Kuchinsky on the secret gospel of Mark.
A spirited defense of the authenticity of the Mar Saba manuscript.
On my page about the secret gospel of Mark I make mention of the intriguing pages that Yuri Kuchinsky has written arguing for the antiquity of this mysterious text. Since I have broadly endorsed Stephen C. Carlson, The Gospel Hoax, it seems only fitting to deal with the arguments that Kuchinsky puts forward, lest my endorsement seem unbalanced.
Kuchinsky has accosted me for reviewing Carlson before reading Scott G. Brown, Mark's Other Gospel, and he was correct to do so. I should have read Brown before openly committing to a position on Carlson. That oversight will be as least partially remedied on this page in conjunction with my critique of Kuchinsky himself; I have now read Brown, and it turns out that some of his arguments have proven quite useful in responding to Kuchinsky.
I want to make very plain from the outset that I am critiquing Kuchinsky, not because his arguments are easily critiqued and brushed aside, but rather because his arguments are well worth a closer look. The reader will learn much from him even if he or she winds up disagreeing, as I do, in the long run. With that in mind, on with the critique.
I gave Kuchinsky himself an opportunity to read my review of his material before publicizing this page, and he commented on various parts of my work. I have inserted his comments at the appropriate places throughout the review.
Kuchinsky on Jesus as a baptizer.
On one of his pages Kuchinsky uses Thomas Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, to develop a robust argument that the secret gospel of Mark is indeed ancient. I call this argument robust because Kuchinsky has taken what I regard as the best possible route toward proving the antiquity of the secret gospel; he has looked for ancient texts or traditions (A) of which Morton Smith was unaware and (B) whose best or only explanation is ancient knowledge of the secret gospel. In this case he turns to a pair of Coptic texts in which Jesus is said to have baptized his apostles just before passion week. Kuchinsky finds in this tradition evidence that the Coptic tradition knew of the secret gospel of Mark, in which Jesus allegedly baptizes one of his followers after raising him from the dead.
The implications are clear. Talley did not bring this Coptic tradition into common scholarly knowledge until 1991, more than three decades after Morton Smith revealed the secret gospel. If Morton Smith (whom Carlson claims forged the secret gospel) was unaware of this Coptic baptismal tradition, then it appears all too convenient that the tradition would surface and confirm, right down to the timing, the text that he supposedly forged many years before. Kuchinsky writes:
The two Coptic sources are Abu-'l-Barakat, century XIV, and Macarius, century X. The former writes of the week that precedes Palm Sunday:
It is said that the baptism of the apostles took place then.
Macarius, some four centuries earlier, had already written concerning the Friday of the same week:
It has been told that this is the day on which the Lord Christ baptized his disciples.
In a post on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board Kuchinsky sketches out the all too convenient coincidences (on the presumption of a forgery by Morton Smith in the middle of century XX) as follows:
This fourfold coincidence is quite impressive at first sight, but it suffers from one simple but fatal flaw: The entire matrix absolutely depends upon both the secret gospel of Mark and the Coptic fathers writing about Jesus performing baptisms, yet the secret gospel is not about baptism.
(I owe much of what follows to Scott G. Brown, Mark's Other Gospel, chapter 5.)
There are three textual levels to the secret gospel of Mark. First, there is the secret gospel itself. Second, there is the Clementine epistle to Theodore. Third, there is the Mar Saba manuscript that Morton Smith discovered in 1958. At none of these levels is the secret gospel of Mark really about baptism:
The attentive reader of Carlson will perceive what exactly the secret gospel is about, but what is important here is that it is not really about Jesus baptizing the young man whom he has raised. (Actually, it is not even clear that Jesus raised him, but that is not important here either.)
Kuchinsky: Huh? Really?
But perhaps I have let something slip through the cracks. After all, there was opportunity both between Mark and Clement and between Clement and the discovery of the Mar Saba manuscript for some anonymous person to have composed the secret gospel, and it is at least possible that such a person had baptism in mind. In such a case we cannot look to other extant writings as we did with Mark, Clement, and Morton Smith above, so all that we can do is to consider the passage itself:
It ought to be noticed immediately that no baptism is mentioned in this passage. No water appears. Nothing explicitly related to baptism. But perhaps the baptism is implicit in the passage. What of its peculiar phrases? Let us consider them one by one. Do any of them naturally relate only or at least principally to baptism?
