Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Master's Thesis: Chapter 3.4 The expertise and suspicious behaviour of Morton Smith

In chapters 3.1, 3.2, and 3.3 we have looked at the arguments that deal with vocabulary, grammatical formulation, and alleged eccentricities in the narrative of the Theodore-letter. Even though some characteristics of the text seem rather hilarious from modern perspective1, no ancient reader would have understood the linkage to the 20th-century (homo)sexual identity. It is not problematic to read a given text from a modern perspective - if anything, it is strictly necessary - but the conclusions we wish to draw from such readings should be made with caution. The hoax hypothesis of Stephen C. Carlson, however, ventures deeper still, into the structure of the text, and uses other writings of Morton Smith creatively to establish his identity as the writer of the Theodore-letter.

Carlson begins this part of the hoax hypothesis by asking if Smith - whose handwriting he has already linked to the handwriting of the Theodore-letter2 - had possessed a necessary level of expertise to be able to compose a believable hoax. This very question was also asked by Scott G. Brown in his 2005 monograph "Mark's Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith's Controversial Discovery". Brown ended up with a negative - the leading experts of Ancient Greek thought Smith's language proficiency to have been inadequate for this kind of work3; a conclusion Carlson strongly disagrees with. On the contrary, Smith seems to have possessed a rare combination of abilities suited for writing the Theodore-letter: his analysis of Vincent Taylor's commentary "The Gospel According to St. Mark: The Greek Text with Introduction, Notes, and Indexes" from 1952 shows that the literary style of Mark was familiar to him, and he criticizes Edgar Goodspeed's translation for losing the nuances of the language. In the beginning of the 1950s Smith acquainted himself thoroughly with the 18th-century MSS - he mentions in a letter dated 26.1.1953 to have taken over 5,000 photographs of these MSS4 - showing in one his articles, Σύμμεικτα, to be able to read and transcript them easily. Just before his visit to the monastery of Mar Saba in 1958 he published another article, "The Image of God: Notes on the Hellenization of Judaism, with Especial Reference to Goodenough's Work on Jewish Symbols", where he demonstrates his expertise regarding Clement of Alexandria by citing him four times. In this article Smith also utilizes Otto Stählin's concordance to Clement, a key item - as Quentin Quesnell argued in 1975 - should anyone wish to try a hand at this kind of fabrication. Carlson draws specific attention to the fact that Stählin's concordance was part of Smith's personal library, which contained c. 10,000 books.5

Lack of resources would not have hindered Smith in composing the Theodore-letter. The book of Isaac Voss was not particularly expensive in the 1950s, especially if Smith would have bought an individual that was already lacking the covers.6 Additionally, the hoax hypothesis explains other curious details in Smith's behaviour: Carlson suspects that Smith is carefully circling in his speech around the fact that in reality he smuggled Voss' book into the monastery. Smith's sentences, like "During my stay I was able to examine, label, and describe some seventy items"7 and "If the letter was really by Clement I had a discovery of extraordinary importance"8 could have been written, according to Carlson, in such a way that the possibility of smuggling would not have been left open, as it happens.9 Smith's catalogue in Νέα Σιών draws Carlson's attention for the same reason: Smith states that the MSS he described are simply "to be found" (εὑρίσκονται) in the tower library of the monastery.10 The reply Smith wrote to Quentin Quesnell in 1976, "On the Authenticity of the Mar Saba Letter to Clement", seems to turn the rate of evasiveness even higher. Carlson notes e.g. that the sentence "In sum, it is false that I held, before discovering the new text, the theory to which it led me"11 has a reference to the discovery of the new text in the middle of another sentence that Smith himself describes with the truth-value "false".12 On the other hand, when Smith says that "I left the MS in the Mar Saba library and have no information as to what has been done with it"13, the sentence does not express, according to Carlson, plain enough that Smith would have actually discovered the MS in Mar Saba: instead, it may be construed as a confession that Smith himself brought the Theodore-letter to the library of the monastery.14

An especially weighty argument for Carlson is the fact that Smith does not use similar language of the other discoveries he made in the monastery, e.g. of the 15th-century scholia written on Sophocles' Ajax.15 The attitude of Smith towards the Secret Gospel of Mark looks suspicious, too: if Smith truly believed in the authenticity of the Theodore-letter, why he did not make that much out of it in his own scholarship, e.g. in "Jesus the Magician" (1978) where Smith compared the activity of Jesus to other ancient miracle-workers. In a word, Smith does not behave like the one who is innocent for this kind of hoax.16

All of these suspicious details taken together are a clear indicator for Carlson that Smith has in reality forged the Theodore-letter. From Smith's part this would be a misuse of the principle of benevolence, one foundation of the on-going project of science: around the Theodore-letter he would have build deliberately a complex historical reconstruction of Jesus of Nazareth and his magic-filled Jewish movement for one purpose only, to lead other scholars astray. For Carlson Smith's theory is a trap, build for ensnaring a careless peer-reviewer.17 His textual puzzles, including the careful use of language where Smith never states plainly that the Theodore-letter had got into the monastery of Mar Saba without his contribution, are meant to be a test, a challenge to a battle of wits between Smith and his challengers.18 To summarize: according to Carlson Smith had the necessary level of expertise for conducting a believable hoax, and the most natural explanation for Smith's suspicious behaviour is the assumption that he himself forged the Theodore-letter.

