Monday, March 5, 2012

The Myth of Jesus Christ [Chapter Three]

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 Clement of Alexandria, the earliest Egyptian Church Father for whom we have any reliable information. Who was this ‘Theodore’ to whom the correspondence was addressed?  We haven’t the foggiest idea. All that is certain is that an original Greek manuscript was copied out into the blank pages of a seventeenth century book at the Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem in the last three centuries.

For people interested in the early origins of the Alexandrian tradition this document is utterly priceless. Indeed 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. Yet the real value is that it represents our earliest witness to the importance of St Mark in the Alexandrian Church. As the evangelical scholar Thomas C Oden notes in his recent tome on St Mark “if the Letter to Theodore is authentic we have a glimpse into the established tradition recalled in Alexandria around A.D. 190 concerning Mark in Africa. Many of the most intractable puzzles regarding Mark’s identity would be solved by this remarkable document.”

Oden certainly signals his willingness to accept the document as genuine. At every chance he gets he questions the skepticism in some circles about this text. As he notes the only substantive issue that is ever brought up by detractors is whether the ‘secret’ or ‘mystic’ gospel of Mark introduced by the letter ever existed. As he notes “despite episodes of controversy, many leading Clement experts agree that the letter could have been written by Clement. It corresponds with the style and content of Clement’s other writings.” As Stephen Patterson of Willamette University notes “there is almost unanimous agreement among Clementine scholars that the letter is authentic.”

Since there is general agreement among experts that Clement could have or did indeed write the letter it is difficult to understand why all the other issues should matter so much. As James McGrath of Butler University recently noted “I find myself less skeptical about the Secret Gospel of Mark than I was previously, rather than more. When I consider [the historical context of the discovery] in tandem with recent handwriting analysis and the considerations I mentioned in my previous and other posts, my inclination is to view Morton Smith as having been essentially truthful about his find.” The only door that McGrath and other objective witnesses leave as an open – albeit unlikely - possibility is that the text might be an ancient forgery. Yet as Oden notes the value of the testimonial with respect to the tradition of St Mark in Alexandria would still be essentially the same.

It is only because so many of our inherited assumptions about the development of the early Church are challenged by this discovery that there was a knee jerk – or as Oden terms it ‘hysterical’ reaction – in conservative circles in the latter half of the twentieth century. It became fashionable to recast the discovery as a forgery and the Morton Smith as a closeted homosexual who invented to the text to fulfill his hope to destroy Christianity. It is difficult with the benefit of hindsight to believe that any reputable scholars actually took these charges seriously. After all Morton Smith was above all else a scholar of the highest order.

There can be no doubt however that a climate of cynicism has developed with respect to the study of early Christianity. Morton Smith’s publication of the Mar Saba letter coincided with a general revaluation of social mores in the 1970s. Smith became the embodiment of all the turbulence and upheaval that rocked the social fabric of America. Of course Smith was strangely the furthest thing from being a liberal scholar. His political views were so arch-conservative that he was described as being ‘to the right of Genghis Khan.’

Nevertheless many conservative scholars at the time lumped Smith with his understanding of ‘Jesus the magician’ with the general current of ‘anti-establishmentarianism.’ Yet things were very different at the time of the Mar Saba document almost twenty years earlier. There is an unmistakable idealism and excitement in early 1960s which completely vanishes a generation later. It wasn't Morton Smith who changed.  Instead the world was simply seeing him through different color glasses.

Indeed there are surprisingly few substantive arguments ever developed against the document itself. Instead the main focus of the forgery claims is the person of Morton Smith. A co-ordinated character assassination was perpetrated against the discover of the Mar Saba document because as Morton Smith’s devoted student Shaye Cohen of Harvard University noted the critics found it impossible to level arguments against the discovery itself.

Morton Smith's reputation was brutally assaulted shortly after his death. There were a number of forces which coalesced behind this effort. Yet the overall effect of this campaign has been to render Smith, his discovery and his interpretation of the text as a mere caricature of the original facts. A small group of conservative scholars have utilized a technique more familiar to American political campaigns than to serious scholarship – that is to constantly ‘spin’ a carefully crafted ‘folklore’ to such an extent that this myth replaces the actual truth. Not surprisingly many of the key players in this campaign can be demonstrated to have ties to an evangelical college in Texas headed by former White House prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

It is here that we come face to face with the darker side of mythopoesis. Myths are not merely stories which bind communities together but more often than not people are brought together by scripted narratives which engender hate towards a particular individual or groups of people. This is by no means a modern phenomenon. Mark himself employed this technique in his characterization of his fellow Jews in the gospel narrative. The Church Fathers to a large extent overcame their rivals within the Church by means of such propaganda.

