark’s authenticity in the ’90s when the field was certainly moving toward full acceptance. It would be quite embarrassing (as Koester notes in his protests that if it isn’t authentic than he’s the biggest dupe ever–which isn’t much of an argument for authenticity) for those who so invested should SMark be a hoax or forgery.

  4. Fabrizio Palestini permalink

    Dear Prof. Hurtado,
    It is very surprising that, while complaining about the excessive “heat” characterising the Secret Mark debate, you show such a rethoric/sarcastic outburst against Viklund’s response.
    Mr. Viklund as a “now-familiar zealous advocate”, “Mr. Viklund’s anxiety and zeal”, his being “unable […] to tolerate any hint of suspicion about the text”, “his charming devotion to “Secret Mark””, exclamation such as “Oh dear!”, Viklund’s “desperate zeal”, are all unfortunate expressions which find no reason at all in the the very unpolemical nature of Viklund’s exposition of his arguments contra yours.
    It is so difficult in this discipline to avoid rethoric and sarcasm and simply states one’s case in a scholarly fashion? I’m starting to think about it as a mission impossible.
    My purpose, in bringing to your attention Viklund’s response, was to generate a good scholarly exchange, nothing more.
    Best regards

    • But the question of whether Smith fabricated the item isn’t the only reason to be somewhat suspicious and cautious about the text. For example, it’s also entirely a reasonable possibility that it was fabricated by someone in the 1500 yrs between Clement and the putative 18th century hand.

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