Monday, August 22, 2011

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

Timing is everything. There is a tide in the affairs of men which when taken at the flood leads on to fortune. - William Shakespeare
1957 was a turning point in Morton Smith's life. He had started a full time job at Columbia University and with his new position came a lot of adjustments. For one he had to get used to the idea of daylight savings time. "He used to come into class all excited," remembers Ethne Chesterman who was a student that year. "There was a lectern on top of table where he used to instruct us from. He used to start the class with a karate chop to a chain that hung from the lectern. It was really cute."

"Then November came and everyone came to class. We were all staring at the chain hanging from the lectern. No Professor Smith. Everyone waited about twenty minutes then we all streamed out of the classroom but it was pouring rain outside. So we all went to the library."

"At about ten minutes after ten. Guess who comes strolling into the library? Professor Smith. His bald head was all slick with rain. He looked all frazzled. He didn't know anything about daylight savings time."

Many of the student's in the library started to chuckle at the befuddled Professor Smith. Yet Ethne told her friends to stop laughing. Ethne and Professor Smith had a secret. About a month earlier Barnard College organized an open week where young girls would bring their parents to the college. Ethne's father had just passed away in April and her mother was just getting over the loss. She introduced her beautiful mother who looked every bit the spitting image of Lana Turner to her favorite professor.

“You have to understand this was the 1950s,” explains Ethne. “Young ladies were going off to university and the institution extended an opportunity to their parents to sit in with them at their classes. Barnard had a special relationship with Columbia which meant that I was taking a 9:00 am with a new professor of ancient history named Morton Smith at Columbia. Mother and I shared an interest in ancient history, so we went together to my class.”

After the class Ethne and Miriam approached Morton Smith. "I said, 'this is my mother' and he acted like any man who laid eyes on her. His eyebrows raised a little and he took a quick double take before clearing his throat," remembers Ethne. We started talking about the course load for the year and the usual small talk. Yet Professor Smtih seemed especially chatty. He seemed like any other man interested in my mother.”

“My mother had a British background so she was very good at appearing unmoved and disinterested. As mother and I walked away from our lengthy chat I remember telling her something to the effect, 'I think Dr. Smith would like to see you again.' I talked her into coming into class the next week. She needed the distraction."

"They started talking and after a long while she told him that they would meet again without me. I think she said something like "We'll meet beside the statue of Athena at Lowe library and that's exactly where he met her a day or two later," recalls Ethne. "I don't know why I was playing Cupid. I thought I was doing my mother some good. She needed to get out."

Ethne also recalls how Smith and her mother had to go to great lengths to keep their relationship secret. "They saw each other whenever Smith's schedule allowed him to get away. My mother never told me about her private affairs. She never married again after the death of my father. No matter how old I got she never told me anything about what went on with her boyfriends. She was very British that way."

"She and Smith continued to date all the way to the time Smith left for his summer trip. He spoke about it a lot but never mentioned anything about going to the Mar Saba monastery. He was going to Jerusalem to meet friends. I knew that. My mother knew he was brilliant. She found him funny and charming. Loved to be in his company."

"Of course I kept their relationship secret. We could all have gotten in a lot of trouble potentially - especially Smith. I remember we all went to dinner after he came back from Mar Saba. He was very excited about his discovery. He went on forever about how he came across this letter of the Church Father Clement. Yet at the same time he couldn't stop complaining about the monastery. He was very sick. He never got any sleep. The monks were singing all the time. It drove him crazy. He swore he would never go back."

"He talked about how bad the food was and we all kept eating. It was quite funny in a way. Mentioning soup with the octopus at the monastery and then we were in New York having a wonderful meal at a wonderful restaurant with great service."

"The bad news for my mother was that once Smith came back with this big discovery that became the focus of his whole life. He was consulting with this professor and that. My mother and he just drifted apart. Maybe it was too soon after my father died. I don't know. I think there was some real compatibility between her and Smith. My father wasn't Jewish. He was Episcopalian so marriage wouldn't have been an issue. If he hadn't have found the manuscript, who knows."

All of this would have remained a private anecdote if it weren’t for a chance reading over a generation later. "I remember picking up a book by Ehrman about early Christianity. I think Lost Christianities was the name and I read what he insinuated about Smith. I hit the ceiling. Morton Smith was one of the most honest, sincere, straight forward man I had ever met. Then I started reading more about the wild accusations that were being thrown around. Smith was gay? I thought to myself, why are they doing this now after he was dead? If my mother was alive she would have vouched for him too. There was a real attraction."

