Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Very, Very Preliminary First Draft of the What I Think Will Be the Beginning of My New Book (I am Getting on a Plane Today and Wanted to Post this Before Editing it)

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.

But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
More reverend grows, and more doth win;
Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.

Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience, ring. 
                                    - The Window, George Herbert

In summer of 1958 a most interesting man made an incredible discovery.  The man was Morton Smith, a first year Associate Professor of Ancient History at Columbia University.  The discovery was the Letter to Theodore, a letter from an early Father of the Church copied out into the blank pages of a seventeenth century book at the Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem.  It is often very difficult to convey the significance of this find especially when about half of scholarship is still actively trying to ignore it.

The letter is really three documents in one.  At its most basic, it is part of an ongoing correspondence between two men, only one of whom we know anything substantial.  The person writing the letter is Clement of Alexandria, a prominent member of the Egyptian Church who was run out of town during an Imperial persecution of Christians.  Yet the reason the letter is so valuable is it makes reference to a lost and possibly more original form of our earliest gospel - the Gospel of St. Mark.  It even tells us about whole sections of text that might have been removed from that original text.

However perhaps most significant of all, the Letter to Theodore gives us a glimpse into the origin of Christianity in Africa.  It tells us about St. Mark's relationship to Egypt.  It makes clear that the evangelist not only established the original written text of Egypt but also its liturgy.  Indeed St Mark's role over the African Church leaves little room for the other apostles literally controlling all aspects of Christian life there.

So much of our tradition assumptions about the early Church is challenged by this discovery that it caused nothing short a sensation in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Many have argued that taking the discovery seriously threatened nothing short of a transformation of the entire study of the New Testament in the West.  Of course, in the end this 'threat' simply never materialized.  A conservative wave that swept across the American political landscape in the early 1980s which ultimately subdued the genie that got out of the bottle at Mar Saba. By the beginning of the twenty first century, it became fashionable to recast the discovery as a forgery and the discover, Morton Smith, as a closeted homosexual who invented to the text to fulfill his hope to destroy Christianity.

It is hard to believe that any scholars took these ideas seriously.  Morton Smith was above all else a scholar of the highest order.  Yet the reality is that the attitude of scholars towards the document only because of a campaign of personal attacks against the Columbia University professor.  A core group of mostly conservative scholars kept repeating a series of distorted truths about Smith until he appeared as something of caricature stripped from the portraits of heretics in the oldest Church documents.  Morton Smith became the embodiment of all the turbulence and upheaval that rocked the social fabric of America in what many consider to be the golden age of scholarship.

It is simply incredible to go through old newspaper clippings and see how much the reporting about the discovery is shaped by contemporary culture. There is an unmistakable idealism and excitement in 1960s with respect to the find which gives way to cynicism and mistrust by the beginning of the new millennium.  It wasn't Morton Smith who changed.  Instead the world viewing him was now wearing only wearing darker glasses.

Indeed most of us know what it is like to get used to wearing sunglasses.  Our vision is distorted but we forget we are still wearing expensive sunglasses.  We think that we are seeing the truth but our vision has been influenced by an artificial lens. It is only when we take them off, that we realize how our understanding was being manipulated.  Yet first it takes us a while to adjust to the light of truth.

It is very similar with respect to the central question of authenticity with respect to the Mar Saba document.  Was the world was duped into accepting its authenticity by Morton Smith and a small group of subversive “new scholars” or was it the conservative evangelicals, the defenders of the status quo in scholarship who deliberately poisoned the well to convince us 'the old was good enough'?  This is truly a most difficult question to answer objectively as almost everyone has already formed an opinion about the matter.  Yet no one seems to be able to come up with a decisive proof to settle things once and for all.

At the very least most of us should be able to argue that Morton Smith's image was attacked and distorted shortly after his death.  It becomes very difficult to see anything of the real man of history in any of these apocryphal legends that have developed in the last twenty years.  It often gets lost in the shuffle that Morton Smith was the furthest thing from being a left wing radical. Indeed he was very conservative to the core, his political orientation has been described as somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan.  Indeed as late as the early 1980s Smith referred to black people in print as ‘negroes.’

Smith had a close circle of friends who shared his fossilized terminology and attitudes towards people of color.  His predecessor in the history department at Columbia, Elias Bickerman is remembered as preserving similar attitudes towards blacks no less than his protege Jacob Neusner is well known for his rants against affirmative action in the universities.  Morton Smith simply had no time for many of the political causes which swept through the university system in the very circles his discovery was gaining acceptance.