We have no reason from the text itself, then, to suppose that Jesus baptized the young man. The text itself tells us that Jesus was teaching him that night, and that is what Brown draws from the passage both on page 145 when he argues that the conjuction for combined with the imperfect tense of teaching implies that only teaching happened that night; likewise on page 149 when he argues that the great mysteries have to do with theology, not baptism. But Andrew Criddle has observed in private correspondence how unlikely it seems that teaching is all that the pericope presumes happened that night between Jesus and the young man. Why mention the peculiar attire of a bare shroud?
I quite agree. The pericope invites us to imagine some kind of physical, not merely verbal, activity taking place between Jesus and the youth. And readers of Carlson, pages 65-71, will not be in the dark as to what exactly this physical activity is.
If the secret gospel of Mark is not about baptism, then the web of coincidence involving this text and the Coptic fathers unravels.
It may be worthwhile, however, to pursue a new kind of coincidence that rises from the ashes of the old one. Is it perhaps a bit odd that Morton Smith, following Richardson, interpreted this text as a baptismal rite before Talley uncovered the Coptic references to baptism?
There are different degrees of coincidence. Some coincidences are so strange that they demand an explanation beyond accident. But other coincidences are practically inevitable. In this case Morton Smith deliberately left the exact content of the nocturnal encounter between Jesus and the youth as an unspoken mystery, which in turn allowed this unspecified content to absorb whatever the context had to offer.
There is a reason, after all, why Richardson seized upon baptism as the content of the nocturnal episode, and that reason is context. On pages 64-65 Smith reproduces a letter from Richardson explaining the baptismal connections, and these connections come almost entirely from the surrounding context, our canonical Mark 9-10. Richardson mentions the blessing of the children (which he calls a defense of infant baptism), the story of the rich man (emphasizing the commandments, as was done for the baptism of new converts), the prediction of passion and resurrection (the ultimate symbolic target of baptism), the raising of the youth (another tie with death and resurrection), and the symbolic cup and baptism of James and John.
Within this symbolic contextual matrix of death, resurrection, and baptism, almost any even slightly mysterious text would look baptismal, especially one resonating with themes of death and resurrection, as the secret gospel indubitably does.
Morton Smith agreed on page 79 that context was king for the baptismal interpretation (emphasis mine):
The six days' preparation, the linen sheet and the nudity, but most of all the context of this story in Mark, indicate that the mystery was a baptism.
Thomas Talley, pages 208-209, as cited on pages 148-149 of Brown, also appears to agree (emphasis mine):
That this initiatory encounter is of a baptismal character is not stated in the text, but the use of this pericope in connection with baptism must have established such an understanding. It is true that the subject of the narrative is but a single individual in the Mar Saba fragment, and that the text does not even say that Jesus baptized him.
According to Talley, then, the baptismal understanding of the text proceeds from how it must have been used, not from what it actually said.
There is more. Whatever else we may think of the secret gospel it can hardly be denied that the position of its pericopes in Mark 10 has everything to do with the approximate Johannine parallel in John 11.1-44, the raising of Lazarus. Kuchinsky avers that this miracle has baptismal overtones:
Also, the Raising of Lazarus scene in John's gospel — clearly a parallel narrative to SecMk 1 — has numerous connections with baptism as well, in its own right. This is very well attested in the historical sources, and Smith likewise noted these connections.
Nor is it even a coincidence that both Mark 10 (right before passion week) and John 11 (right before passion week) are so easily bent to baptismal interpretation. The death of Jesus is approaching, both evangelists are preparing for it, and baptism symbolizes both that death and Christian participation in it.