She adds, “some people ask why he didn't go to church services and whether he lost his faith. The answer is that he was just too tired from the monks singing at all hours of the day. No one got any sleep there. But Smith was trying to keep a schedule and work. He couldn't sleep because he was sick too. It was a very unnatural environment there for him as it would be for anyone who wasn't a monk."

For Ethne Chesterman the attacks against her mother’s former boyfriend were personal. She couldn’t help but notice the attraction between the two forty year old. Yet it must be noted that Morton Smith being heterosexual does not make him innocent any more than being gay would make him guilty. The whole question of what Morton Smith’s sexual preference was at any period in his life has no place in a serious examination of the Mar Saba discovery. Nevertheless, the question of why so many reputable scholars were willing to drag the possibility of Morton Smith’s homosexuality as a ‘proof’ of forgery is an interesting question.

Perhaps the best place for us to start is to actually start to piece together what makes Morton Smith’s find at Mar Saba what many consider the greatest discovery in the history of Biblical scholarship. It is often reported at a number of ill informed blogs and internet sites that Morton Smith uncovered a text called ‘Secret Mark,’ an earlier version of one of our canonical gospels. In point of fact the document that Morton Smith found at the monastery in the summer of 1958 is actually a great deal more complicated than that. It might even seem at first like it isn’t as big of a deal.

Morton Smith came across a letter of a very erudite Church Father named Clement of Alexandria who lived at least one hundred and fifty years after Jesus’s crucifixion which makes reference to and cites a section of text from what claims to be a later version of the gospel of Mark. It was Morton Smith’s interpretation of that letter that caused such a stir,and in fact, one section of text in particular, when the Columbia professor decided to interpret what Clement’s letter was saying. Indeed, the controversy is really not about the existence of ‘other gospel’s of Mark’ (we know of them from other Church Fathers), and it wasn’t exactly over what Clement tells the recipient of his letter - an otherwise unknown man from antiquity named Theodore - ‘Secret Mark’ was about, but in fact the whole controversy seems to have really got ignited but ‘possibilities’ that Morton Smith started talking about when interpreting the letter.

In 1973 Morton Smith wrote a book called the Secret Gospel where he started to connect his emerging theory about ‘Jesus the magician’ - in other words, the idea that Jesus might not have been the messiah but really a lowly worker of magic, like other lowly workers of magic that we read about in ancient literature - with his interpretation of the text he discovered in Mar Saba. So it is that he writes about the particular form of baptism that developed from this later gospel of Mark. Smith begins by arguing that there are uncanny similarities with respect to what is said about the ‘mysteries of the kingdom’ in Clement’s letter and baptism as described in the letters ascribed to the first century preacher of Christianity St. Paul. So Morton Smith concludes:

Thus from the differences between Paul's baptism and that of [John] the Baptist, and from the scattered indications in the canonical Gospels and the secret Gospel of Mark, we can put together a picture of Jesus' baptism, ''the mystery of the kingdom of God.” It was a water baptism administered by Jesus to chosen disciples, singly and by night. The costume, for the disciple, was a linen cloth worn over the naked body. This cloth was probably removed for the baptism proper, the immersion in water,which was now reduced to a preparatory purification. After that, by unknown ceremonies, the disciple was possessed by Jesus' spirit and so united with Jesus. One with him, he participated by hallucination in Jesus' ascent into the heavens, he entered the kingdom of God, and was thereby set free from the laws ordained for and in the lower world. Freedom from the law may have resulted in completion of the spiritual union by physical union. This certainly occurred in many forms of gnostic Christianity; how early it began there is no telling.

If you are wondering where the controversy comes from in these pages, you might be surprised. For the answer lies in what is written in the section reserved for the footnote at the end of the section. Yes, as incredible as it might sound (as many people don’t even bother to read what is written in the footer, almost the whole controversy surrounding Mar Saba lies embedded in parts of the book ignored by most readers.

Indeed the fact Morton Smith relegated this thought to a subordinate section of the work should be a clear indication that he didn’t feel they were strong enough to include in the main body of the work. They are personal insights where he wants to direct readers who want to know more, where it is that they find parallels to the ideas he is advancing in the main section as well as supporting proofs to justify his conclusions. To this end, the eminent scholar Morton Smith wrote in his footer:

To judge from the hekalot and Qumran texts, the magical papyri and the Byzantine liturgy, these will have been mainly the recitation of repetitive, hypnotic prayers and hymns. The magical tradition also prescribes, in some instances, interference with breathing. Manipulation, too, was probably involved; the stories of Jesus' miracles give a very large place to the use of his hands.

