Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Morton Smith Explained

I am the first to admit that it is almost impossible to perfectly explain the motivation of another human being.  Yet for many on the other side of the 'Secret Mark' debate Morton Smith's alleged forgery of the Mar Saba document comes down to a 'grudge' that 'he must have felt' as a formerly faithful and now totally homosexual man.  The fact that there isn't a shred of evidence to suggest that Morton Smith ever had a romantic or sexual relationship with another man does not deter these people.  The fact that evangelicals of a previous generation accused him of being such a man is enough for them.

Apparently evangelicals are incapable of misrepresentation, slander or deceit because of their evangelical nature.

I don't generally like to write about Morton Smith's private life because quite frankly it is all a waste of time. I have never seen any evidence to suggest that a homosexual would be more or less likely to break the law, commit fraud or perpetrate hoaxes than a heterosexual person.  All that we really have our disposal is a few basic facts which I think can be taken at face value in order to explain Morton Smith's discovery:


  1.  Morton Smith remained a bachelor for most if not all of his life.  
  2. He developed a professional interest in monasticism, mysticism and magic. 
  3. The intensity of his devotion to his career led to the discovery of a lost letter of Clement of Alexandria.
The question for me has always been - why isn't this explanation good enough for evangelicals?  Why isn't this a reasonable explanation of his discovery of Mar Saba 65?  I mean why can't Smith just be assumed to be a guy who was totally devoted to understanding mystic truths?   

These evangelicals have been waging a war against Morton Smith's discovery since 1973.  At least some of them have gone so far as to hire private investigators and the outright fabrication of evidence in order to build a case against his discovery.  As I began as a psychology major I have often wondered how these people justify their seemingly endless war against an innocent man.  Why do they remain so absolutely sure of their rival model for explaining the discovery of the Mar Saba document, namely:


  1. Morton Smith hated Christianity when discovered he was a homosexual
  2. He got the idea to forge a letter of Clement of Alexandria from reading a pulp fiction novel 
  3. So intense was his devotion to this book that he went to the same monastery, recreated a discovery of an ancient manuscript but now as a fake discovery of a manuscript he planted in the library in order to get revenge on the Church. 

I cannot see for the life of me why 'B' is a more reasonable scenario than 'A.'  As a former psychology major I find it absolutely incredible to see how it is that otherwise highly intelligent individuals who happen to hold doctorates and masters degrees see things in a completely different way here.

Do these people really believe that homosexuality leads to criminal activity?  No I can't believe that all of these people share this belief.  So what is the issue then?  The only answer I can come up with is that it is something about Smith's 'typology.'  Since he wasn't a 'nice guy' to them or someone they knew, Morton Smith became a 'likely forger' who happened to be gay, anti-Christian and all the stuff that evangelicals spread about him.  I have actually conducted a lot of interviews with reasonable people and found that whenever I asked them 'why do you think so many people accuse him of forgery' it was his 'prickly nature' that stood out.

Now of course very few of the people I interviewed actually believed that Smith forged the Mar Saba document (or at least they wouldn't say it to my face).  All of which leaves us with the task of figuring out why evangelicals are so willing to believe that Smith did it. The answer is indeed quite straightforward - they see in Smith as the very embodiment of a minion of Satan, someone who has seeming supernatural abilities to carry out his master's plan of bringing down the Church.  This is how they must justify why the letter sounds 'too Markan' to be written by Mark, 'too Clementine' to have been written by Clement of Alexandira.  Smith was had the power of the Devil helping him along the way.

Now we are all familiar how these stories about Satan's plan to control the world inevitably develop.  The forces of evil are ultimately defeated by the powers of God who reveal the diabolical plot to the faithful members of the Church.  Smith presumably then was 'the agent of Satan' and Stephen Carlson presumably is fighting for the side of good.  The fact that there is no forger's tremor in the best photos of the original manuscript mean nothing to someone like Larry Hurtado presumably because he expects the faithful to 'believe it is there' anyway.  It all comes down to who we chose to believe in - a godless man like Morton Smith who promotes theories based on the occult, witchcraft and divination or those who 'know the truth' and the true teachings of the Church.

