Sunday, March 2, 2008

Shirley I Am Coming Soon (Rev. 22.20)

I keep finding more amusing little goodies about the Morton Smith / Secret Gospel controversy. Last November First Things, a rather pretentious ecumenical journal, ran an item by its editor Richard John Neuhaus, praising Stephen Carlson’s Gospel Hoax as a “book that did not get the attention it deserved this past year”. (An odd claim, considering that Gospel Hoax has been widely reviewed, especially in conservative Christian media; earlier today I found a review in a journal from New Zealand.) Neuhaus, formerly a Lutheran minister and now a Catholic priest, tittered:
Morton Smith was a distinguished professor at Columbia University and a not-so-closeted homosexual. You remember the young man who, in the gospel account of the arrest of Jesus in the garden, ran away naked. To those of a certain bent, that is a titillation hard to resist.
Yes, it is, to those of a certain bent – reactionary, closeted, and disproportionately often Roman Catholic. But I shouldn’t stereotype. I don’t actually know anything about the personal sexuality of the men who’ve worked themselves into a lather over Smith’s work. It’s just that, as we’ve seen numerous times in the past couple of years, men with a vocation for denouncing homosexuality have a tendency to tapdance in public restrooms, to hire the services of male escorts, and less innocently, to fondle young orphans in their care. (The first such person I heard of was the late Rev. Billy James Hargis, whose anti-hippie, anti-Communist crusade came crashing down in the mid-70s, when he was accused of seducing students of both sexes from his American Christian College. Reportedly he blamed his straying on his chromosomes.) And then there’s the desperate attempt of the Catholic hierarchy to blame its child-molesting priests on the gay movement. Really, people who live in glass confessionals shouldn’t throw stones.

Look again at Stephen Carlson’s summary:
The sexually charged climax of the Secret Mark means that what these [two different] young man were seeking was, to use the words of New York statute, “a crime against nature or other lewdness.” In other words, Secret Mark easily conjures up to the twentieth-century reader the image that Jesus was arrested for soliciting a homoerotic encounter in a public garden [quoted by Scott Brown in JBL 2006, 373].
The trouble is that there isn’t a sexually charged climax in Secret Mark, and I have to wonder why Carlson is so insistent on seeing one there if he's not "of a certain bent" himself, snicker giggle snort. I don’t see how anyone would suddenly begin to believe that Jesus was gay, solely on the basis of Secret Mark; it seems that a person would already have to have had some contact with the gay-Jesus tradition that existed long before Smith found his manuscript in 1958, and interpret Secret Mark in its light. There are reports that Smith privately believed that Jesus, and also the apostle Paul, were gay, but I never saw any hint of this in his work, and I’ve read most of his scholarly writing. It seems pretty likely that Smith’s accusers are reading homoeroticism into Longer Mark because of their knowledge that Smith was gay, a fact that clearly obsesses them. Why is that, I wonder?

Neuhaus goes on:
In reviewing The Gospel Hoax, Bruce Chilton of Bard College writes: “The pattern of public discussions of [secret gospels] is all too familiar: a discovery is claimed and trumpeted in the press, only to be discredited by scholarly discussion which is then ignored. . . . No literature has suffered more from this problem than that of the second century of Christianity.” The fact that the hoax of “Secret Mark” was credited for such a long time, says Chilton, “stands as an indictment of American scholarship, which prides itself on skepticism in regard to the canonical gospels, but then turns credulous when non-canonical texts are concerned.”
It depends on where you’re standing, I guess. The pattern Chilton describes also occurs in conservative Christian circles with regard to archaeological finds, which get a lot of publicity and then are discredited. (Besides, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library have not been “discredited” – there’s no doubt that they are authentic early documents, not forgeries.) The Gospel Hoax seems more like the sort of thing Chilton is complaining about: a discovery [Smith forged it!] is claimed and trumpeted in the [reactionary Christian] press, only to be discredited by scholarly discussion which is, or will be, ignored. The debate over the authenticity of Longer Mark is just beginning, and Neuhaus is counting his chickens before they are hatched.

For me it doesn’t matter much. I would be disappointed if it were proven that Smith forged the document. If he was taken in by someone else’s fake, that would be disappointing too, but not so important, because my own view of the New Testament and early Christianity doesn’t rely on the letter or Longer Mark.

Smith was always a thorn in the side of conservative scholars, with his iconoclastic views and his vast learning and argumentative skills to back them. What they now hope, I think, is to get rid of the other elements of Smith’s work on Christian origins: the material about secrecy, freedom from the Law of Moses, the magical elements in the gospels and later Christian tradition. Those don’t depend on Longer Mark either – he established them very solidly -- but if Secret Mark is shown to be fake, all of Smith’s scholarship could be brushed easily aside. That probably explains why so many reactionaries have been jumping the gun, to get everyone to believe that he has already been exposed.