Monday, December 21, 2009

Birger Pearson Says It Best - "It is curious that Carlson didn't avail himself of the color photos"

Birger Pearson didn't have a lot of nice things to say about my book in his review in Religious Studies Review. Birger Pearson has argued on behalf of the idea that the Mar Saba document was forged by Morton Smith while I think the discovery is genuine. Nevertheless none of these things has stopped me from having anything but the deepest respect for this towering figure and - more significantly - the two of us from carrying on a fruitful dialogue for more than a year.

I could go on and on explaining how important Pearson's books and his articles have been to my development as a thinker but that's for another time. For the moment it is enough for me to say that I think it is important that all of us - those for and against the 'hoax proposition' - continue to engage one another in conversation.

The recent SBL session - which didn't feature so much as a single scholar who argued for To Theodore's authenticity - should be thought of as a low point not only the history of the 'controversy' but one of the low points in the history of New Testament scholarship.

The distinction of the 'lowest point in New Testament scholarship' goes to Stephen Carlson and Baylor University Press for allowing the Gospel Hoax to go forward in 2005 knowing the 'crown jewel' of its arguments was dependent on inferior, low resolution images. As I have noted here several times, Carlson knew of and indeed made frequent reference to Hedrick's high resolution color photos in the years leading up to the Gospel Hoax's publication.

The Hedrick-Olympiou photos were first published in 2000, but Carlson witnesses that he already knew about them in 1999.

In any event - thank God for good scholars like Birger Pearson who are always open to look at new evidence which might challenge their positions! I have spoken in the past with Tim Vivian about what it was like to study under Pearson and he confirmed how wonderful and inspiring this true giant of scholarship was and still is for him.

All of this leads up to the big news today. I forwarded Birger Pearson a link to Roger Viklund's new article which shows how shoddy the scholarship behind Carlson's chief argument - i.e. the 'forger's tremor' - really is.

Here is Pearson's reply:

Hi, Stephan,

Thanks for sharing this with me. I read the Viklund pieces with considerable interest. It is curious that Carlson didn't avail himself of the color photos. Anyway, I agree with Viklund when he says that the only way we can finally know whether Smith forged the letter is to find the actual manuscript, and subject the ink to scientific analysis.

I assume you read the articles in BAR Nov./Dec. 2009. Hershel Shanks presented my arguments against authenticity, but he himself argued that Smith was no hoaxer, the position maintained by my Doktorvater, Helmut Koester.

Of course, there are many arguments against authenticity, in addition to Carlson's handwriting analysis.

Happy holidays,

Again, this doesn't mean that Pearson is abandoning his position but it is fair to say that having him question Carlson's methodology is a big step forward.

It should be noted that Pearson's comments come after another email from the great David Trobisch giving me his impression of the same article - "[Viklund's] arguments are absolutely clear and convincing. The 'forgery' accusations only works with the low resolution photos. An excellent article."

All I want to establish through all my efforts is that WE HAVEN'T moved beyond what I call 'Hedrick's Stalemate.' There is no 'smoking gun' pointing to forgery. No one should be able to claim that the case for forgery is 'proven.'

We are still at the same place we were in the early eighties when the manuscript disappeared.

Perhaps third place in the competition for 'low moments in New Testament scholarship' should go to the previous generation of scholars in 1970's who never bothered to examine the document when it was available in the library ...

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