On the Voting Results for the Acts Seminar

Dennis E. Smith, Chair

From The Fourth R
Volume 22-4
July-August 2009

The so-called Secret Gospel of Mark has come under criticism in recent years, accused of being a hoax perpetrated by Morton Smith, who in 1972 first proposed the existence of this ancient variation of Mark when he published a previously unknown fragment of a letter by Clement of Alexandria. Since Morton Smith died several years ago and can no longer defend his arguments, and since the original manuscript which he published in transcription is no longer avail- able for scholarly study, the debate about the authenticity of Secret Mark has become particularly dicey.

Three papers were presented on this issue. Charles Hedrick (“Evaluating Morton Smith: Hoaxer Outed or Colleague Slandered?”) and Marvin Meyer (“Secret Mark: The Debate Goes On”) argued that Secret Mark was not a hoax by Morton Smith. Dennis MacDonald (“The Naked Truth about the Naked Youth: Why the Secret Gospel of Mark is a Modern Hoax”) proposed that it was a hoax by Morton Smith, but rather than arguing for that position in detail he made a case that canonical Mark can be understood as is, without the variation provided by Secret Mark.

Hedrick answered the arguments recently proposed by Stephen Carlson (The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark, 2005). He noted that many of Carlson’s arguments are ad hominem in nature and so should be dis- missed, since, whether or not Morton Smith was the misanthrope that Carlson and others take him to have been, that does not make him a dishonest scholar. As for the opportunity of Smith to create such an ancient manuscript, Hedrick points out the difficulty of doing so under the field conditions in which he was working. Furthermore, Hedrick argues, it is exceedingly difficult to develop the skill to forge an ancient document and those who knew and worked with Morton Smith testify that he did not have that skill.

Meyer takes up the argument from a different perspective, noting how scholars such as Helmut Koester and John Dominic Crossan have concluded that the Secret Mark fragments make good sense of difficult texts in Mark in regard to the neaniskos or youth. Therefore both Koester and Crossan have concluded, on form critical grounds, that Secret Mark is a precursor to canonical Mark. When it was excluded from canonical Mark, as described in the fragmentary letter of Clement, then that left the problematic text in Mark 14:51–52. Meyer argues further that both Secret Mark and canonical Mark present the neaniskos as a paradigm of discipleship.

MacDonald makes a case for the sufficiency of the neaniskos stories in canonical Mark as they are. He argues that these stories represent an imitation in Mark of the story of Elpenor in Homer. In both cases, young men are presented who “reenter the narrative at dawn several days after their deaths (a symbolic death in the case of Mark’s fleeing youth).”

The ballot addressed the various issues associated with Secret Mark. Fellows and Associates rejected the proposal that the Mar Saba letter that Morton Smith published is a modern forgery. Rather, both Fellows and Associates affirmed that the letter is an ancient text and preserves an ancient fragment of an authentic letter of Clement. In regard to the relation of Secret Mark to canonical Mark, however, the voting took a puzzling turn. Fellows voted that Secret Mark postdates canonical Mark, contrary to the arguments of Koester, Crossan, and Meyer. However, they also voted against MacDonald’s argument that canonical Mark’s naked youth stories imitate Homer. Fellows agreed that Secret Mark presents the naked youth as a paradigmatic disciple, but disagreed that canonical Mark does. Finally, in response to a suggestion from the floor, Fellows and Associates voted that the Secret Gospel of Mark should henceforth be called the Mystical Gospel of Mark.

The so-called “we-passages” in Acts have long been a source of much debate. For many, they represent solid proof that the author of Acts was a companion of Paul. For others, they represent a literary motif that is used by the author in imitation of ancient literary models, particularly in the recounting of shipwreck stories. Papers by Thomas Phillips (“The ‘Post-Apostolic’ Consciousness in Acts: The ‘We’-Sections in Acts 16 and Beyond”) and Dennis Mac- Donald (“’And So We Left Troy/Troas’: Pseudo-Luke’s Imitation of the ‘We-Voyages’ in Homer’s Odyssey”) have significantly advanced the discussion of these texts. Both argue that these passages are literary in form and do not indicate that the narrator was a companion of Paul.

Phillips argues that the “narrator” of Acts locates him- self in a post-apostolic period. After Acts 15, Phillips proposes, the story moves to a “post-apostolic” era in which Peter fades from the scene and Paul becomes the predominant character. It is in this latter period where the “we-passages” occur, thus locating the narrator along with Paul in the post- apostolic period. Since neither Paul nor a companion of Paul would have accepted such a post-apostolic identity for Paul, Acts must have been written at a time well-removed from the time of Paul. Thus the “we-passages” reinforce the view that Acts was written in the early second century. Fellows and Associates both accepted Phillips’ thesis in all its particulars.

MacDonald proposed that the author of Acts wrote his shipwreck stories (Acts 16:10–18, 20:5–15, 21:1–18, 27:1–28:16) in imitation of first person sea voyage stories in Homer’s Odyssey. The Fellows voted pink on Homer as the source while the Associates voted red. MacDonald also argued that the narrator intended the reader to connect the first person narratives with the narrator but that this was a pseudo-identity for the narrator. Fellows and Associates concurred. However, Fellows voted gray on Mac- Donald’s argument that Luke-Acts was originally written under the pseudonym of “Luke;” Associates gave it a pink vote.

Explanation of voting

  • Black not true (0–.25*)
  • Grey probably not true (.2501–.5)
  • Pink probably true (.5001–.75)
  • Red true (.7501–1)

*Weighted average

Acts Spring 09 Ballot 1 Acts Spring 09 Ballot 5 Acts Spring 09 Ballot 6 Acts Spring 09 Ballot 8