Friday, July 24, 2009

Master's Thesis: Chapter 2.3 Is the book of Isaac Voss an anomaly in the monastery?

Originally translated in a train...

[-The quality of the paper and of the ink in the book of Voss do not solve the question of authenticity. What about the book itself: why is there a book bound in the West, containing Latin, in an Eastern monastery in the first place?
-Voss' book, "Epistulae genuinae S. Ignatii Martyris", was published in Amsterdam in 1646.1 As the title indicates, the book contains seven authentic letters from Ignatius of Antioch (died sometime between 98 and 117). The Greek text comes from an 11th-century MS, Codex Mediceani, and there is also a Latin translation provided. In the 17th-century the authenticity of the letters of Ignatius was heavily debated in a controversy between the Anglicans and the Puritans.2
-Now, Stephen C. Carlson sees something to be amiss. Voss' book seems to have been in an improbable place for an 18th-century Sabaite to jot the Theodore-letter down onto its blank back pages. His reasons: according to the Morton Smith's 1960 catalogue3 of the MSS in the monastic library of Mar Saba, the book of Voss - compared to other 17th-century and 18th-century books (since these suit to the dating of the handwriting of the Theodore-letter) - is 1) the only one published in Amsterdam - all the others were from Venice, 2) the only book containing patristics, 3) the only book with a Latin title - all the others had a Greek title, 4) the only book to have a Latin translation with the Greek text, and 5) a work published as a part of a theological debate that had nothing to do with the Orthodox Church.4]

Is the book of Voss an anomaly in the monastery of Mar Saba? First of all, it is necessary to note the small sample size Carlson uses for his comparison: in Smith's 1960 catalogue there are only nine printed books that are roughly contemporary with Voss', and would have been able to act as a platform for copying the text of the Theodore-letter. Consequently, every anomaly found by Carlson is an anomaly in comparison with only nine other samples. The size of the sample here is simply too small to form any definitive conclusions, moreover so when we note that, according to Smith, there were a total of 489 titles in the monastery in 1958.5

The core problem of Carlson's case here is the catalogue of Smith - its being nowhere near to an exhaustive inventory of the contents of the library. The catalogue contains 76 MSS that had been used to strengthen the bindings or were copied into blank pages or margins. Along with the published 76 MSS, there were in addition 20 MSS found in the notes Smith wrote in the monastery, that, for various reasons, did not make it to the catalogue.6 Since every single printed book hardly contained MSS in 19587, the details of these works without any are anybody's guess; only their numbers - 489 in total - are known.8 Would the book of Voss still be an anomaly when compared to all the material present in the monastery in 1958?

Unfortunately, it looks to be practically impossible to find out the exact contents of the library in 1958, for the only evidence available are the catalogue of Smith published in Νέα Σιών in 1960, and a certain catalogue from 1910, that has been seen only by Smith, and even he - according to his own testimony - did not have much time to examine it.9 In addition to these two catalogues, Smith wrote the monastery to have had a second library, "a good library of old editions of the church fathers" and explained to have found "anthologies from the church fathers".10 As late as 1834 there were reportedly over 1,000 titles in the monastery11, but hundreds of MSS were transferred to the Patriarchate Library in Jerusalem in 1865, where they formed the "Saba Collection".12 For some more numbers: in 1891 there were 706 titles in the "Saba Collection"13, but the 1910 catalogue from the monastery lists only 191 titles.14 Consequently, following some simple arithmetics, there should have been left c. 400 titles to the monastery, and so the 1910 catalogue must have included only half of the available titles. Therefore, the possible non-inclusion of the book of Voss in this catalogue (NOTE: we do not, at present, know for sure if Voss' book was in this catalogue or not) does not necessarily mean anything, since there seem to have been 200 other titles in total not included in the catalogue, anyway - Voss' book could very well be one of them.15

What about the Amsterdam origin of "Epistulae genuinae S. Ignatii Martyris" (1646), while all the other 17th-century and 18th-century works in Smith's catalogue were from Venice? I would argue this to be not a very important detail, for there seems to have been all kinds of material in the monastery of Mar Saba. The European origin is in itself expected, for the majority of the printers were located either in Europe or sometimes in its colonies during the 17th-century - even those books that found their way to the Eastern monasteries were, for the most part, printed in (Western) Europe. Among the items Smith dropped from his 1960 catalogue, there is a book printed in Leipzig in 1768.16 The many Venetian books in Smith's catalogue is not a very remarkable detail, either: the first printers were founded there as early as in 146917, and in the following century up to 30% of all the printers in Italy were located there.18

