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The Secret Gospel of Mark

Y. Kuchinsky against forgery 1998

Date: Mon, 13 Apr 1998 13:47:33 -0400
From:[email protected]
To: crosstalk [[email protected]]
Subject: SecMk is authentic

Yuri Kuchinsky - Toronto, Canada says; "[This is a well written post arguing for authenticity. I agree with most of it. It has been written before Yuri went at odds with everybody.]"

Why it is impossible that Morton Smith could have forged Clement's letter & the SecMk fragment.

Now I have revisited this old controversy. In the course of my recent research re: the compositional history of the Gospel of Mark, I have reread Morton Smith's two books on the subject, after many years. I was interested primarily by what SecMk can tell us about the history of early Christianity.

I certainly don't agree with Smith in everything he says. In fact, I see quite a few areas where Smith seems rather off base in his interpretations of early Christian history. In particular, I'm much more skeptical than he in attributing the events SecMk narrates directly to the events in life of the Historical Jesus. SecMk seems to me more like a later gnostic-oriented expansion, while still produced within the Markan community. Nevertheless, Smith had done a huge amount of background research in this area, and his book reveals many unexpected surprises on my later rereading.

Speculation has been rife in recent years that Smith was the forger of this intriguing document, or else was in charge of a criminal conspiracy to produce this forgery. Such speculation has been broadcast of late especially by the famous scholar Prof. Jack Neusner, the former student of Smith turned his enemy (this happened for reasons entirely unconnected with the ms). Neusner is of course a very influential man in the biblical field, and his views cannot be disregarded. Some other scholars also tended to lend support to such accusations.

It is my purpose to show in this article that these accusations are entirely without merit, and that, if anything, they may only raise doubts about the professional competence of those making them.

It needs to be noted, of course, that there are many responsible scholars who are skeptical about this SecMk fragment, and who suspect it is a forgery. But generally these skeptics consider that this was an old forgery of some sort. Some maintain it is a forgery produced in the 18th century; others say it was produced any time in between the 2nd and the 18th centuries.

Prima facie, that this is an old forgery is not impossible, of course. And academic discussions of such scenarios have been going on for great many years, ever since the discovery of the fragment was announced by Smith, first privately to some scholars in 1958, and then publicly in 1960. This is a very complex debate, and I will not be able to deal with it now. The purpose of this article is merely to defend Smith from what I see as entirely unjustified accusations of wrongdoing. He was an honest scholar who happened to come across a mysterious manuscript, and who devoted many years of his life to trying to understand its meaning. He did not deserve these sordid accusations.

While, as I show further, it would have been impossible for Smith to have accomplished such a forgery, the same arguments should apply to a lesser extent to other theories of forgery not involving Smith. Myself, I have looked at length into these debates and into various versions offered by different scholars, and my view is that the balance of the evidence points to Clement's letter fragment as being genuine, i.e. authored by Clement himself. I think the whole ms is exactly what it claims to be, i.e. it is a letter of Clement containing what Clement thinks is part of a secret version of Mk's gospel, as used in the Church of Alexandria. (By the way, it also seems likely to me that Clement's version of the textual development of Mk as given in the letter is not entirely accurate, for whatever reasons.)


It seems like most serious opponents of SecMk in the last few years have been focusing their criticism on the fact that the manuscript has been seen by so few. There was some mystery about this manuscript. Where is it? How come basic tests on paper, ink, or other such tests have not been conducted? The piece of information Mahlon Smith have supplied recently on Crosstalk list about the manuscript having been seen recently after all by a credible witness is very important in this respect, to help put some of these doubts to rest.

I've suggested before that perhaps the main reason the manuscript has been seen by so few was that so few were really so interested in seeing it. Certainly it is a lot easier to spread groundless rumours behind people's backs than to go out and actually do such field research, which, needless to say, may involve such complications as having to pack your suitcase and do a bit of travel for a change... It is to the credit of Charles Hedrick that he did go out and take his time to look up the ms, instead of just talking endlessly about how few have seen it, and what all this may signify...


Now, to begin my case for authenticity, I would like to stress that we are actually talking about _three_ separate hypothetical forgeries here. Let's keep this in mind. In other words, in order for Smith to have accomplished such a highly complex forgery, he would have had to have done the following.

He would have needed to forge not one but two documents:

1. The letter of Clement itself.

2. The two SecMk gospel fragments.

And also, the third item that he would have needed to have pulled off.

