Wednesday, December 30, 2009

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

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.

NOTE: the whole subchapter is found here. Comments are better off there.

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.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

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

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.

33Smith 1951, 155-156.
34Smith 1958a, 507.
35Murgia 1976, 36.
36Stewart 1999, 18.

Monday, December 28, 2009

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

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

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.

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.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Song for Christmas

Yesterday at my parents' place, before our traditional Christmas dinner, I stumbled upon a recording from 1998, from another time and place when I still contemplated between studying theology and music (to become a Church musician). At that time a small ensemble of eight students recorded a première of P. J. Hannikainen's Joulu, then recently unearthed, previously unknown Christmas carol by the famous Finnish composer. I'm one of the two tenors.

With this a cappella performance, let me wish everyone, to whom it may concern, a Merry Christmas.

EDIT: Yeah, doesn't work, does it? Still, it's the thought that counts...

EDIT2: Always go for the easy road for things that do not matter - in this case the easiest option was to create a video out of the song.


PS. a late Christmas present for everyone coming up next year:

Eckhard Rau informs us that his article Weder gefälscht noch authentisch? Überlegungen zum Status des geheimen Markusevangeliums als Quelle des antiken Christentums will be published in 2010 in "a volume about apocryphal gospels in WUNT (Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen) together with the first volume of the new Hennecke-Schneemelcher". For more teasers, Rau kindly reveals that the hoax hypothesis of Stephen C. Carlson "is nothing more than a story of an author playing Sherlock Holmes... not able to distinguish between his fantasies and the reality of texts".

It's a Happy New Year awaiting!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pushing Up the Bishops' Conference for a PhD

As I mentioned yesterday, I have received official confirmation from the University of Helsinki: a study plan focused on Clement's letter to Theodore has been approved, and I will be able to begin my PhD studies at the beginning of January 2010. That's great news, for even though I knew what the outcome would be, the official decision will enable me to seek out funding for the writing of this dissertation. Recently, I have read with great interest John David Penniman's series on getting accepted to a Theology/Religion PhD program. It has been a fascinating series, especially when absolutely nothing Penniman considers comes even close to my own journey to a PhD studenthood - from a student's point of view the playing fields in Northern Europe and the USA have nothing in common! I might be tempted to return to this topic with more analysis of the differences in future. For now, I offer a simple one-point assessment of the best and worst of pursuing PhD in Helsinki University from financial perspective:

+ No tuition fees, at all

It is a relief to be able to concentrate on my studies without keeping counting in my head all the tens of thousands of euros I would otherwise owe to a bank.

- No stipends or other easy forms of funding, at all

Well, practically, anyway, they are non-existent. Many of the available funding options are for short periods only, to secure funding for 12 months is a luxury. Urban legends tell of scholars, both post-doc and before, who manage to obtain funding for a three-month period, in which time they manage to obtain funding for the following three-month period, etc. - the actual research they, naturally, are not able to do!

For some physical exercising, I recommend Guy Windsor's The Little Book of Push-ups: For Martial Artists, Athletes and Coach Potatoes, available as free download as well as paperback. Delighted of the tone of this small treatise I decided to supplement my sword-swinging training with push-ups, as the latter may be done in any 15-minute spot otherwise unoccupied. To ensure I don't accidentally quit, I decided to keep a small training diary at Push-ups We Can. Take a look if you wish to know how many regular push-ups I'm able to manage right now.

Some time ago I voiced a slight disappointment over the Bishops' Conference of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, where nothing concrete about sexual minorities was produced all the while the Lutheran Church of Sweden managed to approve a rite of blessing for same-gender unions. Of course, I was not the only one, as one of the foremost Finnish artists, Ville Ranta, demonstrates in a cartoon that was published in Kirkko & Kaupunki 16.12.2009 (Kirkko & Kaupunki being, incidentally, the official publication of Helsingin seurakuntayhtymä, the collective of congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland situated in Helsinki):

Translation: "The Bishops' Conference, having pondered long and hard over the question of accepting GAYS on theological grounds, suddenly has a realization...

...that THEY THEMSELVES are not acceptable on theological grounds."