The framing of the question is the key: Amsterdam looks a bit odd only when it is artificially juxtaposed against nine other books from Venice. If the question, however, is simply "From where does a given book, found in Mar Saba in the 18th-century, hail?", there is nothing extraordinary in the answer be it Venice, Amsterdam, or Leipzig. Furthermore, Voss' book could not have been printed in Venice, for the debate concerning the authentic letters of Ignatius (and the following question over bishops and their position) had much to do with the Catholics, too - so much so, that Voss' book was placed in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1684.19 Consequently, the non-Venetian origin of Voss' book should not be seen as a problem, nor as a good argument for any one scenario of authenticity.

Carlson's other observations concerned the book's subject matter (patristics), title (in Latin), and the included Latin translation of the Greek text. Some light for the assessment of these notions may be drawn from another curious cache of MSS, found in the Saint Catherine's Monastery in 1975. This finding contained "damaged leaves and fragments" of the MSS that were left and/or forgotten in a major MS transfer operation in the 18th-century - apart from the Greek MSS there were to be found MSS written in Arabic, Syrian, Hebrew, and Latin. The fragments contained also patristics.20

The collection in Mar Saba seems to have been as extensive as that in the Saint Catherine's Monastery, for the Smith 1960 catalogue reports of one MS in Turkish, many MSS in Cyrillic letters, and Romanian MSS written in Latin alphabet.21 In addition, there were MSS written in Arabic and Hebrew.22 Naturally, it is not possible to conclude directly from these multifacetous MSS that Voss' book was not a unique specimen among the printed books in the monastery, but - as I have stated above - there is not enough evidence available to draw an informed conclusion of the matter in either way; it is a stalemate in this regard.23

For the last observation made by Carlson it is best to look at the issue from a larger perspective. Side by side there runs a Latin translation with the Greek text, and the theological debate surrounding Voss' book had nothing to do with the Orthodox Church. Carlson also remarks that patristics (Ignatian and Clementine) were not popular in Mar Saba during the 18th-century citing Siméon Vailhé's "Les écrivains de Mar-Saba" from the end of the 19th-century as authoritative.24 However, the general practice in the Eastern monasteries in the 17th-century and the 18th-century was to collect patristic texts printed in the West25; thus, larger (Church) political schemes seem to have dictated the contents of the libraries of the Eastern monasteries - not just the personal preferences of the monks themselves.26 The framing of the question has again a profound impact on the possible answers. Carlson holds it curious that there was Latin text in an Eastern monastery to be found. In the MSS, however, as we have seen, the Latin alphabet was in use, as well as were Cyrillic, Arabic, and Hebrew alphabets.27 If we turn the question around, we may ask "How curious it is that a Greek MS, edited for publication in Amsterdam, is supplemented by a Latin translation?" There is hardly anything curious or out-of-place here: it was a common practice in the West to offer a Latin translation of the Greek text and to title the work with a Latin title.28

Taken everything presented above together, it should be clear that Voss' book could not possibly have been printed in Venice, nor is there anything odd in its subject matter, title, or in the included Latin translation. These are not anomalies proper; for every characteristics of Voss' book there is a plausible, natural explanation for their existence. There are various ways - in the 18th-century as well as nowadays - for a given book to end up to be a part of a library collection; from acquired consciously by the staff to received as a gift. Voss' book had a window of 50-150 years to travel to Mar Saba in time for the Theodore-letter to get copied onto its back pages, and further, there was possibly no need for the residents of the monastery to act as an interested party for this to happen. From the anomalies of Voss' book only one conclusion is to be drawn: there is not enough evidence available for any firm conclusions, since all the details fit reasonably well into all the scenarios of authenticity. The quality of the ink and of the paper, or the other characteristics of Voss' book do not offer simple solutions for the question of authenticity. One final aspect of Carlson's case, concerning the physical dimension of the Theodore-letter, is yet to be assessed: are there, in the handwriting, signs of forgery present for Morton Smith to be held the most probable author of the letter?

