Thursday, December 04, 2008

Tony Chartrand-Burke on Secret Mark at the SBL

Tony Chartrand-Burke today offers an excellent summary of the session on Secret Mark at the 2008 SBL Annual Meeting, which I chaired, and on which I offered a briefer summary here in with my general travel diary from the conference (Some More SBL). Tony concludes his interesting post with some some of his own reflections and I would like to comment on these, not least because I think that Tony may be a little unfair to those he criticizes here:
Many who came out of the session may have been surprised at Brown’s demeanour. But I think it justified. The two main writers against the authenticity of the text, Carlson and Jeffery, are not biblical scholars. Their arguments are not based on the methodology used by biblical scholars. Yet many of their readers have been convinced by them, likely because their arguments merely confirmed in their minds what they hoped would be the case and not because the readers had sufficient knowledge of the contents of the text, nor of previous scholarship on it to make an informed decision.
First, Tony appears to underestimate Stephen Carlson's scholarship (I will comment on Stephen Carlson since he and his work is much better known to me than Peter Jeffery's). It is true that Stephen does not yet have his PhD in this area, but he is already an outstanding scholar whose work is widely admired by those in the guild. He was already published in New Testament Studies (Clement of Alexandria on the "Order" of the Gospels) before his book on Secret Mark was written, and he has, of course, made pioneering contributions to the advancement of scholarship on the internet. But the point at issue in both the book and the recent SBL session is one not of credentials but of the quality of scholarship. Stephen has produced some fine scholarship on an issue that has been log-jammed for years. Indeed it may be that the outsider's perspective has helped Stephen to shed light on the issue. I understand that some people disagree with Stephen's conclusions but I hope that we can all agree on the quality of the scholarship.

Second, I think we should be wary of the idea that those who agree with Carlson and Jeffery do so out of ignorance or prejudice. Speaking for myself, I wrote an endorsement for The Gospel Hoax because I read it carefully in the light of familiarity with other scholarship on the issue and I was persuaded by its case. I know of others who feel the same way.

Tony continues:
Furthermore, Brown and Pantuck have crafted some very detailed responses to Carlson and Jeffery that seem to be getting overlooked—Ehrman, for one, did not seem to be cognizant of the one article refuting the salt claim, and there were two allusions made to the size of Brown’s and Pantuck’s responses, as if thorough, detailed scholarly work was a bad thing. Brown is justifiably frustrated at the state of so-called scholarship (much of it he called “poppycock”) on Secret Mark.
I regard the remark about "so-called scholarship" here as unfortunate. Similarly, I regarded Scott Brown's references to "poppycock" in the session as unfortunate. On issues as important as this, it is generally preferable to keep one's language measured and to focus on the key issues of scholarly disagreement. I don't recall the references to "the size of Brown's and Pantuck's responses", though my guess would be that the point of mentioning it is that a response to a large and detailed piece is inevitably time-consuming; it is something that cannot be taken lightly. Nevertheless, it is worth bearing in mind that Peter Jeffery has produced a lengthy response to Scott Brown's review of his book. Moreover, sometimes an author may legitimately choose not to respond to a review or an article, feeling that it is up to the reader to weigh the arguments on both sides.

Tony goes on to reflect on the role played by Secret Mark in the work of those he discusses in his recent "Heresy Hunting" article, but I am not sure how relevant this is to the discussion at the SBL, which was a balanced one in which I did not pick up any kind of ideological objection to the authenticity of the text.

6 comments:

Tommy Wasserman said...

Thank you very much for this response, Mark.

And I agree fully that Stephen Carlson is an excellent scholar. (I am surprised that it needs to be said.) I have followed him on two discussion lists on New Testament textual criticism over many years, and he has always made good contributions to the scholarly discussion in that area. He has also presented scholarly papers at the SBL meetings (including textual criticism).

Loren Rosson III said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Loren Rosson III said...

Mark wrote:

Indeed it may be that the outsider's perspective has helped Stephen to shed light on the issue.

And no doubt helped Peter Jeffery too. Scholars can be a contentious and polemical lot, but they seem generally predisposed to trusting that their colleagues at least play fair ball. Lawyers like Stephen (and public servants like me) are not necessarily so predisposed, especially when red flags shout out all over the place. Carlson's legal skills and Jeffery's knowledge about liturgy were just what was needed to prove what was rather obvious to begin with -- if one could only credit that a brilliant academic would do something like this.

Tony Chartrand-Burke says he has been "pleased to remain agnostic in the debate", but I think he should be embarrassed. There's no room anymore for being on the fence with Secret Mark. Either one accepts the obvious (that SM is a hoax), or one digs in one's heels out of misplaced scholarly allegiances or denial.

Mark also writes:

I think we should be wary of the idea that those who agree with Carlson and Jeffery do so out of ignorance or prejudice.

Well... yes and no. On the one hand, it's no mystery that many are prejudiced against apocryphal gospels (and/or anything smelling remotely homoerotic), and have undoubtedly cheered on Carlson and Jeffery uncritically. On the other hand, there are those who have rejected SM (even before the conclusive cases of Carlson and Jeffery) because they possess either a natural radar for the bogus (like Donald Akenson) or sound critical faculties (like Goodacre). For myself, a non-Christian who has nothing against apocryphal texts -- and who happens to "fly both ways" orientation-wise -- there is nothing about SM that offends me; just the opposite. The real question is not whether SM calls forth any prejudice (though it certainly has), but whether it's an obvious forgery/hoax (which it is).

Anonymous said...

In my view, both Carlson and Jeffery are fine scholars of Bible and other subjects.
Some also fine scholars who knew Smith quite well acknowledge that Smith was skilled enough to have composed and penned the ms, though some of those do not think he had motive.
To my knowledge, no one is preventing advocates of the "Clement letter" from publishing their views.
Pantuck's publication of a photo of ms 22 somewhat revised my view of Carlson's book on "Madiotes."
I consider the evidence strong that Smith composed and penned Mar Saba ms 65.
Stephen Goranson
http://www.duke.edu/~goranson

Mike Duncan said...

I don't think there are many scholars powerless against pro-hoax rhetoric as Chartrand-Burke might have it. I made my decision on the text well before sampling Carlson's work and others - right after I finished reading SM's ridiculously funny cliffhanger ending.

John C. Poirier said...

Brown's use of "poppycock" made me think of Scrooge: "Humbug . . . poppycock . . . balderdash." Do people still use that word?

IMHO, there are too many conveniences for Secret Mark to be authentic: e.g., the lack of a front cover on the book (hiding the seller's imprint?), and the fact that the supposed hand is not really so old (making it much easier to fake). But the hardest thing to explain away is the fact that Smith never went back to investigate the manuscript properly.