Sunday, December 07, 2008

Neusner on Morton Smith, "Secret Mark", and the Blackballing of Gerhardsson

(Pictured to the right: Jacob Neusner, "the Pope's favorite Rabbi").

On his stimulating blog, A New Testament Student, Josh McManaway talks a little bit about the discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature on "Secret Mark". In short, "Secret Mark" is supposedly a non-canonical version of Mark's Gospel that was "discovered" in a previously unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria. It was "found" by a scholar named Morton Smith.

At the time it was released some people saw the discovery as a major breakthrough. Smith used it to argue that Jesus had been a homosexual magician.

Today scholars have largely come to believe Smith fabricated the entire thing. For one thing, no one but Smith ever even saw the document, which conveniently disappeared. (A systematic and devastating critique of Secret Mark can be found in Stephen Carlson's recent book.)

One scholar who has been forthright about his suspicions about the "find" is one Smith's former students, Jacob Neusner (pictured on the right). Neusner, of course, is one of the world's top rabbinic scholars. Time has called him "the Pope's favorite rabbi" due to the fact that Benedict XVI interacts with him quite a bit in his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth. Neusner has also spoke several times of his high regard for Benedict's scholarship.

But back to Smith...

Neusner writes about Smith in the republished edition Birger Gerhardsson's, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity [1961; repri., Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998]. Neusner explains that Smith was not only a master at misrepresenting archaeological "discoveries". While we may never know exactly what Smith discovered (if anything at all). Smith was also excellent at misrepresenting works we actually can go back and read, such as Gerhardsson's.

Previously Neusner had been highly dismissive of Gerhardsson's scholarship. In fact, in the past many scholars rejected Gerhardsson's work. But, as Neusner explains, this was in large part due to the fact that Gerhardsson's arguments were unfairly misrepresented by his critics. Indeed, Neusner explains that Gerhardsson was wrongly blackballed by the academic community. In particular, he singles out Smith as a major culprit in all of this. Neusner's words are about as stinging as they come.

It astonishes me to find people in the field of biblical studies who still are influenced by the inaccurate portrait of Gerhardsson's work. I often direct them to this piece of Neusner's. The words are biting. To be honest, it's a bit uncomfortable to read.

I think Neusner is trying to shock readers back into reading Gerhardsson. When they do, I think Neusner believes people will see how wrongly he was treated and will appreciate the anger he directs toward Smith, who helped ensure he wouldn't get a fair hearing.

Whether that justifies his harsh tone is another matter. Perhaps Neusner is attempting to treat Smith with some of Smith's own medicine. I don't direct people to read this because it's the tone I would take. What it does, however, is underline how passionate Neusner is about exposing the wrongful treatment Gerhardsson received. And that is a sentiment that I certainly share.

The following is taken from Neusner's Foreword.

"[R]eaders [of Gerhardsson's work] missed his careful qualifications, his thoughtful word-choices. In giving the work a negative reading on grounds of an uncritical retrojection of techniques attested only much later on into the age of the Evangelists, I followed the lead of my then-teacher, Morton Smith, with whom I wrote my dissertation just before Gerhardsson's book appeared, and whom I extravagantly admired, but not without solid reason, for his powers of penetrating criticism. To understand Smith's influence we have to identify the particular traits that he cultivated. And to place in perspective Smith's reading of Gerhardsson, we have to take a second look at his principal critic, Morton Smith himself.

Like Arthur Darby Nock, but lacking his perspicacity and cultivation, Smith made his career as a ferocious critic of others. Smith thereby surrounded himself with a protective wall of violent invective; what he wished to hide, and for a while succeeded in hiding, was the intellectual vacuum within. Of his entire legacy one book survives today, quite lacking influence but still a model of argument, and a handful of suggestive but insufficient articles. In all Smith wrote three important contributions to scholarship, one a model of argument and analysis though broadly ignored in the field to which it was devoted, another a pseudo-critical but in fact intellectually slovenly and exploitative monograph, and the third an outright fraud [=the Secret Gospel of Mark]. But in the early 1960's, when Gerhardsson's book became a target of opportunity to demonstrate his capacity to seize the jugular, no one could have known the reality. I took as my model his sharp pen and his analytical wit, not understanding that Smith had no constructive capacities and would never on his own write an honest and important book....