Still can’t see where the controversy lies here? This is another thing the average reader has to be aware of ‘critical scholarship.’ It is a seemingly never ending recycling of ideas and opinions where little ant hills keep getting reworked time and again by many, many different writers until the point that they quite literally take on a life of their own. One writer makes a comment. Then the next one quotes what he says and adds something and then after this happens a few times people almost forget what the context of the original statement was.

In this case of this footnote Bart Ehrman notes in a 2003 book entitled Lost Christianities to question whether Smith’s attempt to connect his discovery at Mar Saba with his theory about magic, so he wrote in this book Lost Christianities:

The hands of a healer here take on a whole new meaning. In this fragment from Clement, Smith discovered that Jesus was a magician who engaged in sex with the men that he baptized.“I do not want to go into a prolonged discussion of every aspect of Morton Smith's interpretation of the Secret gospel. Most scholars found his explication unconvincing at best; some were predictably outraged. Smith appeared to love it. It has been pointed out, with some justice, that the text says nothing about Jesus using magic. There is no word about an ecstatic vision or a spiritual unity with Jesus, let alone about anyone having sex with the Son of God. Some reviewers concluded that Smith found in the text what he brought to the text, and noted that he had been interested in ecstatic visions, heavenly journeys, law-free morality, and Jesus the magician years before he published his books on the Secret Gospel.

In what follows Ehrman never quite comes out and accuses Smith of forgery but brings up a series of arguments used to make the case he couldn’t possibly have done it and attempts to shoot them down one after another leaving the possibility of wrong-doing on the table as an open-ended question.

However it was in an academic paper which happened to get published in the very same year that Ehrman went one step further and argued that Smith - not Ehrman himself - had argued on behalf of the text being a document about Jesus’s homosexuality. Ehrman makes reference to the same material but now with a twist:

In possibly the most telling footnote of the book, Smith makes a suggestion about what these ‘unknown ceremonies’ may have entailed: ‘manipulation too was probably involved; the stories of Jesus’ miracles give a large place to the use of his hands’. Indeed.

If the gay ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ wasn’t explicit enough Ehrman cites one other part of Smith’s popular book arguing that “homoerotic emphasis was not imported into Smith’s
view from outside, by homophobic voyeurs in the guild. It is all right there, plain to see, at the climactic moment of the narrative” and finds support for this assessment in various subtle references from Smith’s popular account of his discovery the most explicit being - “[f]reedom
from the law may have resulted in completion of the spiritual union by physical union.”

Now the reader should be aware that even Ehrman would certain admit that Smith never comes out and says that Jesus was a homosexual, engaged in homosexual acts nor even that his discovery is about homosexuality in the early Church. Instead Ehrman is arguing that Smith left these ‘subtle hints’ as a means to get people to ‘think’ that there was a gay subtext to the work. Smith essentially forged a text which had ‘psychic triggers’ as it were which were ‘set off’ by the subtle ‘suggestions’ in his published commentaries. In other words, Smith behaving like the magician doing a card trick making you pick the Ace of Spades out of a deck of fifty cards with his sleight of hand.

Yet the odd thing in fact is that all the sexual language in wholly found not only in Ehrman’s analysis but all those who argue for forgery. Almost every author who has ever published a book or article on the subject of Morton Smith’s discovery being a ‘homosexual forgery’ deliberately uses the not so subtle sexual suggestiveness of referring to ‘Secret Mark’ as having the naked baptism ritual as being the ‘climax’ of the document or the union of baptism representing the two men ‘climaxing’ together or they rephrase the youth who about to be baptized by Jesus from Morton Smith’s original translation that he “beseeched” Jesus “that he might be with him” to the young man “wanting to spend the night with Jesus” or worse yet they actually paraphrase the contents of the document as if the homosexuality was open, explicit and self-evident.

In other words, it is Morton Smith’s critics like Bart Ehrman who are actually doing the sleight of hand tricks acknowledging in one breath that ‘some’ argue that there are no homosexual references in Secret Mark but then proceed to deliberately ‘sex up’ their description of both the original material discovered at Mar Saba and Morton Smith’s interpretation of that text. Moreover, they begin to use the inertia created in academia by having ideas bounce from one writer to the next until we all forget what was fact and what was interpretation.

So it is that when Paul Foster of the Unviersity of Edinborough has to decide as to decide between those, who like Charles Hedrick who argue that there is no hidden sexual agenda in Smith’s original discovery or his interpretation of the text and Bart Ehrman’s obvious sleight of hand, he concludes that:

It does appear that Ehrman has the stronger argument here. Regardless of the original intention of the text (if it was not produced by Smith) there seems little doubt that Smith saw the potential to recognize in the text homoerotic tendencies, specifically in the first passage that Clement cites from the longer version of Mark’s Gospel

Yet Foster decides to go along with Ehrman’s claims by leaving essentially unanswered Hedrick’s equally adamant rejection of all of Ehrman’s inference and innuendo. As Foster is forced to concede “Hedrick views the possibility of a homosexual subtext as a non-issue, since Smith himself argued speculation was inconclusive [and h]e observes, ‘Not even Smith pursued that line of thinking in his analysis of the text.”

