Sunday, August 14, 2011

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

Morton Smith was in need a vacation. The Columbia University Professor was tired, overworked and eager to take a break from the demands of teaching at a top Ivy League school. He was about to turn forty-three. He still unmarried but those who knew him well were well aware that he would never find the right girl. Morton Smith was a child prodigy who became so utterly immersed in his studies that he didn't have time for a personal life.

His gifts for absorbing information related to the study of religion have become almost legendary. By the fourth grade he had memorized the entire King Version of the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. As a teenager he graduated from the prestigious Academy of the New Church in Bryn Athyn of Philadelphia, a Son’s of the Academy gold medal recipient and an Oratorical prize winner. The former award being given to the one graduate who best displays not only academic excellence, but also exemplary moral character.

Those who had shared an office with him or worked along side him after he became a professor at Columbia describe him as the most devoted scholar they had ever known. The stories of his work ethic take on an almost apocryphal character. During one three day period he was so deeply involved in research he never left his office except to go to the bathroom. He had a milk man deliver milk to his office and there he ate such things as crackers. He did not bathe or shave during these periods of intensive research. Often times he kept himself awake by putting his feet in a bucket full of cold water.

Yet what he is certainly remembered most for us is his incredible command of ancient languages and ancient source material. Morton Smith not only read and wrote Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, he could speak these languages as fluently as those living in ancient times. He could quite literally pull down Latin and Greek church fathers alongside the rabbinic texts read them as easily as the average person takes up a newspaper.

All those of years of intensive training had now caught up with him. He was in need of a break. And in the same way that other men might recall a long lost love in an exotic port of call, Morton Smith's mind would inevitably turn back to Jerusalem, a place he got caught in as a young man during the Second World War and could not get out. It was while he was effectively trapped in British occupied Palestine in the 1940s that he became efficient in Hebrew and got a Ph.D at Hebrew University in his spare time.

His attachment with the Holy Land and its people went beyond a mere field of study. It was in a very real sense a life long passion for Morton Smith which developed from seeing firsthand what ancient Jewish and Christian cultures looked like in their natural setting. As he began to feel weighed down by the pressures of effectively being a cog in the industry of producing college graduates, there was only one place that could allow him to 'recharge his batteries' and renew his sense of wonder in his chosen field.

To this end, visiting in the crumbling monasteries which dotted the ancient landscape became Morton Smith's only real connection with any meaning in his life. It was there that he heard the ancient choirs sing as they always had and for a moment participate in an experience which transported him over a thousand years back in time. In those days where he could absorb himself in angelic voices everything made sense in his life. The spirit of the little boy who longed above all else to penetrate the divine mysteries was rekindled in his soul.

It was also here in these remote buildings that Morton Smith came into contact with the one thing which could bring him even closer to the ancient world he longed to know - the monastic library.  It was here that he came face to face with the testimonies of people long dead, their handwriting etched onto canvases of bound parchment.

Indeed there is an unsettling characteristic about ancient codices which only sneaks up on the junior researcher after he has begun to study them.  The expert not only absorbs the meaning of the words from ancient writers, he also picks up something of the soul of the scribe who preserved them.  Smith devoted himself to all aspects of the works which were preserved in the ancient monastic libraries.  He studied how the books were transmitted to us no less than what they said.  In fact as hunting for ancient manuscripts became the single greatest obsession in the life of Morton Smith, it becomes difficult to say whom he loved more.

The 1950s were an incredibly exciting time to be a bibliophile. American researchers were for the first time allowed access to the archives of the major monasteries in Jerusalem and in the Sinai Peninsula. The projects developed as an outgrowth of an opportunistic paleontologist named Wendell Phillips who, as part of a curious mix of scholarship, espionage and oil exploration was made a millionaire several times over.

Perhaps it is the innocence of the age which is most difficult for modern readers to comprehend.  The same set of historical circumstances which led to an idealist like Morton Smith could also lead to an opportunist like Wendell Phillips.  America was emerging as a world power and the nation as a whole seemed to be coming to grips with a much older world lying just beyond its shores.

Phillips, represents one end of the spectrum of possibilities.  A former merchant seamen during the war, established his own grandly named American Foundation for the Study of Man in 1949 where with the backing of the United States Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz.  Many of the scholars took part in its programs suspected the organization was just a front for American intelligence interests in the Middle East. Time Magazine reports that those who accompanied Phillips on the expedition "complained that he was more interested in angles than in artifacts."  Indeed the perception that his organization was a sham seems to have been shared by the Yemeni government who reportedly tried to assassinate him in 1951.

