Thursday, August 18, 2011

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

Of course those staging show trials have little interest in the truth. The real truth is that the people putting on such theatrics to make Smith’s discovery go away rather than to debate the authenticity of the text. As hoax scholar Francis Watson confesses in a recent article “my hope and expectation is that it will be increasingly ignored by scholars who fear, with good reason, that their work will be corrupted by association with it.” If indeed, there was compelling evidence for seeing the discovery as a fraud one would expect that something substantive would have emerged after fifty years of efforts to discredit it. In point of fact very little evidence is ever directed against the discovery itself. Most of the efforts are directed, as we have demonstrated, against Morton Smith the man.

Indeed one can turn around Jeffery’s characterization of Smith’s ‘unbalance’ manifesting itself in his description of events in 1958 by comparing it to reports of Archimedes’s ‘eureka moment.’ Our original citation is the usual ‘sterilized’ version of the discovery moment most of us read about in school text books. The original account in Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture presents a much more eccentric Archimedes

In the case of Archimedes, although he made many wonderful discoveries of diverse kinds, yet of them all, the following, which I shall relate, seems to have been the result of a boundless ingenuity. Hiero, after gaining the royal power in Syracuse, resolved, as a consequence of his successful exploits, to place in a certain temple a golden crown which he had vowed to the immortal gods. He contracted for its making at a fixed price, and weighed out a precise amount of gold to the contractor. At the appointed time the latter delivered to the king’s satisfaction an exquisitely finished piece of handiwork, and it appeared that in weight the crown corresponded precisely to what the gold had weighed.

But afterwards a charge was made that gold had been abstracted and an equivalent weight of silver had been added in the manufacture of the crown. Hiero, thinking it an outrage that he had been tricked, and yet not knowing how to detect the theft, requested Archimedes to consider the matter. The latter, while the case was still on his mind, happened to go to the bath, and on getting into a tub observed that the more his body sank into it the more water ran out over the tub. As this pointed out the way to explain the case in question, he jumped out of the tub and rushed home naked, crying with a loud voice that he had found what he was seeking; for he as he ran he shouted repeatedly in Greek, “Εὕρηκα, εὕρηκα” [= “Eureka, eureka” = “I have found (it), I have found (it)”]

Imagine for a moment what Smith’s critics would have done with a naked Columbia professor running through the monastery. All things considered, Smith reaction seems subdued by comparison.

The point of course is that Smith was by no means a saint. There certainly were eccentricities to his personality. Yet this fact alone should not help convict him of criminality. The real import to all the charges brought against his person is that Morton Smith was an unusual character. He didn’t adapt to the social mores of the seventies and eighties. When you ask colleagues of his at Columbia about Smith you inevitably get this apologetic preamble to the effect that - “Well, you have to be aware I was pretty much to the left of him on most social issues. I was marching for civil rights etc.”

There can be no doubt that Smith had no time for anything ‘liberal’ - whether it was liberal Christian theology or left-wing political discourse. He was certainly an old fashioned, social conservative individual whose political orientation was described as being somewhere “to the right of Genghis Khan.” Smith was a demanding and intimidating scholar. Yet he must have seemed all the more outlandish as he continued to work in the permissive climate of the times.

For Smith the truth mattered above all else. The institutionalized climate of tolerance was about something else completely - political correctness, ‘getting ahead,’ using education as a vehicle for social advancement. Indeed all the things we have come to associated with ‘getting a college degree.’ Yet do any of these facts help or hurt Smith’s credibility as the discoverer of a lost letter of Clement of Alexandria? It is very difficult to say one way or the other. It is just as easy to go along with the assessment of his protege Shaye Cohen of Harvard University’s assessment that his critics “couldn’t impugn the discovery so they went after the man” or George Buchanan of the Wesley Theological Seminary’s belief that Smith “frightened people with his brilliance, and they responded with ad hominem attacks. They could not match his wit, so they resented him. Don't ever believe that he would have to forge anything to get attention. He never played around with foolishness.”

So who is the real Morton Smith of history? It is very little difficult to say other than to acknowledge that the completely devoted to his work. All his friendships were connected to academia. He was the furthest thing from an awkward, anti-social, social invert. He had Christmas parties, never lunched alone, had a number of close friends that he frequently entertained. Indeed Baumgartner relates a story that he ate most meals out, and used the stove in his apartment to store books and files of correspondence.

Indeed Smith’s life is so tied up in his work that one of our rare glimpses into the real man comes at the end of his personal essay Hope and History published in the last ten years of his life when he writes, near the conclusion that:

The abilities to see through convention and propaganda, to realize the importance of one's function, to care for the people one serves, and, consequently, 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. As Baudelaire said, it is the child's love of every single stamp in his collection that keeps the world large, and, against Baudelaire, it is the shrinking of the power to love, not the increase of knowledge, that makes it small.