3. To have found a scribe, really a genius of a scribe, who would have been able to forge some very unique and specialized 18th century Greek scribal handwriting, and to forge it flawlessly, with all its highly unique abbreviations and complexities. Nobody in their right mind would try to suggest that Smith was an expert scribe himself. Not quite. He would have certainly needed an accomplice for this.

Since these two texts, the letter itself, and the gospel fragments as given by Clement, are composed in completely different styles, and using very different vocabularies, in order to forge them Smith would have had to be an expert on both Clement and Mk. He was neither, certainly not before 1958.

So, now, let's consider these 3 items in order.

1. The excerpt from the letter of Clement, itself, is much longer than the gospel fragments, and it would have been a lot harder to forge credibly. As Thomas Talley, one serious investigator of this problem, indicated, at this time only a small handful of scholars still dispute that the letter represents an authentic tradition from Clement of Alexandria. Every word and sentence of the Clementine portion of this ms has been put under the microscope and compared in minutest detail to the extant undisputed Clementine texts, of which we have quite a lot. And every comparison has basically held up. These detailed studies are many and freely available for perusal by interested parties.

Out of the fourteen leading Clementine scholars Smith consulted originally, only two had some reservations, and Smith had dealt with their quite minor technical objections in detail, and showed them insufficient to cause doubt as to authenticity.

It is important for our case that the letter has been included in the standard edition of the Alexandrian father's writings since 1980. [Talley, Thomas. "Liturgical Time in the Ancient Church: The State of Research." Studia Liturgica 14 (1982), p. 45] And this should speak better than anything else about where the consensus of the Clementine scholars is now in regard to this matter.

This first item alone should make it appear highly unlikely that Smith could have pulled it off, i.e. could have fooled the whole world of scholarship to such an extent.

2. Now, the SecMk fragment, in itself, presents us with a very special set of highly complicated problems of its own. On purely linguistic basis, scholars have been arguing whether or not the fragment could have been put together merely from scraps of the canonical material. (Since almost every serious opponent of SecMk thinks this would have been an ancient forgery, the debate has been conducted primarily in this context.) The balance of evidence seems to point to the fragment being based on an original tradition, separate from and prior to the canonical traditions. But a definitive judgment here on purely stylistic grounds is quite a tough call, since the fragment is rather short. In any case, Smith not being known as a Mk scholar prior to his discovery, very few indeed suggested that he, himself, could have created the fragment ex nihilo.

Now, the next and a separate question about this SecMk fragment should be, Supposing it's genuine, how does it fit together with the canonical gospels? I.e. what about the contents of this fragment, rather than just the style of writing? Because, it is important to note, the parallels must be considered not only with the rest of Mk, but also with Jn, since the SecMk fragment narrates the raising of a young man that is very close to the raising of Lazarus in the Fourth Gospel.

And not only that, there's yet another complicated matter to consider here. Smith has also suggested in his two books that there are also other and more significant structural parallels between Mk and Jn, the parallels going far beyond the fragment.

According to Smith, his thinking in this area was stimulated by the research associated with the fragment. Once he saw the parallels between the SecMk fragment and Jn, he also began to see much greater parallels between large parts of Mk (beginning at 6:32; cf. p. 56 in SECRET GOSPEL) and large parts of Jn (beginning at 6:1). He bases his theories in this area in part on the work of some scholars who were working early in this century, and who suggested compatible theories re: the redactional history of Jn, and Jn's possible use of Mk -- among them Bultmann, N. Huffmann, and especially Charles Dodd. (CLEMENT, p. 146ff.)

It is not possible to deal here now with all these complex relationships. Their full consideration should involve, the proto Mk theories of Helmut Koester, and of Alfred Loisy, other controversial wider theories about how Jn, Lk, and Mt relate to Mk (was Jn really influenced by Mk's structure?), Smith's own views on the matter that were clearly evolving and changing over time, as his published work indicates, the question of how many other commentators, such as Crossan, evaluated this evidence, possible Aramaic proto-sources (Smith favored this idea, but received little support from other scholars on this), and much more besides.

All that needs to be said at this point is that for Smith to have managed to accomplish this second forgery, and to accomplish it in such a way that scholars are still debating the matter hotly after 40 years, would be nothing short of miraculous. And, generally, I don't believe in such unlikely miracles.


3. And, finally, the handwriting. As Smith details in his book, the near consensus of all the top paleographic experts he consulted both in Greece and the US was that the manuscript dates to the 18th century (on pp. 22-23 of his SECRET GOSPEL, Smith gives the long list of the names of these experts).