Now the million dollar question is that if there it is agreed there is no reference to sexuality in the original discovery and then at best there are a series of very subtle and ultimately inconclusive references to things which ‘sort of sound like they might be gay’ in Smith’s analysis why are so many ‘experts’ willing to go along with what is undeniably a very weak and tenuous argument? This is the question that was flashing through Ethne Chesterman’s mind as she started to go through all the articles, books and interviews which dripped with similar unsubstantiated allegations.

If Smith were alive of course he would certainly have been able to take many of these authors to court and sue them for liable. In point of fact, these men would never have even dared to put these works in print for Smith had such a reputation that legal action would have been a certainty. Why then was it so important to put into print arguments which essentially develop from gossip, innuendo, suggestion and sleight of hand? The simple answer is that in many ways this is what academics do with all the dead people and dead things they write about.

Asking questions is at the heart of scholarship. One could write a paper about whether the world was really flat if one followed proper form no less than asking whether Jesus was really a woman. It is all part of the rules of the game. Asking whether Morton Smith might have forged the text might well be viewed in time as one of those ‘controversies’ which erupts in academia from time to time and is ultimately forgotten. There must have been a sense among those who ‘bounced’ the idea that connecting Smith’s status as a bachelor with supposedly ‘suggestive explanations’ in his analysis of his discovery might ultimately lead somewhere.

As we shall see these ideas did indeed develop into ever more imaginative and ultimately outlandish hypotheses was a young man who became one of Ehrman's Ph.D. students, Stephen Carlson, He developed the idea of ‘suggestions’ in Smith’s analysis and ‘triggers’ in his forged text one step further, to the point that Smith actually planted the ‘clues’ to have someone catch him - like a real life Da Vinci Code or a crime story from a bad episode of the TV detective Columbo.

For the moment it is enough to point out that it wasn’t just the wide eyed freshmen were engaging in this reckless scholarship. No less of an authority than Bart Ehrman himself went out of his way to reject the plain meaning of things said by Morton Smith to connect them with salacious speculation. That footnote from Smith’s popular Secret Mark:

To judge from the hekalot and Qumran texts, the magical papyri and the Byzantine liturgy, these will have been mainly the recitation of repetitive, hypnotic prayers and hymns. The magical tradition also prescribes, in some instances, interference with breathing. Manipulation, too, was probably involved; the stories of Jesus' miracles give a very large place to the use of his hands.

It should be noted again that when Ehrman transforms into something utterly sordid he does so on the back of actually knowing what Smith’s intended meaning of his text was. In other words, what makes his sleight of hand so successful is that Ehrman demonstrates that he stays within the bounds of truth for at least a requisite few seconds before adding his adolescent innuendo. What did Smith really mean by the words “Manipulation, too, was probably involved; the stories of Jesus' miracles give a very large place to the use of his hands”? We can absolutely certain that Smith was once again bringing in his own interest in the use of magic in early Chrisianity into the discussion.

For instance, in a discussion of the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus healing of a blind man - “When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?” - there is a clear use of such ‘touching’ between Jesus and a chosen individual. John Dominic Crossan in his the Historical Jesus: the Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant notes that this passage was very important to Smith’s magic theory because of Mark’s interest in Jesus’s use of hands

Morton Smith mentions spittle as an instance of how “the miracle stories in the Gospels show a great many of the minor traits of magical procedures” (1973b:223) and David Aune places it among “techniques... well-known to both Jewish and Greco-Roman magic practitioners.”

Indeed Morton Smith’s famous study of descriptions of magic in the gospel makes it absolutely clear that this is exactly what he meant by Jesus’s ‘use of the hands.’ Ehrman certainly read at least parts of the book. So his insistence that there was a dirty subtext is actually a little surprising.

Morton Smith was so famous for this ‘magic theory’ while he was alive that it is hard to go along with Ehrman’s claim that Smith was also leaving the door open for a sexual double entendre. Jesus the Magician was published five years after the Secret Gospel and it was clearly ‘where Morton Smith’s head was at during these years. His protege Shaye Cohen remarks that it was all Smith studied and talked about. It was hard enough for Smith to have the world even consider at the time that Jesus might have been a magician, let alone add this other blasphemous subtext.

