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Scott G. Brown, Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s Controversial Discovery. Studies in Christianity and Judaism 15 (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2005).

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

Scott G. Brown writes a comprehensive, imaginative, and engaging book. He endeavors to rescue the Secret Gospel of Mark (which he wants to rechristen the Longer Gospel of Mark) from the ignominy of being the fraudulent creation of the late Morton Smith. Then, on the hypothesis that the Longer Mark text represents a genuine ancient document, he argues for genuine Markan authorship, proposing that the evangelist in later years undertook to expand his original text for the benefit of more advanced students of the faith. I find myself unconvinced on either count. First, I judge that Stephen C. Carlson (The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark) has ably refuted Brown’s attempt to get Smith off the hook and has pressed the case further, putting Smith’s creation of the apocryphon beyond reasonable doubt. Second, I find Brown’s attempt to knit the Secret, er, Longer Markan text into Plain Old Mark thematically and stylistically a chain of weak links, in spite (or maybe even because) of its ingenuity.

Again, I refer the reader to Carlson to nail Smith to the cross of forgery. As to that issue, I must make but a few comments. It is intriguing to try to trace out Brown’s apologetical strategy. He does not like Charles E. Murgia’s observation that the Clementine fragment accompanying the Markan text seems to abound with defensive buffers hinting broadly at the novelty of the new gospel: Clement says it is a secret text, reserved only for the elite, guarded carefully in the church at Alexandria, and available to the heretic Carpocrates only because he deceived or bribed one of the document’s guardians. Murgia saw in these assertions a set of anticipatory excuses for the fact that no one till Morton Smith had seen or heard of such a text. How could they, since it was Top Secret even in the ancient world? But Murgia saw, rightly, I believe, that these convenient features of Longer Mark are equivalent to the notice at the end of Mark that the holy women told no one about the empty tomb and angelophany, a transparent bit of imposture intended to answer the carping, “Why didn’t we ever hear about this before now?” Well, Brown chips away at the secrecy claims every way he can think of, arguing that the word mystikon really denotes, in this case, the mystical or symbolic gospel, and that Morton Smith was wrong in translating it “secret.” Of course, it now should be clear that Smith thought of his invention as “the Secret Gospel” and simply sought the closest Greek word he could find. The case is exactly parallel to that of the fictional Necronomicon, the creation of H.P. Lovecraft. He liked the sound of the title, which came to him in a dream, and he doped out its translation as “image of the laws of the dead.” But he didn’t know his Greek well enough. Necronomicon is valid Greek, all right, like Manilius’ star book, the Astronomicon, but it really should mean, simply, “Concerning the Dead.” An even better parallel would be that of Robert E. Howard’s analogous creation, Nameless Cults, ostensibly a blackletter tome in German script. He sought a viable German “original,” and fellow writer E. Hoffmann Price suggested Unenbarren Kulten, while another colleague, August Derleth, suggested Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Even though the latter implies something more like “unpronounceable cults,” Howard liked it better. With Smith, too, the “translated” title probably came first, the “original” second.

Brown points out that there were no church buildings in second-century Alexandria, so for the Longer Gospel to be carefully guarded could not have meant it was under lock and key someplace. He denies that Smith’s Clement means that the document conveyed genuine esotericism, but only that it was amenable to allegorical interpretation. For all that, Brown admits it was (one might suggest) like the Jewish Merkabah mysticism, open only to the learned and devout who were over 40. But this hardly makes it a public text open to the scrutiny of the psuchikoi as he seems to want.

Brown says that Smith was mistaken again in inferring the classified character of Longer Mark from his charging his correspondent Theodore to deny even under oath that Mark had written a secret gospel. Brown takes Clement’s words to denote only a denial of Markan authorship of Carpocratian interpolations, but that cannot be, since Clement justifies his recommended course of action as a white lie: “Not all true things are to be said to all men.”