Friday, December 18, 2009

When Ideals Crash with Reality

Professor Mikko Ketokivi (homepage in English) went almost all the way without holding anything back in today's Helsingin Sanomat regarding the recent Finnish debate concerning the practices of science, especially in connection to the anthropogenic climate change. Some of Ketokivi's observations are equally suitable to the current debate concerning the authenticity of Clement's letter to Theodore and the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark:

"Rehellinen tutkimuksen käytäntöjen tarkastelu paljastaa tutkijan ensisijaisen päämäärän olevan tiedeyhteisön huomion saaminen eli julkaisu vertaisarvioiduissa tieteellisissä aikakauslehdissä.

Tutkija ansioituu mielenkiintoisia ja huomionarvoisia argumentteja esittämällä, ei totuutta etsimällä. Käytännön arviointikriteeri on aina tulosten mielenkiintoisuus ja se, ovatko tutkijan argumentit yhdenmukaisia vertaisarvijoiden maailmankuvan kanssa.

Tätä maailmankuvaa kyseenalaistavat tutkimukset osataan vaientaa tiedeyhteisössä häkellyttävän tehokkaasti.

Tutkimus on aina myös poliittista toimintaa, jonka intresseissä ei valitettavasti ole "korjata itse itseään". En muista, milloin viimeksi oman tiedeyhteisöni jäsen olisi myöntänyt olleensa väärässä..."

Source: Helsingin Sanomat 18.12.2009. Published in Mielipide [Letters to the Editor].

My translation:

"An honest observation of scientific practices reveals that the immediate objective of a scholar is to gain attention from the Academia, that is, to publish an article in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

A scholar gets merit by proposing interesting and remarkable arguments, not by searching for truth. In practice, the evaluation criterion is always the degree in which the results may be seen as intriguing, as well as the possible correspondence between the worldviews of the scholar and his or her peers.

The Academia is able to silence articles that challenge this worldview with stupefying efficiency.

Doing research is always a political act, as well, with no real interest to "correct itself". I cannot remember the last time a member of the Academia [understood locally, counting in the members who work in the same field as prof. Ketokivi] confessed to have been wrong..."


Note that I do not propose that the climate change is not taking place or is not anthropogenic. I hold the majority view that accepts both the reality (it's getting warmer) and the reason (it's us) of it. The conclusion I wish to draw here is that we can be reasonably sure about these, even though the actual practices of science are not at the high level of its ideals.


And the Secret Gospel connection? Until now, only Peter Jeffery has volunteered to continue debating the matter, for which I commend him. Turning to the other side, the number of articles critical of Stephen Carlson's hoax hypothesis, listed i.a. here, have, however, gone almost without comment from the defenders of the hoax hypothesis. The latest episode in this saga took place last Monday, when Roger Viklund published an article that undermined one of the strong points of the hoax hypothesis even more heavily than others before it. With my great imagination I can come up with a plausible picture of what would have happened if Viklund had argued the other way round, with equally promising arguments - a collapse of the biblioblogdom due to the high traffic of Secret Mark related posts.

Incidentally, I got an official confirmation that my study plan - a PhD dissertation concentrating solely on Clement's letter to Theodore - has been accepted by Helsinki University, and that I will be able to start (officially) my PhD studies in two weeks. More on this tomorrow.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tremors, or Just an Optical Illusion? A Further Evaluation of Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis (the shorter blog version) by Roger Viklund

Roger Viklund offers a summary of his new online article "Tremors, or Just an Optical Illusion? A Further Evaluation of Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis" below. My own comments on the article follow afterwards.


I am now fairly certain why Stephen C. Carlson saw all signs of forgery in the handwriting of Clement's letter to Theodoros. It seems all to be due to the basis of his work; printed low resolution images from Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark by Morton Smith. This is a shorter version of my newly written article Tremors, or Just an Optical Illusion? A Further Evaluation of Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis.

