Monday, November 30, 2009

Master's Thesis: Chapter 4.4 How Stephen Carlson builds a conspiracy theory

Does Stephen C. Carlson utilize the "boisterous pseudohistorical method" I have presented above? First it should be noted that Carlson's treatise - as, incidentally, is the case with "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" as well - is in itself a good example of academic writing regarding the "formalities" we would expect from an academic work. There is a proper introduction that states the methodology used. The writing is neutral in style, and the citations are sufficient; every claim is carefully documented. In the end we come to the conclusions, as it should be, and the bibliography lists everything relevant to the subject. For the most part Carlson manages to keep theory and evidence firmly separated, and the evidence cited is never left undocumented, for everything remains plain to the reader from start to finish. In some cases Carlson makes a questionable decision regarding his sources - e.g. the handwriting analysis and the illustrations come from the black-and-white photographs Morton Smith took in 1958, instead of the much better colour photographs Charles Hedrick and Nikolaos Olympiou published in 20001; furthermore, samples of Smith's handwriting were collected by Carlson for only two pages worth, and even those consisted of marginal notes written by Smith in Greek.2 In addition, some details are presented inaccurately, e.g. the plot of James H. Hunter's novel "The Mystery of Mar Saba" has been summarized imprecisely.3 Overall, however, the book is a fine example of an academic monograph with respect to its formal appearance.

Even then, the deliberate clues Morton Smith left behind, summarized in chapter 4.2, contain some fundamental problems. We have to ask, 1) what is the point of origin of Carlson's research, i.e. what is the question Carlson wishes to find an answer for, and 2) how does Carlson see the data he has made available, how does he place it into the context of the hoax hypothesis, and how does he assess the probability of the reconstruction. In the preface to "The Gospel Hoax" Carlson relates that he began to consider Clement's letter to Theodore as a forgery in 1995, after he had read Andrew H. Criddle's article "On the Mar Saba Letter Attributed to Clement of Alexandria". Having been persuaded of the validity of Criddle's analysis - Carlson interprets this article as having shown that the Theodore-letter tries to resemble real Clement of Alexandria too eagerly - he states that three very different affairs did influence him to go on further, to try and solve the "great puzzle" offered by the Theodore-letter: the 2003 debate concerning the authenticity of the James Ossuary, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in "Lawrence v. Texas" where the changing social attitudes regarding homosexuality were discussed, and the three articles on the Theodore-letter published in "Journal of Early Christian Studies" in 2003.4 After he had familiarized himself with i.a. Anthony Grafton's "Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship" Carlson felt ready to begin: "Now that I knew what to look for and where to look for it, all I had to do was to find it."5

This sentiment is expressed by Carlson in other words in chapter 3, where he states the following: "It is hard to find evidence of forgery if one is not looking for it."6 We have every reason to ask if this principle works the other way round - if it is easy to find evidence of forgery when one is looking for it? The answer should be given in the affirmative, as the discussion of the "theory-ladenness" and "amplification illusion" in chapter 4.3 clearly shows. When a scholar asks a question that implicitly contains a "correct" answer, the whole project is in danger of steering off the course right from the start. It should be noted that Carlson does not ask if the Theodore-letter is authentic or not - according to Carlson the study of Criddle has already shown that the letter is not from the real Clement of Alexandria. Consequently, Carlson is not going to solve the question of forgery, but the question of a forger - whether it could be a bored orthodox monk, a Dutch humanist, or Morton Smith.7 It follows that the methodology Carlson utilizes could be primarily labeled as "hermeneutics of clue-hunting".

In this way we may be justified in stating that Carlson utilizes an extreme variant of asking an improper question: first comes the conclusion ("Clement's letter to Theodore is a forgery"), and the section of analysis (the question of identity of the forger) consists of placing a number of arguments behind the conclusion. This method for research is undoubtedly common in conspiracy theory thinking, even though it is very hard to document its existence - e.g. "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" explicitly denies to have arrived at a preconceived conclusion.8 Supplemental to this is the brushing off of other scholars and their opinions: e.g. Scott G. Brown's over 300-paged treatise that explores the issue of authorship of the Secret Mark, concluding that the same author is responsible for both the canonical Gospel of Mark and the Secret Gospel of Mark, gets passed over - in one sentence buried in a footnote - as using criteria that is "too lenient" for distinguishing between "genuine cases of intercalation and inclusio" and "the kind of intertextual references that forgers ordinarily insert to lend an air of legitimacy to their handiwork".9 And what about the time and energy inserted to the debate of issues unessential? Carlson does write a thorough response in nine parts to Brown's "The Question of Motive in the Case Against Morton Smith" and publishes it in his blog, even though the quest for Morton Smith's motive produces at best a mere piece of circumstantial evidence unable to resolve the issue one way or other.10 Instead, the really important counterarguments are confronted with few words only11 or with none at all; especially Brown's "Factualizing the Folklore: Stephen Carlson's Case Against Morton Smith" would have required a response badly.12