Much of what is written in these lines seems to go to the essence of Morton Smith’s being. The three principles of ‘hope,’ ‘love’ and ‘work’ all wrapped in the play of a little child.

Indeed we get the sense that the sometimes crotchety Columbia University professor was instantly transformed back into a boy as he solved the riddles of antiquity. As Baumgartner tells the story:

Smith was having dinner at Theodore Gaster's house when Gaster's son asked Smith why he was interested in history. Smith supposedly replied that history fascinated him because it had so many interesting puzzles for him to solve. Gaster's son then responded, "Prof. Smith, the puzzles are yours, not history's"

In another anecdote from his contact with Gaster, Baumgartner has Smith’s colleague at Columbia describe Morton Smith as something “like a little boy whose goal in life is to write curse words all over the altar in church, and then get caught.“

The Gaster family would play a very important role in Smith’s life. He was a regular fixture at the home. They only had one daughter - not a son as Baumgartner writes here - who affectionately references Smith as ‘Uncle Mortie’ and describes him as something of a surrogate father figure. Theodor and his wife Lotte had by all accounts a terribly dysfunctional relationship which took its toll on their daughter. Theodor eventually moved in with one of his male students near Philadelphia, the daughter insisting that Smith and her mother had a long term affair. It is unclear whether Theodor ever suspected any relationship was going on between them or even if he would have cared. The family suffered through seemingly endless financial hardship and Lotte credited Smith with saving the career of her husband throughout their marriage.

This wasn’t the only known heterosexual relationship for Morton Smith. There were rumors of an early marriage which Smith himself repeatedly denied. All his subsequent relationships were with Jewish women interestingly as the relationship could only go so far. He had a Jewish girlfriend in Palestine during the war. Lotte throughout the seventies and at least one other Jewish girlfriend - Miriam Chesterton - in the period leading up to his work at Mar Saba. One friend confesses in a recent interview that he believed Smith “was just an Anglican clergyman who had had an unsuccessful love affair and afterward condemned himself to bachelorhood.”

Was Smith’s sexual identity stuck in adolescence? We shall never know for certain. Yet like many sideshows associated with the Mar Saba discovery, the arguments for and against are only limited by the imagination of those writing the paper. When confronted with evidence that Smith had relationships with women one will inevitably be told that Smith lived at a time when gays came out of the closet or that ‘rumors’ were rampant about him sending love letters to male or female students, or that he hated women, or that he hated blacks. Yet nothing ever emerges to confirm the original claim.

On the other hand when the daughters of Smith’s lovers come into contact with the gay rumors they simply laugh them off. “Uncle Mortie gay? Never!” was Gaster's daughter's reaction to the rumor. Miriam Chesterton’s daughter gave a much more detailed account of the implausibility of making ‘homosexuality’ a motive for forgery in a recent letter to the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review:

I studied with Morton Smith at Columbia University (while attending Barnard College) from 1957 to 1960. He was an inspiring, brilliant and intellectually honest mentor.

In 1958 he told me of his experience at Mar Saba, where he found the Clement letter. Working around the monks' sleep-and wake schedule was difficult. At times he couldn't access the library. The atmosphere was one of secrecy. The food didn't agree with him either. The first night at dinner, he was the guest of honor. The monks floated a live baby squid on top of his soup, which he was obliged to eat! The food got worse after that!

About Morton Smith's "alleged homosexuality" - he dated my mother Miriam Chesterman from late 1957 to 1958. She was a recent widow, British-born, beautiful, vivacious and highly intelligent.

Indeed given Miriam’s beauty and Smith’s obvious interest in all things Jewish, it is not difficult to see both the reasons for the attraction and the quick dissolution of the relationship. Gaster’s observation about Smith being ultimately a boy who never grew up might prove to be the most accurate thing that we can say about the Columbia professor.

Smith may well have been little more than a boy enraptured by the process of solving historical puzzles. This more than any alleged ‘repressed homosexual impulses,’ should explain why he ended up spending three weeks at the Mar Saba monastery and the result was the discovery of a hitherto unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria which radically transformed our understanding of early Christianity. If Smith’s sexual identity did indeed change later in life, if he became bisexual or moreover, if any or all of the other wild claims of his enemies are true (which just happen to coincide with his own popularized claim that ‘Jesus was gay’) this does little to counter the reality that he had a girlfriend during the period of his Mar Saba visit.