In 2005 Stephen C. Carlson came out with The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark. As the title says, Carlson argued that Morton Smith in fact invented Clement's letter to Theodoros containing extracts from a so-called Secret Gospel of Mark. Among the several indications for this presented by Carlson, he also pointed to the actual writing. We only have photographs of a now lost copy of the letter. This shows a text that appears to be written in a hurried cursive eighteenth century Greek handwriting. Carlson thinks that “it should be possible to tell if the hurried handwriting of Theodore is natural or simulated.” (Carlson p. 27) He suspects that if Morton Smith forged that handwriting in the twentieth century, imitating a hurried cursive eighteenth century handwriting, he would have had to write much more slowly in order to form the letters in a way which was not typical for his own way of writing. This careful imitation where the letters are almost drawn would, according to Carlson, lead to a number of characteristics which could reveal the counterfeiter (and according to Carlson, this counterfeiter, or hoaxer, was Morton Smith).

Carlson also claims to have found signs revealing this slow imitating. He refers to a number of “[b]lunt ends at the beginnings and ends of the lines” of the letters. This would be the effect of a very slow shaping of the letters and that the pen thereby came to a stop and the ink would accumulate. He also finds many instances where the pen was lifted in the middle of a stroke and this would indicate that Smith needed to prepare himself for writing the next letter before continuing. Occasionally Smith still had to go back and retouch certain letters. Further Carlson sees a lot of tremors in the writing, tremors which reasonably would not occur if a skilled scribe would have written the letter in a fast pace. Accordingly the tremors are also an effect of slow writing.

In my previous study, Reclaiming Clement's Letter to Theodoros – An Examination of Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis, I did not compare my colour images (which were scanned in 1200 dpi directly from the colour photos taken by Kallistos Dourvas in the late 70s) to the images Carlson used (which he took from the printed images in Morton Smith’s book showing the black and white (b/w) photos Smith took in 1958). Now that I have scanned also these images in 1200 dpi, I realise that the low resolution prints, done on a printing press in the early 70s, have a line screen at a 45 degrees angle. I had of course noticed this before and I had also previously been updated by Scott G. Brown, who informed me of this in an e-mail. Further, also Walter M. Shandruk in a blog post named Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis on Secret Mark, noticed how pixelated the letters were. But the images he presents do not seem to fully show all the details.

A line screen can be described as lines made out of separate dots of different sizes, yet organised in straight lines separated by the same distance and reproduced at a fixed angle. In this case the angle is 45 degrees. As can be seen below from the enlarged image to the left, which is scanned from the printed black and white images of the letter found in Smith’s book, the dots are arranged very symmetric. When you are printing, as in this case in black and white, there is only one colour, and that colour is black There will either be a black dot, or nothing at all, just the background colour of the paper, which normally is whitish. If you wish to produce different shades of grey, you still only have black dots at your disposal. You fool the eye into believing that the image is grey by letting white and black areas interact with each other. The more black dots or the larger the dots are, the darker the area appears to be, and of course, the fewer black dots, the lighter the area appears. The area to the left below is simply a grey background area of the letter enlarged so that the dots can be seen by the naked eye. In normal magnification the area will appear just grey, as is illustrated by the same magnified area reduces into the small grey rectangle in the lower right corner of that image.

When you print for instance letters, these letters are also made up of similar dots. However, because of the low resolution reproductions in the book, the letters will not appear smooth in high magnification. This is due to the low resolution line screen. When you enlarge a halftone image very much, like the one printed in Smith's book, you will not see an accurate representation of lines that are not both perfectly straight and at an angle that accords with the screen. Since the dots are arranged in straight lines with the same distance between them, you can produce straight lines only horizontally, vertically or at 45/135 degrees angles (as the screen in this case is in 45 degrees angle). This is illustrated in the figure above to the right. Whenever you reproduce a line at a different angle, it will appear stepped and this could easily be mistaken for a hesitation in drawing the letter. Since Carlson must have looked at images similar to the ones I shall reproduce below, I claim that the reason he saw all these signs of forgery is not due to the fact that there are any such signs, but due the poor images he used, in which the letters appear to be stepped, but in reality are not.

Because of the limited space on this blog template, there is some problem publishing lots of images. I will therefore settle for showing just a few examples of why, in my opinion, Carlson went wrong. For a more thorough comparison, I once again refer to my main article Tremors, or Just an Optical Illusion? A Further Evaluation of Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis.

