Sunday, July 24, 2011

Why I Don't Believe that Smith Forged the Mar Saba Document

It is difficult to know the truth at the best of times, let alone with respect to the circumstances surrounding the discovery of a manuscript over fifty years ago. So why am I relatively certain that Morton Smith did not forge the Letter to Theodore? It is because I don't believe that he could have know that there wasn't a major discovery in the library of the Mar Saba monastery before he went through all the books. It's like the gambler who walks into the casino and places a single bet - all his money - on 13 just before it comes up on the roulette wheel. That's not the way life happens.

I have never felt comfortable about throwing the now dead body of Morton Smith under the proverbial bus for a number of reasons. I don't for instance see what the motive would have been to forge the letter. Smith also certainly had a lot to lose by attaching himself to a document that might be proved a forgery later. Let's also not forget that the beginnings of carbon dating had already been established in 1949 at the University of Chicago.

Indeed I see the relatively long time it took for him to publish Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark in an entirely different manner than his detractors. I see it as Smith making sure that he 'got it right.' Smith was by no means an expert on the writings of Clement of Alexandria nor the Gospel of Mark. It was simply going to take a great deal of time to become an expert on matters he possessed no real expertise.

However the most fundamental difficulty I have with the forgery hypothesis is that I don't believe that Smith could have been certain that there wasn't a major discovery to be found in Mar Saba by going about things legitimately. Let's not forget that when the Library of Congress and ASOR limited themselves to only checking out the Jerusalem Patriarchate library it was because they assumed that all the important books had already been moved from Mar Saba. Smith must have felt that this assumption wasn't necessarily true. There might well have been things of value still at Mar Saba which were overlooked by the American teams in 1949 and 1950.

Once you put Smith's trip to Jerusalem in 1958 in this light, I simply can't believe that Smith started that journey from America with a forged book in his suitcase. He couldn't have known that there wasn't something of value in Mar Saba. Smith was sincerely interested in old manuscripts. Planting a fake letter of Clement in the monastery is like masturbating on your wedding night.

Let's leave aside the recent handwriting analysis that says that Smith could not have pulled off the forgery himself. Just going back to the moment that Smith received word that he would be allowed to spend some time at the Mar Saba monastery would have sent his head swimming. I find it difficult to equate this moment with the thought - 'Ah ha! Time to forge a letter of Clement of Alexandria!' It just doesn't work that way. All of Smith's life is devoted to finding manuscripts. Being let into the monastery where John of Damascus seems to have known so many lost and interesting ancient texts would be tantamount to marrying your high school sweetheart.

I don't know how these academics can pretend that Smith wasn't completely devoted to the truth about earliest Christianity. He certainly had nothing else to live for. The idea that Smith started planning to forge the Letter to Theodore from the moment he got the invitation to go to Mar Saba is so bizarre that it is difficult to fathom. It means forgetting how exciting it was to be allowed to have access to these monasteries in Palestine. I think we got a sense of that when I cited from the account of the ASOR sponsored teams in 1949 and 1950. How could Smith not have shared some of that enthusiasm? The world wasn't as jaded as it is today. It hadn't 'all been done' as the modern song suggests.

But for those who persist in this nonsense - let's imagine that Smith started thinking about forging any text and getting a friend who had the expertise to pull off the eighteenth century handwriting - let's pick Scouvaras as a name out of a hat. Smith would always have to worry that his accomplice would rat him out in the end. Would an intelligent man have allowed himself to be exposed in this way - to have a cloud handing over his head down to the day his 'partner in crime' died? What if Scouvaras wrote a posthomous confession? I can't believe that Smith would have taken such a risk when - as I have already noted - he hadn't already determined that nothing was going to come from his legitimate search of the manuscripts of Mar Saba.

But let's go back to the wild flights of fancy of these 'hoaxers.' Let's assume that the two of them got together before Smith's trip to Mar Saba and bought the Voss Ignatius book. Scouvaras loosely copies a familiar handwriting - perhaps that of Callinicus with a few additions or embellishments. Smith gets off the plane and goes to his hotel room with this book packed in his suitcase. He goes to the monastery a couple of times to 'scope out' how easy it would be to smuggle the book into the monastery in mid-June.

The average temperature in Jerusalem at that time is 30 C/86 F. Does Smith really have the cojones to stuff the paperback sized book down his trousers and past the librarian in order to smuggle it into close enough proximity that he can plant in with other old books? He does? Oh because he is 'reckless' supposedly. Okay let's continue with this fantasy.

Let's leave aside the question of whether or not the library had accurate records of the books it kept. There isn't a question - even for a moment - that the librarian might wonder whether this new book came from? Smith hasn't been demonstrated to have committed even the smallest of crimes. Now suddenly he is willing to jeopardize his whole academic reputation with some idiotic plan to plant a letter of Clement into a book that never belonged in the library?