If we are to psychoanalyze Smith, the real question becomes what caused him to be attracted to women he could never have (i.e. Jewish women knowing full well he would never convert to Judaism). Yet even this question leads nowhere given the fact that minds as great as Oprah have been asking this question for the last half century without getting to the bottom of it. We are attracted to what we are attracted. There are often no explanations to the mysteries of love. The only obvious clue here is that Smith’s interest in Jewish women had something to do with his interest in Judaism. There is no greater embodiment of what it is to be Jewish than a Jewish woman. One can be intimate with the essence of Jewishness both mentally and physically in a way than mere books cannot hope to afford.

The reason for Smith’s interest in Judaism in turn can be directly connected with his scholarly interest in establishing Tannaitic parallels to the gospels. In other words, he realized very early on in his studies that if you wanted to understand Jesus you would have to understand what it is to be a Jew. So now we come full circle and ask ourselves the ultimate question - why was the young Morton Smith so obsessive about the Bible? Why did he memorize the King James text already in the fourth grade?

Something in Smith’s childhood ‘turned him on’ to the study of religion. It is difficult to see any influence coming in this respect coming directly from his father. After all, whatever religious denomination Rupert Henry Smith may have had they didn’t prevent him from enrolling Morton Smith in a school that was strongly affiliated with the Swedenborgian Church. There is absolutely no evidence that either Smith’s father or mother were ever members of that denomination (though it has been suggested, but never confirmed, that they had relatives who were church members).

It is absolutely impossible to get away from the idea that Smith’s interest in religion was intimately connected with his contact with this remarkable Christian sect. His father may well have placed Smith in the school for a chance to rub shoulders with some of Philadelphia’s wealthiest families - the Pitcairns being only the most prominent church members. Yet the young Morton Smith came away from his time at the New Church academy with a profound interest in spiritual matters.

Indeed while all biographers make reference to the preparation that Smith got for university work at the Bryn Athyn academy, it is often rarely made explicit enough that this prestigious school was actually developed around the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth century Swedish mystic who claims to have travelled outside of his body to find peaceful worshipers of Jesus living throughout our solar system. The affiliation with Swedenborg is ignored by researchers on both sides of the controversy because it presents yet another baffling side of Morton Smith which confounds both the efforts to canonize and demonize the Columbia professor.

Peter Jeffery, for instance only acknowledges that while “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.” Yet Jeffery was clearly not interested in this ‘other side’ to Smith because it complicates his attempts to portray Smith as one who “lost his Episcopalian faith” and as a result fell into a morass of sin and forgery. Indeed as Paul Foster notes Jeffery’s arguments here “at times verges on a personal attack on Smith rather than remaining an objective assessment of the motivations behind the supposed forgery of the document.”

Yet those promoting the authenticity of the discovery feel equally squeamish about Smith’s early association with an ‘ecstatic cult.’ The connection is completely ignored in Scott Brown’s influential work. However it is difficult to argue against seeing a direct line from Swedenborgianism to Jewish kaballah. Morton Smith’s good friend Gershom Scholem noted the obvious parallels in some of his letters (Letter I, 294) and many books have already been written on the subject generally.

Indeed we should acknowledge that if there is to be a single motivating factor for the young Morton Smith to have ended up studying Hebrew in Palestine before the war, his early identity as a Swedenborgian should figure to be top of that list. Emanuel Swedenborg like Smith was above all else a science. He had a wide range of interests but it was his transition from scientist to mystic has fascinated many people ever since it occurred, including such people as Immanuel Kant, William Blake, Goethe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Balzac, Jorge Luis Borges, August Strindberg, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Carl Jung. Clearly Smith also never completely lost interest in this remarkably gifted man who happened to have remained a perpetual bachelor all his life.

Again, even though Smith’s parents were not members of the religion he himself was baptized at the New Church in 1926. As baptism does not equal membership in the community it is important to note also that Smith signed the roll of members of the church as an adult in 1937. Smith studied Swedenborg’s writings in Latin throughout the 1940s and only renounced his membership on March 12, 1948 after already being an ordained Episcopalian minister for a number of years.

Why did Smith end up formally breaking with the Swedenborgian Church at thirty three years of age? This is of course one of the many things we shall never know for certain. Smith rarely mentioned his ‘indoctrination’ into Swedenborgianism to friends yet it can’t be disputed that this period coincides with his most impressionable years. Even his decision to be an ordained minister with the Church of England is noteworthy given the strong historical connection between the two churches which continues to this day It also must be noted that the switching of denominational affiliation happens every day in America.