Ink blobs as a result of pen stops
Carlson sees “blunt ends at the beginnings and ends of the lines”. This he says indicates “that the strokes were written so slowly that the pen had come to a complete stop at the ends of the strokes.” I will give just one example in order to demonstrate that the ink blobs Carlson saw seems to be the a result of the low resolution line screen of the b/w images and hardly can be seen in the more high resolution colour images. Above we have this iota, where we in the colour image can see that there is a hook upwards to the left, while the b/w image only shows a big blob. This is in all likelihood the “ink blob“ that Carlson saw. The circles below show the ending enlarged. When these low resolution b/w images are magnified to this size the shading at the ends of the letters cannot be shown, as they are constructed of just a few large dots. All shades between black and white are missing and this is a good example of how impossible it is to render small details with a faded surrounding in the b/w images which Carlson used. This discrepancy between the colour images and the b/w images used by Carlson is obvious in almost all the examples presented by him. When the shading is missing, all small and circular movements are distorted, leading to an impression of ink accumulation.

Pen lifts and retakes
Carlson claims that on several occasions, where a skilled scribe would have written in one stroke, this scribe stops, lifts the pen and begins anew. Here there are many obvious and good examples to choose between, where the 45 degrees screen twists the images into looking as if there were retakes. In for instance this stroke between the omicron-upsilon ligature and the circumflex accent, Carlson sees a pen lift. That is on the middle of the long diagonal line, which also is enlarged in the circle.

On the colour image one can clearly see that this line is drawn in one stroke, yet in a curve which is a characteristic of this scribe when he writes this letter. However, in the b/w image the curve appears as if there is a break in the line and one or two retakes beginning beside/below/above the line. Now, this is a consequence of the line screen not being able to reproduce the curve, and instead beginning on another line of dots along the 45 degrees angle, in order to follow the letter’s curve.

Another example where Carlson spots a pen lift is between the epsilon and gamma in the image presented below. The actual place where the break appears is cut out and enlarged in the ellipse to the left.

It really looks like the epsilon is done separately and the gamma is connected a little bit above the epsilon. As can be seen in the enlargement, the line that begins at the epsilon first follows the 45 degrees angle of the line screen, then turns left straight upwards in a 90 degree angle and the turns right to follow the 45 degrees angle again. The colour image shows that the real angle is about 60 degrees and that there is no break. It can only be seen in the b/w image.

These examples (and there are many) show that when lines are produced at angles which differ markedly from the angles possible to reproduce correctly, the lines will be stepped and it will appear as if the pen was lifted and a new stroke was done beginning on a different level. This is particularly obvious in curves as the line screen is not able to produce smooth bends. In order to follow lines done at perhaps 30 or 60 degrees angle, the dots have to shift position as they are following the 45 degrees angle and the lines will then appear to be stepped.

Tremors due to slow writing
Finally there are the forger’s tremors. Carlson writes: “The ‘forger’s tremor’ appears in the shaky quality of lines that should be smooth curves.” But the curves only appear not to be smooth from the low resolution line screen of Carlson’s images. A good example is the theta presented below, where especially the lower part looks shaky, while none of this can be seen in the high resolution colour image.

One can see that Carlson’s claim that in “the first line of Theodore, the shakiness is evident in the theta of Θεοδώρῳ” only holds true for the b/w image.

Other good examples are the so called squarish omicrons Carlson spotted. He claims that they “are so shakily written as to appear square rather than circular”. Carlson identified four omicrons which he claimed were square-shaped, but here I am picking just one omicron which is quite circular in the colour image, but appears to be a square in the b/w image. This rather heavily magnified omicron may demonstrate why the b/w images become distorted.

When a small circle (in reality this omicrons is less than 1 mm in diameter) is created with these dots, it is mainly following the lines of 45 and 135 degrees angles, forming a square standing on its corner. If one looks at the inner circle in the centre of the omicron, which obviously is quite round, the b/w image composes of only four white squares and the surrounding black dots can then only follow the lines of 45 and 135 degrees angles. The same holds true also for the outer circle.