Biblical and patristic recognition that Jesus was a baptizer, while certainly not common, is not unheard of. John 3.22 and 4.1 address the topic directly, even if John 4.2 repeals the most natural interpretation of these verses. And we also have that Clementine fragment preserved in John Moschus. How unusual is it that, when dominical baptism is eventually dated in church tradition, it happens to land in a context so ripe with baptismal overtones?
But the bottom line is that the secret gospel of Mark derives its baptismal interpretation principally from its context, not from its content. Therefore, it cannot play any part in a coincidence involving the timing of a baptism.
Kuchinsky: My dear Ben, the overwhelming
majority of commentators see LGM scene as some sort of a baptism/initiation.
Brown is all by himself to challenge this view.
Kuchinsky on the peripheral text.
The Coptic tradition is not the only ancient source that Kuchinsky mines for parallels to the secret gospel of Mark of which Morton Smith would have been unaware. He also turns to what is commonly referred to as the western text; he himself prefers to call it, probably more accurately, the peripheral text. The basic argument is that Smith, as a typical representative of the modern tendency to favor the Alexandrian text, was unaware of certain peripheral readings in the secret gospel; therefore, the secret gospel is unlikely to be a forgery by his hand.
Kuchinsky in fact adduces six cases in which the secret gospel evinces a western variant. Five of those cases are from John 11.1-44, the story of the raising of Lazarus. The sixth is from Mark 10.46. It appears that the purpose of offering the sixth case, however, differs from the purpose of offering the first five; the first five are intended to exonerate Morton Smith of forgery, while the sixth is intended to criticize New Testament scholars such as Crossan and Koester. Let me, then, first deal with this sixth case before turning to the other five.
Case 6: The canonical version of Mark has ερχονται (they come); the secret version of Mark has ερχεται (he comes). The singular is a western (or peripheral) reading found in Bezae (D), miniscule 788, several Old Latin manuscripts, the Alexandrian church father Origen, and other places.
This example is tainted, however, by our certainty that Morton Smith was in fact aware of this variant, as Kuchinsky admits with respect both to this variant in particular and to western variants in general. Kuchinsky blunts this admission with the interesting claim that Smith never attempted to use this evidence to support the authenticity of the Mar Saba manuscript. But is this so? I refer the interested reader to a brief exchange, dated May 14-18, 2005, between Kuchinsky and Carlson on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board:
Kuchinsky: It's interesting that Carlson has so far failed to engage with any of my new findings that prove conclusively that SecMk could not have been a forgery.
Kuchinsky: It is _extremely_ strained.Clearly, such an interpretation is not strained at all. Smith argued that the text of the secret gospel reflected the same tradition as what we now call the western text (in the context of defending the authenticity of the secret gospel), much as Kuchinsky himself, as we have seen, has argued that the content of the secret gospel reflects the same baptismal tradition that the later Coptic writers tapped into (also in the context of defending the authenticity of the secret gospel).
Kuchinsky: Wrong! Actually it was in the context of trying to explain away this particular aspect of the textual character of the secret gospel.
Indeed, the simple and straightforward fact that the western text is accessible to all modern scholars casts a shadow across any argument that Morton Smith was unaware of any of the western variants that Kuchinsky will point up. If Smith was the forger, what was to have prevented him from salting his forged text with western variants? That he argued from some of those variants, but not others, is no indication against this scenario, since salting clues for others to discover would not be an unnatural thing for a forger to do; he could well have pointed the way by revealing only some of the connections with the peripheral text, leaving the rest for some enterprising young scholar to find.
With this caveat in mind, however, I intend to look at the other five cases as if we knew for certain that Smith was unaware of them, for the sake of a complete argument. These five cases all come from the raising of Lazarus, the Johannine parallel to the raising of the young man in the secret gospel. Kuchinsky expresses what is at stake succinctly:
These 5 new parallels that I've now identified are all to the Johannine material, and they are all _direct_ parallels to the Raising of Lazarus story; only 1 of Smith's previously identified parallels was such a direct parallel (but to the Markan material). Now, since Smith failed to see any of these 5 Johannine parallels that had been there all the time — since he was completely unaware of them, as was obviously the case — that means that he couldn't have put them in there. Hence, he wasn't the forger.