[Further note: Above I have called into question the basic premise of Stephen Carlson, that he is more interested in finding clues of the forger's identity than asking the critical question if we are indeed dealing with a forgery or not. Two things need clarifying: 1) It is not the end of the world or the end of scholarly inquiry if the research starts off with a flawed question - there simply is a greater chance to end up with some twisted results, a possibility that I feel has unfortunately actualized in Carlson's hoax hypothesis; 2) There are arguments in Carlson's case backing up the notion that the Theodore-letter is a forgery - here I am, however, interested in ones that identify the forger as Morton Smith, and of the process of their development, from the question of the identity of the forger (Carlson 2005, xvi), to the conviction that forgers leave clues of their identity behind (Carlson 2005, 15-16), to the finding of these ingenious clues (Carlson 2005, 49ff.).]

Stephen Carlson continues to use the data he deems relevant with consistency: everything Morton Smith has ever said, done, or written points to the Theodore-letter as being a forgery. Is the forger Smith even though he did not use the Secret Gospel of Mark with any consistency in his historical reconstructions? Of course, Carlson affirms. It is the non-use of Secret Mark that gives Smith away, especially in his book about ancient magicians and Jesus13, that he cannot be an honest, unsuspecting victim, confusing an imitation of Clement by some other sinister figure to the real thing.14 Is the forger Smith even though his commentary on the Theodore-letter15 shows the signs of great meticulousness and extreme attention to detail? Of course, Carlson affirms. The manner in which Smith worked is a trap, calculated to lead other scholars astray.16 Is the forger Smith when he answers indignantly to the first accusations of foul play by Quentin Quesnell, that his "denial does not dispose of them [suspicions of forgery]; anyone who would forge a manuscript would deny that he had done so"?17 Of course, Carlson affirms. The very precise language Smith is using is part of a test, a challenge to a battle of wits between Smith and other scholars.18 And if the missing manuscript gets unearthed, and its ink ends up being analyzed? In that case a modern ink points to the text as being a forgery, but an 18th-century ink points to the ability of Smith to produce 18th-century ink.19

For Carlson the data available points to one direction only: Morton Smith is the hoaxer. Just as Hofstadter characterizes conspiracy theorists20, we must conclude that for Carlson Morton Smith is seen as a supremely able agent, with an ability to do everything and more: even the historical anachronisms Carlson finds in the Theodore-letter are not blunders come into being by mistake, but deliberately planted clues.21 Under normal circumstances a conspiracy theory is implausible because it necessitates some smooth contributions from so many different people that someone involved should be expected to turn out and blow the whistle.22 For Carlson the problem of scale is turned upside down: Morton Smith alone should have possessed all the necessary expertise for creating a believable hoax. This, however, could be possible only if Smith truly was - to quote Jeff Jay - a "superhuman".23 Although the Bellman maxim states that "What I tell you three times is true"24, the three times Carlson remarks of the citations of Clement in Morton Smith's 1958 article "The Image of God" do not establish Smith's ability to compose like Clement any more than the above quoting of Lewis Carroll establishes my own abilities to compose like Carroll if need be.25 The hoax hypothesis of Carlson stretches out to become one enormous ad hoc argument, with the ability to perfectly explain all of the data available: where we are unable to notice the hoax, there we have an example of Smith's expertise; where we are able to notice the hoax, there we have an example of a deliberate clue left by Smith. Everything that points to the forgery, points to the forgery - everything that does not point to the forgery, still twists to point to its opposite. And where does that point to? To the transformation of the hoax hypothesis into an all-embracing explanation to the Theodore-letter. As the possibility to produce any data that could falsify the hoax hypothesis - even in principle - has vanished, we should conclude that the hoax hypothesis itself has ceased to be a scientific theory.

Another descriptive feature of Stephen Carlson's hoax hypothesis is the assessment of probability he places to its various parts: there is none to be found. Practically nowhere does Carlson qualify his arguments as "probable", "possible", or "improbable".26 The assessment of probability is fundamentally important, as an argument that is build from separate units into a chain of logical claims is valid only if all of the individual units are also valid: otherwise, the conclusion reached cannot be considered tenable. In science - especially in the study of history - we must additionally be able to assess how naturally the proposed connections between texts rise from the source texts themselves. Every conceivable intertextual connection cannot be used as a basis for critical reconstruction, that is, every perceived intertextual link cannot be labeled as evidence. Moreover, it is problematic to interpret data that one is able to use for amusing oneself as pointing to a joke deliberately hidden by someone else - in this case, by Morton Smith, of course. For this reason, in Carlson's hoax hypothesis the salt argument, the goldsmith argument, and the personal sphragis of Morton Smith look the most suspicious.

