Friday, September 10, 2010

A Note About James Hogg Hunter's Idiotic Book The Mystery of Mar Saba

I don't want to spend a lot of time on this moronic theory that Morton Smith somehow was inspired to create a forgery by an evangelical pulp fiction novel centered around the forging of a document at the Mar Saba monastery. I just think I might have a small something to add to the discussion. Maybe some of you will find it interesting.

It has to be acknowledged that at first glance some intriguing parallels between the two stories of course. Hunter's novel was published just a year before Morton Smith's visit to Mar Saba. This fact makes everyone's eyes open wide. It does seem odd that two men would write about some obscure monastery only a year apart. So why the common interest? The easy answer is that because Mar Saba is some obscure monastery the answer must be because Smith was 'inspired' by the Hunter novel.

But let's stop right there and ask not why Smith was interested in Mar Saba. Is it really strange that a Christian student who received a grant to study in Jerusalem in 1937 would have taken an interest in the Mar Saba monastery especially when he was seriously considering joining the Orthodox faith in the period? Indeed it can hardly be argued that Smith's interest in this monastery was 'inspired' by Hunter. Let's ask instead why a Canadian author likely would have been inspired to write what amounts to being an idiotic book set at the Mar Saba monastery.

As it turns out in the summer of 1939, at the very time that Hunter was likely developing his narrative, the Mar Saba monastery was on the front page of many newspapers in North America as part of a riveting kidnapping story that had most of the world - but more importantly, newspapers in Hunter's home province - frantically waiting for updates. As Troyer notes "the story of Reverend Goldner's kidnapping and progress of the negotiations for his release were top news throughout the world. Protestants, Catholics, Jews, even Moslems, prayed for the minister's safe release. And, especially, members of the Mogadore Christian Church prayed for the safety of their young pastor. Negotiations were intricate and sensitive. The British were involved as were the US consul general and Arab leaders in that area." [Troyer, Portage Pathways p. 248]

Hunter was certainly very interested in this fellow evangelical captured after visiting the Mar Saba monastery.  Once Goldner's ransom was paid the symbolism inherent in the image of his release reported around the globe must not have been lost on Hunter - "News bulletins said Reverend Goldner had been turned over to monks at a Greek monastery [Mar Saba]. Later, he was sighted riding a donkey on the road between Bethlehem and Hebron. There he was greeted by the US consul general who drove him to Bethlehem." [ibid]

But first a little bit about Hunter.  As we read in the House of Zondervan: Celebrating Seventy Five Years Hunter only became a known author even in Christian circles with his win

The author was James H. Hunter, editor of the Evangelical Christian, a magazine published by Evangelical Publishers of Toronto. Hunter had already published the novels The Mystery of Mar Saba and Banners of Blood. Thine Is the Kingdom sold out its first printing of 15000 in six weeks and was quickly enlisted by a British publisher. Hunter later published How Sleep the Brave and was named Zondervan's Author of the Quarter Century. [p. 57]

But this was already 1951 long after Smith's first visit to Mar Saba. Thine is the Kingdom had much greater exposure to American audiences because it was printed on the other side of the Canadian border in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Mystery of Mar Saba was basically self-published at Hunter's offices in Toronto for a local market and was his first book. It could not have enjoyed wide readership in its first year. As such I would argue that it would be almost impossible to believe that this self-published book aimed at a niche market could ever have found Smith as a reader.

But back to Hunter's inspiration for writing the Mystery of Mar Saba.

If anyone had bothered to do a Google search for newspaper articles which mention 'Mar Saba' they would have noticed that the greatest number of references to that name in the history of mankind was on July 21st (my birthday), 1939. Fifty newspaper articles in total that are known to Google (and there must have been many more in papers which were never digitized). By contrast the most frequent reference is Morton Smith's discovery of the Mar Saba document which has less than a dozen references in 1960. None of them front page news.

But the story in 1939 was certainly VERY BIG NEWS making the front page of the Palm Beach Post for many days in a row, the Sarasota Herald, the Sarasota Tribunethe St. Petersburg Times, the Spartanburg Herald, the Kentucky New Era and as I said countless other newspapers across the country - the New York Times, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune etc. - including in Hunter's home province of Ontario every day of the week for many days in a row (with photo of the kidnapped pastor on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen).

When you look at the front pages of all these newspapers where the story appears you can see how Hunter developed his book.  The newspapers are mostly dominated by stories about Nazi aggression but then suddenly this story with obvious interest for Hunter - himself an evangelical minister - about another pastor who went to the Mar Saba monastery and eventually ran into trouble with Arabs only to be rescued by the Palestinian police force all against a backdrop, as we mentioned, of Nazi aggression in Europe.

