Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why Scholars Often Don't Get Dirty Wrestling with the Truth

I noted in a previous post how well written Scott Brown's recent article on Venetia Anastasopoulou's handwriting analysis is. I have also consistently come out hard against Scott Brown's interpretation of the Mar Saba document. It might seem in some ways that my dislike for all things Scott Brown is motivated solely by jealousy. After all - as I noted a month ago - his father was already established in academia while mine was forced into a lower social standing in Canada owing to the circumstances of the Second World War.  Sounds suspiciously like a case of 'sour grapes,' right?  Well maybe, but let's continue with the personal investigation for a moment.

As a student of the Greeks I have always believed that envy is a virtue. So in that respect it is hard to argue with the idea that for purely selfish reasons I would very much would have liked to have had a father who was of 'a certain standing in society,; let alone one who was already familiar with how one 'gets around' in higher education.  I mean who really wants to be of 'a lower social ranking'?  This especially in a very stratified society like Canada was (and still is).

Did I want to be born to a father who was so debilitated by his experiences in a concentration camp in WWII that he was incapable of engaging in personal relationships with anyone let alone his eldest son?  No, of course not.  But that's the hand that life dealt me. 

I am starting to chuckle to myself that this post is really beginning to sound like an exercise in self-pity.  I literally start typing the words that appear on the page each time I write a post so I am as puzzled as many of you must be with the direction that this line of personal reflection has taken.  I think my original point was supposed to be that despite my unenviable starting point in life, I can honestly say that something good came out of it - an unwillingness to compromise on the search for truth. 

I sincerely believe that something gets lost when you know how to play the game too well. In other words, I am so happy that we have someone like Scott Brown to defend the authenticity of the Letter to Theodore as he did in his recent article for BAR. When I higher a lawyer to repreent me in court or I choose a doctor to treat my illness - or even a plumber who will unclog my sink - I don't want one who has all sorts of crazy ideas and strategies. I want one that gets the job done.

Yet at the same time, it has to be acknowledged that scholarship isn't simply to be understand in terms of functionality. Tertullian, for instance was a masterful rhetorician but I wouldn't want my whole understanding of Marcionitism to derive from a lawyer with an agenda. My point is that the guy who can defeat my opponent in a courtroom isn't necessarily the person I want to get advice for raising my kids or how to develop a relationship with God.

I think the distinction is important because - as a failed writer - I have often wondered why it is that so many people are so much better at expressing their points of view than I am. I don't say this as a way to get self-pity. I think I already know the answer to the question. And just to seem like I am not picking on Scott Brown, I will use an analogy developed from someone I am quite familiar with in the world of Biblical scholarship - Robert Price.

Robert Price is another excellent writer who happens to work in a field that I am involved in peripherally. I have always found his writing quite extraordinary. He manages to synthesize things he has read by other scholars and manages somehow to make the original work more readable for people who have an entrenched agenda (in this case 'atheists' and agnostics).

Yet is there something that Scott Brown and Robert Price have in common beyond being writers who can express themselves better than I can? I think so. I think the key to being a 'great writer' is to limit the scope of your ambitions.

For instance, I found Scott Brown's writing particularly compelling in the BAR article. Yet the article had a limited focus - viz. synthesize and in many ways augment the arguments in Venetia Anastasopoulou's original handwriting analysis for a polemic purpose. Similarly Robert Price's efforts are mostly limited to buttressing a particular point of view. I would argue that it is much easier to engage in these sorts of projects than what I do here at the blog which is to gaze at the indescribable 'harmony' of earliest Christianity and come away with a small piece for my readership.

In other words, I am not interested in attacking people or engaging in 'scholarly debate' about various 'issues' in the field of Biblical exegesis. There is only one thing that I am after and that is to make sense of the original paradigm at the heart of Alexandrian Christianity. The reason Alexandrian Christianity interests me so is because I have determined - through twenty five years of personal research - that Christianity developed from the unique Jewish culture of this Egyptian city. I am not interested in 'debating' this issue in every post any more than I want to convince a homosexual that a vagina is a preferable orifice to all the other possibilities that are out there.

Either you are with me on this one or you are against me. There are other places to go for your information than at this blog.

I take my research to be literally a kind of journey that takes place in 'real time' at my blog each day. But in the case of other scholars - and indeed most scholars out there 'in the real world' - I find a great deal of dishonesty goes on in their work. I feel that they often 'cut corners' or deliberately take positions to make their work more readable and gain wider acceptance.

In the case of Scott Brown for instance I think he was too willing to abandon all or most of Morton Smith's work on the Letter to Theodore as a means of restoring credibility for the original discovery. I know that to some degree this has to take place in scholarship. What's the point of writing a paper or a book if you are simply endorsing someone else's point of view? Yet it has to be acknowledged that what actually happens in academia is that writers take up positions merely to get themselves heard.