Brown cannot forgive A.H. Criddle for his argument that the Clementine text sounds too Clementine, in the manner of a pastiche or parody. Brown tries to argue that Criddle’s sampling was not representative, but the argument sounds sophistical to me. Likewise Brown’s attempt to defend the Markan text from the charge of sounding too Markan, implying it is a mere textual cento of Markan phrases (which is how it struck me as an untutored teenager in 1973—talk about “reader response”). He points to Mark 4:1-2 as an example of an undisputedly Markan text which has an even higher concentration of Markan signature features and in a much shorter compass. But statistics don’t tell the tale here: who can look at the Secret/Longer Mark text and find it comparable in any way to Mark 4:1-2? As Brown quips in a different context, “As an apologetic tale, it can prove little else” (p. 139).

As one might expect in a case like this, Brown mounts a frontal assault on what Samuel Sandmel called “parallelomania,” the hasty inference that two texts with some mutual parallels must also be parallel at points no longer discernable, and thus one text depends upon the other. It is a kind of false analogy fallacy, as well as a hasty generalization, that Sandmel warned of. But parallelomania makes no sense as a charge here. “People who educe vague parallels as evidence that the apocryphal gospels are dependant upon the canonical gospels would do well to remember that the same procedure has been used to argue that the Gospel of Mark is a refashioning of myths derived from the Odyssey and the Iliad and that the Gospel of John is the product of a Near Eastern form of Buddhism. The listing of trivial, inexact parallels is the sine qua non of improbable theories of literary dependence” (p. 94). Who said anything about trivial or inexact parallels? Virtually every phrase of the Secret Gospel pericope about quasi-Lazarus (may we call him Quazarus?) can be pinned down like a specimen insect onto some page of a gospel harmony.

One is especially surprised to hear Brown, who rightly suspects canon apologetics to lie beneath scholarly indifference toward “heretical” texts, to snickeringly dismiss theories of Homeric or Buddhist influence on the gospels. Both sources were readily available in the gospel-composing milieu. I cannot guess what is supposed to make such theories automatically absurd, unless it is their uncomfortable orthodoxy.

Brown rightly takes this reviewer to the woodshed for my careless imprecision in confusing characters in the evangelical spy-novel The Mystery of Mar Saba, which I (lamentably ignorant that Philip Jenkins had already pointed out the connection) once suggested inspired Smith’s hoax. But this sloppiness on my part in no way affects my (i.e., Jenkins’s) main contention. And it is gratuitous necromancy that assures Brown that Smith would certainly never have wasted his time reading a trashy novel like The Mystery of Mar Saba. On the contrary, I suggest that such a novel is exactly the sort of leisure fiction to appeal to scholars like Smith.

Essentially, Brown’s argument much resembles Latter-day Saint apologetics on behalf of the Book of Mormon. The text is obviously a modern pastiche of readily identifiable scriptural snippets, like a ransom note in a movie, composed of disparate sentence fragments cut from magazine pages and pasted together. Brown’s arguments are misdirection strategies. Specifically, his attempts to drive a wedge between Smith’s own scholarly “surmises” on the Secret Gospel and what the Greek text actually says (or can be made to say) recalls the disparity between the Book of Mormon, with its crude Patripassianism, and the baroque, polytheistic theology that Joseph Smith and others later hung on it like ornaments on the branches of a Christmas tree. Morton Smith never made much of the gospel he had “discovered.” He avoided basing his serious scholarly hypotheses upon it, leaving other scholars to do with it as they pleased. But this doesn’t mean he didn’t write the text. No, his point was to toss an apple of discord onto the scholarly seminar table. The more seriously scholars took it, the more fun Smith had. He could hardly overrule them on the meaning of the text without betraying his authorship of it. It was a Candid Camera stunt, and it would have ruined it for him to intervene. He knew better than to base any serious work upon it, so he didn’t. That would have vitiated his serious work (like Jesus the Magician). What he wanted was to dupe other scholars into taking his hoax seriously and basing their work on it. I should say that Brown has fallen for it, and the very sophistication of his analysis is precisely the sort of sophistry Smith wanted to tempt forth and laugh at.