I have read enough of Hurtado's works to know that he and his kind inevitably cite 'scripture' such as:

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. [2 Tim. 4:3-4]

to tip the scales in their favor with like-minded evangelicals.  Yet when I was doing research for this post I noticed that it wasn't just Morton Smith who receives this kind of treatment but also popular celebrities like Dr. Oz.  Indeed I came across the following information about Dr. Oz at a report at with regards to Rick Warren's "latest endeavor 'The Daniel Plan,' a 52-week health and fitness program. Pastor Rick has decided it's high time to lose 90 pounds and he's enlisted Oprah's 'favorite doctor' to help him 'fight the Devil' and lose weight.

As ridiculously stupid as this might sound many of you might be wondering what on earth this has to do with Morton Smith and Mar Saba document. Well in order to see this you have to continue to go through the article down to the point the author notes that Dr. Oz

is a Muslim and has been influenced by the mysticism of Sufi Muslims. Moreover, he is keen on the ideas of cultist mystic Emanuel Swedenborg:

"As I came into contact with Swedenborg's many writing I began to understand Swedenborg's profound insights and how they applied directly to my life."

Swedenborg believed he could pass between the life to come and the present. What is more he claimed he had conversations with spirits of the dearly departed as well as angelic beings:

"[T]he spirit world was comprised of a number of concentric spheres, each with its own density and inhabitants. There is no such thing as hell or eternal punishment. Those spirits who find themselves in a hellish place after death can evolve toward a higher spiritual plane.

"In spite of it being granted to him 'to be constantly and uninterruptedly in company with spirits and angels,' Swedenborg did issue a caution in regard to receiving counsel from just any spirit that might manifest with an alleged personal message. "When spirits begin to speak," he wrote in Miscellaneous Theological Works (1996), "care should be taken not to believe them, for nearly everything they say is made up by them....They love to feign. Whatever be the topic spoken of, they think they know it, and if man listens and believes, they insist, and in various ways deceive and seduce."

... It is rather curious that Rick Warren would team up with a man whose fame he owes in part to New Age High Priestess Oprah Winfrey. Dr. Oz's worldview more closely aligns to New Age Spirituality than to historic orthodox Christianity.

The point of the author is that Dr. Oz has to be a bad person - a person who can't be trusted - because on top of being born a Muslim he decided to embrace the teachings of a crazy eighteenth century Christian theologian who took a deep interest in mysticism.

Indeed when you go to the website of the church developed from Emanuel Swedenborg's teachings - the New Church headquartered in Bryn Athyn, PA (a suburb of Philadelphia) - Dr. Oz is prominently featured as someone who "found inspiration in his life from the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg." Indeed the church features a number of other famous historical figures who found similar inspiration including Helen Keller who devoted her most famous book to Emanuel Swedenborg:

"one of the noblest champions true Christianity has ever known."

"the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg have been my light, and a staff in my hand and by his vision splendid I am attended on my way."

Aside from some of the most prominent industrialists in America being associated with this Christian organization - i.e. Andrew Carnegie, James Pitcairn (whose financial largess enabled the founding of the Swedenborgian settlement at Bryn Athyn) - there are a great number of great scholars and writers including:

Elizabeth Barret Browning:

"To my mind the only light that has been cast on the other life is found in Swedenborg's philosophy... "It explains much that was incomprehensible."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

"I can venture to assert that as a moralist Swedenborg is above all praise; and that as a naturalist, psychologist and theologian, he has strong and varied claims on the gratitude and admiration of the professional and philosopical faculties..."

Thomas Carlyle:

"Swedenborg was a man of great and indisputable cultivation, strong mathematical intellect, and the most pious, seraphic turn of mind; a man beautiful, lovable and tragical to me... More truths are confessed in his writings than in those of any other man... One of the loftiest minds in the realm of mind... One of the spiritual suns that will shine brighter as the years go on."

