Friday, September 7, 2012

Chapter Thirteen of Naked With Naked

“I simply couldn’t believe what was written in this book,” says Ethne Chesterman as she clutches a weathered tome in her hand. We are sitting together in a south Florida Starbucks. It has been a few months since I started investigating the subject of same sex unions in early Christianity. I decided to meet with Ethne after hearing she was one of Morton Smith’s first students after he first started teaching at Columbia. She turns out to be an elegant lady with a great deal of charm who has a surprising amount of insight into what was going through Smith’s head in the year he discovered the Mar Saba document.

“It’s Lost Christianities,” she explains sensing my efforts to make out the title of the book in her hand. Lost Christianities was penned by the perennial best selling author and distinguished professor Bart Ehrman in 2003. I immediately recognize the context of her statement. This was one of a number of books published at the turn of the millennium which sought to explain away the gay references in the Mar Saba document and attributing them to its discoverer, Morton Smith. “This was not the Morton Smith that I knew in 1958,” Ethne declares, hesitating for a moment before continuing.

“I didn’t know him at all,” I declare. With this Ethne begins to tell her story reminding me that she went to Barnard College while was the all-women alternative to Columbia, which was then exclusively all male. 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 anonymous gay sex in his 2005 book the Gospel Hoax. 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." 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.

Smith will always be something of an enigma. He lived in an age before the internet. 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. As we have demonstrated many times here already, all the evidence that is available to us from the Church Fathers reveals that the secret gospel of Mark was rooted in the concept of intimacy. Salvation is found through the love of one man for another. This is philia – a notoriously difficult Greek word to translate – but which corresponds quite well to the concept of affection or intimacy.

It is very difficult to demonstrate Morton Smith sharing intimacy with anyone. 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. It was his mother Mary Funk who was the Swedenborgian. Mary must have had a great influence on young Morton. She was the one who encouraged him to attend the school. Yet this is not all. At least one cousin on his father’s side - Helen Ann Smith – not only attended the school but was ultimately baptized and declared a member of good standing of the community in 1938. Helen Ann was not a Swedenborgian. Why then were at least a few members of the Smith family attending this school which was associated with such a curious faith?

Clearly a number of influential families attended the Academy of the New Church, most notably the descendants of the railroad magnate John Pitcairn Jr who a year after Smith was born. Pitcairn’s influence went well beyond railroad tracks. He is credited with a significant role in the creation of the modern oil and natural gas industries and went on to found the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (now PPG Industries), an early industry innovator which quickly grew into the largest manufacturer of plate glass in the United States. Pitcairn amassed one of the largest fortunes in the United States at the time and was certainly a larger than life celebrity in Philadelphia.

Pitcairn’s association with glass making had obvious significance for the Smith family’s business. It is worth noting that at the time of his death plans were already underway for the financing of one of the largest stain-glass window projects in the history of the United States. His son Raymond Pitcairn obtained some of the most beautiful panels of stained glass existing outside the great cathedrals; and his artists and glassmakers worked in the presence of these inspiring models. He sent his window designers to Europe to see the work of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in place, to take photographs and make detailed drawings. They even spent a few years experimenting trying to make thirteenth century glass.

It is hard to believe that Morton Smith’s father was a disinterested third party. He must have been attracted to the possibility that some work would come his way. The group assembled by the Pitcairns did not ultimately include members of his father’s firm. Nevertheless the Cathedral was something of the epicenter of stained glass making for the next twenty years. Morton Smith’s attendance at the school coincides with the beginning of this dream project. His father must have watched with great interest as they attended services each week. The effort to bring additional members of his family into the community was most likely motivated by an effort to cement new deals in this exciting environment.

For all this entrepreneurial spirit it is interesting that his son Morton Smith never managed to marry into a prominent family. Smith is known to have once laughed off a rumor that he had been married for a short while in his youth. Who was this mystery girl? I asked Siri Griffin, the granddaughter of famed American composer Richard Yardumian and Capital Campaign Coordinator for the New Church whether there is any evidence to support this rumor. She checked their extensive records noting that there was nothing toindicate a previous marriage but she added “marrying at a young age was, of course, more common in his day, but particularly so here. The Academy is a boarding school, so people come from all over the world to attend. The long-standing half-joke is that you find your conjugial partner at the Academy.”

Is it possible that Smith found his ‘right partner’ but was turned away or was prevented from marrying her? Griffin answered “Swedenborg wrote prolifically on the subject of marriage, and emphasized the concept of “conjugial” (a word I think he made up) partners, or soul mates. We in the New Church are encouraged to marry the right person. If we never meet the right person on Earth, many people believe we will meet them in heaven. If Mr. Smith never found his soul mate, it would not be unreasonable for him to never marry. Though, as you say, the man’s personal life should have nothing to do with it - that might help shed light on the situation.”

It would seem that Morton Smith either never found his angelic soul mate or discovered her but was ultimately prevented from marrying her. From what little we can make out, he and Helen Ann Smith seem to have been very close. Smith was an only child and an eighty year old member of the Swedenborgian community remembers them spending a lot of time together especially under the supervision of a woman referred to as Aunt ‘Tanny’ who lived on Alden Road in Bryn Athyn.

