Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Fifth Chapter of the Myth of Jesus Christ

“I simply couldn’t believe what was written in this book,” says Ethne Chesterman as she clutches a copy of Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities. “This was not the Morton Smith that I knew in 1958.” At that time Ethne was starting her first year at Barnard College, which was established in 1889 as the all-women alternative to Columbia which was then exclusively all male. There 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 an all-women’s college.

“Barnard students were allowed attend classes at Columbia,” Ethne adds. “This is how I came into contact with Morton Smith in 1957.” She clears her throat and a noticable smile comes over her face. "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.”

It must be noted that Ehrman never so much as directly accuses Smith of forging his discovery. He never explicitly makes reference to the Columbia professor’s sexuality. Ehrman merely weaves together a gripping discussion of so many unusual elements not usually employed in a critical study of ancient text. The reader is left to connect the dots.

Why does Ehrman think the Mar Saba text is a forgery? Strangely, it isn’t even clear that it is at all certain that it is a fake. In Lost Christianities at least, he sits on the fence avoiding letting his opinions get in the way of telling a compelling story. The idea that the Letter to Theodore might be a forgery – a specifically modern homosexual manifesto – is certainly attention grabbing. But does Ehrman come up with anything substantive to support those charges or is this yet another example of what many of his critics have called the ‘dark side’ to his meteoric rise to fame.

Indeed it is usually evangelicals who drum up the charge that Ehrman is an opportunist, a master of misrepresentation and someone who cares less about the truth than almighty dollar. This criticism ranges from W H Chesterman subdued review of Lost Christianities as “a useful (if overly sensational) introduction to the literature and its milieu” to the harsh criticism of Nathan Busenitz and John MacArthur who identify Ehrman as one many modern scholars who “prostitute their scholarship to become rich on sensationalist books about so-called 'lost Christianities' and 'lost Scriptures.”

While Ehrman has emerged as something of a hero to atheists and humanists owing to his unrelenting efforts to demonstrate that the errors which exist in the Bible, his recent book on the historical Jesus demonstrates that he is an equal opportunity offender. The University of North Carolina professor is deeply rooted in very rigid assumptions about Jesus and the gospels which tell his story. This certainly has contributed to his misgivings about the Letter to Theodore and its reference to a ‘secret’ or ‘mystic’ gospel of Mark.

Ehrman’s approach to early Christianity is to simply use what survives in terms of manuscript evidence to chip away at the view that Bible is ‘inerrant’ or that is accurate and totally free of error. This tactic is very useful in terms of disproving a particular point of view but utterly useless with respect to figuring out what actually happened. For one can’t simply chop away at the untruths and assume that what is left standing represents the truth. You might be able to prove that the accused wasn’t actually where he claimed to be but this doesn’t mean that he was guilty of the crime. In the same way, you will never find evidence for the mythical Jesus by merely ‘tweaking’ the scriptures of the Church of the historical Jesus.

It is thus for the very same reason that Bart Ehrman likely had ‘difficulties’ with the discovery at Mar Saba. Ehrman’s suspicion may well have been started by the fact that there are simply no ancient witnesses for the Markan resurrection narrative cited in the Letter to Theodore. Indeed we have absolutely no evidence for the idea that a new story was inserted after Mark 10:34 (= “They will mock him, spit on him, flog him with a whip, and kill him, but after three days he will rise again."). Yet it should be noted that there isn’t just one textual addition to the Gospel of Mark mentioned in the Letter to Theodore. There is a second one also referenced by Clement which comes in the middle of Mark 10:46 (= “Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man was sitting ...”). Ehrman should know that there are multiple attestations to support adding material here. Yet we don’t know for certain that anyone has pointed this out to him.

It should also be emphasized that making an argument from silence is the weakest kind of evidence against someone or something. The fact that no one seems to cite the exact wording of the first addition to Mark mentioned in the Letter to Theodore isn’t really that strange in itself. Ehrman is certainly aware that many important passages in the New Testament are never mentioned by the Church Fathers before Nicaea. We should note that the parallel ‘naked youth’ narrative in our canonical gospel of Mark – i.e. where a young man wearing only a linen cloth flees Jesus arrest – is only cited by a Patristic figure at the end of the fourth century. Would this ‘silence’ support the idea that the material was only added at Nicaea? Of course not but the argument is closely paralleled the arguments raised by the detractors of the Letter to Theodore.

