(Pictured to the right: Jacob Neusner, "the Pope's favorite Rabbi").
On his ever 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 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 in fact a homosexual magician. However, now scholars have largely come to believe Smith fabricated the entire thing. No one but Smith ever even saw the letter.
One such scholar is one of Smith's former students, Jacob Neusner (pictured on the right). Neusner of course is one of the world's top rabbinic scholars. Time Magazine has also 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. Similarly, Neusner has spoke several times of his high regard for Benedict's scholarship.
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 praises Gerhardsson's work--but in this Neusner reverses himself. Previously he had been critical of Gerhardsson's approach. In fact, in the past scholars have dismissed Gerhardsson's work--in large part because his arguments were misrepresented by his critics. Neusner explains how Gerhardsson was unfairly blackballed in the academic community. In particular he singles out Smith. His words are about as stinging as they come.
It always astonishes me to find people in the field of Biblical studies who are unfamiliar with this piece of Neusner's. The words are biting--it's actually a little uncomfortable to read. I think Neusner is trying to shock readers into reading Gerhardsson. When they do, I think Neusner believes people will see how wrongly he was treated and will understood the anger behind his words at Smith, who led charge against him. Whether that justifies the harsh treatment, I frankly do not agree. Neusner perhaps is also probably attempting to treat Smith with his own medicine. My father always taught us to speak "the facts in charity"--and one only seems to get half of that from Neusner. A more systematic yet even more devastating critique of Secret Mark can be found in Stephen Carlson's recent book. Nonetheless, here is Neusner's Foreword for all of its acerbic rhetoric.
"[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 muhc later on into the age of thee 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 invectiv; 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 handfull of suggestive but insufficient articles. In all Smith wrote three important contributions to scholarship, one a model of argument and analysis though boradly 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--Michael Barber]. 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.