Wednesday, August 24, 2011

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

Yet there is one very clear and powerful reason that the discrediting effort directed against Morton Smith's discovery succeeded. The incredible number of truly great scholars who embraced any theory - no matter how preposterous - which identified the Columbia as the forger of the Mar Saba document. Indeed the single and most persuasive argument in the whole repertoire of those promoting the hoax hypothesis is the list of names that they can associate with what is little more than a second rate conspiracy theory. It is a most truly impressive academic honor roll all buying into a theory that has no crime, no proof and no smoking gun.

What could account for so many knowledgeable men and women concluding that one of their own got away with the unthinkable? Wayne Meeks, the Woolsey Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Yale University, wrote perhaps one of the most important works in the history of Biblical literature in the last century. He is credited alongside Morton Smith Elaine Pagels’s Gnostic Paul as an important influence and his low estimation of Morton Smith’s character is eye opening “How delighted Morton would be at all the fuss, over what I take to have been his supreme joke on the whole academic establishment. What a brilliant and complicated man he was—yet he was a joker.”

Indeed if you talk to Wayne long enough he will inevitably direct you to other names and those names to others still and before you know it you find yourself staring at a seemingly insurmountable wall of experts who theoretically should know more than you or anyone else about the material related to Smith’s discovery. Yet at the very same time if you make your way from a major proponent for authenticity - let’s say Marvin Meyer Griset Professor of Bible and Christian Studies at Chapman University and Director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute, you will find yourself being directed to an equally strong list of experts who come down on the exact opposite side of the authenticity question.

So how can that be? How can two groups of scholars working with the exact same pool of evidence come down with two diametrically opposed assessments of the same material? It would would be like going to twelve different doctors and half saying you have cancer and the rest saying you’re fine.

Some might argue that there is stalemate in scholarship over the authenticity of the document. Charles Hedrick Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Southwest Missouri State University wrote a paper with this title back in 2003. That article was ultimately what prompted Bart Ehrman to argue in favor of a homosexual subtext not only to the Mar Saba letter but the very person of Morton Smith. Yet 'stalemate' doesn't seem quite appropriate for the situation we find ourselves in with respect to the document.

The term of course derives its meaning from a drawing position in chess in which a player is not in checkmate but has no legal move to play. This is not the case with respect to the Mar Saba document. No proof convincing or otherwise has ever been tabled which stands up to critical scrutiny. What we have instead is a bunch of old scholars gathering together to essentially coming together to find ways to justify ignoring Morton Smith's discovery. They are not forced into this decision based on the evidence. There is no evidence. They want to ignore the discovery because, essentially, it gets in the way of them perpetuating a familiar or desired modeled for Christian origins.

Indeed the closest those promoting the hoax hypothesis came to establishing such a 'smoking gun' was in 2005 when Bart Ehrman’s future PhD student Stephen Carlson claimed to have uncovered ‘tremors’ or shakes in the handwriting which he said pointed to the author having difficulty imitating the handwriting of a monk at Mar Saba. Carlson produced images of the ‘forger’s tremor’ in his book the Gospel Hoax and many scholars who wanted to believe the document was a fake jumped on board.

It was only in 2010 when a Swedish blogger named Roger Viklund took a second look at Stephen Carlson’s images and noticed that the ‘tremors’ were a direct result of the low quality images that Carlson used in his study. Carlson had apparently decided to take very, very blurry printed images from Smith’s 1973 book - once with very few ‘little dots’ or pixels to create their images. When these grainy images of the letters were ‘blown up’ to an even larger size for scholars to examine their composition the actual samples seemed more ‘shaky’ than they really were. Viklund put the images which Carlson drew from Smith’s 1973 book side by side with similarly sized images of the same letters but made from the higher resolution photographs of the document and found that all the anomalies disappeared.

Indeed, as one might expect, those who favored authenticity rallied around Viklund’s discovery. Yet even some scholars who had previously supported Carlson’s claims had second thoughts about supporting his methodology. Birger Pearson, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Professor and Interim Director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that he “read the Viklund pieces with considerable interest. It is curious that Carlson didn't avail himself of the color photos.” In a similar manner David Trobisch, one of the world’s leading experts on ancient manuscripts concurred that Viklund’s “arguments are absolutely clear and convincing. The 'forgery' accusations only works with the low resolution photos. An excellent article."