But here we run into a point of methodology. It has long been noticed that the two extant passages unique to the secret gospel of Mark are full to overflowing with Marcan characteristics. They have been called a pastiche of Marcan words and phrases, too Marcan to be of Mark. Whether the word pastiche is entirely accurate need not detain us; the point stands that these passages echo, for whatever reason, many other Marcan passages.
This particular quality of the two secret passages bears directly upon the argument that Kuchinsky makes, since of his five cases four happen to parallel other parts of the gospel of Mark. If Morton Smith really forged the secret gospel of Mark by drawing a collection of Marcan words, phrases, and authorial traits into a Johannine parallel, and some of those Marcan words, phrases, and traits happen find parallels of their own within that parallel story in John, how much is left for Johannine variants from the western text to explain? I myself am not entirely certain, but I do think that this contingency mitigates somewhat the conclusion that only an awareness of some of the darkest corners of the western text (an awareness we are assuming, for the sake of argument, Smith did not have) could explain the parallel. I will point this mitigation out case by case.
Kuchinsky: So here's the basic problem for
you. Based on what you say, the 'forger' made LGM Western/Peripheral
in nature purely by accident (discounting your 'salting' scenario).
But how likely would such an accident really be?
With that, we launch into the five cases.
Case 1: The canonical version of John 11.38 mentions the tomb and the stone, but does not mention a door or doorway; in the secret gospel of Mark, however, Jesus rolls the stone away from the door (απο της θυρας) of the tomb. The door is also found in the Syriac, the Peshitta, and the Persian and Arabic Diatessarons of John 11.38.
However, the door of the tomb is a very big feature of the story of the tomb of Jesus in Mark 16.3, in which the women wonder who will roll away the stone from the door (εκ της θυρας). If Morton Smith forged the secret gospel, surely Mark 16.3 is whence he got the image of the door, not to mention the rolling away (both the secret gospel and canonical Mark 16.3 use forms of the word αποκυλιω) of the stone. Consider that, of the resurrection miracles recounted in the canonical gospels, the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus stand alone as the only ones which involve the actual tomb of the deceased,* and therefore the only accounts in which the door of the tomb would be a natural factor.
* The bizarre raisings of Matthew 27.52-53 are only apparently an exception, since these verses are not a narrative unto themselves but rather another instance of the phenomena recorded at the death of Jesus in 27.51-54, too compacted to qualify as an account in which we might expect to find the door of a tomb.
Kuchinsky: Still and all, Case 1 demonstrates the Western or Peripheral nature of LGM. Your arguments did nothing to negate this.Given that the raising of Lazarus is such an obvious prelude to the resurrection of Jesus, I do not think it at all unlikely that Mark 16.3 might be the source of the textual variant at John 11.38 in the first place. Nevertheless, even if such is not the case, that the secret gospel should feature the door of the tomb is completely explicable by reference to Mark 16.3 (which is its closest parallel by far on any account), and if the peripheral text of John 11.38 furnishes a coincidence it does so with reference to Mark 16.3 also.*
* I should add that in the gospel of Peter the door of the tomb is mentioned both in 12.53 (the deliberation of the women), which parallels Mark 16.3, and previously in 9.37 (the actual resurrection), for which there is no canonical parallel. And both Matthew 27.60 and Mark 15.46 mention the door of the tomb as soon as Joseph of Arimathea takes charge of the body of the Lord. It is apparent, then, that speaking about the door of a tomb, especially while discussing the stone that covers it, is an utterly natural thing to do. That the door should be noted both in the peripheral text and in the secret gospel is hardly a strange thing.
Case 2: The canonical version of John 11.44 says that the dead man came forth, with no indication of relative immediacy; the secret gospel of Mark, however, twice uses the word straightway (ευθυς). It happens that the Syriac version of John also includes an indication of time, in the same hour.