So what is the substance of Ehrman’s charges against the Letter to Theodore? Even Ehrman seems to admit he can’t find enough evidence to convince even himself that it was a forgery. Indeed we can see from published emails from within a year of the publication of Lost Christianities reveals uncertainty in his mind – “some days I lean toward thinking Smith forged it, other days not.” When asked what his mentor, the great Bruce Metzer would think of the text “[m]y ‘guess’ would be that he would see it as an ancient pseudepigraphon.”

The clearest thing that we can say about Ehrman’s position is that he feels that there is something unusual about the circumstances of the discovery. He comes up with a list of ‘difficulties’ which he notes are either “signs of forgery or terrific ironies.” Ehrman cites the work of one scholar to claim that it is odd that the letter “has no major copying mistakes.” Yet more recently the eminent Greek scholar Agamemnon Tselikas has claimed the exact opposite –there are apparently over twenty ‘errors’ in the short manuscript. Ehrman relies on the work of yet another scholar, Andrew Criddle to argue that the text sounds too much like Clement to actually be Clement of Alexandria! The reader can attempt to make sense of this objection on their own.

Ehrman contributes only two other ‘heads it’s coincidence/tails it’s forgery’ arguments and he acknowledges they are hardly compelling. Both have to do with the fact that the manuscript was copied into what he calls a ‘rare edition’ 1646 edition of Isaac Vossius’s Letters of Ignatius originally published in Amsterdam. We must take issue even here with Ehrman’s characterization of the text as ‘rare’ given the fact that we can trace a number of copies this very book being sent from Amsterdam to various Greek libraries thanks to the financial assistance of the revolutionary John Priggos. The work was by all accounts a fixture from all that we can tell in Greek book collections. John Priggos had after all married into the family of the Ecumenical Patriarch Callinicos III and was active encouraging the reading of books especially the writings of the Church Fathers from about 1762.

In any event, not being familiar with any of the details of Greek political or cultural life Ehrman goes on to misrepresent the contents of the letter in an effort to again raise suspicions about the manuscript copied into its blank pages. He finds it strangely ironic that the Letter to Theodore - which he identifies as “[a] letter that describes forged documents and interpolations made into Mark's text by theologically motivated scribes” should be placed in Vossius book given that this text was the first which excluded the forged letters from his edition and “the interpolations made into Ignatius's text by theologically motivated scribes.” This is one of the strangest arguments ever raised against the discovery, one which Eckhard Rau of of Tubingen University simply calls “bizarre.” Let’s face it. Whatever book the copyist would have chosen there would have been some parallel with this manuscript because the library was mostly filled with ancient Christian books. The Patristic writers tend to write about the same things. By that standard, any Patristic manuscript copied into any collection of Patristic writings would be nature be suspicious because of this shared interests.

Yet Rau goes one step further and notes that Ehrman is really suggesting one of two scenarios - either the ‘forger’ had a copy of Vossius’ book read its last page and was ‘inspired’ to forge a Letter of Clement or that he decided to make a forgery and then ‘remembers’ what Vossius wrote and then acquired a copy of the book. Neither possibility sounds more likely than just assuming that some anonymous Byzantine scribe just picked the nearest Patristic collection of letters to copy out a loose sheet of the writings of another Patristic writer. Indeed Ehrman’s characterization of the content of the Letter to Theodore is also inaccurate. Clement never references ‘forged documents’ or ‘interpolations’ not by “theologically motivated scribes” or anyone else. Instead the Letter to Theodore mentions only the “carnal expectation” of the Carpocratians which has influenced the interpretation of a commonly held gospel. Ehrman and his supporters may want to see the Letter to Theodore as a forgery but since we have no proof that the letter is a forgery; there is no connection between someone dealing with forgeries and the letter of Clement.

Ehrman is developing arguments by synchronicity – Jungian psychology being rarely employed in serious scholarly studies. Yet this is precisely the point. Lost Christianities is not a serious academic study. It is a popular work – much like the book that book that Morton Smith wrote which got his discovery into so much trouble. Ehrman doesn’t feel the need to actually ground any of his arguments in the form which might make its way through a peer reviewed journal. He gathers up what even he acknowledges are ‘coincidence’ – akin to a man named George Harrison being run over by VW Beetle – and develops that into an argument for something totally unrelated to either that man or that car.

As noted this is certainly how papers in the field of Jungian psychology are often developed. Nevertheless it is very rare to appeal to synchronicity in academic papers in the field of early Christianity and Patristics. Yet because this isn’t “serious scholarship” – only popularized non-fiction written by an otherwise serious academic, Ehrman can get away with it. He can hold up his hands and do the adult equivalent of “I was joking” - it shouldn’t be taken seriously because this isn’t a serious book.