There can be no doubt that this was one of the deciding moments in the whole debate about the discovery being an alleged forgery. Up until Viklund’s article the momentum was clearly on the side of those claiming that Smith had forged the text. Carlson’s arguments were being used everywhere to drive a ‘nail into the coffin’ of Morton Smith’s discovery. Then, almost as drunken revelers shaking off their intoxication, a great many people began to suspect that the Gospel Hoax might well have presented a misleading argument. Carlson certainly knew about the existence of high quality photographs. So why didn’t he use them to frame his argument? We shall never know for certain of course any more than what went on in Smith’s mind during his discovery process.

Yet one might point to the underlying decline of respect and self-respect within the humanities. If truth is no longer believed to be knowable or attainable, don't we end up living in an environment where 'anything goes'? As Robert Weisbuch, a distinguished professor of English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation notes:

More broadly, the humanities, like the liberal arts generally, appear far less surely at the center of higher education than they once did. We have lost the respect of our colleagues in other fields, as well as the attention of an intelligent public. The action is elsewhere. We re living through a time when outrage with the newfangled in the humanities–with deconstruction or Marxism or whatever–has become plain lack of interest. No one’s even angry with us now, just bored.

In such an environment who's checking the facts? Who made sure that Stephen Carlson was really using 'good' photographs of the manuscript? Moreover who was making sure that those who agreed with his conclusions had actually checked his methodology? As one prominent scholar noted of Pearson’s about face, the San Diego professor "was thoroughly convinced by Carlson’s book, but did not bother to analyze the answers to Carlson’s 'proof.' I suspect that when (and if) the manuscript is discovered and the ink is analyzed there will be arguments that Smith also concocted 18th century ink in order to complete his hoax!" In other words, in the academic environment which is now perpetuated in the universities it is all too easy to manufacture proofs which only prove the cleverness of scholarly deception.

In Birger Pearson's case of course he essentially admitted his previous short-comings but this is a very rare commodity in academia. There is a bizarre emphasis of infallibility on the part of individual scholars which is at time downright bizarre. After all, there are perhaps thousands of scholars all writing about the same thing. How can any one person be right about everything he has ever said about anything all the time? It is a mathematical impossibility.

So it is that Birger Pearson only came to view the Mar Saba document as a forgery later in life making a public break with his mentor Helmut Koester. It was certainly a difficult decision for Pearson but the case he develops in his one article on the subject is once again based almost entirely on a loose suspicion developed from what he saw as idiosyncrasies in Smith's behavior. One may also suspect that Pearson was prompted in no small part by learning of Carlson's 'breakthrough' with respect to the 'forger's tremor.'

Pearson was ignoring of course the sage advice of his beloved instructor Helmut Koester, Morison Research Professor of Divinity and Winn Research Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School. Koester, one of the greatest New Testament authorities of the last century and a man who not only corresponded extensively with Morton Smith after his discovery but Koester is also someone who remains to this day one of the document’s greatest defenders. Koester recently wrote a piece in the Biblical Archaeololgy Review are the long discussions Koester held with Smith during the 1960s.

As Koester notes if Smith could have pulled off the stunts of acting as if he "seriously struggled to understand and interpret this document" he would have had to be "an accomplished actor and [Koester] a complete fool". The same argument was essentially made by the estate of Smith’s long time friend and scholar Gershom Scholem the first Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who went so far as to release many of their correspondences over the years to demonstrate how Smith was struggling with his interpretation of his discovery.

The question at the bottom of both these approaches is whether it is possible to hold such a facade that is Smith pretending to ask for help interpreting a text he knew was a fake - for decades, without anyone ever noticing anything while Smith was still alive? If that is deemed possible, would it be the most probable explanation? Indeed it has to be remembered that Smith wasn’t just corresponding with these two men but over a dozen other of the world’s greatest scholars at the time. Tjitze Baarda, one of the world’s greatest authorities on the New Testament, is yet another contributed to Smith’s study, partly under his name, partly under the name of his then professor R. Schippers whose assistant he was. Baarda was fully supportive of the authenticity of the document but also expresses sympathy for Pearson’s mistaking Carlson’s arguments for real evidence describing the Pearson as a truly gifted scholar.

