Peter Jeffery Replies to Scott Brown

Everyone should take the time to read Peter Jeffery’s Reply to Scott Brown who last fall wrote a 47-page RBL review of Jeffery’s book, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled. I have no idea why RBL refuses to publish this reply — especially given the exceptional space it gave Scott in September — but it’s necessary for those who actually think Scott’s defense of Secret Mark is convincing.

I want to call special attention to the way Jeffery explains a double entendre. After showing that double entendres aren’t exhausted by words and phrases(*), but encompass entire narratives and expositions — thus Secret Mark seems to be against sexual immorality, but is actually an advocate of it — Jeffery explains another key feature:

“One of the key characteristics of extended double entendres is deniability. Much of the humor lies not so much in the double meaning itself, as in the fact that the joker is able to feign propriety by accusing his listeners or readers of having ‘a dirty mind’ — of reading things into the text that are not there. Smith clearly enjoyed doing just that. In every published mention of his most infamous joke, ‘Holy man arrested…naked youth escapes,’ he speculates that unsophisticated ancient and modern readers would perceive this interpretation in Mk 14:46-52, though he himself knows better — as if to distract us from noticing who keeps bringing this up. Nor was this the only passage for which Smith ascribed improbable homosexual interpretations to people less insightful than he. The Corinthians misconstrued a Marcan statement that Smith presumably knew is about kosher food: ‘The teaching that sexual acts are morally indifferent could easily have been derived from Jesus’ reported saying, “There is nothing outside a human being which, by entering, can make the recipient impure.”‘ The Secret Gospel is constructed from such people-will-get-the-wrong-idea passages. (p 12)

That’s right: feigning propriety by projecting onto others one’s dirty mind, thereby diverting attention from who brings up the dirt in the first place. Though as Jeffery notes, of course, “eventually Smith stopped going to the trouble of attributing his bizarre readings to more benighted people, and began stating them as plain fact.” But the point is that the eisegetical readings supposedly engaged by Smith’s detractors are precisely the point. Smith’s project was an open invitation to eisegete, to read it with all the scandalous anachronism he intended.

Jeffery concludes:

“When Morton Smith’s life story is accurately and fairly told, it may well be evident that his feelings of rage were understandable, even amply justified. But the way he chose to express them in his publications was not — as every professor knows who has to teach the principles of academic honesty year after year. I have sat with some extremely psychotic people who wanted me to validate things that were both false and intentionally hurtful; I know how hard it is to acknowledge someone’s pain while refusing to condone his desire to pass it on to others. But that is what we must do. It is tragic that Smith’s long-ago impostures, like antique landmines from a half-forgotten war, are still injuring innocent and well-intentioned scholars. The time has come to break the cycle of hurt, by shelving the Secret Gospel under ‘twentieth century fantasy fiction’ where it belongs.” (p 19)

And again, I would like to know why RBL refuses to publish this response, given the exceptional leeway it gave for Scott’s own 47-page critique of Jeffery (most RBL reviews are 3-5 pages). Is RBL implicitly taking a stand on Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel? I’m not accusing, just seriously wondering.

When the Scott Browns and Ben Witheringtons persist in the face of defeat, it raises embarrassing questions about our academic establishment. It’s one thing to be initially taken in a hoax or forgery, but for professionals to continue walling themselves in denial for sake of individual reputation (no scholar who publicly defends a forgery ever wants to admit he was wrong) ultimately casts a shadow on the reputation of the entire guild. Over the years I’ve talked to coworkers and friends about Secret Mark and the James Ossuary, and in the end the question always presses: “How can we trust our scholars about anything if they can’t even see through this stuff?”


(*) Though Smith certainly used straightforward double entendres too. See here.

6 thoughts on “Peter Jeffery Replies to Scott Brown

  1. Why won’t RBL allow Jeffery’s response? They can’t say that a response doesn’t fit their format, because they allowed Jobes and Silva to respond to Barr’s 20+ page review of their book.

  2. Doug: Ours isn’t an honor-shame culture, but that doesn’t stop people from acting out of a shame-based code in contexts like this.Jack: I don’t know why RBL won’t publish it. I’ve asked Peter Jeffery, so hopefully he’ll shed some light on the matter.

  3. I now see in the post-script to Jeffery’s paper RBL’s stated reason for not publishing it: “The board of RBL has laid down a policy that we do not publish replies on reviews.” Jeffery then lists six reasons why this statement is absurd, all of which I agree with. The second reason is the same noted by Jack Poirier above.

  4. Andrew wrote:<>I liked this from Jeffery’s reply: <>“try to locate this text anywhere specific in early Christian history and it disappears”<>.<>That’s a good one, as is the one on the preceding page. Commenting on Brown’s hyper-ambiguous reconstruction of the historical situation behind Secret Mark: <>“Why is a second-century mental blank preferable to the clear twentieth century picture and vivid modern characters to which so many clues point?”<> (p 16)

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