Moreover as Tony Burke of York University and the organizer of an academic conference on the question of Secret Mark in the summer of 2011, notes these very same tactics are used by some of the scholars wishing to promote the forgery hypothesis. According to Burke “the same technique was ultimately used indeed they use the same rhetorical strategies employed by such early heresiologists as Irenaeus, including the use of sarcasm and invective to describe their opponents, the intentional misrepresentation of the heretics’/scholars’ views and the content of the primary texts, the excerpting of material from the texts in order to expose their absurdities, and the demonization of their opponents by associating them with the powers of darkness.”

Morton Smith was not the man that these ‘modern heresiologists’ claim he was. He was not trying to destroy the foundations of Christianity. This is just a stock claim found in the anti-heretical writings of the Church Fathers adapted to the modern age. The reason this propaganda worked so well against Smith is quite simply because the human brain is hardwired to accept myth. If you presented two arguments to a group of people - one which dryly presented a set of facts, the other which created a mythical narrative - myth defeats logic nine times out of ten.  Indeed in this particular case the people who were most likely to believe the mythopoesis of the semi-fictional accounts of Stephen Carlson (the Gospel Hoax) and Peter Jeffrey (The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery) were usually the same people who felt the Mar Saba discovery represented a ‘challenge’ to establish beliefs about Jesus. In other words, the motivation for embracing myth is really no different than those who accepted Mark’s gospel or for that matter Severus’s Homily on St Mark.

The facts are that Smith simply found a document in an old book while cataloguing a library in a monastic library. The various myths that have been created to the effect that the Columbia professor really forged this discovery are of course far more interesting and can attract a wider audience. Yet it is difficult to accept than anyone seriously subscribes to the crazy beliefs put forward in these books – even the authors themselves. The purpose of myths as we noted are not to explain phenomena but to reinforce pre-existent beliefs. People who buy into the myth of Morton Smith the demonic professor don’t do so because there is actual evidence for this point of view but rather for its efficacy in re-affirming the principles of faith that were challenged by the discovery.

Indeed once the cultivated folklore associated with the person of Morton Smith is dispelled it difficult to find a compelling argument in the case for forgery. The circular logic inevitably invoked by the proponents of this view is that there ‘has to be’ something to the argument otherwise it would be impossible to line up any experts against the authenticity of the document. In other words, a respected professor wouldn’t risk his reputation committing to a position unless he was certain he was right.

There is of course a very desperate logic to this kind of appeal which is why it is rarely made explicitly. The fact that scholars line up all over the map on various issues demonstrates quite clearly that every experts has to be on the wrong of some of the issues at least some of the time. In this particular controversy the reality is that there is no solid evidence for forgery. The case simply revolves around the ‘hunches’ of people with ‘solid credentials’ putting their reputations on the line and saying without anything in the way of evidence that the circumstances surrounding the discovery are ‘fishy.’ That’s all there really is.

Of course the paradox is that the very same appeal to ‘academic reputation’ is a much more convincing argument in favor of Morton Smith’s innocence. It is one thing to harm one’s academic reputation by failing to detect a scholarly hoax.  It is another thing to be caught engaging in fraud. Nothing mattered more to Morton Smith than his academic reputation, yet you would only know that if you examined the details of his life. The implicit assumption of those who claim he was unfaithful scholar is that they ‘know’ the real Morton Smith, but who has really examined the details of his life especially in the years leading up to the Mar Saba discovery?

To this end while it is always desirable to present both sides of an issue in order to present a fair and balanced narrative, the case against the Mar Saba discovery is almost exclusively based on personal attacks against the discoverer.  A short biography of Morton Smith is presented as an appendix to the main work including a detailed account of the professor’s activities before and after his visit. The uncovering of Clement’s Letter to Theodore in the back of a seventeenth century book in a monastery near Jerusalem must have taken place more or less the way it is described in Morton Smith’s account. How do we know this? Because Morton Smith was a reputable scholar.

Email with comments or questions.

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