So we arrive full circle again back to the original question we asked in this chapter - how then could so many truly great professors come out in favor of the basic idea that Smith’s discovery was really a hoax? There is clearly no firm evidence to support the idea the text was forged. Yet, most importantly we have an academic environment where 'anything goes,' where the facts are reduced to 'mere interpretations' and nothing stands in the way of a group of determined scholars to effectively undermine the truth. If a parallel universe could be established were interpretation substituted for hard facts, the document could well be 'proved' to be forgery at least in the court of public opinion.

Indeed to this end what we begin to see here is, as James McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, has recently noted is at the very least a strange case of ‘broken telephone.’ We see ‘suspicion’ being established a priori owing “to misinformation that continues to circulate about his find.” This information gets passed on by word of mouth and takes on a life of its own. McGrath goes on to write that “there are people who have been told and pass on to others that no one other than Smith saw the actual original pages with the text, and/or that when people went back to check, the pages or volume in question were no longer there.”

An echo chamber has been created within scholarship where the basic details of the discovery of the manuscript are no longer known to people and have been substituted instead by what Scott G Brown of the University of Toronto has coined a 'folklorization' of the facts. As Brown notes:

One of the most enduring aspects of the folklore that surrounds this document is the notion that Morton Smith prevented other scholars from examining it. The complaint that no one but Smith has ever seen the manuscript is voiced so often and with such moral affectation that many scholars mistake it for a fact

He also adds that "many purveyors of the folklore still claim that “no one but Smith ever saw the document” and blame Smith for its disappearance. Some prefer not to know any better." Yet how can it be explained that this very primitive tendency to develop 'oral traditions' at the expense of the actual facts emerged in a period where people have the greatest access possible to information? What would reputable academics buy into a premise which is almost wholly rooted in gossip and innuendo? Could it be that at least part of this can be explained by Smith’s own interest in mysticism, magic and what is commonly referred to as the occult? Indeed there has to be an explanation for why Morton Smith and the discovery at Mar Saba is treated so differently than other scholars and other discoveries. This is as good a place to start as any.

Where as most scholars concentrate on what is considered the reliable - even infallible - witnesses to our common religious heritage - i.e. ‘the Bible’ and the various supporting writings from Church Fathers and rabbinical authorities, Smith developed a very profound interest in what is often described as ‘the occult’ - i.e. mystical writings especially from within Judaism. In some sense it can be argued that many scholars must feel that Smith by taking the ‘occult’ so seriously he was himself ‘writing from within the darkness’ and partaking in the same ‘creative licenses’ as the likes of Aleister Crowley. Indeed a paper arguing for a connection between Smith and Crowley has actually recently been published.

Now it certainly is quite silly to argue that Morton Smith really was like Aleister Crowley. His own letters demonstrate that he was the furthest thing from being an ecstatic mystic. Nevertheless the idea that Smtih was so perceived by at least some of his contemporaries - perhaps those who did not know him very well - may represent the ‘Rosetta Stone’ as it were to understand why he was treated differently than other scholars by his peers. How it was that lingering suspicions and innuendo about Smith’s sexuality translates into a convincing but ultimately unspoken argument in the minds of those who were actually familiar with Smith’s scholarship.

For if we follow the thread of arguments related to Smith being a homosexual and Smith being a latter day Aleister Crowley, the two paths actually converge in the man who is certainly the earliest and most influential scholar to claim Smith was responsible for the forged letter - Jacob Neusner. The real beginning of the end to Smith’s reputation can be dated to the break which occurred between Smith and Neusner, his former protege at the Society for Biblical Literature in Chicago in 1982. It was there that Smith publicly humiliated Neusner, and many have argued exacted his revenge by declaring for the first time in print anywhere that Smith was a homosexual and was likely responsible for authoring the discovery he claimed to have found in the Mar Saba monstery.

