Friday, November 17, 2006

Jeffery on Secret Mark

The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery, by Peter Jeffery. Yale University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-300-11760-4.

Like Stephen Carlson a year ago, Peter Jeffery is able to show how obvious it is that Morton Smith fabricated Clement's letter to Theodore. One would think that Carlson exhausted all of Smith's anachronisms (the "bald swindler" M. Madiotes, Morton Salt, and modern gays in the 1950s being arrested in public Gethsemanes), but Jeffery has spotted more:

* The three features of Secret Mark's initiation rite -- resurrection symbolism, a period of teaching followed by a night vigil, and the wearing of a white cloth -- point to the Anglican Paschal liturgy as it was before the 1960s liturgical renewal movement. In addition, Clement and the Alexandrian church had a theology of baptism that was based not on the easter event of Jesus' resurrection, but on the epiphany event of Jesus' baptism by John. Secret Mark should thus have epiphany motifs (i.e. creation, the heavens opening with light, the descent of the Holy Spirit and fire, the seal of priestly and messianic anointings) rather than easter motifs (i.e. Pauline associations between baptism and resurrection).

* The homoeroticism in Secret Mark makes no sense in an ancient context. Adult males were supposed to pursue young boys/men, who in turn were supposed to acquiesce only after "playing hard to get" and only if the boy perceived that the sex would have intiatory value (i.e. that the man would go beyond sex and educate him in proper mores). But in Secret Mark, Jesus does not pursue the young man: just the opposite if anything, and this would have been shamefully unacceptable. Secret Mark was evidently written by a modern person who assumed that ancient homosexuality would have followed Plato's model of an older teacher with a young disciple, but who didn't quite understand how the roles played out -- and such misunderstandings were common in academic circles before the work of K.J. Dover in the late 70s. (This would seem to improve on Carlson, who argued that the homoeroticism in Secret Mark makes no sense since Jesus and the young man are depicted as social peers. But a "young man", however rich, suggests they're not quite peers.)

* Clement's letter is riddled with allusions to Oscar Wilde's 19th-century play, Salome, and Wilde was a homosexual martyr to boot. In the play Salome does the "dance of the seven veils", which is punned by Smith's Clement, who writes about "the truth hidden by seven veils". She is punned, in turn, by Smith's Salome, whom Jesus rejects along with the rest of the female race.

On top of this, Jeffery catches Smith in some pretty amusing lies. A notable one: whereupon discovering Clement's letter, Smith says he went to Vespers instead of staying to investigate his discovery, apparently forgetting what he said two pages earlier (in The Secret Gospel, p 10) -- that he had stopped attending religious services because he no longer "responded" to them.

Jeffery examines Smith's brief career as an Anglican priest, noting his excessively harsh judgments on homosexuals in a 1949 article -- very severe by Anglican standards at the time. Any fool can make the diagnosis: Smith was going through his own sexual crisis that caused him to leave the priesthood a year later. Interestingly, in that same 1949 article, Smith referenced a 19th-century debate between Catholics and Protestants over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church. Quelle surprise: the letter to Theodore answers that very question.

Jeffery goes after Morton Smith pretty hard, unlike Carlson who seemed (at least in part) to respect or admire a man who had the skills to bamboozle so many academics. Jeffery expresses sorrow and contempt: Smith "became what he opposed: a hypocritical Clement who condoned lying for the sake of a fundamentalist sexology"; "a man in great personal pain", who didn't even understand himself despite pretensions to a superior gnosticism; a bitter academic, whose hoax stands as "the most grandiose and reticulated 'Fuck You' ever perpetuated in the long and vituperative history of scholarship". He's right about that last one, but whether Smith wrote his hoax more out of experimental amusement or angry revenge remains unclear.

The names Stephen Carlson and Peter Jeffery will soon become closely associated, and that's a credit to them both. But who has the stronger case? Carlson has the edge with his forensic handwriting analysis. The Morton Salt exhibit (Carlson) and Anglican liturgical analysis (Jeffery) each point to Morton Smith in particular. Both address the homosexuality issue -- which also puts Smith directly on the spot -- though Jeffery more satisfyingly. Carlson insists on the pernicious nature of fakes, while Jeffery seems more interested in the perniciousness of Morton Smith himself. They complement each other perfectly, and stand as definitive twin debunkings of the Secret Mark hoax.

UPDATE: Don't miss Stephen Carlson's reflections, as he compares and contrasts Jeffery's work with his own.


Blogger Andrew Criddle said...

The Alexandrian Church did particularly emphasise baptism as epiphany but there is almost a chronological issue.

Before Winkler's seminal paper "The Original Meaning of the Prebaptismal Anointing and its implications" Worship 52,1 (1978) 24-45, most scholars saw baptism in the early church as understood within the death and burial imagery of Romans 6.

Since then it has become clear that this imagery is largely absent till the 4th century.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks Andrew. Jeffery notes the same: the association of baptism with resurrection imagery is "much easier to place in the fourth or fifth century than in the second" (p 62).

Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

Loren: I appreciate the post. I look forward to reading Jeffery's book. I am sorry to hear that he is a bit more polemical in tone than Carlson. I thought one of the strengths of Carlson's book was that it avoided polemic and strong language in a study that let the evidence speak for itself. But it does sound like Jeffery has unveiled further interesting features.


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