How much biographical information is it necessary to reveal so that one's readers will be able to assess one's arguments fairly? In the field of pedagogics, this is a matter of great importance, and no paper should be written without some. In theology, however, the opinions are varied. From the feedback I received in the final stage of my writing, I gathered that naught is required, especially when we're talking about mere theses. Thus, I ended up cutting everything out, as my material was already twice the size recommended for a Master's Thesis.
Only later did I understand the irony. In Chapter 4 of my thesis I discuss in moderate length how the presuppositions tend to guide the reading of the evidence available. A conclusion regarding Stephen C. Carlson's hoax hypothesis is made, namely, that some parts of the said hypothesis are construed utilizing unscientific methods and harnessing inherent cognitive weaknesses within the human mind. With all this fancy talk, the one thing that got discarded from the overblown mass of text was about my own presuppositions on the subject. Like some interesting biographical twists in my life hadn't any consequences to my analysis!
I feel it is only fair to present this short chronological narration, originally situated between the numbers 1 (Introduction) and 1.1 (Clement's letter to Theodore: Discovery story) in my thesis, that sheds some light on the question, how did I manage to combine Carlson's hoax hypothesis and modern conspiracy theory thinking. I think the following text reveals possible means to counter some key arguments in my thesis, but, for the sake of a fair debate, I nevertheless feel this to be important.
The rough machine translation (which I have corrected; not a single sentence was good enough without a major revision) was done by WebTranSmart. (If the language sounds even more contrived than my usual English, blame It.)
"In the autumn of 2005 I got an assignment from Dr. Ismo Dunderberg, as part of my studies at the Department of Biblical Studies at Helsinki University, to read two chapters from a recently published book by Stephen C. Carlson named "The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark". In my earlier studies I had become acquainted with Morton Smith, his theory about Jesus as a magician, and his alleged discovery of an unknown letter by Clement of Alexandria to Theodore (including two excerpts from the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark) only cursorily. Outside my university studies I knew of this letter having read about it in a conspiracy theory classic "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. The authors used the Secret Gospel of Mark to give a naturalistic explanation to the healings (exorcisms) of Jesus. These were deliberately staged incidents as Secret Mark witnesses: a shout is heard from the grave even though the young man inside should be dead. And no, the interpretation made no sense, not even for a student with three years of theological studies in the back pocket.
The work of Carlson aroused my interest immediately: he claimed that Clement's letter to Theodore (in the shorter form the Theodore-letter) and its excerpts from the Secret Gospel of Mark were forged by the alleged discoverer of the manuscript, Morton Smith. On top of that, the usual motives - money or fame - were not applicable, since, according to Carlson, Smith had far more ambiguous reasons for his deed: Theodore-letter was more of a hoax than a forgery. The difference was important because the hoaxer could hid jokes and clues about his true identity in the forged text. It was possible to find these kinds of clues in the Theodore-letter, clues referring to the baldness (!) of Morton Smith and to his given names. According to my notes, I had thought that Carlson's work "beat hands down Da Vinci Code", a novel by Dan Brown I had read a year earlier (naturally) among the first readers. In my opinion, Carlson wan, since his text was fact, whilst Dan Brown's was fiction.
I was astonished that it was possible to argue like Carlson had done in a scientific work, with arguments I had seen earlier utilized only in conspiracy theories. On the whole, the presentation of Carlson seemed very strong, and I archived the case of the Secret Gospel of Mark as a "recently discovered hoax" in my mind. Two years after this first encounter with the hoax hypothesis I promised to write an article about the Secret Gospel to a Finnish magazine Vartija. The editor-in-chief, Dr. Matti Myllykoski, had noticed the publication of a new book which addressed this subject. The work in question was Peter Jeffery's provocatively titled monograph "The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Death, Sex, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery". But it was not the book itself which had picked Myllykoski's curiosity, but a book review by Scott G. Brown - all 47 pages of it - in which Brown, who had written a dissertation in 1999 on the Secret Gospel of Mark, defended furiously the authenticity of the Theodore-letter. Was it possible that the debate about the question of authenticity wasn't over yet?
This was the question I pursued from January 2008 onwards, starting with gathering all available material that discussed Clement's letter to Theodore. I decided to read them through in chronological order, beginning with Scott G. Brown's 2005 work "Mark's Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith's Controversial Discovery", which was an update of his earlier (1999) dissertation. The central thesis in this work had everything to do with the writer of the canonical Gospel of Mark: according to Brown, the one and the same person was responsible for composing both, the canonical Gospel as well as the Alexandrian "Secret Edition". I noticed that the book of Brown had been published at the beginning of the year 2005 whereas the hoax hypothesis of Carlson was published in the summer of the same year. From the bibliography I saw that Carlson had had time to read Brown's. Two years earlier I had read only two chapters from Carlson, and perusing through Brown's numerous literary critical arguments backing the authenticity of the text, I wondered how on Earth would Carlson be able to proclaim them wrong.
The answer was surprising: he doesn't. Carlson does not discuss the literary critical arguments of Brown at all. Instead, he acknowledges them, with one sentence, in a footnote: according to Carlson the criteria used by Brown are "too lenient". In principle, there is a legitimate reason for dismissing Brown completely: Carlson sees his own arguments to be so strong that it makes no sense to offer a detailed criticism - since Theodore-letter is a hoax written by Morton Smith, there must be something wrong with Brown's case. What about Carlson's own arguments? As I read through "The Gospel Hoax", I began to see an alternative point of view. The fact, that it is not always easy to distinguish the argumentation of Carlson from standard conspiracy theory thinking - maybe it's not necessarily a good thing! However, not everything in Carlson's case is based on the clues and jokes hidden by the hoaxer. Are these other arguments persuasive enough to make the hoax hypothesis plausible?
The final result of this work was an article that the Finnish magazine Vartija published in two parts in the autumn of 2008. I collected all the claims together, commented on them and paid attention to the fact that some of the arguments for the hoax hypothesis seemed to resemble pseudoscientific, conspiracy theory thinking. However, my analysis was too general. I wondered, if it was possible to analyze the connection I perceived between the alleged deliberate clues hid by Morton Smith and other claims usually deemed as pseudoscientific by the academic consensus in more detail. On the other hand, I also saw that various arguments and their counterarguments were all over the place: the task to bring all of these into a single paper hadn't been done yet. These two tasks - bring all the arguments from both sides together and comment on them; analyse the similarities and differences between Carlson's clue arguments and known (and established) pseudoscientific (conspiracy theory thinking) arguments - became the core questions for my Master's Thesis. My very special thanks go to my tutor in this project, professor Ismo Dunderberg, who kept his (well grounded, I might add) protests to a minimum, when I presented him my great idea to switch the subject of my thesis - when the first one was already well under way - from explaining the twin motif used in Thomas-literature to assessing the hoax hypothesis of Clement's letter to Theodore."
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