Guest Post: Dr. Craig A. Evans

I appreciate James McGrath’s even-handed fairness and caution in his response to my recent comments on Secret Mark. However, what is said about the coincidence of Smith’s linking of secrecy and sex prior to his Mar Saba discovery does not quite capture my point. McGrath says: “the connections that Evans sees between secrecy, sexuality and Jesus in Smith’s earlier writings are rather subtle. And to the extent that the evidence for naked baptism comes from other sources, connecting Christian initiation with sexuality was possible for anyone willing to let their imagination run rampant, and did not require the Secret Gospel of Mark. The early church fathers also engaged in polemical accusations of sexual immorality against Gnostics and others.”

My point is that in 1951 Smith specifically linked Mark 4:11 to secret teaching that included, among other things, prohibited sexual activity and then in 1958 he found a text in which Mark 4:11 is quoted in a letter that references male nudity and blasphemous and carnal interpretation of this nudity. The coincidence is far more specific than the general topic of baptism in the nude.

My second point, which McGrath does not address, is that in1955 Smith suggested that the evangelist Mark may have had material with “Johannine traits” and then in 1958 Smith found a text containing Markan material with Johannine traits. The notion that Mark had access to material with Johannine traits is a very unconventional idea. Yet Smith proposed it in 1955 and found an example of it in 1958.

These two coincidences are what I find so troubling. McGrath speaks to the first one, but doesn’t do it justice; and he does not speak to the second one at all. One of these coincidences should give a scholar pause; but the two combined should arouse grave suspicions.

Another feature that troubled me at the York University conference was that most of the supporters of Smith had not read James Hunter’s novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba (1940), which parallels Smith’s experience and discovery quite closely in places. Nor have they read Paul Coleman-Norton’s spurious study of the “amusing agraphon” (CBQ, 1950), which also parallels Hunter’s novel. Moreover, Smith’s supporters did not engage Francis Watson’s important study, which appeared a full year before the conference (JTS, 2010), in which he shows that the author of Mar Saba Clementine appears to be dependent on Papias.

I may add that supporters of Smith frequently mount psychological arguments, such as, “I can’t believe Smith would do such a thing; I can’t believe he would risk his reputation.” I must confess that at one time I too reasoned that no one would go to the bother to write a 450 page book on a text that he knew perfectly well was bogus. But the facts say otherwise. Throughout history many forgers did risk reputations, careers, etc. Whether honest people can understand it or not, well educated people have done some unbelievably reckless things. We must rely on evidence and not on emotion.

Finally, the point of my posting is not to “prove” that Smith was involved in a hoax, but to expose the suspicious coincidences and argue that scholarly work — if it is to be critical — must not make use of this kind of dubious material.

(See “Doubting Morton Smith and Secret Mark”)