And here is a further piece of irony occasioned by Brown’s sneering dismissal of “unclean” theories of Buddhist and Homeric influence on the gospels: such theories do certainly demonstrate how one may prove anything with enough ingenuity. In saying this, I do not mean to agree with Brown that these theories are absurd. They are not. Nor is his (or it wouldn’t have been, before Carlson wrote). But that’s just the trouble: an embarrassment of riches. The clever exegetical dancing on display in all such theories should mitigate the seriousness with which any of their proponents urge us to take them.

Putting, as he supposes, behind him the question of the genuine antiquity of the text, Brown goes on to demonstrate the integrity of the text of Longer Mark with that of Plain Old Mark. He argues that the Quazarus resurrection pericope plus the later note that Jesus subsequently snubbed the lad’s mother and her friends, including Salome, forms one of Mark’s famous “sandwiches” or intercalations with the comical episode of the Sons of Dunder, James and John, putting dibs on the seats of honor at Jesus’ coronation feast. Smith/Clement placed the two Secret Gospel passages on the left and right hands of Mark 10:35-45, but do they and the James-John pericope mutually interpret one another as the other famous half-dozen sandwich constructions do? Brown contends that they do, and that they thus qualify as the seventh set. But against this conclusion, four serious objections occur to me.

First, the second section of Secret Mark merely refers to the first, identifying one of the Ya-ya Sisterhood with Quazarus’ mother. There is no other apparent connection I can see. It does not form a sequel much less a conclusion to the Quazarus scene. It is not a second piece of bread in a sandwich, like the second half of the story of Jairus’ daughter.

Second, despite Brown’s contention that ancient critics/scribes would likely never have recognized the sandwiching technique (and thus would never have thought to imitate it), one must point out that Matthew certainly recognized it, since he took the trouble to undo it! For him the fig tree tantrum and the temple cleansing are two separate events. The visit of Jesus’ relatives has no longer anything to do with the Beelzebul controversy.

Third, Brown admits that the original text makes plenty of sense as Mark first wrote it: with the James and John episode standing on its own. So how integrally can it belong to its present context in Longer Mark? If it makes sense as a secondary interpolation, it can’t be invoked as if some kind of missing piece of the puzzle. What puzzle?

Fourth, the intercalated lesson Brown finds in Longer Mark depends upon a contrast between grandiose chest-thumpers James and John, who utterly fail to grasp the true nature of discipleship, and the resurrected Quazarus, who reappears in the same skimpy garb, apparently a symbolic baptism costume, in the Garden of Gethsemane. But since he flees ignominiously from that scene as swiftly as the most lily-lived of the twelve, there is not much contrast that I can see. So what if he also appears in the empty tomb at the end? That’s not supposed to be part of the sandwich. Unless it’s one of those long party sandwiches. Plus, how can we be sure that young Quazarus is even supposed to be the same as the Gethsemane streaker (as Brown calls him—bravo!), or that either of them is supposed to be the angel incognito at the tomb? Brown admits that with the Plain Old version of Mark, there is not sufficient reason to identify the streaker with the man in the tomb, and that it is only the Longer text that clinches it. How? That’s what I’d like to know.

But the plane crashes with a climactic anticlimax: what Brown offers us as the supposedly advanced, deeper truth of the elite gospel turns out to be the same as the theme constantly reiterated throughout Plain Old Mark: the way of the Kingdom of God and sharing its glory is the way of self-abnegation, martyrdom if need be, here and now. This is deeper teaching? This was kept from Joe Q. Catechumen? How can any reader of Plain Old Mark have avoided it? “What LGM 1 and 2 do is deepen a reader’s appreciation of this gospel’s Christology and discipleship theology” (p. 216). What vapid euphemism! This hardly amounts to a “heightened esotericism” (ibid.). The mountain labored to bring forth a mouse. Why all this trouble for so meager a result? I suspect that it is part of Brown’s larger apologetical agenda: if the “Longer” gospel were really a secret gospel, if it had real secrets, a genuine Gnostic, esoteric dimension, then it would lend itself more readily to the theory that Smith concocted it as an embarrassment to orthodox Christianity. And that Brown will not have. But one fears that, in the wake of Carlson’s The Gospel Hoax, Brown’s efforts have been rendered as Quixotic as those of “Sindonologists” after the Carbon 14 dating of the Turin Shroud.  



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