These deliberate clues of Morton Smith have been presented in detail in Chapter 4.2. The goldsmith argument is constructed to form the following chain of interconnected claims: in his commentary on Theod. I. 13-15 Smith argues that there is an allusion to the book of Jeremiah (Jer. 10:14); the claim of allusion by Smith is a weak case overall; the Book of Jeremiah speaks here of "the creation of a false thing"27, and Smith refers in his commentary to another writing of Clement about those who hide "the mysteries not to be uttered"28; the perceived connection between Morton Smith and Morton Salt Company "signifies that this comment applies to himself - that he [Smith] has hidden away a mystery not to be uttered"29; the quote from the Book of Jeremiah contains an ellipsis; the ellipsis contains the word "goldsmith"; the word "goldsmith" contains, as the latter part of the compound word, the surname of Smith.30

It is an ingenious move to fetch the surname of Morton Smith from an ellipsis in a quotation found in his commentary on the Theodore-letter. The chain of argument is in itself possible, and its indisputable parts are the following: "Smith claims that the text contains an allusion to the Book of Jeremiah", "the Book of Jeremiah speaks here of "the creation of a false thing", and Smith refers to another writing of Clement", "the quotation from the Book of Jeremiah contains an ellipsis", "the ellipsis contains the word goldsmith", "the word goldsmith contains, as the latter part of the compound word, the surname of Smith".

the claim of an allusion
|
the reference to Clement
|
the ellipsis
|
the word goldsmith
|
goldsmith

These separate pieces are connected in Carlson's argument together with the following disputable claims: "the claim of an allusion is implausible, that is, something sinister is afoot here", "the connection between Morton Smith and Morton Salt Company signifies that the quote from Clement should be applied to Smith himself", "it is significant what the ellipsis in the quotation from the Book of Jeremiah contains", "it is significant that one of the words found in the ellipsis, goldsmith, contains, as the latter part of the compound word, the surname of Smith", "goldsmith is a deliberate clue left by Morton Smith of his identity".

the claim of an allusion -- implausible
|
the reference to Clement -- the connection between the two Mortons
|
the ellipsis -- its significance
|
the word goldsmith -- its significance
|
goldsmith -- the clue

What has happened? Carlson has searched for evidence of the hoaxer's true identity, and found a reference to Morton Smith's surname. In his goldsmith argument the five indisputable claims are supplemented with five disputable ones, but there is no discussion of probability involved. Not only are the disputable claims there to supplement the goldsmith argument, but they actually construe it from start to finish - the disputable claims connect the otherwise unconnected five observations together. In this instance I will not yet assess the probability of the claims nor do I discuss the quality of the argument as a deliberate clue, but I ask the simple question; who is the conscious agent that has linked these unconnected claims together? We can be certain that one of the conscious agents is Stephen Carlson himself. But was it Morton Smith who first did this linking, deliberately, so that a clever enough scholar would be able to find it and reveal the true nature of the Theodore-letter? Personally, I find this alternative improbable, but the most justifiable option would be to remain agnostic, to confess that we do not know the answer. We do not know, and we cannot know, if Morton Smith created such a puzzle for the readers of the Theodore-letter. Following the general historical method we cannot, however, answer this question in the affirmative, for - as I have previously stated - the postulation of an agent and the creation of an internally consistent construction should not be used as evidence in an argument for the existence of the agent and of the construed construction.31 Without this simple reservation the scientific study of history, as it is practiced today, would become impossible.

When a simple linkage is not sufficient as an argument in itself, it should be supplemented with other data. In Carlson's goldsmith argument there is, however, nothing further: he does not e.g. discuss why the perceived connection between Morton Smith and Morton Salt Company should transform a sentence from Smith's commentary to point to Smith himself. Why should this be? The only answer I can manage to extract from Carlson's treatise refers to the fundamental nature of hoaxes as compared to forgeries: the hoaxer will always leave jokes and clues of his identity behind.32 We have to ask - as will happen in Chapter 4.5 - how well does the perceived clue work as a pointer to the hoaxer's identity and how natural the proposed linkage turns out to be.