Nevertheless it must be recognized that it is because of Phillips that the Library of Congress now has many of the greatest treasures of the Greek Orthodox religion microfilmed in its collection.  It was Phillips who secured permission from the monastery at Sinai to copy any of the manuscripts which he and his associates might desire. In January, 1950, he sent a group of scholars to Mt. Sinai. The Library of Congress lent them expensive microfilm cameras. They worked seven or eight hours every day, six days a week, looking over the various Biblical and other manuscripts, selecting the most important ones, and microfilming them, page by page. Hundreds of manuscripts thus copied in microfilm are now in the Library of Congress, and copies are available to any scholar on payment of a small fee.

During the same year, after finishing their work at Sinai, the scholars went to the libraries of the Greek and Armenian Patriarchs in Jerusalem, and copied more than fifteen hundred additional manuscripts, including about three hundred New Testiment manuscripts, and two hundred Old Testament manuscripts. Many of these manuscripts are of great importance, not only for Biblical study, but also for the history and culture of the Near East in early medieval times.

Throughout the 1950s further work of this type has been done. An expedition went to the twenty monasteries on the Athos Peninsula in the northeastern portion of Greece. In the libraries of these monasteries many manuscripts have been copied, including 160 additional manuscripts of the New Testament. Morton Smith was involved in at least some of this work and interestingly, we learn that he was perceived as being connected with the very espionage being organized by the program's head in other parts of the world.

Smith may well have been reminiscing about some of his offers to do intelligence work while stranded in Palestine during the war.  It must have seemed very strange that a young man devoted to the study of the ancient world could get dragged into such a strange nexus of intrigue.  Yet his knowledge of history likely also have made Smith something of a realist.  The access to the very manuscripts he was being afforded was directly related to the contemporary historical fortunes of the United States of America.

The young Morton Smith going off to college before the start of the war could hardly have imagined the coming new age of knowledge was about dawn.  He left the relative innocence of Bryn Athyn to join Harvard Divinity School on a Bachelor of Sacred Theology Degree from 1937-1940. His studies were divided into two parts. His New Testament curriculum was directed by Henry Cadbury a Quaker historian and later a non-profit administrator while his study of the Old Testament was guided Harry Wolfson, an amazingly erudite scholar best known for his seminal work on the first century Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo.  Both of these men in some small part would ultimately direct Morton Smith to his major discovery at Mar Saba a generation later.

It was Wolfson who helped secure a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship in 1940 for Smith taking the young man from Harvard to go to Israel to continue his studies and learn Hebrew.  Morton Smith arrived in Palestine on June 20, 1940 and became something of a celebrity there. Jewish sources at the time report marveling coming a cross a tall American gentlemen who could speak fluent Hebrew.  Indeed Smith Hebrew only improved as he became stranded there after the outbreak of World War II.  He ended up staying there for four years while working on a PhD from Hebrew University.

Smith maintained a very frugal life in this period. He originally stayed in a pension with a vegetarian landlady who thought cooked food was the root of all evil.  In due course he ended up moving to an apartment next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where his new landlord was Father Kyriakos, a leading figure in the Orthodox Patriarchate and Custodian of the Holy Sepulchre. It was Kyriakos who invited Smith to visit Mar Saba for the first time, and he spent the month of February there in 1942.

It was later in that same year that Smith first became exposed to the world of espionage that was buzzing all around the academic activity in Jerusalem.  He recounts in one of his letters that:

At the end of July the Intelligence Service sent for me. It seemed they needed, badly, someone who could talk both Modern Greek and Hebrew, and who could act an interpreter for a person of so great importance that his name could not be disclosed. They had applied to the Hebrew University, and it appeared that I was the only one of the classical students who knew Modern Greek—would I go? I tried to explain to them that the Greek I talked was hopelessly literary and generally ungrammatical at the same time, but they insisted that I would do, so I gave in and was sent off, post-haste, to Haifa, to the Head of the Jewish Agency with a letter reading “Herewith interpreter for secret mission no. S2437B5” or words to that effect. When I got to Haifa, late on Shabbat, I learned that the official I should see was spending the weekend in Jerusalem, would I mind coming in Sunday? I came in on Sunday. He had not yet returned, would I come in Monday? I came, he was there, I gave him the letter. He looked at it, then at me, then back to it; then he rubbed his forehead and said “but what is Secret Mission 2437B5?” “I don’t know” I said, “I suppose it is a secret.” “You must come back tomorrow” he answered “and in the mean time I’ll try to find out what this is all about.” So I came back tomorrow. “Nobody in Haifa seems to know anything about it” he said “I’ll have to try Jerusalem. Come back tomorrow.” So I came back tomorrow.