Morton Smith was a historian first and foremost who had little time for political correctness and never felt the need to adopt fashionable vocabulary to help further his career. He saw it as a scholars duty to help remove the colored glasses which shrouded the shape and appearance of reality.  For Smith and his colleagues attempting to 'correct the wrongs of the past' was a completely misguided social experiment.  Such talk had absolutely no place in the humanities.  Above all else the student of history had to demystify and break through the barriers which obscure the truth not cloud the waters with wishful thinking. One had to discover and report about what actually was there rather than what should be there.  Strangely enough of course, Smith never lost his love for the veil in religion.  He was completely fascinated by the external trappings of religion - its symbolism, its liturgy and its language - the stained glass windows as it were which filter external light through a established forms.

None of this should appear at all surprising. It wasn’t just that the imprint that Morton Smith left in history seems to be viewed by modern historians is viewed through tinted glass, the Columbia University professor can be argued quite literally to have lived and died behind a veil of stained glass. Indeed he was very careful to cultivate and control a very carefully crafted public image of himself.   Before Morton Smith died an unmarried bachelor in July of 1991 he ordering the executor of his estate to burn his personal papers after his death.

According to the radical conspiracies theorist, Smith's orders demonstrate that he ‘must have been hiding something’ about the circumstances of his discovery of the manuscript.  Indeed many people give the whole forgery claim a second look when they first hear about 'the burning of personal papers.'  The reality is however that Smith was only only following the example set by his colleague and close friend at the history department of Columbia University Elias Bickerman.   It makes much more sense to see the request to the executors of their estate as having something to do with both men were keenly aware of the footprint they would leave behind after death.  As historians they were very determined to limit the information which would be used to piece together their personal history. They wanted instead to be only remembered for their academic work.

As Albert Baumgarten, the author of the authoritative biography of Bickerman, Morton Smith held that Bickerman was so adamant about wanting to be remembered only for his scholarship that he ordered Smith to destroy his personal papers. Smith understood that Bickerman did not want attention focused on himself, because he believed that his contributions stood above his personal story. He was convinced that the biographical approach to an historian's work might relativize that work to the point of insignificance and detract from its long-term import. If his work were contextually relativized, one might miss the objective, permanent, and enduring nature of his contributions."

Yet there is another way to look at this interest in scholarly life after death. One could argue that Smith, who grew up in a family business of manufacturing stained glass window, was merely seeking to ‘control the light’ as it were which would shine on his place in history. Smith certainly got the idea of limiting the amount of information that public got to see of his personal life from his colleague, as we see from the first paragraph of Smith's necrology of Bickerman. He certainly seemed to have respected Bickerman’s decision to burn his papers and moreover it is interesting to note that Smith’s other close friend and colleague Judah Goldin instructed his papers be handled the same way.

Here we have three like-minded historians of Judaism all entrusting the ‘next generation’ of scholars as it were to shape and filter their image very much like a stained glass window. Alll three men didn’t destroy their papers themselves, they left it to an executor to go through their papers and preserve anything that their executor believed should be preserved as historical. When Smith died, a team of three colleagues went through his academic and personal papers, preserving and archiving some, and destroying the rest. In the case of Elias Bickerman, for example, this Columbia University professor was careful to obscure his relationship with Antia Suzanne, his wife of twenty years.

Baumgarten can’t even find information on the year the couple divorced. It is very interesting to read Baumgarten’s account of the controlled secrecy that Bickerman seems to have cultivated for himself as it seems to have been a shared obsession with Smith. As Baumgarten notes there was no reason for Bickerman to have went to have continued to hide his relationship with Maria Altman - a woman he must have been seeing while still married to Anita Suzanne - to the very day he died. Nevertheless Bickerman’s obsessive personality, undoubtedly fueled by an overwhelming sense of the ‘judgement of history,’ led him to continue to live behind stained glass beyond what was reasonable or necessary.