No basis for judgement
This short survey still demonstrates that Carlson’s assertion that the handwriting of Clement’s letter to Theodoros shows signs of ink blobs, pen lifts, retouches and tremors, cannot withhold a critical examination. These signs lie rather in the poor images Carlson used than in the writing itself. The signs of forgery which Carlson claims could be detected in the handwriting cannot really be used as a basis for judgement of the letter’s authenticity, since the quality of the images he used is simply too poor. On the contrary, it can be said that the high resolution colour images do not show any conspicuously marks of ink blobs, pen lifts, retouches and tremors; thereby strengthening the opinion that the text was indeed written rather swiftly. This does in turn strengthen the opinion that the text was written by a skilled scribe in the eighteenth century.

Roger Viklund


A Comment on Tremors, or Just an Optical Illusion? by Timo S. Paananen

One of the first questions I had regarding Stephen C. Carlson's "The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark" (2005) concerned his choice of sources: why did he utilize the B/W photographs that were published in "Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark" in 1973 instead of the colour ones Charles W. Hedrick and Nikolaos Olympiou published in 2000 - especially when we consider the difference in quality these two sets of photographs have. Furthermore, the latter were available as high-resolution scans, as Roger Viklund succeeded in obtaining a permission to use them in his previous online article "Reclaiming Clement's Letter to Theodoros - An Examination of Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis".

The very same question was asked by Scott G. Brown in his first response to the hoax hypothesis, published in "The Expository Times" in early 2006. (Scott Brown: Reply to Stephen Carlson. The Expository Times 117, 144-149.) Brown concludes that Carlson's choice to prefer the low resolution halftone reproductions "makes no sense". (p. 145 n. 4) Similar doubts were raised by Walter M. Shandruk in 2008: the resolution in Smith's photos - as they were published in 1973 - is not high enough to spot "that sort of tremor" a professional QDE (Questioned Document Examination) expert would like to find for establishing that the text is a forgery. ( Shandruk confessed: "I do not see a tremor" - an observation that Roger Viklund, in early 2009, echoed after he had studied the high-resolution scans of the colour photographs. He, too, could not see many of the "signs of forgery" Carlson affirmed were present in the text. (

Viklund's newest article, "Tremors, or Just an Optical Illusion? A Further Evaluation of Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis" summarized above, draws yet another bold question mark over Carlson's assessment of the handwriting of Clement's letter to Theodore, and offers a plausible explanation of the general trend of not seeing anything out of place in the quality of the letter's drawn line - there is nothing to be seen, unless one is looking at halftone reproductions of the B/W photographs. There the drawn line is filled with rugged edges, ink blots, and smudges. When the two sets of photographs are put side by side and compared, the difference is striking: it looks like most of the "signs of forgery" disappear when the gaze is moved from the B/W photographs to the colour ones.

A line screen at a 45 degrees angle is a powerful tool. The best examples of the bunch are the various pictures of omicrons, like the one above, where the round omicron of the colour photograph transforms into a clear tilted square in the B/W photograph. Upon my questioning Viklund wrote to me that the technical questions behind the transformation are actually much more complex than the simple line screen limitation, including issues of resolution, the size of the dots, the pattern of the dots and the intelligence of their distribution, even the quality of the paper and the relative humidity of the space where the printing took place. But the end result is clear enough: there are vast differences between the two sets of photographs, differences that seem to question the basis of the handwriting analysis Carlson made.

It will be interesting to see what conclusions the two handwriting experts, Agamemnon Tselikas and Venetia Anastasopoulou that were hired by Biblical Archaeology Review, will offer. Personally, I have begun to feel that anything less than the original MS will be insufficient for establishing anything about the handwriting. I have cited QDE expert Hannah McFarland of the dangers of not using originals (a similar sentiment is shared by the source Brown uses in his Expository Times reply, p. 145 n. 4). Recently, David Henige has offered a similar dire warning in "Historical Evidence and Argument" (University of Wisconsin Press 2005, 198-199, 271-272 n. 56-57). If the BAR experts arrive at some firm conclusion, either for or against the authenticity, I will be a bit suspicious as well as surprised. Instead of debating the undebatable, we should triple our efforts at locating the missing MS.