Nevertheless a number of people have taken Ehrman’s arguments seriously. After all Ehrman is an authority on Biblical manuscripts. Yet if Ehrman isn’t even being honest about the subject matter, if he consistently misrepresents what the text of the Letter to Theodore says and Morton Smith’s interpretation of that document is – should any of us take Ehrman’s opinions seriously? Is this all just a crass attempt to create controversy to sell books?

Scott Brown, the first scholar ever to write his PhD thesis on the subject of the Mar Saba discovery, systematically demolishes Ehrman’s many misrepresentations. Virtually every point he raises against the Mar Saba document in his Early Christianity is condemned as a distortion of the truth. Not only did “Ehrman mischaracterized Criddle’s study when he claimed that the author of the letter overused Clement’s favorite words,” but Brown also takes Ehrman to task for claiming that Smith thought “secret” Mark was the original form of Mark, that Clement maintained even by implication the secrecy of the gospel’s existence among other things.

Yet of all the inaccuracies in Lost Christianities, Ehrman’s lasting legacy will be his consistent mischaracterization of a ‘homosexual interest’ in both Secret Mark and Morton Smith’s analysis of the text. This crass appeal to sexuality where none is present either in the original discovery or either of Smith’s studies has to be attributed to a desire to sell books. It is difficult to see any other manner in which it can be explained.

Indeed the facts of the matter are that Morton Smith did not pursue that idea that the gospel or the liturgy that developed around it in Alexandria was homosexual – period. He argued instead for the identification of the mysteries of the kingdom of God as a second baptism rite which developed from the writings of St Paul. As he notes in his lengthy scholarly study:

[t]hus from the differences between Paul's baptism and that of [John] the Baptist, and from the scattered indications in the canonical Gospels and the secret Gospel of Mark, we can put together a picture of Jesus' baptism, ''the mystery of the kingdom of God.” It was a water baptism administered by Jesus to chosen disciples, singly and by night. The costume, for the disciple, was a linen cloth worn over the naked body. This cloth was probably removed for the baptism proper, the immersion in water, which was now reduced to a preparatory purification. After that, by unknown ceremonies, the disciple was possessed by Jesus' spirit and so united with Jesus. One with him, he participated by hallucination in Jesus' ascent into the heavens, he entered the kingdom of God, and was thereby set free from the laws ordained for and in the lower world. Freedom from the law may have resulted in completion of the spiritual union by physical union. This certainly occurred in many forms of gnostic Christianity; how early it began there is no telling.

There is nothing in these words that can support any notion that Smith was identifying Jesus or his followers as homosexual. Yet it should be noted that Ehrman didn’t stop there. He combed through the footnotes in the hope of finding something sensational and titillating and ultimately settled on a reference to the words “the use of his hands” to help establish that idea.

Indeed in the middle of the dry footnotes referencing old Jewish, Orthodox and magical texts that Morton Smith would have the misfortune to make use of this particular phrase: To judge from the hekalot and Qumran texts, the magical papyri and the Byzantine liturgy, these will have been mainly the recitation of repetitive, hypnotic prayers and hymns. The magical tradition also prescribes, in some instances, interference with breathing. Manipulation, too, was probably involved; the stories of Jesus' miracles give a very large place to the use of his hands.

What Smith meant by the ‘use of his hands’ is clear to anyone who actually read his books. As John Dominic Crossan notes Smith is making reference to the manner in which “the miracle stories in the Gospels show a great many of the minor traits of magical procedures” and David Aune places it among “techniques... well-known to both Jewish and Greco-Roman magic practitioners.” Yet what does the truth matter to someone who wants to boost the sales of his new book.

Indeed, in spite of what Smith clearly means in his book Bart Ehrman successfully turned around this little reference in another wise ignored footnote into a proof that Morton Smith was obsessively interested in homosexuality:

The hands of a healer here take on a whole new meaning. In this fragment from Clement, Smith discovered that Jesus was a magician who engaged in sex with the men that he baptized. I do not want to go into a prolonged discussion of every aspect of Morton Smith's interpretation of the Secret gospel. Most scholars found his explication unconvincing at best; some were predictably outraged. Smith appeared to love it. It has been pointed out, with some justice, that the text says nothing about Jesus using magic. There is no word about an ecstatic vision or a spiritual unity with Jesus, let alone about anyone having sex with the Son of God. Some reviewers concluded that Smith found in the text what he brought to the text, and noted that he had been interested in ecstatic visions, heavenly journeys, law-free morality, and Jesus the magician years before he published his books on the Secret Gospel.