It's the same thing in the movie or television business. The projects that are easiest to explain are the ones that get made. 'It's kind of like Pretty Woman except its the guy who's the prostitute and the Richard Gere character is played by Demi Moore.' Does this sound like a movie that needs to get made? No, but is it certainly the kind of film which has more of a chance to get made merely because it is so predictable?  Yes, of course.  Such is the way of life. 

My opinions about the origins of Christianity have changed a great deal over the last twenty five years. I attribute almost all of this to my commitment to seek out the truth. I have always refused to take up a position merely because it was useful. Yet I can't say the same about most of my colleagues.

The truth is that I think when I look at all the evidence that exists from antiquity, I think that the most likely scenario is that there really was a 'St. Mark,' that he really did write a gospel and that this gospel has not survived down to us in a pristine form. I find it curious that the author of what is generally agreed to be the earliest gospel is not credited with the status of 'apostle' outside of Alexandria. The original Greek term does not restrict itself to 'eyewitnesses of an event.'  An ἀπόστολος is merely a 'spokesman.'  Thus I find it highly suspicious that the original evangelist should be 'robbed' (as the Alexandrian say) of a title which should have come to him quite naturally.

It is this kernel of truth - the conspiracy of the rest of the Church against St. Mark which is the foundation of Coptic Christianity and my own perspective on the origins of later Christianity.  'Oh what injustice the apostle Mark suffered at the hands of the followers of St. Peter' moans Pope Shenouda at every turn.  This Coptic melancholy pervades ever aspect of my approach to Christianity.  I do think there is something rotten at the heart of Christianity.  All my other opinions and approaches to the problem of Christian origins follow from this basic observation and I can't be swayed from this assessment even if it means losing the respect of my peers.

So it is that when we assess the real meaning of the Letter to Theodore, I can only see it as a witness of the most fundamental expression of Alexandrianism.  Something about St. Mark was kept hidden.  Something about his role in the development of Christianity was obscured because it was offensive to the followers of St. Peter.  This is the real 'agenda' behind the letter.  All this business about homosexuality and the rest of the nonsense put forward by those promoting the hoax proposition completely misses the mark (so to speak). 

I sincerely believe that most of my colleagues are more concerned with being understood and accepted rather than the true purpose of scholarship - an attempt to express the truth. The truth of the Mar Saba letter is certainly a difficult - if not impossible - goal for readers unfamiliar with the Alexandrian tradition.  In order to stand up to the modern apologists for St Peter they have to immerse themselves in the writings of Clement and the oldest known representatives of the Alexandrian tradition and only then can they find themselves in a position to truly defend its authenticity.  Everything else I am afraid is little more than hot air.

The truth is that even those arguing for the forgery proposition do not deny that the letter sounds like it was written by Clement.  What they seem to have an issue with is the fact that the end result of all these words, phrases and sentences that sound 'Clementine enough' to pass as Clement's own come together in a portrait of Alexandrian Christianity which ultimately seems 'out of step' with the orthodoxy of Irenaeus of Rome.  So in fact, it all comes down on a referendum on the sanctity of the Church  Since the letter suggests that Clement's loyalties were actually aligned against the 'infalible truth' being promoted by Irenaeus, the letter can only be explained as a forgery written by someone with an ax to grind. 

Who is that 'enemy of the Church of Rome' made out to be?  Morton Smith.  The logic is so deftly simple that it convinces all who come under its sway.  Morton Smith wrote a book called 'Jesus the Magician.'  Morton Smith seems to have went out of his way to seek out explanations for the origins of Christianity which went again the 'official teachings' of the Church therefore - these men reason - Smith rather than Clement of Alexandria, should be the prime candidate for authorship of this text. 

Yet this line of reasoning is so utterly stupid it boggles the mind.  After all, it has yet to be proved or even demonstrated that the rest of Clement's writings were 'in step' with the accepted position of Church Fathers - let alone Irenaeus.  How is it then that none of these men has ever bothered to draw up an argument that the Mar Saba letter can't be from Clement's hand because everything else about Clement's writing witnesses hiso orthodoxy? 

I will tell you why they haven't attempted this - it would not be a convincing argument.  Clement's writing style is very murky.  It is always hard to pin him down.  So it is that the question of whether Clement wrote the Letter to Theodore is ignored by both sides of the issue even though it is the most obvious - and indeed the most fundamental - question with respect to the Mar Saba document. 

Everyone wants to be heard.  Everyone wants to come up with wittiest arguments that convinces the greatest number of people.  Yet everyone avoids tackling the one question which is decisive - did Clement really write the Letter to Theodore.  Everyone except me that is, because I don't know any better.  I haven't been schooled in what is 'expedient' in academia.

For the most of the rest of the world it doesn't matter what the truth is.  It is all about being heard and recognized.  The cunning scholar always chooses those opinions which are easily expressed and which are even easier for people to digest. In short, it is what 'sells; that matters.  Pity.

Email with comments or questions.

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