Leaving aside the whole question of whether Smith had the fortitude to commit a crime of this scale - let's continue to suppose that Smith forged the Letter to Theodore we have to suppose that he chose Mar Saba owing to some familiarity with the references of John of Damascus to the collection of at least twenty one letters of Clement of Alexandria at the monastery in the eighth century. We are back to the difficulty of Smith possessing the foreknowledge that a search of Mar Saba was not going to turn up something significant - that the only way he would 'make a name' for himself was by cheating.

Why was he already going to 'throw in the towel' without having searched the library for legitimate discoveries?

I can only speak from personal experience but when you've mapped a theory in your head that some text or other might be ready to be discovered in a library - it is difficult to get over the excitement that you might right until the very last document proves all your assumptions completely off the mark. What I am saying of course is that when I was going through every book in the Library of Zagoras certain that I was going to find a match for the handwriting of the Letter to Theodore I was so hopeful that I might stumble across something of significance that it wouldn't have even crossed my mind to 'forge' a matching text and smuggle it in the library.

It's hard to believe that Smith would have spent all the time cataloging and going through each scrap of paper looking for some 'undiscovered find' knowing full well that he had a 'fake' stuffed inside his underpants. What I am saying is that Smith couldn't have known there was nothing worth discovering in the library - why jump to some absurd 'plan B' when 'plan A' hadn't yet been carried out to completion?

Under this set of assumptions Smith was a complete fraud. Yet everything I have been uncovering about his past questions that he ever took the 'easy way' or 'short cuts' in his academic career. He mastered Hebrew in order to understand the gospels better. This was done on his own initiative and owing to a personal commitment to 'know the truth.' Yet when it came time to catalogue the manuscripts at Mar Saba he suddenly decides not to wait to see if his hard work pays off with a real discovery and 'cheats' with a forged manuscript. This seems completely out of character.

Indeed there are no other examples of Smith cheating or committing any sort of crime in his whole life. You know the 'hoaxers' must have paid for criminal background checks, private investigators to go through his records. We know these searches came up empty because they were never included as part of their character assassination efforts.

So Smith goes to a number of monasteries and looks for manuscripts. We are told he was looking for letters of Isidore of Pelusium. Indeed Smith does find other noteworthy texts beside the Letter to Theodore:

[Morton] Smith did indeed find a number of unknown manuscripts, a list of which was published in 1960. [Jesus of Nazareth, Paul Verhoeven and Rob Van Scheers p. 189].

In Shawn Eyer's article 'the Strange Case of the Secret Gospel according to Mark' the same fact is referenced as "He discovered some new scholia of Sophocles, for instance, and dozens of other manuscripts." All these discussions go back to an article Smith wrote "Monasteries and their Manuscripts"(Archaeology 1960 p.173). While most people now write off these discoveries as minor I find it difficult to reconcile the idea of Smith going into Mar Saba with a forgery and continuing the painstaking work of finding actual legitimate manuscripts while planting a forgery. It just doesn't jibe.

How did Smith know he wouldn't find something in the Mar Saba monastery? If the monks caught him smuggling in a book into the monastery, it would have ruined not only his reputation but also prevented him from actually discovering something legitimate. Simonides is always the example that is cited to demonstrate that forgeries 'work.' But Simonides wasn't a legitimate member of the academy. His motive was to make money.

Smith by contrast was among the greatest scholars of his generation. It is impossible to reconcile Smith's integrity with the motivation of a forger. Indeed as Allan Pantuck has noted

Smith’s own expectations in the 1950s can be judged by his 1959 paper “Monasteries and Their Manuscripts,” where he describes how the “Classical texts of the monasteries were systematically hunted out by both eastern and western European collectors or dealers” and how “a great deal of comparatively worthless material must be gone through in the hope of finding a few things of value.” Mar Saba itself was a fifth century monastery, the largest in the Judean desert, considered to be one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world, and for Smith, along with St. Catherine’s in Sinai, “one of the two great monasteries in the Orthodox Church.”

It was well known that almost all of its early manuscripts had been brought to Jerusalem in the mid-nineteenth century by order of the Patriarch, so if Smith had high hopes but low expectations of a major discovery in 1958, it would be understandable. It is easy to picture Smith, having spent weeks going through hundreds of seventeenth-century and later liturgical books, gradually resigning himself to accepting that he would not find anything of “importance” at Mar Saba but hoping against hope that something had been missed.

Yet my point is that getting on board his trip to Jerusalem, Smith couldn't have known that he wouldn't have find anything in the Library. Indeed, the only reason he was going on that long journey was because he hoped that something was left behind from those glory days of John of Damascus.

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