The accusation, written within a couple of years of Smith’s death caused a sensation in scholarship, Neusner carefully wording his insinuation as follows in a piece lumping his former mentor with ‘sensationalist’ scholarship which seeks to demean Jesus. Neusner declares to his audience that all an aspiring scholar has to do in the universities these days is to “tell the world he was a homosexual magician, as the late Morton Smith did, and your day is made.” Indeed Neusner goes on to argue that:

[t]he very quest (of attacking the historical Jesus) met its defining disgrace by Morton Smith, whose "historical" results—Jesus was "really" a homosexual magician—depended upon a selective believing in whatever Smith thought was historical....[but] truth does matter, even if, in respect to Jesus, some imagine that it does not. Still, in defense of the question as Smith conducted it, the charge that each "biographer" of Jesus produces a Jesus in his own image is wide of the mark, since no one ever accused Smith of being a magician.

Clearly the insinuation that is left unsaid is that Morton Smith may not have been accused of being a magician openly but a homosexual secretly.

There can be absolutely no doubt that whispers about Smith’s alleged homosexuality predate Neusner’s bombastic article. Neusner certainly did not invent the idea that Smith might have forged the Mar Saba letter to reflect his own interest in magic and homosexuality. Nevertheless the idea that Smith’s former student would come out and embrace these rumors was certainly something seized upon by enemies of the Mar Saba document.

Indeed even if we leave the question as to whether Bart Ehrman was influenced by Jacob Neusner’s comments (he certainly was aware of them), it is important to see that an important chain of Neusner associates and proteges continue to be among the most vociferous proponents of the hoax hypothesis, in no small part being influenced by the words of their master shortly after the death of his former teacher.

The earliest Neusner protege to make reference to Smith being a homosexual was Donald Akenson, Queen's University and Beamish Research Professor at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, and Senior Editor of the McGill-Queen's University Press in Canada. He wrote in 2000 that:

What we have here (in Secret Mark) is a nice ironic gay joke at the expense of all of the self-important scholars who not only miss the irony, but believe that this alleged piece of gospel comes to us in the first-known letter of the great Clement of Alexandria.

Bart Ehrman among others interprets Akenson's comments as inferring that Smith was gay. (Lost Christianities p. 267).

Another Neusner protege, Bruce Chilton, Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College has become something of a fixture in the campaign to discredit Smith’s find penned the discovery in the following terms:

In 1960 Morton Smith, a professor at Columbia University, announced the existence of this document at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, a year and a half after he said he found it in a monastic library near Jerusalem. Press coverage proved wide and instantaneous, because "Secret Mark" climaxes with an evocative image: A young man who wore only "a linen cloth over his naked body" spends the night with Jesus, who "taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God." That proved too good a lure to pass up: What reader of the Gospels could fail to wonder whether Jesus engaged in the sexually charged initiation that "Secret Mark" describes? Smith himself, a homosexual at a time when homophobia ran high, had little doubt." [Unmasking a False Gospel, Bruce Chilton, October 25, 2006, NY Sun]

The same article is reprinted virtually in the same form in a journal edited by Jacob Neusner and it is not all difficult to see that Chilton is basically describing the original material discovery refracted through the lens of Neusner’s 1994 article.

As we shall see in our next chapter, Neusner ended up coming to Bard and he and Chilton have co-authored several books together. There should be no doubt that Chilton is in part so convinced about Morton Smith’s homosexuality by the things Neusner has established about his former master. Some of the shoddy scholarship which Smith accused Neusner of engaging in also seems to have rubbed off on the Bard professor given he deliberately misrepresents the contents of Smith’s discovery. Instead of actually quoting what is written in the Mar Saba letter i.e. that the youth was:

wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God.

Chilton instead only cites a part of what appears in the original text and then borrows a line from a Rolling Stones song to establish the appropriate sexual innuendo:

A young man who wore only “a linen cloth over his naked body” spends the night with Jesus, who “taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God.”

When Mick Jagger sang ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ everyone listening knew the intended meaning. So Chilton uses the suggestive phrase for a similar purpose. Indeed without any of this manipulation there is no sexual content in the letter from which Chilton can introduce Neusner’s vitriol as established ‘fact.’