Hunter's novel is set during the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany about a plot to finish Britain by destroying Christianity. The book revolves around a secret cult, "the Hooded Ones," attempting to forge a document referred to as "the Shred of Nicodemus," which refutes the Resurrection. The hope is that the documents release will demoralize the British empire making it easier for Hitler to conquer Europe. The forgery ultimately works and the British Empire and the United States are thrown into disarray.

The heroes in the story however seem to be taken from the various accounts of the kidnapped pastor Gerould Goldner - Heroes Alderson (the Chief of police of the Palestine Police), Medhurst (Alderson's old army buddy), Dennis (Medhurst's servant and army buddy) and a few others on the team. The book is virulently anti-German and anti-Arab which clearly also develops from the newspaper story as the kidnappers were Arabs. The book is overtly Christian, one of the heroes becomes a Christian, something the damsel and our other hero's already are.

The amount of Christianity in the books is almost overwhelming, that is do from the modern style which prefers to have a Christian character in a book and The Mystery of Mar Saba which is a Christian book through and through. The book isn't well written, each character has several names, nicknames, secret identities which become a bit hard to follow. At times in the book the reader is forced to reread a passage because it doesn't make sense and it continues not to make sense when re-read. A few of these points are major holes in the plot of the book where characters and stories disappear.

I have never read the book (I have taken this description from an online source). I simply don't have the time to read it. My only point here is that it seems quite clear that it cannot be argued that Morton Smith was inspired to go to Mar Saba because he read this first book by a then unknown Canadian writer which simply could not have made its way into Smith's hands before he made his way to Palestine.

It is actually certain that both Smith and Hunter had came across this story about a kidnapping of a Christian pastor by Arabs. This story likely prompted Hunter to write a book that never quite made its way into Smith's hands.

The real story of how Smith made his way to Jerusalem can be told from his own writings:

"My serious work began in 1937 at Harvard Divinity School, especially with New Testament under Henry Cadbury and rabbinics under HA Wolfson. Wolfson urged that Smith learn rabbinic Hebrew as background for the New Testament. This Smith did in a year. Wolfson convinced the Greek historian William Scott Ferguson, then Dean of the Graduate School, to grant Smith a Sheldon Fellowship for study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, "where the New Testament was 'Hellenistic literature.'" The outbreak of World War II stranded him there. Wolfson was able to extend the fellowship. Smith was awarded the doctorate in 1948 with a dissertation written in Hebrew later translated as 'Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels' (1951). This was "the first extensive application, to rabbinic literature of synoptic criticism and form criticism."

At this time Smith became an episcopalian priest and briefly in the forties had a parish. He was never defrocked but ceased to serve in 1948. He returned to Harvard Divinity School 1948 - 50 and in 1957 received the ThD with a famous dissertation 'Palestinian Parties and Politics that Shaped the Old Testament (New York 1971) ... His first university appointment was instructor, then assistant professor in Biblical Literature at Brown University (1950 - 55). He was denied tenure and became Visiting Professor in the History of Religions at Drew University (1956–1957). In 1957 he was appointed successor to Elias J. Bickerman as professor of ancient history at Columbia University. He held this chair until his retirement in 1985, though he continued to teach at Columbia, in the Department of Religion, until shortly before his death on July 11, 1991.

Most of this is of course old news to people that pontificate about the authenticity of the letter he discovered in the Mar Saba monastery. But I want to stress than when you look at what a complex document the Letter to Theodore really is - a document which perfectly resembles a document you'd expect to find in a Greek monastery, so Clementine that it is included in most collections of Clement's works wrapped around two very Markan addition to the Gospel of Mark - where and why did Morton Smith find the time to 'invent' such a text.

He was certainly not inspired by the foolish Mystery at Mar Saba text. His handwriting doesn't match that of the forger. In fact he wasn't capable of producing such a text because even his letters to the Patriarchy were written in English rather than Greek.

Maybe we should look for another conspiracy. A conspiracy involving a group of evangelicals trying to destabilize the Western world through the discovery of just such a text. James Hunter was their ringleader - the leader of their secret organization as it were - who sent Gerould Goldner to Mar Saba in 1939 in order to 'plant' the text before he was kidnapped by Arabs and thus spoiling their plans for world domination.

Goldner was at Mar Saba in July of 1939. This is still after the last catalog of books carried out in 1890 (not 1910 as Carlson claims). This secret organization planned to send someone else in to 'discover' the book shortly thereafter but then World War II broke out in September of 1939 and Hunter, disillusioned and angered that he had been cut off from those responsible from the rest of the team decided to publish the Mystery of Mar Saba as a work of fiction hoping to salvage something out of the original project.

The document just sat in the monastery until Morton Smith accidentally stumbled upon it in 1958.

The point is of course that this is a stupid theory but it is no less idiotic than claiming that Morton Smith forged the document as some sort of elaborate plot to get discovered as the forger by the deciphering of various codes in the text. The point again is that new evidence is coming which is going to turn everything upside down soon. I thought it would be fun to prepare everyone for the truth ...

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