Could Helen have been the mysterious female whom rumors say was his childhood bride? The evidence does not support any further speculation. At the same time it must be noted that Morton and Helen stood together to sign the role to become members of the faith – he being about twenty two, Helen nineteen. Yet by this time Helen was already married to Lawrence W Glenn who was three years older than Morton Smith. There were at least two dozen other people there also including the great aunt of movie actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

To this end it is not only difficult to uncover any intimacy in Smith’s life. As a consequence of this characteristic it is incredibly difficult to gain any insight into his personal nature. We know he was always an excellent student. He was popular with his classmates and was even awarded the prestigious Gold Star for high moral character. 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. Yet even through these personal correspondances there is still a noticeable pathos of distance.

It is tempting to say that in the midst of all these forces swirling around the young Morton Smith, he found solace in his studies. Nevertheless it should also be noted that the path to becoming a great scholar went through the person of Emanuel Swedenborg, the mystical founder of the Academy of the New Church and many other communities like it around the world. This influence shines through a pair of essays on religious symbolism written by Smith in his early twenties and preserved in the school archives. Swedenborgian terminology abounds here in this correspondence between former teacher and student.

If we take it to the next level it may be argued that this influence never entirely left Smith - that something of Emanuel Swedenborg’s persona still shines forth in the scholars understanding of Jesus the Magician. Smith protégé and Harvard history professor Shaye Cohen put it this way –he “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.” Indeed 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. At its core Swedenborg, like Smith was a solitary individual who never married. This shouldn’t be taken as meaning that either man avoided social gatherings. Both Swedenborg and Smith spent a great deal of time in the company of others. Yet it must be noted again that these gatherings had nothing of the intimacy of ‘secret Mark.’ This cannot be emphasized strongly enough. For Swedenborg and Smith approached the divinity alone; for the tradition that grew up around the secret gospel one sees God in the significant other to whom one is ritually yoked. ‘See your brother,’ quotes Clement from the text, ‘see your God.’

There is nothing comparable to this experience in the lives of Swedenborg or Smith. Indeed one may even argue that Smith’s indoctrination into Swedenborgianism prevented him from understanding the text. For Clement and his Alexandrian tradition Jesus was above all else a God in the guise of a man. Smith, like his teacher Emanuel Swedenborg, could only see Jesus as a mortal man. Smith can also be argued to have developed his understanding of who Jesus was in part through the person of Swedenborg and his many out of body experiences. This is why perhaps, even as he is trying to make sense of his discovery he uses the text to bolster a theory about magical practices in the gospel which simply aren’t present in the fragment.

Smith formally broke with the Swedenborgian Church at thirty three years of age. As Siri Griffin explained to me, “there’s no expectation on members to formally take your name off the roll. Once you become a member you are one for life or until you ask to be removed.” Smith would try being an Episcopalian minister and then strictly devoted himself to serious scholarship. His clandestine relationship with a Jewish convert to Episcopalianism serves as a visible marker of Smith’s personal association with secular Jews. The only other personal relationship I could uncover was yet another secret relationship over twenty years later with Lotte Gaster.

Lotte Gaster was a respected archaeologist and wife of Theodore Gaster, a famous professor of Hebrew with a radical theory of Jewish origins. "I used to call him Uncle Morty he was over at the house so much," mused Corrina 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.” The relationship is important because it confirms Smith’s association with secular Jewish intellectuals who happened to share his interest in religion.

While Smith’s open-mindedness about Jews and Judaism is certainly commendable, it has to be reinforced that he was ultimately an outsider. His relationships with women were at best closeted and at worst illegitimate and illicit. If one can dare psychoanalyse a notoriously evasive personality, it would seem plausible – at least theoretically – that he was recapturing the lost excitement of carrying on a forbidden relationship with his cousin Helen Ann. Whether this first love was ever actually consummated is of course an open question. Nevertheless it would seem that Smith himself never achieved the intimacy proscribed by the secret gospel as the very basis to salvation. This is perhaps the very reason why he could never properly understand his discovery.

For those who reject the whole idea that our canonical gospel of Mark had original narratives removed from it, they should consider for a moment the close parallel in Origen’s citation of 1 Samuel chapter 18 verses 1 to 5. For certain, Origen never to our knowledge directly cites from sections originally found in the Alexandrian copies of the gospel of Mark which were later removed from our suriving copies of the text. Yet he does make repeated reference to the material from 1 Samuel chapter 18 regarding “the soul of Jonathan” being knit to the “soul of David.” We know that Origen is citing from this book because in the Hebrew copies of the first book of Samuel retain the very same words word for word.

Of course if we should look to the surviving Greek translations of the book of Samuel – the only texts which were approved for use among Christians – this entire section has been removed. Indeed the end of chapter 17 immediately segues to 1 Samuel chapter 18 verse 6. It is as if the narrative about two men being joined together never even existed. The fact that we see countless contemporary gay interpretations of the Bible focus so heavily on this material at least partially explains why the material was ultimately erased. Yet we must imagine that it even goes further – for we have already demonstrated that Origen and the Alexandrian tradition used the section to explain went on in their secret initiation ceremonies.

The point of all this is that Morton Smith is something of an enigma and so too is his discovery. Yet beyond that superficial agreement there is little else to connect the two. The secret gospel is centrally concerned with a divine intimacy revealed through same sex pairing. A careful examination of the life of Morton Smith makes manifest only a pattern of clandestine heterosexual relationship utterly devoid of real intimacy. As such it is impossible to believe that the material is reflective of either his sexuality or even his spiritual inclination. This is undoubtedly why he not only misunderstood the text but also could not figure out the identity of ‘Theodore’ the addressee of the correspondence.

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