Kuchinsky: Not really.Three circumstances combine, however, to completely dissolve the force of this peripheral parallel. First, the use of the word ευθυς is such a firm feature of the Marcan writing style that it would be rather surprising if anyone striving to imitate Mark did not include an instance or two of this very Marcan word. Second, the peripheral parallel looks inexact on its face. Granted, in the same hour conveys a sense of immediacy, but it looks to me like a translation of another Greek phrase, εν αυτη τη ωρα (in the same hour), not necessarily of ευθυς. Third, the peripheral parallel is really no parallel at all, since it highlights how immediately the dead man exits the tomb after the dominical command to come out, but in the secret gospel the word ευθυς highlights how immediately the voice is heard from the tomb and then how immediately Jesus enters the tomb. There is no expression of immediacy in the secret gospel when the dead man finally exits the tomb.
Kuchinsky: And yet, Morton Smith stated
that /euqus/ does not belong specifically to Western text
Case 3: The canonical version of John 11.32 subordinates λεγουσα (saying) to επεσεν (fell); the secret gospel, however, places λεγει (says) in parataxis with προσεκυνησε (worshipped or prostrated). The Syriac, the Vulgate, and several other witnesses also use parataxis in John 11.32.
Again, however, parataxis is one of the most prevalent features of Marcan style; anyone seeking to imitate Mark would be bound to use it. Kuchinsky even punctures his own case somewhat when he observes:
In general, WP texts prefer to avoid the more complicated participle constructions, that one so often finds in the canonical Greek.
Kuchinsky: There's a clear link here between LGM and the Western or Peripheral text. So you're saying that this had occurred purely by accident. Yet the most logical thing here for a forger would have been simply to copy the canonical Jn. Correct?If both the Marcan style and the peripheral text happen to show a liking for parataxis, then there is no real coincidence here between a Marcan imitator and a peripheral text manifesting parataxis.
Case 4: The canonical version of John 11.3 has nothing about mercy; in the secret gospel, however, the sister of the dead youth says: Υιε Δαβιδ, ελεησον με (son of David, have mercy on me). The Magdalene gospel (Pepys 2498, often called the Pepysian harmony) also has an appeal for mercy: ...wepeande and cryeande hym mercy.
Kuchinsky: Well, thank you for admitting the significance of this parallel.This case I accept, at least pending further evidence, as a true coincidence; for, although the line is a straight copy of Mark 10.47-48 (and, if Smith was the forger, that is where he would have found the line), inserting this line into the secret gospel at this point is not as natural as inserting, say, a line about the door of the tomb, or a note of Marcan immediacy, or an example of Marcan parataxis. Not that such an appeal is unnatural, but it does not seem as inevitable a coincidence as the three Johannine cases already examined.
Case 5: Both the Magdalene gospel and the secret gospel of Mark heighten the relationship between the deceased and Jesus, as compared with the canonical account in John 11.1-44.
But this kind of parallel is gossamer. One of the intertextual connections either fabricated or exploited in the secret gospel of Mark is the link between the rich man (whom Jesus loved) in Mark 10.17-22 and Lazarus (whom Jesus loved) in John 11.1-44.
Kuchinsky: Why? Why not the other way around? Why is it "natural"?The love of Jesus for these two men is almost certainly one of the main things that guided the course of this pericope in the first place. It is only natural that the secret gospel should have something to say about the love between the youth and Jesus.
So where do these textual variants from the western or peripheral text leave us? Kuchinsky has, I think, done exactly what one ought to do when defusing a possible forgery; he has tried to find data of which the putative forger was unaware, data best explained under the assumption of authenticity.
But has his effort succeeded? I do not think so. I count only one true coincidence in the bunch, certainly not enough to vindicate the secret gospel, and even this coincidence arises from the tendency on the part of the forger to pluck out and employ Marcan words, phrases, and literary traits.
Kuchinsky: In Western/Peripheral texts,
there's a closer relationship between
Jesus and Lazarus. In LGM, there's a closer relationship between Jesus
and the young man. These are facts. There's certainly an interesting
connection there that needs to be explained. And yet you did nothing
to explain it. Another sheer coincidence?
My thanks to Yuri Kuchinsky for allowing me to post his comments on this page.