This pattern, almost something from an espionage spoof like Get Smart, continued several days until he finally got tired and went back to Jerusalem.  Smith never found out what this alleged 'secret mission' he was chosen for was even about.

Morton Smith's life even after the end of the war must have continued to seem disjointed.  After returning to the US, Smith worked as a Priest for about 2 years, first in Philadelphia and then in Baltimore. In 1947, he requested and was granted an indefinite leave of absence from his Bishop to stop ecclesiastic duties and return to Harvard Divinity to get a ThD.  As Smith moved to Boston to begin work on the degree in 1948, dramatic changes were coming to the world he left behind.  The year marked of the end of the British Mandate, the beginning of the state of Israel, the start of the Arab-Israel War as well as the continuation of the Greek Civil War.

The war in the Middle East brought about the division of Palestine.  The Patriarchate was flooded with refugees at the time with much of its land and funds now being located in the new state of Israel.  The people in the region faced great difficulties owing to there being no way secure means for transfering money from Israel to Jordan.  Morton Smith was instrumental in starting up a sub-group of the American Friends Service Committee called the American Friends of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.  He spent a good deal of time helping to raise funds for the Patriarchate and served as the group’s treasurer.

The efforts of Smith here were undoubtedly influenced by his mentor Henry Cadbury who was actually the founder of the American Friends Service Committee, and in 1947 had just accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for the group’s work.  Yet Smith's involvement in this project was already drawing back to Jerusalem.  The Jerusalem Patriarchate still preserves a letter from Smith from 1950 as well as a return letter from the Patriarch Timotheus (wrongly dated to 1960) which commends his 'humble devotion' in 'tackling the problems' facing the church in the lead up to their 1500 year anniversary the following year.

Later in 1950, having finished his HDS course work, Smith applied for a Fullbright Grant for travel to Greece for a year to photograph manuscripts related to Isisdore of Pelusium, which was to be the topic of his ThD thesis. He got the grant and Warner Jaeger and Arthur Nock arranged for Smith to study at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens during 1951-1952. He left in September, 1951 first passing though Oxford to deliver a talk on Isidore at the International Conference in Patristic Studies, and then traveled through Beirut to Arab East Jerusalem to attend the celebration of the anniversary of the Jerusalem Patriarchate where he represented his American Friends group.

Smith wrote a detailed diary of his time in Jerusalem in 1951. In that journal he makes references to a number of things he did during his stay. He visited with Kyriakos, interceded on behalf of Serarpie der Nessessian to persuade the Patriarchy to allow her to see some of its icons, and he also obtained letters of introduction from the Patriarchate that he wanted to take to Greece to make it easier for him to gain access to the various monasteries he was interested in. Smith spent most of his time from 1951-1952 in Athens, and visiting Patmos and Mt. Athos, but based on his examination of existing catalogues of manuscripts in smaller monasteries, Smith also went to visit these other monasteries such as Cephalonia and Skiathos.

In each case, the decision where to visit was based on his “special concern,” that was to find and photograph specific manuscripts related to Isidore. While visiting some of these smaller monasteries, which had small manuscript collections that were not well known, he recorded the contents of their collections and eventually published his notes on these collections. He describes these visits as “extremely brief and hurried visits…in none of which was it possible for me to do even a full day’s work” making it “impossible for me to spare the time to count pages” of the manuscripts he looked at. At each monastery, he had the assistance of a different person who helped him to gain access. The Archbishop of Athens also helped him with some introductions."

There survives only one letter from Smith during this time spent in Greece, written from Athens in February, 1952 where he wrote of his year:

Apart from practicing Greek, I’ve been doing a great many little things—working on photography, visiting “sites” and “sights”, curing a case of intestinal grippe, shopping for books, and so forth, all of which individually seem completely minor and together make up the past month of my life. Before that I spent a month visiting the monastery on Patmos for Christmas and the Epiphany, and had a wonderful time reading the magnificent literature of the monastic services during the day, and then hearing it sung at night (services there begin at 3 and run to 7 AM).
When Smith returned home again, he gave a photo album of his travel pictures to his father as a birthday present.  There also survives a post card sent back to a favorite teacher at Bryn Athyn with a picture of the Acropolis on the front and the dedication - "Greece is much too wonderful for description, I can only say have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."

This postcard in many ways embodies the youthful spirit that was still swirling around in the soul of Smith.  He had not yet completely cut ties from his high school.  He was very much still a boy, almost forty years of age and without a steady source of income.  One must imagine that the excitement over being invited to the 1500th year anniversary of the Patriarchate was still buzzing in his head.  There was a real sense of Smith now being connected to the ancient souls he longed to engage, the spirits that were hovering around in the walls, in the open windows and the caves of the various sites under the auspices of the Jerusalem Church.

