Monday, July 16, 2012

Chapter Fourteen of My New Book

“I simply couldn’t believe what was written in this book,” says Ethne Chesterman as she clutches a copy of Lost Christianities, perennial best selling author and professor Bart Ehrman's 2003 work on the early Church. “This was not the Morton Smith that I knew in 1958.”  Ms Chesterman is referring of course to the avalanche of books that were published at the turn of the millennium which offered up various theories explaining away the gay references in the Mar Saba document by attributing them to its discoverer, the Columbia University professor Morton Smith.

It was an opinion echoed by Corinna Gaster daughter of Professor Theodore Gaster, an authority in comparative religion specializing in the Hebrew language. "I used to call him Uncle Morty he was over at the house so much," muses Gaster.  "My parents went through some rough patches and eventually they split up. Morton Smith and my mother Lotte Gaster were having an affair all through the time my father was teaching at Barnard," she confides.

In some ways the stories of the two women complement one another as they relate to Barnard College, established in 1889 as the all-women alternative to Columbia which was at the time Ethne Chesterman had graduated from high school, exclusively all male. Indeed there once was a time when all Ivy League schools separated the sexes. Yet over the course of time Harvard, Princeton, Yale relented. Columbia only became coed in 1982 but Barnard remains to this day an all-women’s college.

Ethne was starting her first year of school in 1957 and she takes great efforts to emphasize that going to Barnard wasn't like entering a convent.  “Barnard students were allowed attend classes at Columbia,” Ethne notes. “This is how I came into contact with Morton Smith in 1957.” She clears her throat and a noticeable smile comes over her face. "There was something special about that man.  He used to come into class all excited," she remembers.

"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." Morton Smith had just started his full time job at Columbia and with his new position came a lot of adjustments – including getting used to the idea of daylight savings time.

"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 Dr Smith. Yet Ethne grew upset with the chorus of laughter and told her friends to stop making fun of their absent minded professor. Some of her friends wondered why it was that she was so protective of him; little did they know that Ethne and Professor Smith had a little secret. It all started about a month earlier during Barnard College’s traditional Open House.  “The school had long tradition of encouraging mothers to meet with the staff and even attend classes with their young girls,” Ethne remembers.

Her father had just passed away in April and her mother was just getting over the loss. “I introduced my beautiful mother Miriam who looked every bit the spitting image of Lana Turner. “You have to understand this was the 1950s,” she adds. “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 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 and 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 this book,” again clutching her copy of Bart Ehrman’s book. “When 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 by his associates. 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."

For Ethne Chesterman the attacks against her mother’s former boyfriend were personal. She said that anyone who met them couldn’t help but notice the attraction between the two. “The whole thing didn’t make sense to me,” she noted. “Why would someone in his position risk everything to be with my mother?” Ethne pauses for a moment and flips through the pages of Lost Christianities before landing on a certain page and quickly glancing over a few words.

“What kind of crazy conspiracy theorist would imply that Smith was gay then?” Ethne shrugs her shoulders in disbelief. “What would they say about my mother? He used her to cover up his homosexual tendencies? But they weren’t supposed to be together. Having a relationship with my mother would get him into more trouble than having being gay at that time.”

As we have already noted the Morton Smith 'gay rumor' can be traced back to insinuations of his one time protege Jacob Neusner some time after their break in 1982.  While the first people to pick up on the claims were Neusner associates, the notion that 'the gay gospel' was a modern gay creation really took off with Ehrman's 2003 book.  Many people right off much of what Ehrman publishes as well crafted sensationalism disguised as informative reading.  Yet Lost Christianities can be credited with opening the floodgate of accusations that the discoverer of the Letter to Theodore was a homosexual forger.

These new crop of activist scholars hired private investigators, searched government databases all in the hope of uncovering some proof of homosexuality or criminal activity associated with the professor.  Indeed they couldn't even so much as name a single lover of Morton Smith.  This is undoubtedly what led to Stephen Carlson's claims about Morton Smith 'possibly' engaging in a contemporary practice of 'cottaging' in his 2005  book the Gospel Hoax.  Cottaging is a British gay slang term referring to anonymous sex between men in a public lavatory because the self-contained English toilet blocks resembling small cottages in their appearance.   Yet it wasn't as if Carlson ever discovered any connection between Morton Smith and 'cottaging.'  Rather it was really a backhanded admission that he couldn't discover any proof of Smith having a significant male 'other.'