As Clayton David Robinson makes most explicit in his study of various modern interpretations of the ancient practice of laying on of hands:

Morton Smith contends that Jesus was a common magician whose healing practices demonstrated similar elements to the magical papyri. Further,Smith asserts that the miracles of Jesus were the result of "suggestion (often hypnotic)" and that the crowds believed Jesus' power to be "like an electric charge, without his volition” being released through touch.”

Indeed Robinson notes that Smith wasn’t the only scholar to make the connection:

John Hull also suggests that the NT reflects magical thinking: “In the thought of Luke, the most remarkable feature is the concentration upon dunamis not as miracle itself but as miracle-working power. It is regarded by Luke as a substance, a mana-like charge of divine potency spiritual in so far as it emanates from the world of the spirits, but as actual, as vital as the beings who possess it.” Scholars such as Smith and Hull suggest that methods utilized in ritual fashion, such as handlaying, are to be construed as examples of the usage of magical technique.

The point then is that it is well established in the literature that Smith’s actual interpretation of Jesus ‘having his hands free for … manipulations’ had nothing at all to do with sexual gratification. It was an extension of his theory connecting Jesus to the ancient magicians who apparently dotted the ancient Mediterranean landscape.

Even Ehrman makes reference to Morton Smith’s interest in making the connection with magical practices. Yet Ehrman goes out of his way to make the case that Smith has also deliberately left the door open to another interpretation one which involved homosexual practices among the Carpocratians. It is argued that while Smith never ‘comes out and says it’ Smith ‘knew’ that homosexuality was present and ‘hinted’ at it in many places. The way Ehrman introduces the idea it is clear that he means to suggest that Morton Smith had a ‘secret agenda’ which was mirrored in the document itself.

Yet it also has to be said that Ehrman never comes out and says that the document is a forgery. So in a sense he too is engaging in the very ‘smoke and mirrors’ he insinuates with respect to Smith. Why doesn’t he simply come out and say he thinks the text is a hoax? As a reputable scholar he must have recognized there wasn’t sufficient evidence to justify such an accusation. Nevertheless he ends up a popular book on early Christianity which insinuates as much, he effectively writes an academic article justifying his innuendo and then ultimately ‘adopts’ a young and aspiring PhD student who effectively becomes the mouthpiece for the very conspiracy theory Ehrman can’t seem to bring himself to declare openly.

Why the secret cabal to discredit Smith if the evidence wasn’t strong enough in the first place? This is a very difficult question to answer. Ehrman is not the kind of person one would expect to be against the discovery. He is a self-confessed ‘agnostic’ who made as many enemies with the religious right as Morton Smith. Yet there are important differences between the two men which should be noted, the most obvious distinction being the fact that Morton Smith actually discovered an irreplaceable manuscript and this places Smith on a completely different playing field as it were.

Indeed Smith and Ehrman represent a very rare commodity in Biblical scholarship - reputable and distinguished academics who ‘made it’ as writers of popular books. In Smith’s case, the fame was associated with a tangible accomplishment - the uncovering of an irreplaceable document in the Mar Saba monastery. With Ehrman his knowledge of ancient New Testament manuscripts is almost unparalleled in the field. Yet the way he became famous was - as most would concede - mixing this technical expertise with an ‘in your face’ attempt to disprove Christian tradition.

To this end, reviews of Ehrman’s works applaud his knowledge of the facts but always make reference to his attempt to ‘jazz up’ what is certainly an essentially boring field of study. To this end we inevitably read in reviews of Lost Christianities - that book which so infuriated Ethne Chesterman references to its overt attempts to sensationalize familiar topics. When we go outside of the most rabid devotees of Ehrman opinion generally ranging of the accuracy of Earliest Christianities from W H Chesterman reference to it as “a useful (if overly sensational) introduction to the literature and its milieu” to the harsh criticism of Nathan Busenitz and John MacArthur who place Ehrman as a symptom of our decline into an age “when authors prostitute their scholarship to become rich on sensationalist books about so-called 'lost Christianities' and 'lost Scriptures.”

While the people who generally make that kind of accusation against Ehrman are conservatives, it is worth noting that it is certainly a sentiment shared by Ethne Chesterman. The Morton Smith developed in the pages of Lost Christianities is certainly not the Columbia professor she and her mother knew. The obvious motives she attributes to Ehrman’s efforts is clear - to help sell books. Yet one wonders also if Ehrman in misrepresenting Smith and his motives is also trying to knock down one last obstacle to him being considered - in his own mind at least - the greatest and perhaps most influential scholar of the modern era. Again it is too difficult to say anything with any degree of certainty. We have already seen the dangers inherent in indulging in groundless speculation.

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