The same idea is developed in a more restrained fashion in an academic paper published around the same time by Ehrman:

In possibly the most telling footnote of the book, Smith makes a suggestion about what these ‘unknown ceremonies’ may have entailed: ‘manipulation too was probably involved; the stories of Jesus’ miracles give a large place to the use of his hands’. Indeed.

It would be the understatement of the year to say that Ehrman is misrepresenting what Morton Smith’s interpretation of his discovery. But then again, as we have already seen - Ehrman never lets the truth get in the way of a good story.

Indeed this is most clear when Ehrman claims that Smith’s “homoerotic emphasis” was not brought into Smith’s:

view from outside, by homophobic voyeurs in the guild [of scholars]. It is all right there, plain to see, at the climactic moment of the narrative and finds support for this assessment in various subtle references from Smith’s popular account of his discovery the most explicit being - “[f]reedom from the law may have resulted in completion of the spiritual union by physical union.”

Ehrman is very carefully parsing his words here. He is claiming that there is a clear homoerotic emphasis in the Secret Gospel of Mark. Yet this is again another untruth. The words on the page are enough to dispose of this misrepresentation. Nevertheless he also goes one step further in claiming that Smith’s analysis is also laden with homosexual references. This is again untrue but it would require someone to actually read five hundred or so pages of Smith’s writings – something that very few people are likely to take the time to do.

The end result however is that – without ever explicitly saying so – Ehrman has laid a patchwork of arguments to achieve his desired objective. They are all meant to come together to support the idea that Morton Smith took an active interest in promoting that this gay gospel was in fact gay. When Ehrman whispers the possibility that the text might be a modern forgery, the attention of his readership is already focused on Morton Smith.

Ehrman’s methodology is quite similar with others who have written on the subject. They bait their audience with words and ideas that never appear in the text. We should notice Ehrman’s reference to the naked baptism ritual as being the ‘climax’ of the document. The use of such sophomoric irony is almost a requirement in such books and articles. In some cases - the two men are said to be ‘climaxing’ together or with all the subtlety of a Rolling Stones lyric these writers transform the original letter’s mention of the youth who “beseeched” Jesus “that he might be with him” into him “wanting to spend the night with Jesus.”

How can this overt manipulation of the truth be explained? The obvious answer of course is this sort of cynicism is only reflective of the age we live in. We have ‘reality television’ which is fully scripted. We have gridlock in progressive government and an endless outrage’ over the most inconsequential things. The truth simply doesn’t seem to matter to anyone any longer. Everyone is ‘out to get theirs.’ ‘Get rich or die trying’ might well replace ‘in God we trust’ as the very motto of our nation.

Since Ethne Chesterman points to the failure of Bart Ehrman to do justice to her favorite professor, we are perhaps left to wonder if any life can be understood. How are we to understand Ehrman’s pathological hostility to the Mar Saba document? Clement would of course argue that when carnal men fall from the glory of the vision of truth they refashion truth after their own image. Yet Plato doesn’t have much currency in popular culture any longer. Idealism is as dead as interest in the classics.

A better question to ask is whether Bart Ehrman simply lost his faith in God during his development as a critic or was it his very belief in the truth? The story of Ehrman’s ‘de-conversion’ is well known. Ehrman describes how he began his studies as a conservative evangelical committed to inerrancy. In a paper for his doctoral program at Princeton he tried to solve the apparent contradiction of the Mark 2:26 reference to Abiathar, when the proper Old Testament character was Ahimelech. When a professor asked why Ehrman didn't just accept that Mark had made a mistake, the floodgates opened.

Today, Ehrman is a self-described agnostic with a large part of his professional career devoted to countering evangelical beliefs. Nevertheless many critics have noted that Ehrman never lost the narrow-mindedness he associates fundamentalism. While he applies the same principles of textual criticism to chip away at the evangelical model there really is only so far that you can go with one approach. Merely stripping away layers of ‘interpretation’ from the gospel narrative doesn’t leave you with ‘the truth.’ It just leaves you a wholly theoretical conception – a wholly unholy ‘historical Jesus’ – which is less an abandonment of evangelical principles as much as it is a hyper caffeinated version of the traditional Protestant revaluation of the ancient Christian worldview.