As if this wasn't enough in 2007 Peter Jeffery, a music professor from Notre Dame, went so far as to accuse Morton Smith of every possible sin he could pack into a his 2007 The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery..  Jeffery, the son of a failed monk who once famously sued the rock band Smashing Pumpkins for playing their music too loud, developed the baseless that Smith was a psychotic, homosexual criminal whose mentally unbalanced, gay, criminality is reflected in the composition of 'secret Mark.'

According to Jeffery the homosexuality in the Letter to Theodore is entirely modern - "[e]ventually it will become clear that the Mar Saba text, too, is wickedly funny when viewed from the perspective of its true author — and certain other perspectives besides. But it is not ancient Athenian homosexuality that is being Jesus is no Socrates, and the young man no Alcibiades. The butt of the joke lies elsewhere, as it were."[1]  Yet we have already demonstrated time and again that the longer gospel of Mark mentioned in Irenaeus, Hippolytus and now Clement was certainly consistent with classic notions of friendship and same sex attraction.  The only reason these authors argue otherwise is that they are trying to make the discovery go away by connecting it with alleged 'similarities' with the person of Morton Smith.

Yet Smith was is universally acknowledged to have been something of an enigma.  He never married, lived alone and spent almost all his waking hours trying to solve the puzzles of life.  A close examination of the actual life of Morton Smith makes clear that his worldview was completely at odds with that of his discovery.  Rupert Morton Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1915. His grandfather was an immigrant from Canada who set up a stained glass window business and wrote a book on religious symbolism. His father was the second of two boys who inherited managing the business when his uncle died prematurely. It does not appear that his father enjoyed managing a business. If the Great Depression did not destroy, the establishment of the master Italian artist Nicola D’Ascenzo put the final nail in the coffin of the family enterprise.

Morton Smith ended up attending a private school in Bryn Athyn devoted to the teachings of the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. He was ultimately baptized and declared a member of good standing of the community. Smith was an excellent student and received numerous awards and honors at the school including the prestigious Gold Star for high moral character. Smith graduated in 1937 from the Academy of the New Church alongside some notably famous Swedenborgians including the great aunt of movie actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal. He maintained correspondences with members of his Academy of the New Church during his time at Harvard including postcards from a trip he took to Greece.

We should consider Morton Smith’s religious foundation in the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg as being just as important to his mental development as Ehrman’s rooting in Baptist theology. The Academy of the New Church still preserves essays on religious symbolism written by Smith in his early twenties where Swedenborgian terminology abounds. Indeed one may argue that something of Emanuel Swedenborg’s persona still shines forth in Smith’s understanding of Jesus the Magician as recounted by his beloved protégé the Harvard history professor Shaye Cohen - “Smith knew well that his portrait of Jesus the Magician, and his picture of a Christianity dominated by magic, heavenly ascents, and spiritual possession, was far from the rational, middle-class Christianity of most of his readers.” While Swedenborg was not a ‘magician’ per se, the rest of Cohen's description - 'heavenly ascents and spiritual possession' would certainly have applied.

Emanuel Swedenborg, was an eighteenth century Swedish mystic who famously claimed to have travelled outside of his body to find peaceful worshipers of Jesus living throughout our solar system. The affiliation with Swedenborg is usually ignored by researchers on both sides of the Mar Saba 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.”

The Swedenborgian view of Jesus is very much at odds with the understanding of Clement of Alexandria and the 'secret gospel' of Mark.  Emmanuel Swedenborg always emphasizes the humanity of Jesus in his writings and in a manner which is strangely reminiscent of the position ascribed to the Carpocratians in the writings of Irenaeus:

as he grew up, Jesus was human like us all but with a soul that was the Divine Itself – the Father. His humanity was continuously, tempted as he confronted every evil experienced by mankind right up to his final temptation and victory on the cross. By this means he overcame the power of evil and made his Humanity, Divine. During his life then, the humanity of Jesus was in transition from a weak and error prone humanity derived from his mother Mary to a Divine Humanity. And all the time his inner being was the very being of God – the Father within. As Jesus struggled with this transition he felt at times totally separate from the Father within, as when he prayed to the Father, and yet at other times he was so aware of the forthcoming union with his Father following his death and resurrection that he was able to say with total conviction - “I and the Father are one.”