There is no doubt that Morton Smith was an extremely competent scholar, especially regarding his proficiency in various ancient languages.19 He seems to have been well acquainted with Greek MSS and was able to evaluate all of their characteristics, as Carlson remarks, "even commenting on their inaccuracies in ortography and accentuation".20 According to his own words, Smith became interested in "manuscript hunting" at the turn of the 1950s because of the influence of his teacher, professor Werner Jaeger.21 It is a long road, however, even from an outstanding ability to read ancient languages to be able to compose original text in these same languages, even though the students of the Ancient Greek have traditionally been instructed both in reading and writing of the language.22 It would be especially difficult to compose a text that would be accepted as authentic by the experts of the language, as the letter to Theodore has been accepted.23 The examples Carlson gives do not shed much light on the question of the quality of the Greek text Smith was able to produce: understanding the ambiguity of the words σὺ λέγεις (Matthew 27:11) spoken by Jesus to Pilate - it is not a simple affirmative, and an appropriate translation could be e.g. "So you say" - points in itself to the understanding of the nuances of Ancient Greek, but does not tell us if the person with this understanding is also proficient to produce text that would be accepted as authentic by other experts.24

Even more problematic is Carlson's conviction that Smith's ability to cite Clement in his 1958 article "The Image of God: Notes on the Hellenization of Judaism, with Especial Reference to Goodenough's Work on Jewish Symbols" functions as a prove of his ability to write like Clement when the occasion arises. This matter looks to be of particular importance to Carlson, as he refers to these four citations of Clement on three different occasions.25 Every time he does so, the strangeness of the argument just keeps getting underlined: when has the ability to cite a Church Father transformed into a "necessary... level of experience"26 to write like a Church Father; a necessary level of experience to produce three pages of writing that fool everyone for believing they derive from ancient authors? The correspondence between Morton Smith and Gershom Scholem in 1945-1982, edited and published by Guy G. Stroumsa in 2008, conserves the detail that Smith was in 1948 researching the Church Fathers, "especially Clement of Alexandria", but this single mention does not turn out readily into an ability to write like Clement ten years later.27 If Smith indeed forged the Theodore-letter, he must have kept his unique Clement know-how entirely hidden. Even Carlson has to acknowledge that Smith did not "technically" publish anything Clementine before the discovery of the Theodore-letter, not even a book review.28 Smith's literary remains, scrutinized by Allan J. Pantuck, have nothing about Smith's alleged extensive work with Clement of Alexandria before his visit to Mar Saba in 1958.29

What kind of arguments are Carlson's claims about the opportunities Smith would have had for building a believable hoax? According to Carlson Smith owned a copy of Otto Stählin's concordance to Clement, could have obtained Isaac Voss' book before his visit to Mar Saba, and could have smuggled the small-sized book underneath his shirt to his cell where he worked while making a catalogue out of the monastic library.30 In these claims Carlson seems to step too lightly over the line between a probable and a speculative argument - sure enough, lots of things would have been "possible" to Smith, but the mere possibility is generally a poor foundation for a larger argument. The use of the language of possibilities is, however, a typical part of a conspiracy theory argument.31

In his twisting of Smith's sentences Carlson comes off mainly as paranoidal. He tells plainly that Smith's sentence "I left the MS in the Mar Saba library and have no information as to what has been done with it"32 may be construed as a confession that Smith himself brought the Theodore-letter to the library of the monastery.33 The verb Carlson has chosen, construe, is used intransitively "to construe a sentence or sentence part especially in connection with translating", but transitively "to analyze the arrangement and connection of words in (a sentence or sentence part)" and "to understand or explain the sense or intention of usually in a particular way or with respect to a given set of circumstances", according to Merriam-Webster online-dictionary.34 Carlson, no doubt, feels like he is using the verb transitively according to the first description, as he wishes to draw attention the ambiguity of Smith's sentence beginning with the words "I left" - either he discovered the MS and left it in the monastery, or he brought the MS to the monastery and left it there; grammatically both interpretations are possible. The other transitive use of the verb, on the other hand, opens up some interesting perspectives for evaluating Carlson's hoax hypothesis as a whole. Usually the constructing35 of new meanings from surprising sources in a particular way is another typical part of a conspiracy theory argument, used extensively by Carlson: for him the behaviour of Smith is nothing like we would expect from the one who is innocent for this kind of hoax.36 No world is enough, as everything Smith has ever said, done, or written can be turned against him.