Certainly the opinion of these competent scholars should not be taken lightly. We are talking here about some highly specialized criteria that they take into consideration, such as the use of special scribal ligatures, of subscripts, of very complex abbreviations, both medial and terminal, the use of the coronis, and other such matters comprehensible for the most part only to experts.

And also Smith reports in his CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA that a rare manuscript was found that is remarkably close in appearance to our ms. Smith writes that a Greek scholar, Professor Scouvaras, has discovered

" eighteenth-century ecclesiastical document in a native Greek hand strikingly similar to that of our manuscript. [It is reproduced on Plate IV in Smith's book] ... [It is] an autograph codex of the Oecumenical Patriarch Callinicus III and was written about 1760 in the Phanariot hand which had been formed in Constantinople shortly before that time." (p. 2)

So here we are, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Three forgeries in one, Smith's critics would like to charge him with. Two unique ancient texts, so different in style and content, _plus_ finding an epigraphic genius forger to put them down on paper. Does this stray far beyond the realm of reality? I sure think so.


And now let's look at what Smith would have had to do to put it all together. To remind, his discovery was made when he was doing the job of cataloguing odd mss in the rather neglected library of the great Greek Orthodox desert monastery of Mar Saba, near Jerusalem. Presumably, the critics charge, Smith would have planted the book with the text already written into it while he was doing that job. This means that he would have had to have spent years of his life previously to that getting himself totally immersed into Clement and Mk, becoming a "secret world-class expert" in these two highly complex areas.

And when he finally accomplished that task, and composed the two texts, next he would have had to find the "Genius Scribe", his presumed accomplice. (Or did he find this accomplice even before he embarked on his nefarious course?) So they pulled it off, and produced the flawless forgery. Then he goes to Mar Saba and plants the mss. From then on, the story unfolds as previously known.

An obvious question needs to be asked here. Is there any evidence that Smith knew far in advance that he would be doing this two-week job at Mar Saba in 1958? Actually, according to his CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, p. ix, Smith was given permission by Benedict, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to catalogue the library when he was already in Jerusalem in 1958.

In my opinion, it is this premeditation part of this supposed plot to forge these documents that makes it really quite fantastic. He had this idea, "I will produce this forgery and will plant this book in this library." And then he devotes years of his life to this, working in the highest secrecy... Does this sound like a light-hearted prank that some suggested as his motivation?

And it also needs to be noted here that if Smith managed to "plant" this particular manuscript in any other library other than Mar Saba, the case for authenticity would have been rather weaker. This is because there's a recorded tradition that a collection of Clement's letters _has been attested_ in Mar Saba during the Middle Ages. So such a discovery in Mar Saba was not totally unpredictable, after all...

Smith devoted many well-documented years of his life on an academic study of the ms he discovered. Some commentators have actually suggested half-jokingly that the amount of effort he put into all this was almost inexplicable. After reading his two books, it indeed seems like Smith was genuinely obsessed with his discovery.

So Neusner and Co. would presumably claim that Smith did all this background research _before_ he "discovered" the ms? And then he "pretended" to do all this work later? But he repeatedly consulted dozens of noted scholars later and not before! Many of these scholars are still around to tell their side of the story...

To summarize. To accomplish _the three_ such highly complex forgeries, and not to have been caught, would have been beyond the power of one man. To have even _attempted_ such a hopeless task, a task both so hopeless and so time-consuming, would have been quite silly, and Smith was generally not thought of as silly.

And finally, when Smith's discovery is looked at dispassionately, there's really not much there on the surface. What kind of an earth-shaking reaction did he accomplish? Not much really beyond some obscure disputes among professional text crunchers. It's not like the ms just comes out and says, "Jesus was a homosexual, and the whole of Christian religion is a hoax"... Not at all. All it really says is that the Carpocratian heretics were perverts and twisted the Scriptures. But this was already well known before. So, in other words, the pay-off from such a monumental forgery would have been not all that much in any case.

To conclude, the mss is genuine.

And for any who still have doubts, by all means, lobby for the tests on the ink of the mss. Such tests should surely remove all doubt as to the authenticity of this, on the whole, certainly very intriguing, and probably highly revealing document.

Regards, Yuri.

Yuri Kuchinsky || Toronto

[Please continue to part 2 - "Addendum and follow up discourses on Mortons Discovery"]

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