As Baumgarten notes at the very beginning of the process of introducing Bickerman to his readership that:’

Elias Bickerman effectively erased this marriage from the story of his past. He noted his marriage to Anita Suzanne Bernstein in his initial appearance in the 1958/59 edition of Who's Who in America, 234c-235a, but this fact was omitted from the entry in the 1960/61 edition, 245b, and all subsequent editions. Few of his friends knew that he was ever married … From January 1959, at the very latest, until his death, Maria Altman (May 18, 1905 (os?) - April 9, 2000) was Elias Bickerman’s partner. By mutual agreement, this relationship was kept secret from virtually all Bickerman's students, friends, and relatives. Maria Altman was convinced that even Jacob Bikerman and his wife Valentine were unaware of her connection with Elias. She wrote to Valentine Bikerman on October 24, 1982, a little more than a year after Elias' death, informing her of the relationship and explaining that it had been a mutually agreed secret. In reply, Valentine Bikerman indicated that the family had long been aware of the connection, but chose to overlook it. Maria Altman was an old friend of Valentine Bikerman's from St. Petersburg and Berlin. They had grown up together and they had a number of mutual friends. Valentine therefore identified Maria Altman's unmistakable voice when she called her brother-in- law, and Maria Altman answered the phone. Nevertheless, Valentine Bikerman pretended she did not know who it was. According to Shaye JD Cohen (Morton Smith's student at Columbia and later Bickerman's colleague at the Jewish Theological Seminary), even Morton Smith never met Maria Altman? Hayim Tadmor was aware of her existence, as the notes in his files indicate that he called to inform her of Bickerman's death. Maria Altman explained that she had never met Tadmor up to that point.

Indeed Baumgarten notes that the only person who had seen Bickerman’s partner in the long history of their relationship was an Italian couple whom the couple met on a visit to Europe one summer. The two wives spoke Russian with one another but left forgetting even the name of Bickerman’s companion.

The important point that is underscored here is how very different the lives of these Jewish history professors were from what many of us consider to be normal. Of course, affairs, divorces and clandestine relationships occur in the circles of people of all walks of life. Nevertheless, it is important to note how this particularly small circle of individuals keenly aware of the ‘big historical picture’ went to such extraordinary lengths to keep absolutely tight control over their own personal lives. Bickerman was clearly reluctant to publicly acknowledge that his marriage had dissolved because he was carrying on a relationship with another woman. Nevertheless the desire to control the light which would shine on his historical record went beyond one single indiscretion. The obsessiveness was certainly related to his own profession of uncovering the secrets of history. It fueled his own paranoia about having anything unseemly become revealed to future generations.

In the case of his younger colleague Morton Smith, we see a very similar pattern of attempting to shield or at least control public scrutiny of his personal life. It has certainly fueled the speculation regarding his sexual life, his involvement in a conspiracy to forge his discovery at Mar Saba and other unsupported allegations. The reality is that when we take a close look at Morton Smith’s life, the parallels with Bickerman do not stop at requesting colleagues to destroy personal documents posthumously. Morton Smith on a number of occasions came into contact with rumors that he had a secret marriage from his youth that he tried to cover up from. He certainly engaged in secret and clandestine relationships with women which would have seriously jeopardized his professional reputation.

Yet unlike Elias Bickerman we see a particularly strong and persistent rumor that Morton Smith was a homosexual. This developed in no small part because of his attachment to the discovery at Mar Saba which in popular culture at least was understood to making a statement about Jesus’s ‘deviant’ sexual practices. As we shall see, the fact that it was the same critics who were throwing the accusation that Jesus was gay into Smith’s mouth as were promoting the idea that Smith himself was a homosexual in order to fuel suspicion that his discovery was really forged. The unshakable truth here is that Morton Smith never claimed that Jesus was gay nor is there any evidence to suggest that the Columbia University professor’s sexual identity was anything but heterosexual.

There certainly were secrets in Smith’s closet, most of which have been ignored by his critics owing to their obsession with sexuality which is particular effective in raising the ire of their conservative evangelical audience. Nevertheless as we will see shortly the complexity of Smith’s personal background, hidden as it was behind a carefully crafted screen, is far more interesting than these banalities. There is something utterly fascinating about Morton Smith the man, indeed even Morton Smith the young child, which always threatens to hijack his discovery. Undoubtedly part of the reason for this is the determination with which Smith and his small circle of Jewish historians chose to limit our exposure to their flaws.

In the same way as these historians dissected dead figures of the past, a new generation of conservative scholars looked for Morton Smith’s weaknesses and wherever necessary invented or insinuated accusations to make up for what was actually lost. While Smith certainly never engaged in this sort of practice of ‘inventing history’ in his field of study many religious scholars were offended by his theories about Jesus and most certainly what they saw as implicit in his great discovery at Mar Saba. As his student Shaye Cohen once quipped, his critics couldn’t impugn the discovery so they invented stories and gossip about the discoverer. Yet this did not develop while Morton Smith was still alive. He was too imposing a figure. He was too well respected.