Richard Yardumian,
(American Composer of Classical who dedicated his Symphony No. 2 "Psalms" to the Reverend Theodore Pitcairn, a close friend and priest in the The Lord's New Church Which Is Nova Hierosolyma, of which he was a member):

"Richard's devotion to his church has strongly influenced his compositions, from the overt use of religious texts and musical genres to less obvious symbolism in the actual musical structure."

Henry James Sr.:

"Emanuel Swedenborg had the sanest and most far-reaching intellect this age has ever known..."

The one person who is absent from this list is Morton Smith. Rupert Morton Smith as he was known to the school was among the brightest at the Academy of the New Church. Perhaps he is left off the list because his accomplishments aren't as generally well known as the aforementioned group.

Rupert Morton Smith grew up in Bryn Athyn which was a Swedenborgian community. The Bryn Athyn cathedral was built when he was young, and he later remembered its eventual completion (1928) as one of the very good things that happened in his life. He went to school there with several of the Pitcairn kids graduating in 1932 winning an Oratorical Prize (Silver Cup) and Sons of the Academy Gold Medal. Smith's association with the school is nothing new of course. Peter Jeffery writes in his insipid book that:

the school was affiliated with the General Church of the New Jerusalem, a Swedenborgian denomination, so it must have been there that he first heard about journeys to heaven, though I have not detected any Swedenborgian influences in his writings. As a Harvard undergraduate, Smith majored in English, graduating with an AB magna cum laude in 1936. In 1940 he received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree cum laude from Harvard Divinity School and evidently meant to continue on for Th.D (Doctorate of Divinity) [p. 148]

As Jeffery notes instead of completing his studies at Harvard, Smith went instead Sheldon Fellowship for study in Jerusalem from 1940 to 1942.

It is Jeffery of course who consistently beats the drum that the only way Smith's personality can be explained as some sort of deviant pedophile who so hated the church he fabricated a discovery. Yet in order to get here Jeffery has to push to the side the obvious influence of Swedenborg on the young Morton Smith. Jeffery discounts any 'Swedenborgian influences' over Smith however I found the exact opposite when I examined his remarkably personal essay Hope and History (1980). There are no less than four references to Swedenborg in the book including a remarkable comparison between Swedenborg's “exceptional" descriptions of heavenly ascent "which have not gained general acceptance" against the "generally accepted ...visions in the canonical Apocalypse of St John have been resolutely but vaguely allegorized.”

Yet the clearest refutation of Jeffery's claim that Morton Smith's experience at Bryn Athyn had no lasting impact on him is the fact Hope and History actually closes with a Swedenborg quote which I believe sums up Smith's whole outlook on life:

to delight in doing one's work well - these abilities are necessary for that “love of one's work” which, as Swedenborg said, is the common condition for a happy life. This holds for dealing with things as well as people. The basis of hope is the capacity to love. [p 200]

Indeed I don't see how anyone can claim that Smith ever 'lost his faith' given that he began in a mystical tradition of Christianity and never lost that interest at any discernible period in his life.

As Allan Pantuck noted to me in an email, Morton Smith "was already interested in magic and mysticism before he ever met Scholem and in the 1940s, after he returned to Philadelphia, he was reading Swedenborg in Latin and thought it was interesting,"  Indeed few people realize that while Smith attended Harvard a fellow Swedenborgian - James Bryant Conant - was its president.  The only time in his youth that Smith ever left the watchful eye of members of his community was when he studied in Palestine.  As we have already seen, Smith continued to be inspired by Emanuel Swedenborg into the final years of his life.  How then can people claim that an 'embittered' Smith forged the Mar Saba document to get revenge on a Church which would clearly have embraced the ideas contained in the discovery (Swedenborg frequently referred to himself as an initialis = μυστικός (Bergquist, 1999, p.451 in turn based on Arcana Cœlestia §4099)

Indeed I would argue that the evidence seems to suggest that Emanuel Swedenborg was among the deepest influences on Smith.  Will anyone really doubt that it was at the Academy of the New Church that Smith, the son of a physician, developed his profound interest in religious mysticism?  In fact, I think we can take this even one step further.  Swedenborg's devotion to religious study was so intense that it led to him remaining a perpetual bachelor his whole life.  Sound familiar? ...

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