Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Very, Very Preliminary First Draft of the Beginning to the Second Chapter of My New Book (a Sort of Mishmash of Blog Posts, Emails and Research Which Needs Further Editing)

Few of us will ever be recognized as prodigies let alone geniuses. The greatest moment in our lives is more likely to be having a few kids, a chance meeting with a famous actor, or winning a large payout at the casino.  The possibility of discovering something which changes our understanding of history doesn't even figure. Indeed most of humanity isn’t even aware that the history is being written by a handful of men and women in academia.

Yet wouldn’t it be something to know what it feels like to experience the exhilarating rush of a ‘breakthrough moment’? The closest most of us will ever come that experience is the birth of child and even here half of us end up as spectators. Yet in the university system there are literally thousands of individuals each year writing papers that few even bother reader. In another year another thousand papers will be produced and on it goes.

It must be terribly lonely to be one of those ignored scholars. They live like ordinary folks unable to make a mark in the historical record. Yet unlike the common man the ignored scholar is aware of the grand chronology and moreover his own insignificance within the swirling sands of time.

Great men and their revelations come and go like comets streaking across the sky. Yet mediocrity has staying power. The ancient world's greatest mathematician, Archimedes, is said to have had a flash of insight while bathing and exclaimed "I have found it" - in Greek heureka - forever immortalizing the word ‘eureka’ in our vocabulary. Yet few of us know have any clue what Archimedes discovered in that bathtub. Fewer still have any connection to the essential experience of discovery.

It is easier to write off the experience of great men than attempt to attain such goals for oneself.

There is a whole body of literature which examines what is now called the 'Eureka process.' The phenomenon has been described as "the perception of a familiar object or even in a new, significant, light; its emotive aspect is the rapt stillness of oceanic wonder." Yet while such terminologies may help us study the mechanics of the internal process of discovery, they are utterly impersonal. To know what it is like to experience a “great discovery” one has to get as close as possible to the inner workings of a genius.

Absolutely no one who knew Morton Smith doubted that he was a genius and we are very fortunate to have a personal reminiscence of the very moment he stumbled upon his greatest discovery at the Mar Saba monastery.

Of course some may argue that uncovering the existence of a lost text can’t be attributed to mental ability in the same way as visualizing how water was displaced as we enter a bath. Yet the reality is that exactly the same set of skills are at work in either case. One has to be able to recognize what is going on around oneself and for this one needs a special set of mental skills. Smith didn’t just stumble on to a manuscript in a library by accident. He was at Mar Saba engaged in same mental problem solving skills as Archimedes in that bath.

Smith had been working in the Mar Saba library for about three weeks after being chosen by Benedict to catalog its highly disorganized collection of books. His daily life had become something of a routine. Each morning the monks escorted Smith to the library in the old tower and stayed with him there until he was finished. Once in the library, Smith went through piles of books and set aside those that contained manuscript material. After identifying three or four such manuscripts, he was permitted to take them to his cell and study them overnight, and the next morning the materials would be returned.

Then, on close to his last day at the monastery, Smith tells us that something remarkable happened:

I found myself in my cell, staring incredulously at a text written in a tiny scrawl I had not even tried to read in the tower when I picked out the book containing it. But now that I came to puzzle it out, it began, “From the letters of the most holy Clement, the author of the Stromateis. To Theodore,” and it went on to praise the recipient for having “shut up” the Carpocratians. The Stromateis, I knew, was a work by Clement of Alexandria, one of the earliest and most mysterious of the great fathers of the Church—early Christian writers of outstanding importance. I was reasonably sure that no letters of his had been preserved. So if this writing was what it claimed to be, I had a hitherto unknown text by a writer of major significance for early Church history.

. . . I hastened to photograph the text and photographed it three times for good measure. Next came the question of identifying the book into the back of which it was written. The front cover and the title page were lost (most of the books in the tower library had lived hard lives), and there was nothing on the spine, but I could see that it was an edition of the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (another early Church father). The preface had been signed by the famous seventeenth-century Dutch scholar, Isaac Voss. Voss’ work on Ignatius had been published several times, I knew, but it occurred to me that I could date the edition by photographing the first and last preserved page and comparing them with complete volumes so I took those. Then the bell rang for vespers, and I went off, walking on air.

Few of us will ever know that kind of exhilaration. In one moment he went from questioning his decision to waste three weeks of his vacation going through old books to realizing that he had just uncovered an important missing piece of the past - something which would sure change our understanding of how Christianity developed in its earliest period.

Most of Smith’s colleagues recognized that the discovery was incredibly important. Yet some wondered whether things were really as they appeared. Was this document really from an early Father of the Church or was this a text written in some later period pretending to be from a man of the earliest period? The debate raged in academia. In due course new whispers emerged especially after Smith published his interpretation of what the document was saying. Maybe the manuscript was never in the monastery at all. Maybe Smith forged the text in order to shake the foundations of the Christian religion.

Only a handful of men dared to question Smith’s discovery while he was alive. He was such a revered figure and moreover he was also extremely intimidating. As there was no evidence to prove that the text was forged so his critics had to chose their words carefully. Towards the end of his life there was a campaign beginning to emerge connecting his ‘outlandish theories’ about the letter to the question of the authenticity of the discovery. By the time Smith passed away in 1991 the book the book had also disappeared from the shelves of Mar Saba, adding fuel to the speculation that the entire episode was all one big hoax.