The attempt to connect Smith’s interest in his controlling his image after his death was no different than what happens to all men that belong to an order or a fraternity. In this case the association was that of men that write history and the only crime they are guilty of is of having a heighten - if not obsessive - historical sensibility.

The official memorial for Morton Smith was arranged by Columbia University on October 9, 1991 almost three months after his passing. One can still imagine the illuminating glow of the stained glass windows at St Paul’s Chapel was particularly poignant that day. The dedication of the building reads "St. Paul's Chapel of Columbia University, forever to be and remain a house set apart and dedicated to the service of Almighty God.” While the setting of the service initially was mournful, with most attendees donning black and gray suits, St. Paul's echoed with laughter within the first five minutes of the service.

As it turns out, the man who created the illuminated window was a colleague of Smith’s grandfather Henry J Smith. While Morton Smith’s grandfather moved from the French Canadian province of Quebec to Philadelphia in the 1870s to establish one of the best known stained glass business in Pennsylvania at the turn of the century, John La Farge’s parents came from France to New York to virtually dominate the business there. Both men died a few years before Smith’s birth in 1915.

It is difficult to imagine that Smith did not take notice of the magnificent stained glass windows at St Paul’s Chapel. After all stained glass windows were almost in Morton Smith’s DNA. His uncle Ernest W Smith took over the family business, H J Smith & Sons, before his grandfather’s passing. In fact, under his uncle’s leadership the company continued to thrive, Ernest actually becoming the president of the Stained Glass Association of America. It was only with his uncle’s death in 1923 that things began to go downhill for the family business. Morton Smith’s father Rubert Morton Smith, always involved in the operation took over a short time later but ultimately was forced to give up a controlling stake in the company at the start of the Great Recession in 1929.

While H J Smith & Sons continued to stay in business until 1948 it is unclear whether the Smith family continued to have an interest in the company. Nevertheless, his father seemed to have continued working in the field, apparently working in some business capacity with Philadelphia’s most renowned artist Nicola D’Ascenzo in the years preceding his death. That Smith chose to not to continue in a related field to stained glass window manufacture should be attributed to Smith’s mother Mary Funk Smith. She was a particularly devoted member of the Swedenborgian faith who managed to secured a place for Smith at the prestigious Academy of Bryn Athyn.

It is impossible to understand Smith’s decision to devote himself to the study of religion and indeed his particularly strong interest in mysticism without taking note of his growing up in a house that was at least partially devoted to the writings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. It is particularly unbelievable that this has never been brought up in previous assaults on his personality. While this is a particularly important consideration for developing an understanding of Smith’s psyche, it is enough at the moment to make mention of it now only in passing and concentrated again on a noteworthy and indeed practical application of that mystical ‘bent’ in the family business of making images steeped in religious symbolism out of interlocking pieces of stained glass.

Indeed Morton Smith’s decision to branch out from manufacturing symbolic images to interpreting them must have developed as a result of coming across his grandfather’s work on the subject, entitled Illustrated Symbols and Emblems published in 1900. It is difficult to say where it was that Morton Smith came across this book. Perhaps it was prominently displayed book in the family library. The facts remain that the interpretation of religious symbols in the Smith family was already started by Henry J Smith, the work being widely cited in contemporary literature. The grandson certainly went far beyond the elder Smith’s familiarity with the practical application of such symbolism. Nevertheless it must be said that even the mightiest of oak trees grow from the smallest of acorns.

It is not stretching the truth in any way to suggest that when Smith looked up at the marvelous three chancel windows in rich dark colors at St Pauls’ Chapel he must have been aware - as only someone in the business can - that La Forge chose these particular colors to harmonize with the brick and tile that surround it. He had come across La Forge’s most famous work, the "Battle Window" repeatedly while a student at Harvard. He must have been aware of La Forge’s technical innovations in the field coloring opalescent glass rivaling even the best medieval windows in Europe.

The windows center on a scene of St. Paul preaching to the Athenians on Mars Hill. Paul stands in front of the Parthenon, holding an inscription that reads "Add To Your Faith, Virtue." The presence of the Parthenon serves to remind visitors to the chapel that they are on Morningside Heights, a neighborhood dubbed "the Acropolis of New York." It must have struck Morton Smith at first as strange that a saying attributed to Peter (2 Peter 1:5) in the New Testament should have been given to Paul. Yet few people ever become aware of the mix up. They are simply get mesmerized by a convincing image.

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