Archive for September, 2009


Salt and the Secret Gospel of Mark

At the time of its initial publication, Stephen C. Carlson’s The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005) was hailed by a number of scholars as a definitive answer to the persistent questions surrounding the authorship of the mysterious Letter to Theodore.  Mark Goodacre hailed the work as “fascinating, compelling, and utterly convincing”; Larry Hurtado proclaimed, “Far from being some lost version of the story of Jesus, Secret Mark is uncovered as a great practical joke—one that keeps Morton Smith laughing from his grave.”  Among Carlson’s arguments that the Letter to Theodore was penned by Smith himself is its reference to salt losing its savor (an apparent allusion to Jesus’ words in Mark 9:49-50; Matt 5:13; Luke 14:34-35), which Carlson identifies as both an anachronism presupposing the existence of free-flowing, composite table salt and an unmistakable allusion to Smith’s given name:

“For the true things being mixed with inventions, are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt loses its savor” (Letter to Theodore I.13-15).

Carlson concludes, “The imagery in Theodore involves mixing an adulterant with salt and spoiling its taste.  For salt to be mixed with such an adulterant, it would have to be loose and free-flowing, but free-flowing salt is a modern invention” (developed by the Morton Salt Company in 1910; p. 60).  Moreover, references to the degradation of salt upon contact with undesirable additives are unattested in antiquity—an omission which is not especially surprising given its widespread availability and low cost.  Much of this portion of Carlson’s thesis has been challenged by Scott G. Brown (e.g., “Factualizing the Folklore: Stephen Carlson’s Case Against Morton Smith,” in Harvard Theological Review 99.3 [2006], 291-327), who notes that the letter describes the gospel message, rather than the salt, as the pure entity in danger of pollution.  Additionally, given the consistency of modern manufacturing and the potency of modern preservatives, a metaphor employing an image of spoiled salt is much more cogent in an ancient context.

The debate between Carlson and Brown on this subject returned to my mind yesterday afternoon, as the members of Prof. Wendy Mayer’s engaging seminar on Antioch were reading and discussing a number of primary sources, especially those that shed light on the disparate Christian movements active in the city between the fourth and seventh centuries.  One such source is the correspondence of Severus of Antioch (c. 465-c. 540 CE), an anti-Chalcedonian who briefly served as Patriarch of Antioch in the early sixth century.  In a letter to the presbyter Theotecnus, Severus discusses the importance of extending fellowship to those who had previously embraced opposing views;  as an example, he briefly recounts the conciliatory attitude of his predecessors towards the sophist and author Asterius when he periodically repented of his nagging Arianism:

[Asterius] was often received and often returned to his vomit [2 Peter 2:22], insomuch that this expression of his is cited in histories.  He cried out lying on his face before everyone and saying, “Trample upon me, the salt which has lost its savour” (Letter 515-8).

While I haven’t had the opportunity to examine this text in its original language (the letters of Severus survive only in Syriac), Asterius’ statement—in which he links the present state of his character, tainted by his heresy, to degraded or spoiled salt—is a striking parallel to the comments found in the Letter to Theodore.  It may be some time before I have the opportunity for a deeper analysis, but at the moment I’m more and more inclined to the opinion that The Gospel Hoax, with its depiction of the letter and its purported gospel quotations as deviously encoded documents ready to reveal their true nature to the perceptive sleuth, displays some notable structural similarities to The da Vinci Code. Given the virulent reactions of many scholars to the latter book, this seems exceedingly ironic.


The Nicene Creed (Highly, Highly Abridged Edition)

The latest highly, highly abridged edition: an introduction to the Nicene Creed that I created for my students in RELG 1010 (“Introduction to Western Religious Traditions”).  I know that it isn’t up to Nick Norelli’s Trinitarian standards, but keep in mind that most of these kids are first- and second-year undergraduates, and had never even heard of the Nicene Creed prior to this week.  So cut me some slack, Nick.  😉



RBL Highlights: 9/21/09

Highlights from the most recent edition of the Review of Biblical Literature.  There are a number of excellent contributions, but Seán P. Kealy’s assessment of Lori Anne Farrell’s The Bible and the People left me wanting a little more:

I like this exploration of such a vast subject and will often consult it in the years to come.

Seriously?  Come on… give us two sentences, at least.  😉

L. Stephanie Cobb
Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts
Reviewed by Jan Willem van Henten

J. Edward Crowley and Paul L. Danove
The Rhetoric of Characterization of God, Jesus, and Jesus’ Disciples in the Gospel of Mark
Reviewed by Seán P. Kealy

Ellen F. Davis
Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible
Reviewed by Philip F. Esler

F. Gerald Downing
God with Everything: The Divine in the Discourse of the First Christian Century
Reviewed by Michael Lakey

Lori Anne Ferrell
The Bible and the People
Reviewed by Seán P. Kealy

Joseph A. Fitzmyer
A Guide to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature
Reviewed by Shayna Sheinfeld

William H. Jennings
Storms over Genesis: Biblical Battleground in America’s Wars of Religion
Reviewed by Michael D. Matlock

Matthew J. Marohl
Faithfulness and the Purpose of Hebrews: A Social Identity Approach
Reviewed by Renate Viveen Hood

Etienne Nodet
The Historical Jesus? Necessity and Limits of an Inquiry
Reviewed by James West

Julia M. O’Brien
Challenging Prophetic Metaphor: Theology and Ideology in the Prophets
Reviewed by Bo H. Lim

Mikeal C. Parsons
Reviewed by I. Howard Marshall

Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan
Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts
Reviewed by Jan G. van der Watt

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed.
Theological Interpretation of the New Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey
Reviewed by Erik Heen


You Can Never Have Too Many NT Manuscripts in Your Library…

… so check out these freely available facsimile editions:


Codex Washingtonianus (Mark 1:1-7)


More Free NT-Related Treasures from

If you haven’t spent an hour (or four) browsing the thousands of titles available for download from, you owe it to yourself to take a look.  A few worthwhile titles I found this evening:


The Shepherd of Hermas (Highly, Highly Abridged Edition)

This afternoon, I gave a brief presentation on the Shepherd of Hermas as part of Prof. Robin Darling Young’s seminar on reading practices in early Christianity.  Because many members of this particular seminar aren’t specialists in this period, I prepared a handout (complete with pictures!) to provide some additional background.  If anyone’s looking for an introduction to a fascinating apocalyptic text (and it is apocalyptic, no matter what some scholars may tell you), check it out here. I hope it’s useful!




The NFL Is Back…

… and it’s already keeping me from getting anything done.  Crap.

September 2009
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