There were a number of people who attempted to discredit Morton Smith after his death. Yet the distinction of mounting the greatest sustained personal attack against the Columbia professor certainly belongs to Peter Jeffery, a music professor from Notre Dame University. Unlike previous researchers, Jeffery didn’t just give reasons why Smith might have forged the Mar Saba document - he developed what Thomas C Oden has recently described as an ‘exaggerated’ and ultimately ‘hysterical’ account of Smith the man.

Indeed begins his Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery with the assumption that Smith’s own account of his experience at Mar Saba in 1958 is “fishy.” Jeffery claims that even the description of the ‘exhilaration’ he felt at discovering the manuscript wasn’t just a cover for his planting the forgery in the monastery but rather a sign of Smith’s ‘mental instability.’ For Jeffery sees the “sudden mood swing from ''worst expectations'' before the discovery to ''walking on air” as symptomatic of a complete mental breakdown on the part of the Columbia professor.

Jeffery goes on to point to what he sees as underlying ‘inconsistencies’ in Smith’s account of the discovery noting that:

For almost three weeks … Smith had been excusing himself from services to study manuscripts in his room—manuscripts that only discouraged him, that fulfilled his ''worst expectations,'' in which he ''discover[ed] nothing of importance.'' Yet when he finally found something genuinely interesting, with his stay at the monastery almost over, he left the book on his desk and floated off to church, so excited by his discovery that he forgot he didn't go to church anymore.

For Jeffery, Smith becomes a typology of the person who loses his faith and falls victim to his pathological impulses. Yet many others might argue that Smith’s behavior at Mar Saba speaks more about entrenched habits than signs of ‘inner spiritual turmoil.’ After all, he was a workaholic with limited access to a monastic library with the clock ticking. He likely would have put his feet in a bucket of cold water if it meant getting an extra hour or so with the books.

Some questioned Jeffery’s authority to make pronouncements on Smith’s mental state fifty years after the fact without ever having met the man. Yet Jeffery surprised the world by pulling together a remarkable panel of psychologists to confirm his ‘amateur diagnosis’ for a dubious Society for Biblical Literature session in 2009. The farcical proceedings speak more to the partisanship that rages in the controversy surrounding the discovery at Mar Saba. Not a single proponent of authenticity was offered a chance to speak at the podium. The range of opinion offered ranged from ‘maybe Smith did it’ to ‘he certainly did it’ even though this is not at all representative of the view in scholarship at large.

The general tone of the session is summed up by a certain Raymond J Lawrence said to be “an Episcopal cleric, recently retired Director of Pastoral Care, New York Presbyterian Hospital” who begins his paper with the following words:

I think it does matter what kind of character Morton Smith was. Was he candid and consistently truthful? I don’t think so. Neither does Jeffery, who takes him to be an anguished soul as well as a dishonest one. I regret that Jeffery decided to exercise “restraint by not publishing [his] personal opinion of what [Smith’s] diagnosis was, or the many bizarre but revealing stories [he] heard about him from former colleagues and students.” Though Jeffery is not explicit on the matter, I assume from innuendo that Smith’s difficulties lay in part because he was a homosexual in an era in which it was considerably more difficult to be a homosexual than it is today.

According to Lawrence Jeffery apparently showed too much restraint in the accusations leveled in his Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery. Lawrence however had no qualms as a retired psychologist to take off his gloves at get to what many who argue for forgery see as the main motivation for Smith’s criminality - his alleged sexual deviance. When you put all the pieces together from the panel of ‘experts’ at Jeffery’s table Smith’s homosexuality had literally driven him insane enough to plant a forged manuscript in the Mar Saba monastery!

Of course with a panel of retired (and ordained) psychologists arguing for the guilt of a man they have never even so much as met - let alone examined - the question of proof for any of these assertions being pushed gets lost in the fray. They are ‘experts’ after all. What need is there for any evidence that Smith had lost his faith, that he engaged in criminality, that he was a homosexual? The point is that people are ‘saying it,’ people are ‘buying into the theory,’ no one else is speaking at the podium to offer another argument. Appearance is everything.

In many ways Jeffery’s panel of experts was ahead of its time. We see the use of ‘behavior experts’ and ‘psychoanalysts’ during major celebrity trials and even regular segments on news talk shows to help us gain ‘insight’ into what is ‘really going’ in the minds of people. With this tone already established at an academic session Lawrence goes on to a surprising cast of authorities to actually confirm Jeffery’s initial diagnosis of Smith’s mental condition:

I take a page from that great Freudian analyst, Sherlock Holmes, whose angle is that the criminal (or the case) always ‘gives it away’ in some obscure manner that only Holmes is savvy enough to pick up. The clue that solves the case is the proverbial dog that didn’t bark. Smith’s self-presentation is buttressed by seeming candor and self-effacement that is disarming and tricky. He owns up to the fact that memory is unreliable, which is certainly true. But he is also telling us, disarmingly, that he himself is unreliable.

Even with the appeal to an imaginary character from British literature, we must go back and ask ourselves whether Smith’s caution - writing so many years after an experience - is what is being described here really all that ‘suspicious’? Who actually can claim to possess photographic memory?

The difficulty however with dealing with an amorphous conspiracy theory such as this is that those engaging in it are more interested in convincing people of the plausibility of the forgery than looking for actual evidence of wrong doing. It is almost surreal to go through the papers given at the 2009 session. The accusations are inevitably vague - Smith repeatedly accused of ‘deception,’ ‘falseness,’ lacking moral character and the like. But there is a woeful lack of evidence for any of the charges raised; the whole session seeming to be little more than an exercise in confirmation bias.

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