In the remaining years we see that Smith managed to get real employment at Brown University from 1952-1957.  He was doing independent study with a Guggenheim award in 1955-1957, then working for a year at Drew, and finally getting a position at Columbia in the History Department.  It was only when Smith finally got 'settled' in this new 'desk job' period that we start to see a distinctive mature sensibility come over his correspondences.

In one letter from December 9, 1957 directed to his good friend Gershom Scholem we see Smith complain about the new workload associated with his new job.  He is overwhelmed and apologizes for not having as much free time to read a book given to him by his colleague to review:

Dear Gershom,
This is an apology for having done nothing on your book since I saw you last, and having every expectation of doing nothing for the next twelve months to come. The fact is that my courses and preparation for courses to come are taking every bit of my time. I have some 95 students in my general course on ancient history, and this has meant a great deal of paper work. That course and another, on classical literature, which I am teaching, I had never given before; the subjects covered lie somewhat outside my former field; and consequently I have had to work constantly on preparation for them. I’m standing the strain all right, but by summer I shall be dead tired, so I am planning to spend the whole of the summer in the Near East – from mid-June to mid-July in Jordan, a week in Israel (when I hope to see you and Thanya), a week in Istanbul, a month in northern Greece, hunting for collections of manuscripts in the monasteries of Chalcidice (excluding Athos), and a week each in Rome, Paris, and London. This means that when I get back I shall have another term of keeping up with my courses, but I hope that by a year from now all will be in hand, and I shall be able to get back to Reshit HaKabbalah. If you do not wish to wait this long for the completion of the work (longer, in fact, since if I start it again in January 59 I shall not be through before fall of that year; you know my speed) I shall be quite willing to turn over to you the part completed to date. For myself, however, I should like to go on and finish the translation of the work, and seriously intend to do so as soon as I can get time.

It is remarkable to read Smith is apologize to Gershom Scholem owing to the demands placed on him as a full time professor. He confesses to his friend that he has never given courses on ancient history and classical literature before.  It is because they are a bit outside his field of expertise he has had to extra work preparing for his lessons. Indeed he makes clear that he is expecting to do nothing for the next twelve month to come except spend the summer in the Middle East.

Of course this trip he is planning for the summer of 1958 will be the one in which he uncovers perhaps the most important manuscript discovery of the twentieth century.  Yet Smith doesn't even have the faintest inkling  what was in store for him when he arrives in Jerusalem.  In his letter he says only that he will visit Israel for a week and that, for at least part of his time, he will be with his good friend Scholem.

Smith certainly acknowledges that just before his trip he had been thinking about some of the places he had frequented in Israel during his previous sojourns there.  Yet we should take special note about how much of a stroke of good luck it was for Smith to gain access to the library.  He really had no idea how the events of that fateful trip were about to transform his life forever.  As he relates in his 1982 book, the Secret Gospel

By the spring of 1958 I was ready for a rest and remembered the tranquillity of Mar Saba. During all this time I had corresponded with Father Kyriakos and after 1948, when the division of Palestine flooded the Patriarchate with destitute Orthodox refugees, I had taken an active part in organizing an "American Friends" group that raised some money for their relief. Consequently the new Patriarch, His Beatitude Benedict, graciously gave me permission to spend three weeks at Mar Saba, study the manuscripts there, and publish my findings.

Despite all the work Smith had done for the Greek Orthodox community there are no indications that he ever wrote or had any contact in any form with new Patriarch.  Indeed Benedict was formerly the bishop of Tiberias and only succeeding Father Timotheos on January 29, 1957.

Morton Smith only got permission to catalogue the library at Mar Saba after he had arrived in Jerusalem.  There was absolutely no precedent for such an invitation.  He must have been excited about the possibility given the fact that he knew that Wendell Phillips and his group had ignored the monastery, thinking that all its important books had already been relocated to the main library in Jerusalem a century earlier.

Of course Smith had no idea what he might find lying around in this library.  Yet he had already journeyed thousands of miles across Greece hoping against hope that he might discover something overlooked by previous generations.  The odds of finding an important lost text at Mar Saba seemed as good as anywhere else he had been.  Smith stayed there for about three weeks, from near the end of June to mid-July, 1958 and then on one fateful day, all the hard work, all the long hours and all the long journeys that he had taken up to that point were suddenly all worth it.

The rest as they say, is history ...

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