Finally, it must be concluded that Carlson's claims about Smith's level of expertise and about his suspicious behaviour are for the most part not robust enough for backing up the hoax hypothesis. In the light of the available evidence Smith does not seem to have possessed a unique Clement know-how, but the question of the possibility of composing something like the Secret Gospel of Mark could be quite a different matter. The excerpts from the Secret Gospel could probably have been written by Smith - if he would have worked as e.g. Raymond E. Brown judged the passages, cutting and pasting parts of the canonical Gospels37 - but the question of the Clementine text remains. The "suspiciousness" of Smith is born first and foremost from Carlson's method of gathering up support for the hoax hypothesis from every possible source imaginable, and the language of possibilities does not a strong argument make.

1E.g. Morton Smith joked about the linkage between the resurrected youth in the Secret Gospel and the escaping youth in Gethsemane by giving the following title to a lecture of his: "Cops Arrest Rabbi in Park with Naked Teenager"; Brown 2006b, 360.
2Carlson 2005, 47.
3Brown 2005, 13. For some reason Brown does not offer any evidence for this claim.
4Stroumsa 2003, 150.
5Carlson 2005, 8-9, 44-46, 63-64, 74, 128 n. 2.
6Carlson 2005, 45.
7Smith 1973, ix.
8Smith 1985, 18.
9Carlson 2005, 40.
10Smith 1960a, 111; Carlson 2005, 40.
11Smith 1976, 196.
12Carlson 2005, 115 n. 45.
13Smith 1976, 196.
14"can even be construed as admitting to his depositing it there"; Carlson 2005, 41.
15Carlson 2005, 40. Smith published this discovery in 1960 as “New Fragments of Scholia on Sophocles' Ajax”; Smith 1960c.
16Carlson 2005, 77-78.
17Carlson 2005, 81, 87-90.
18Carlson 2005, 79.
19As for Smith's language proficiency, cf. Cohen 1996b.
20Carlson 2005, 76. Smith notes these inaccuracies e.g. in Smith 1956.
21Smith 1985, 8.
22E.g. Arthur Sidgwick's "Introduction to Greek Prose Composition" has been widely used since its publication in the 1870s to teach composing text in Ancient Greek. It is highly probable that Smith had been taught to write as well as read Ancient Greek.
23Hedrick 2003 informs that the majority of the Clementine scholars have accepted the authenticity of the letter, as is indicated by its inclusion to the Clementine corpus from 1980 onwards; Hedrick 2003, 141. Carlson disagrees, as the editor Ursula Treu told that the inclusion happened only "provisionally", for furthering the discussion of the matter; Carlson 2005, 49-50. On the other hand, both Smith and Lauha see the letter as having passed the test of authenticity regarding its text; Smith 1982, 452; Lauha 1987a, 208.
24Carlson 2005, 128 n. 2.
25Carlson 2005, 9, 64, 75.
26To be precise, Carlson says the following: "the level of experience that... was necessary [for forgery] – and Smith had that level of experience"; Carlson 2005, 63.
27Morton Smith and Gershom Scholem, Correspondence 1945-1982, 28. For the editor of the correspondence, Guy G. Stroumsa, the letters are first and foremost a prove of the gradual development of Smith's understanding of the Theodore-letter; cf. Grafton 2009.
28Smith 1976, 197 n. 7; Carlson 2005, 63-64, 75. Carlson considers, contra Smith (and Brown; Brown 2005, 38) that the four citations of Clement in "The Image of God" should be considered "something", and thus Smith had in effect published "something" about Clement, though Smith's bibliography would hold no information of this. [Further note: the sentence in the main body of the text and this footnote have been changed somewhat because of an imprecise wording that the original had, conveying a wrong idea about Carlson's position.]
29Personal communication.
30Carlson 2005, 37, 45.
31For Carlson's defense it must be stated that the major part of his problematic argumentation are brought forward only after the linkage between the handwritings of Smith, the Theodore-letter, and the MS22 has been established. The building of the conspiracy theory, including the problems of distinguishing between theory and evidence, are pondered in length in Chapter 4.
32Smith 1976, 196.
33"can even be construed as admitting to his depositing it there"; Carlson 2005, 41.
34Cursive mine; http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/construe
35The verb construe comes from Latin construere, "to construct"; http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/construe
36Carlson 2005, 77-78.
37Brown 1974, 482-483.

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