Bob Dylan famously converted from Judaism to Christianity and then back to Judaism most recently. It is difficult however to argue that even for those people who change their religious affiliation later in life that they magically ‘wipe away’ the influence that they experienced as a youth undergoing formalized religious instruction in their original faith. Indeed the formal break with the Swedenborgian Church is most curious as it wasn’t demanded by the organization. As Siri Griffin, the granddaughter of famed American composer Richard Yardumian and Capital Campaign Coordinator for the New Church noted recently in an interview, Smith’s request to be removed from roll must have been an attempt on his part to publicly distance himself from the organization - “there’s no expectation on members, and once you become a member you are one for life or until you ask to be removed.”

What about his experiences in Palestine had caused Smith to feel the need to distance himself from his ‘mother Church’? Clearly it has something to do with coming into contact with Jews and Jewish beliefs firsthand. He must have realized the limitations of Swedenborg’s understanding of scripture. Perhaps it is best to say that he ‘outgrew’ his religious heritage without necessarily losing his faith as Jeffery and others have suggested. Smith had by then become enamored by all things Jewish including a love of Jewish women.

It is fair to say that it was Swedenborg who led Morton Smith to Jerusalem but it was Jerusalem which led Smith to abandon Swedenborg. The idea that Smith had ‘lost his Episcopalian faith’ is a red herring because this was perhaps the only way Smith could see to balance his developing faith in Jesus alongside his interest in things Jewish. Whatever Smith had learned during his long sojourn in Palestine he could finally see that his idol had clay feet. Whereas most people assume that Smith lost his faith in Jesus, he had in reality only abandoned his faith in Emanuel Swedenborg.

If we are going to close the book on all the personal questions with respect to Morton Smith - i.e. why he never married, did he really lose his faith - it is best the Columbia professor’s devotion to Swedenborg until his thirties as a seminal reason for him failing to meet the right girl. The New Church had perhaps given him a highly idealistic notion of marriage and at the same time a slavish devotion to the truth which left him almost half way through his life unmarried and too stuck in his ways to change.

As Siri Griffin again explains:

Swedenborg wrote prolifically on the subject of marriage, and emphasized the concept of “conjugial” (a word I think he made up) partners, or soul mates. We in the New Church are encouraged to marry the right person. If we never meet the right person on Earth, many people believe we will meet them in heaven. If Mr. Smith never found his soul mate, it would not be unreasonable for him to never marry. Though, as you say, the man’s personal life should have nothing to do with it, that might help shed light on the situation.

She goes on to note further more that:

Marrying at a young age was, of course, more common in his day, but particularly so here. The Academy is a boarding school, so people come from all over the world to attend. The long-standing half-joke is that you find your conjugial partner at the Academy. I told you already that many people wait to find the “right” person, but just as many have jumped headfirst into the wrong marriage upon graduation because they’re swept up by the romantic notion. This is not encouraged by the church, it just seems to happen.

In the church, divorce is considered a “permission”. It is not ideal, but also not a reason for condemnation. We have divorced ministers and leaders. Swedenborg does give a few legitimate reasons for divorce, e.g. infidelity, but not everyone waits for a “legitimate” reason. There are varying viewpoints on the matter among church leaders and members, of course, but I doubt it’s something the church itself would have asked Mr. Smith to leave over.

I could go into more detail about the church, I’m sure it did impact Mr. Smith, particularly given the field he pursued. One thing that should be made clear: the New Church is to Christianity as the General Church of the New Jerusalem is to the Catholic Church. The New Church is a philosophy, a belief system. The General Church is an organization, which Mr. Smith belonged to for a part of his life. You do not have to belong to the General Church to be a New Churchman. Indeed, I think the more “New Church” one is, the less meaningful they may find membership in the organization.

The New Church was never really meant to be a church as we think of church today. Swedenborg emphasized a personal spiritual journey, informed and led by the Bible. His extensive writings were an effort to show how the Bible really is talking about each one of us as we strive to become more perfect people and, ultimately, angels. “Nunc Licet” means “Now it is permitted”, a quote that goes on to say “Now it is permitted to enter into the mysteries of faith with understanding”. His works attempt to make clear the enigma that is the Bible (funny, though, he wrote in Latin and his sentences sometimes run a whole half page without punctuation. Not really the “for Dummies” reference one would go to today). The New Church also does not condemn other faiths. The holy city New Jerusalem (from which the GC takes the latter half of its formal name) had twelve gates, which Swedenborg wrote means that there are many ways into the kingdom of heaven. It would not be a radical shift for Mr. Smith to consider another perspective on religion and faith. The most important thing is that one lives his beliefs with integrity, wisdom, charity (meaning kindness, sort of, not magnanimity), and usefulness.

Perhaps this is the best way to leave the various personal questions which continue to swirl around the ‘real reason’ why Morton Smith ended up discovering an incredibly significant ancient text in the library at Mar Saba. Morton Smith was led to Jerusalem by Emanuel Swedenborg, and spent the rest of his life more or less figuring out where to go from there.

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