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My Article on Morton Smith and the Carpocratians

I have a new journal article that should be available soon entitled “Morton Smith and the Carpocratians” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 97.4 (2021): 623-645. Here is the abstract:

“Before the publication of Morton Smith’s scholarly and popular monographs on the Letter to Theodore ascribed to Clement of Alexandria, scholars generally summarized rather than critically interrogated the heresiological sources about the Carpocratians. Smith’s historical reconstruction of the beliefs and praxis of Carpocrates, Epiphanes, and their followers, therefore, represented a significant advance in the academic study of the Carpocratians. Further, he added the Letter to Theodore to the database on the Carpocratians, though there is no consensus among scholars regarding the authenticity of this document. Nevertheless, Smith’s interpretations of the Patristic and Medieval testimonies about the Carpocratians have become outdated in the light of recent scholarship. More specifically, Smith undervalued the philosophical underpinnings of the Carpocratians’ worldview and overemphasised the antinomian and magical practices that were attributed to the Carpocratians by their Christian opponents.”

Wherever you line up on the debate over the authenticity of the Letter to Theodore, here are some reasons to check out this article.

  • It gives an up-to-date survey on the scholarship on the Carpocratians since Smith’s major publications on them in 1973.
  • While most of Smith’s theories about the Letter to Theodore and the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark have been extensively analyzed, including whether it is an ancient text or an antique or modern forgery, his reconstruction of the Carpocratians has been largely neglected.
  • Building on recent studies with more refined historical methodologies, I reconstruct some aspects of the Carpocratians’ beliefs and practices.
  • I offer a reading of the expanded version of Mark’s Gospel in the Letter to Theodore as presenting another rich young man who abandoned all his possessions except for his burial shroud for the kingdom of God, which the Carpocratians may have liked because of their social ethic about renouncing private property and hope for liberation from the material world altogether. Advocates of the forgery hypothesis tend to read the letter as reflecting an anachronistic conception of sexuality and imputing it back to the Carpocratians, so I invite all sides of the debate to evaluate this reading.

In the end, if I am completely wrong on the last point, I still hope that the article is a contribution to the study of the historical Carpocratians. I also discovered on the blog Evangelical Textual Criticism that there is a forthcoming volume on the Letter to Theodore (i.e. Geoffrey Smith and Brent Landau, The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Rogue Scholar, A Controversial Gospel of Jesus, and the Fierce Debate Over Its Authenticity). I also know a colleague is working on a monograph on the Carpocratians that was not available to me when I wrote this article and judges the Letter to Theodore to be a modern forgery, as does a recent PhD thesis on the Carpocratians that I did interact with, so the debate will continue.

Update: here is the bibliographical information of the two works that I mentioned:

  • Litwa, M. David. Carpocrates, Marcellina, and Epiphanes: Three Early Christian Teachers of Alexandria and Rome. London: Routledge, 2022.
  • Whitley, T. J. “The Greatest Blasphemy: Sex, Souls, and the Carpocratian Heresy.” PhD Thesis, Florida State University, 2016.
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