On the personal sphragis of Morton Smith we will begin by noting that Stephen Carlson - as I have presented in the beginning of this chapter - sees three distinct elements being united in it: "mystery", "secrecy", and "forbidden sexual relationships". As Carlson reads the text, all these three are present in the Theodore-letter, as well as in other, earlier writings of Morton Smith, and to be quite exact they are found in "Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels" (1951) where Smith connects together Mark. 4:11 and Hagigah Tannaïm 2.1, the latter speaking of "forbidden sexual relationships".33 The motive of secrecy is linked by Smith to the same Hagigah Tannaïm and to the Stromata of Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 1.1.13-14, etc.) in his article "The Image of God" (1958).34

It is quite unclear what we are to conclude from this literary sphragis of Smith. Let us assume, arguendo, that Carlson's reading of the Theodore-letter is valid, and the elements forming the sphragis are indeed "mystery", "secrecy", and "forbidden sexual relationships". The problem remains that Smith did not utilize this "seal of authenticity" in any one writing of his, and that Carlson has to construe the puzzle from two sources whose publication is separated by seven long years. Consequently, the analogy he uses to justify this practice - that Virgil could end a particular work by imitating the beginning of some other work of his35 - is effectively dissimilar; an example of a weak analogy. The telltale sign of a conspiracy theory, the mania to link unconnected elements together, is featured here even more prominently than in the goldsmith argument: mystery, secrecy, and forbidden sexual relationships are all found from the Theodore-letter and from two other writings of Smith, forming the personal "seal of authenticity" of Smith, used as a clever clue to his identity. But this is not a proper "seal of authenticity" at all. For such a seal we would need a clear textual or thematic construction that the author uses in at least two different occasions. Once again the mere possibility to read mystery, secrecy, and forbidden sexual relationships together does not point to anywhere else than to the reader who has read mystery, secrecy, and forbidden sexual relationships together. For Morton Smith's personal sphragis it is hardly sufficient.

The argument for the connection between Morton Smith and Morton Salt Company can be approached e.g. by asking just how simple it would be to create clue arguments of this caliber. I suggest that it is patently easy, for the Internet, as Kathleen Stewart remarks36, offers a truly limitless opportunity for constructing ingenious clue arguments. In Appendix 2 I give an example of yet another clever, deliberately hidden clue of the hoaxer's true identity, titled the Jelly Roll Morton argument, that has been construed in 20 minutes, beginning with the search word Morton, deciding to build a connection between Morton Smith and Jelly Roll Morton, getting familiarized with old American slang, and drawing mind-map to a blank A4 sheet where the diverse units of the clue argument get gradually linked together to form a single diagram with internal coherence. The end result is a slick clue of the identity of the writer of the Theodore-letter that follows the pattern laid down by Carlson's "bald swindler", Morton Salt, goldsmith, and sphragis. Additionally, the Jelly Roll Morton argument fulfills the requirements of good argumentation in the study of history about as poorly as its exemplars, that is, it uses the "boisterous pseudohistorical method" unapologetically: the premise for the endeavour is twisted (Where could I find a good clue Morton Smith surely left behind?), every bit of data is turned to support the clue argument, and no sense of probability is maintained. Of everything I have written in Chapters 4.3 and 4.4 regarding the philosophy of science and cognitive psychology I consider the Jelly Roll Morton argument to be the pedagogically most pronounced observation against the hoax hypothesis advocated in Stephen Carlson's "The Gospel Hoax". When the clues left behind by Morton Smith are found - following the cue from Marvin Meyer - anywhere one wants to find one, they cannot be hold justifiable in the least. Consequently, the method used in the creation of these clue arguments ("boisterous pseudohistorical method") cannot be accepted as scientific.

It is necessary to close this subchapter of methodologically questionable aspects in the hoax hypothesis of Stephen C. Carlson with an anticlimactic ending. Once in a while the representatives of conspiracy theory thinking say it out aloud, that their case does not quite fit into the accepted practices in a given field. In chapter 11 of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail", under the heading "The Need to Synthesize", Baigent et al. confess that it would not have been possible to create their reconstruction with the familiar methods in the study of history, but a "synthetic" approach was required or - as they themselves put it - "it is not sufficient to confine oneself exclusively to facts".37 What of Carlson? He states in the preface to "The Gospel Hoax" to have chosen a "fresh approach" where he is able to "apply... [his] legal training" to try and solve the "great puzzle" offered by the Theodore-letter.38 There is no need to challenge this statement: the approach Carlson has adopted has indeed not been previously applied to the Theodore-letter. The latest endeavour it did not remain for long, as Peter Jeffery's "The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery" (2007) offered some additional fine examples of conspiracy theory argumentation.39 The final conclusion I wish to draw is, however, this: it is that much more difficult to proclaim Morton Smith as the writer of the Theodore-letter, when one is willing to confine one's conclusions inside the commonly accepted boundaries of argumentation in the study of history.

