Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Kaler on Ehrman's Lost Christianities

One of the latest reviews I particularly enjoyed from Review of Biblical Literature (see previous) was Michael Kaler's Review of Bart Erhman's twin Lost Christianities and Lost Scriptures. I have recently obtained and begun reading Lost Christianities myself and am finding it compelling reading, full of interesting insights and well worth its cover price. I am a particular fan of scholarly writing that is accessible to the broader public and Ehrman is a master of the art. One of the things I particularly like about the way Ehrman goes about this is that he appears always to be thinking not just about that broader public but also about the graduate students and scholars too. I would defy anyone to find nothing new here. Anyway, Kaler is an enthusiast for Ehrman's books too, though he adds some useful points by way of criticism.

The point in Kaler's review that caught my attention was his footnote 2 on the first page, relating to the Secret Gospel of Mark:
While his discussion of the issue is gossipy (in a good way) and engrossing, I found Ehrman's conclusion to this intricate and fascinating affair to be artificially ambivalent. He spends most of the chapter clearly implying that Morton Smith forged the letter of Clement that contained the Secret Gospel and then at the end refuses to commit himself. "I am not willing to say that Smith . . . forged the letter which he claimed to discover. . . . But maybe Smith forged it. . . . Or maybe this is a genuine letter by Clement of Alexandria" (89). To my mind, Ehrman should either have taken an explicit and definite stand or rewritten the chapter so as to present the facts in a truly neutral, unbiased way."
I quite agree with Kaler here and found myself reacting in the same way to this chapter. In fact Ehrman's "artificially ambivalent" attitude surprised me somewhat given his robust presentation of the same material in a talk to the Textual Criticism section of the SBL Annual Meeting in Toronto (2002). My memory of that talk (other than my colleague David Parker flashing up on screen for some time a picture of his back garden as he attempted to get his powerpoint presentation together while Bart was speaking) was that it was strong in its implication, allowing the circumstantial evidence to point the finger at Smith; Ehrman's tone was at best faux naif.

So why is Ehrman so reticent to state more strongly in print that he thinks Morton Smith may have forged the Secret Gospel of Mark? His stated reason is the following:
I am not willing to say that Smith was a latter-day Dionysius the Renegade, that he forged the letter of Clement which he claimed to discover. My reasons should be obvious. As soon as I say I am certain he did so, those pages cut from the back of the book will turn up, someone will test the ink, and it will be from the eighteenth century." (Lost Christianities: 89).
I am not sure that this is strong enough. Scholarship of this kind is about taking risks, but risks that are staked on one's careful and considered reading of the evidence. I've written a book arguing against the existence of Q and attempted there, as well as elsewhere, to make quite clear that I do not think that such a document ever existed. I could have held back for fear that someone might dig it up and show me up for a fool, but it's a risk that I was willing to take because I am fully persuaded that the Q sceptical case is right. In other words, it's always possible that someone will produce Q and surprise me, but my research persuades me that this is unlikely to happen. I'm not sure what is gained by holding back for fear of future possibilities that one thinks are unlikely to materialise.

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