1Smith 1985, 13.
2Brown 1963, xii-xiii. Codex Mediceani was in such a bad shape that Voss' edition lacked the letter to the Romans. "Voss' Canon" was completed to the seven authentic letters of Ignatius only in 1689 with the publication of the missing letter by T. Ruinart.
3Smith 1960a. The purpose of the visit to the monastery of Mar Saba was to make an inventory of the MSS found in the tower library. This catalogue was published by Νέα Σιών, an official journal of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, where it appeared translated to modern Greek from Smith's English original.
4Carlson 2005, 38-39.
5Pantuck 2008, 107 n. 2.
6Pantuck 2008, 107.
7Smith 1985, 10-11. Smith narrates to have gone through books until he found three or four items that contained MSS, and then to have taken them to his cell for a closer examination.
8Pantuck 2008, 107 n. 2.
9Smith 1960a, 256.
10Smith 1985, 5, 11.
11Fiaccadori 2000, 1311-1318; in addition, Robert Curzon Jr. remarks there to have been c. 1,000 items, most of them MSS; Carlson p. 114 n. 39.
12Smith 1973, 289-290.
14Smith 1960a, 256.
15Smith also notes the possibility that the catalogues were less than perfect; Smith 1973, 290. Cf. Smith 1960b, 172, 175. An alternative way for estimating the 1910 catalogue to have been less than perfect is offered by Charles W. Hedrick, who in SBL Meeting 2008 argues the following: in 1910 there were 50-60 monks in the monastery of Mar Saba, and 191 titles in the catalogue. In 1958 there were only 13 monks present, but, according to the notes by Smith, there were 489 titles to be found from the tower library alone. Hedrick's conclusion is that the 1910 catalogue must have missed a lot of items that were in reality present in the monastery in 1910; Hedrick's reasoning is reported by Allan J. Pantuck;
16Pantuck 2008, 116 n. 28.
17Jäntti 1940, 77.
18Borsa 1977, 166-169.
19Carlson 2005, 38. This piece of information is indeed derived from Carlson, even though it gives a perfectly natural, neat explanation to Voss' book non-Venetian origin.
20The parallel was first noted by Allan J. Pantuck;
21Smith 1960a, 111.
22Smith 1960a, 120-121.
23On the other hand - as I noted above - Morton Smith observed that there were many old editions and anthologies of patristic writers to be found in the monastery; Smith 1985, 5, 11.
24Carlson 2005, 114 n. 41.
25Smith 1973, 2-3.
26It should also be noted, that no novices were accepted to the monastery of Mar Saba during the 18th-century, but only experienced (older) monks, who had had their education in various parts of the area of influence of the Orthodox Church - therefore, it is to be expected that their interests were as varied as their backgrounds; Peristeris 2001, 171.
27Smith 1960a, 111, 120-121.
28For illustrating examples, cf. Jackson 1970.


  1. One could say that the odds for the letter being written specifically into Vossius’ book are small, but once it is done the odds increases to 100 percent. One could also say that if this particular book was so unlikely to have existed in the monastery in the eighteenth century, why would Smith, otherwise being such a clever forger, chose such an unlikely book to accomplish his forgery? That is, if the book would turn out to be an odd choice (which I’m not sure that it is), the fact that the letter was written in it, rather strengthen the letter’s authenticity.

    And by the way, Ignatius must have suffered a painful death, since it lasted 20 years. I suppose you meant that he ”died [sometime] between 98 and 117”. :)

    Roger Viklund

  2. The counter I have seen: whatever Smith, the hoaxer, did that does not suit to the picture of an ideal forger, is a test to find out if other scholars are clever enough to spot the spurious parts and establish the text to be a hoax.

    Otherwise it could be a trap: choosing an improbable book the hoaxer could throw other scholars of the scent, because "no forger would be that stupid, therefore it is not a forgery".

    The beauty of the hoax hypothesis is that every detail can be made to fit - in some parts Smith's excellence shines (no forgery apparent), in some parts Smith challenges his peers to a game of wits (a clue argument like Madiotes can be made). With these two assumptions everything is covered, neatly.

    Also, I changed the wording, thanks.

  3. Why did the monks rip out the manuscript and return the book to the shelf if the book didn't belong there. If the contents of the library were well established then why not throw out the whole book if it didn't belong there?