Indeed as Craig Blomberg rightly notes, it isn’t as if Ehrman “skipped over all kinds of intermediate, Christian options that are neither evangelical (or at least not inerrantist) nor agnostic but still widely held in diverse Christian traditions.” Ehrman became the spokesman for the most radical rebranding of Jesus as a purely historical figure. This completely flies in the face of the fact that the further back in history you go, the more pronounced the belief in Jesus the God becomes.

To this end, Bart Ehrman really isn’t the expression of an atheism or agnosticism wholly divorced from the American religious experience. If anything it represents the distillation of the hyper evangelic impulse to demystify the ancient religion of Christianity. The question then the example of Ehrman raises for us is whether any of us is ever able to truly shake the shackles with bind us to our inherited prejudices. To use the model developed by Clement of Alexandria again – is atheism little more than an expression of uncontrolled egoism and vanity?

The whole point of the Letter to Theodore is to say that ‘the beasts’ will fall from an idealistic love of God. They will recreate the glory of God after the image of themselves – as corruptible man. To this end, Ehrman essentially insinuates that Morton Smith refashioned Jesus after his inclinations. But the same thing can be said about Ehrman. He creates an image of a not so nice historical Jesus in direct opposition to the liberal Christians of the Jesus Seminar – perhaps again drawing from self-knowledge or as his detractors might have it - suppressed self-loathing.

It is interesting nevertheless that despite what Clement says about people like Ehrman and Smith, both men come down on the same side with respect to a historical Jesus the man. Both grew up in Protestant cultures in America far removed from the ancient traditions of Christianity in Greece, Syria, Armenia, Egypt and Italy whose liturgies require a supernatural Jesus. Whereas Ehrman accuses Smith of inventing the strange figure of Jesus the magician out of his own imagination, one can plausibly make the case that Smith only inherited many of his idiosyncrasies from his remarkable religious background.

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. Morton Smith detractor 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 very much emphasizes the humanity of Jesus 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.”

It is certainly is uncanny the manner in which Swedenborg’s theology resembles the opinions of the Carpocratians – not in the Letter to Theodore – but the established writings of earlier Church Fathers like Irenaeus and likely also Hegesippus. Nevertheless the Letter to Theodore actually condemns these humanistic views and by implication argues for a wholly divine Jesus.

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? Of course 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 – 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.

It simply doesn’t make sense that Smith would forge an ancient letter to condemn his own views by way of the authority of St Mark, the evangelist’s role in the Church of Alexandria (a topic for which he never showed any palpable) and his authorship of a previous unknown gospel. The reality is that 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.

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 and that this led to his perpetrating a grand forgery in the name of Clement is now a non-starter on a number of different levels. Not only was he was carrying on a clandestine romantic relationship with a woman, the Episcopalian Church had a very tolerant attitude towards homosexuality. Clement of Alexandria certainly condemned sodomy but as we have seen he viewed the sublimation of the homoerotic impulse as part of the Christian redemption process. Moreover, the reference to the ‘carnal’ impulses of the Carpocratians was clearly an allegory to explain why it is was that they contended that Jesus was a man rather than a divine being.

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 t1958. 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.

It is interesting to note how many parallels exist between the lives of Morton Smith and Bart Ehrman, there is one major distinction which must be emphasized. It was Ehrman rather than Smith who lost his faith and became an embittered opponent of religion. Indeed as Smith was approaching his fiftieth year we should note that he was just putting the finishing touches on his academic study of the manuscript he had discovered at the Mar Saba monastery. He must have seen himself in a very idealistic light, working to advance the cause of scholarship. It is difficult to see Ehrman in the same light as he was turning fifty. After all he had just completed Lost Christianities – a work which goes out of his way to introduce slander, gossip and untruths presumably to broaden its commercial viability.

We essentially have before us two men of impeccable academic credentials, whose research challenged and ultimately caused them to lose the faith they held in their youth. Both scholars had a profound influence over the age they lived in, taking ideas which were formerly out of reach for lay people and succeeding at making them accessible to a wider audience. For Morton Smith no less than Bart Ehrman, Jesus was a historical figure who was only transformed into a god by the misguided zeal of devoted followers. This rational approach to the age old problem of faith made them popular authors in the age they lived but ultimately heretics to the eyes of traditional Christianity. Indeed for Clement of Alexandria it demonstrated that both men fell from grace, succumbing to the temptation of the flesh.

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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