As to the scholarly fraud [=the Secret Gospel of Mark], who speaks of it any more, or imagines that the work pertains to the study of the New Testament at all? I need not remind readers of this reprint of the scandal of Smith's 'sensational discovery' of the Clement fragment, the original of which no one but Smith was permitted to examine. Purporting, in Smith's report, to demonstrate that the historical Jesus was 'really' a homosexual magician, the work has not outlived its perpetrator. In the end many were silenced--who wanted to get sued?--but few were gulled.

Beyond [his] three major scholarly projects--as I said, a self-certified Ph.D. dissertation that no one in the degree-granting university could evaluate, an exemplary work done under the tutelage of a great scholar but lacking all consquence in scholarly discourse, and a forgery and a fraud, beyond occasional articles of uneven quality but occasional brilliance, Smith produced a few potboilers, on the one side, and a corpus of book reviews of a supercilious and misleading character. And one of these--alas!--dismissed and denied a hearing to Memory and Manuscript, as Gerhardsson says with complete justification, 'in a caricuatured and misleading way.' And let me plead guilty to Gerhardsson's indictment: 'This misprepresentation, and Smith's rather simplistic courter-arguments, were repeated, in even more simplified forms, by countless critics.' I was one of these, and I apologize in word and, here, in deed."

--Jacob Neusner, "Foreword," in Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript. Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity with Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (1961; repri., Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998), xxvi-xxvii.


Maurice Pinay said...

This is theatre for the "Judeo-Christian" goyim.

I don't anticipate Neusner throwing such a fit of indignation relating to his Talmud and Kabbalah which contain many similar such blasphemies against the Lord Jesus Christ.

Lois Tverberg said...

What I find most remarkable about Memory and Manuscript being republished after 35 years is the circumstances behind it. Neusner himself, along with Smith, vigorously attacked this book when it was first published in 1961 and did serious damage to Gerhardsson's reputation. After three decades, Neusner was visiting Gerhardsson's university on a speaking trip, and Gerhardsson graciously invited him to dinner and spent the evening calmly discussing the theories that Neusner had publicly insulted years before. Out of that conversation came Neusner's recantation and the re-publication of this important book.
Gerhardsson is truly to be commended for his Christ-like willingness to "turn the other cheek" to an academic attacker. Memory and Manuscript is an important contribution to the field that well deserves to be republished.

Anonymous said...

Memory and Manuscript is an excellent work that deserves a real hearing in academic circles even though it will work against many of academia's STJ-ECO presuppositions.

On Neusner, I for one did not feel that his fwd was over the top. Yes, it is sharp. But as a published younger scholar working in the same field as Neusner and Gerhardsson, the damage that Smith has done - the forgeries and the personal attacks just to start - is incalcuable. I for one have a tremendous respect for Neusner to stand up and admit past mistakes, but even more so, to write a fwd that only scholars would read as a reminder to us that the academy is not immune to people like Smith.

Anonymous said...

First of all, more people have seen the letter of Clement than Morton Smith, amongst others Guy Stroumsa. Smith can't be blamed for the fact that the Jerusalem Patriarchate library "can't find" the letter anymore.
Secondly, I don't think there's anything heroic about slandering one's own professor after he has passed away.

Stephan Huller said...

I have been sitting on an interview I arranged between Professor Charlie Hedrick and Agamemnon Tselikas a respected Greek paleographer on the question of the authenticity of the Mar Saba document. It is now published at my blog

Hope you and your readers might want to check it out. Dr. Tselikas will be publishing an article on the same subject for BAR next year referencing the same material.


Stephan Huller