Morton Smith never developed an interest in Jesus the God. As a historian of religion, the idea that Jesus might have been a mythical being would have simply rubbed him the wrong way. Why then, if the Letter to Theodore is a ‘modern fake’ does Clement end up condemning an understanding of Jesus at least somewhat related to Morton Smith’s own?

There is no easy answer to this question.  People can develop all sorts of fanciful explanations about the document being a testimony to Smith ‘rejecting his own Swedenborgian past’ or something to that effect. The difficulty becomes of course that Smith – like Ehrman and most other modern scholars – became more firmly fixated on the historical Jesus. He abandoned altogether the idea that Jesus had a divine soul or was at all divine and made ever stronger efforts to emphasize Jesus as a wonderworker. As such it simply doesn’t make sense that Smith would forge an ancient letter to condemn his own views by way of the authority of Clement of Alexandria.

The teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg may well have represented the foundations of his interest in religion. He may have developed his understanding of who Jesus was in part through Swedenborg’s many out of body experiences.  Yet in order to understand Smith we have to pay close attention to his development out of Bryn Athyn to something of an atheist or agnostic much like Bart Ehrman.  We see that Smith was baptized at the New Church in 1926 but only 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.  Smith didn’t have to formally break with the Swedenborgian Church at thirty three years of age. Many of their members just stop showing up at church.

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.”  The important is for us to see is that it wasn’t as if Smith became an atheist after making a break with the New Church. He became an ordained Episcopalian priest and ultimately left to pursue a career in academia.  It becomes very difficult to square this constant metamorphosis in favor of a historical perspective on Jesus with any ‘struggle’ with the Christian establishment. Smith had already changed his faith once and unlike Ehrman he chose to make his home in another Christian faith. Morton Smith never formally resigned his position as a priest which has led at least some to assume that he never completely lost his faith.

Indeed the argument that Morton Smith somehow broke with the Episcopalian Church over the issue of homosexuality which led to his perpetrating a grand forgery in the name of Clement is downright silly. Not only was he was carrying on a clandestine romantic relationship with a Jewish woman who converted to Episcopalianism.  Moreover, the Episcopalian Church happened to have a very tolerant attitude towards homosexuality. It is hard to see what 'revenge' he was allegedly seeking and from whom.

As to the question of why Morton Smith never married, it is difficult to believe that this should even be included in a serious discussion of the discovery. There are literally hundreds of famous men who remained lifelong bachelors – especially unattractive skinny bald men like Morton Smith. Smith was not the first ugly man to find himself challenged at getting women to see past his looks and marry him. Indeed if Nietzsche could attribute the development of Socratic dialectics to Socrates’s ugliness, surely we can venture a guess that it also had something to do with Smith remaining unmarried to his last day.

One may suppose that Morton Smith may have had regrets about his choices in life on his deathbed. It is hard to conceive of a soul who would not second guess at least some of his decisions in his final hour. Nevertheless by all indications Morton Smith was very happy in 1958. He had a new job, he had a new love and by the summer of that year – he made a discovery which would quite literally change his life. Indeed we have put Morton Smith’s forty third year under the microscope in a manner that has never been attempted before and have only found him in happy circumstances, hardly the breeding ground for an academic conspiracy of unprecedented scope and notoriety.

[8] "The Marcionites had a book to which they attached special significance and in which they wrote about their doctrines. There was a book of Marcion's which he called 'the Gospel' (another MS 'the Unraveling') ... [it] is not to be found, unless God knows where [it is], for [it] is concealed among the Christians [al-Nadim Fihrist 9.1]
[11]The symbolism was certainly still present in the Antiochene Church in the fifth century where we are told that "after their baptism the catechumens were admitted to the Church and allowed to participate in the Eucharist. The author first speaks of deacons, whose function it is to bring the oblation to the altar and spread linens on it, as symbols of the linen clothes of the burial of our Lord."

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