To summarize: I have assessed Stephen C. Carlson's "triune confession of the hoaxer" with the help of the "boisterous pseudohistorical method". Even though "The Gospel Hoax" by Carlson fulfills the formal requirements of academic writing, he utilizes in the hoax hypothesis every individual part of the "boisterous pseudohistorical method": beginning with a badly chosen research question, placing the available data to support the hypothesis in a way that makes it unfalsifiable even in principle, and creating imaginative connections between disparate units without discussing the probabilities of the individual linkages. At last, I create a better hiding place for the name "Morton", the Jelly Roll Morton argument, in an effort to further illustrate the problems historians would be facing should Carlson's methodology become an accepted practice in biblical studies and related fields. Even though Carlson does not explicitly claim to have utilized a true pseudohistorical approach, the "triune confession of the hoaxer" has become a textbook example of conspiracy theory argumentation due to the methodological choices Carlson has made.

1Hedrick 2000.
2Carlson 2005, 46. The two pages in question were from the first volume of Otto Stählin's critical edition of Clement of Alexandria, page numbers xvi and 7.
3Carlson 2005, 19-20.
4Carlson 2005, xv-xvii; the JECS articles are Ehrman 2003b, Hedrick 2003, and Stroumsa 2003.
5Carlson 2005, xviii; cursive mine.
6Carlson 2005, 24.
7Carlson 2005, xvi.
8Baigent 1983, 31.
9Carlson 2005, 124 n. 1. [Further note: The sentence has been supplemented with a quotation from the footnote.]
10http://www.hypotyposeis.org/weblog/2006/07/brown-on-morton-smiths-motives-in-jbl_24.html
11"I don’t see how the difference between Madiotes and Madeotas affects the argument that it is a pseudonym."; http://neonostalgia.com/weblog/?p=487
12There was no clear answer given by Carlson in SBL 2008 Meeting either, when Scott Brown wished to see reactions to the defences of the authenticity of Clement's letter to Theodore; http://www.tonyburke.ca/apocryphicity/2008/12/04/secret-mark-at-the-2008-sbl-annual-meeting/ [Further note: the address has been updated.]
13Smith 1978.
14Carlson 2005, 77-78.
15Smith 1973.
16Carlson 2005, 81.
17Smith 1976, 197.
18Carlson 2005, 79.
19Carlson puts his words down as follows: "while a chemical test of the ink might condemn the Mar Saba Clementine as a forgery, it is not clear to me that testing the ink can exonerate the letter if the result is consistent with early modern inks"; http://www.hypotyposeis.org/weblog/2003/10/ehrman-forgery-of-ancient-discovery-in.html
20Hofstadter 1964, 32.
21Carlson 2005, 61-62.
22Cf. e.g. http://www.clavius.org/scale.html explaining in words of one syllable how the moon landing in 1969 could never have been a staged event with so many NASA personnel involved.
23Jay 2008, 596-597.
24Carroll 1958, 11.
25Carlson 2005, 9, 64, 75.
26Some exceptions can still be found. Presenting the salt argument Carlson remarks that the historical anachronism is "more likely" a deliberate clue left by Morton Smith - that is, more likely a deliberate clue than an accident; Carlson 2005, 61. In his other arguments Carlson suggests e.g. that Isaac Voss' book is "not likely" to have been affected by direct sunlight in the tower library of the monastery of Mar Saba; Carlson 2005, 34. Furthermore, Carlson assesses Morton Smith's motive with the word "probable"; Carlson 2005, 86. Even though some other one-off examples could be cited, the whole of it leans towards this: when "The Gospel Hoax" is gone through via machine search, headwords like "likely", "possible", "possibly", and "probably" produce hits from other people instead of Carlson - once in a while Carlson quotes other scholars at length, and the difference between their regular conditional-filled language and Carlson's own conditional-lacking one is clear enough. Further analysis of this should be undertaken.
27Carlson 2005, 62.
28Smith 1973, 19.
29Carlson 2005, 63.
30Carlson 2005, 62-63.
31Hakkarainen, 251.
32Carlson 2005, 15-16.
33Smith 1951, 155-156.
34Smith 1958a, 507.
35Murgia 1976, 36.
36Stewart 1999, 18.
37Baigent 1983, 312.
38Carlson 2005, xvi-xvii.
39For a short critique of Peter Jeffery cf. Paananen 2008b. A more thorough treatment is found in Brown 2007.

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