The amazing thing of course isn’t that scholars engage in this sort of ‘cutting corners’ in order to make their case (although there was a time where such activities would be punishable offenses). The incredible thing is that Akenson and Chilton aren’t just making ‘mistakes’ on their own. They seem to be part of a broader campaign to misrepresent the contents of the letter. For it is otherwise impossible to believe that another Neusner protege makes the exact same misrepresentation of the contents on his own. For we see yet another Neusner associate, Craig Evans, the Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College of Acadia University writes “what makes the find controversial is that in one of the passages quoted from this Gospel Jesus teaches a naked young man the “mystery of the kingdom of God.” The passage, along with the discussion in the letter, could imply a homosexual encounter.”

In this misrepresentation of the contents of the letter Evans claims the letter features the instruction of a ‘naked young man’ which ‘may’ point to something gay. Even Chilton could only bring himself to manipulate part of the original sentence. There is no reference to nudity in the gospel material cited in the letter. Indeed even the caution that Evans purports to show after falsifying the original material is disingenuous given that he has on several occasions that the material is indeed a description of a homosexual initiation and moreover, as recently as 2009, that Morton Smith “himself was gay, which was a closely guarded secret in the 1950s. (no footnote) He had been denied tenure at Brown University and may have wanted to demonstrate his intellectual superiority by pulling off something like this.”

As such when James McGrath points to a culture of misinformation being cultivated to support the forgery hypothesis it is difficult not to point the finger at this circle which developed around Morton Smith’s disgraced former protege as being nothing short of a ‘tree of death’ for all subsequent accusations against the text. Ehrman was certainly aware of Neusner’s original paper in 1994 and cites Akenson’s work as the basic ground for his own sensationalist twist on things. His PhD student Stephen Carlson developed a number of questionable citations of Smith’s original words into arguments for forgery which have in turn been embraced by the original proteges of Neusner (the most recent being Evans use of Carlson’s original claims about an article published in 1958 which have been aptly deconstructed by McGrath quite recently).

The point however is that there is the unmistakable attempt to create something of an ‘echo chamber’ within a small circle of scholars which resonated in society at large. Whether deliberate or accidental (i.e. born from a common desire to discredit Smith’s discovery which I suspect is the more likely scenario) the damage has already been done. There seems to be no end to the number of people who think they know what the Mar Saba letter is all about because they have been informed about its contents by ‘reputable scholars’ like Chilton, Evans, Ehrman and Carlson.

We are left nevertheless with the lingering question about how it was that so many good scholars got sucked into this black hole of bitterness. Could it be that the discovery of the letter punched a hole in the very fabric of the study of the early Church? Could it be that in their own strange way two men from what seems to be two different poles of academia - i.e. Ehrman and Evans (i.e. one agnostic and the other conservative) actually have common cause in repairing the damage to the sinking ship?

For Ehrman started life as fundamentalist Christian and never really lost his interest and devotion to the primacy of the four canonical gospels. As Tony Burke of York University points out, Ehrman not only rejects Secret Mark but also considers many of the so-called gnostic gospels of “Thomas and Peter early-second century developments of the canonical gospels, positions that the apologists would find attractive.” In other words, there is more common ground between Ehrman and conservative scholars than might be revealed with a casual glance.

The real agenda for buying into Neusner’s portrait of Smith as the very ‘homosexual magician’ that is alleged to be at the heart of Secret Mark is in either case to retain the status quo. The relationship between Ehrman and Evans is much like two boxers engaging in a match and finding the ring was shoddily manufactured and having the fight suspended. The two men want to fight, but they want to fight in an arena that doesn’t include Secret Mark. The reason for this of course is that Secret Mark renders their fight essentially inconsequential and ultimately quite useless.

It doesn’t matter whether the canonical gospels are immaculate or whether their narratives are pristine because they are themselves little more than forgeries of a lost original gospel which might be ‘Secret Mark.’ Arguing over the inerrancy of the gospel is rendered a moot point - a ‘fight over the shadow of an ass’ to quote the ancient proverb - once you except Koester’s conclusions that canonical Mark is the revision and Secret Mark the original gospel. In other words, all Ehrman’s knowledge of the textual variants within the various manuscript traditions of the gospel don’t seem so impressive. He has no special gifts to help sell books. No one would be interest in his ability to ridicule the beliefs of evangelicals if it were already established that something pre-dated their holy books.

And so everyone agrees, the fight must go on.

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.