"Tremors, or Just an Optical Illusion? A Further Evaluation of Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis" does not answer the question I began with. We do not know why Stephen Carlson chose to use the B/W photographs instead of the colour ones. Viklund has, however, presented a strong case for why Carlson should have left the halftone reproductions with line screen at a 45 degrees angle out of his hoax hypothesis entirely.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

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

[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.

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";
20Hofstadter 1964, 32.
21Carlson 2005, 61-62.
22Cf. e.g. 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.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Lasting Impressions from SBL Meeting 2009

How about as lasting as the actual papers that were presented in the "Psychology and Biblical Studies" session themed The Secret Gospel of Mark, Sex, Death,and Madness; The Psychodynamics of Morton Smith's Proposal. They are found online here; currently only Jensen's, Capps', and Lawrence's papers are uploaded, but Jeffery's and Ellens' could appear there in the near future. The official program may be seen here and here. Of live impressions from the session I have written earlier.

Robin M. Jensen writes with the title "The Secret Gospel and Alexandrian Baptism". She was one of Morton Smith’s graduate students from 1983 to 1985, and worked as a teaching assistant to him, gaining some insight into Smith's personality in the process, illustrated by some telling anecdotes. The bulk of Jensen's paper, however, deals with the question of Alexandrian liturgy, and the placement of the Secret Gospel of Mark within it.

She concludes that "none of Clements’s [sic] (other) surviving works refer to the story of Lazarus (or another unknown youth) in connection with baptism or with baptism at paschal-tide". Consequently, as Peter Jeffery has argued, there is no place in the early Alexandrian liturgy for the kind of baptism that we find from Secret Mark. Such an argument, of course, rests on the premise that "teaching.. the mystery of the kingdom of God" (Theod. III.9-10) with its preparatory periods and linen cloths would have been read as a reference to baptism in Alexandria. For more of the learned debate, see Scott G. Brown's response to Jeffery, and Jeffery's response to Brown.

If the premise is hold, the other option would be to change our understanding of the liturgical history, as noted by Jeffery himself on page 62 of "The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled". Pointing to this possibility are Jensen's remarks of the connections between Secret Mark and Clement's writings: 1) "Clement mentions certain “libertines” who have a baptism (or washing = απολουοντεs) that condones amoral (or immoral) behavior", 2) "Clement routinely uses the idea of regeneration for baptism", 3) "Clement also speaks of baptism as “perfection”", and 4) "Alexandrian does seem to have been a ritual that was performed upon nude adults in some kind of natural setting".

Ultimately, these subtle details that could be used to establish the authenticity of the Theodore-letter, are used by Jensen to promulgate the myth of Morton Smith as the only person with the ability to make a forgery of this calibre:

"From my personal experience of him, Morton Smith would have known all of Clement’s works, in their various editions and in their original languages. If he was so very learned, and if he forged this document himself, what could he have gotten wrong that would exposed him now, many decades later?"

The letter is a forgery, there is no doubt about it. Still, Jensen's paper is the most level-headed of the three.

Donald Capps has titled his paper "The Diagnostic Question". Having read both Jeffery's book and "The Secret Gospel" (1973) by Morton Smith, he ventures to make a diagnosis: Morton Smith suffered from narcissistic personality disorder. One of the reasons for Capps' assessment is the denial of the three women in the Secret Gospel of Mark (Theod. III.14-16):

"The psychoanalytic literature on narcissistic personality disorder is replete with references to its roots in inadequate mothering of the young boy and of the need for psychoanalysts to find a way to provide adequate “mothering” for their male patients."

The diagnosis, of course, rests on the premise that Morton Smith did forge the letter. For "we can imagine that when he [Smith] was engaged in the writing of the forgery he was, in fact, in a manic state that bordered on psychosis". Some further comments I have made are found here. Overall, Capps' presentation reads as a curious thought-experiment of the practice of ascribing clinical conditions to literary characters, in this case mostly the "Morton Smith" as he is depicted by Jeffery, and somewhat regarding the "Morton Smith", the implied author, of "The Secret Gospel", as well - and that's it.

Of Raymond J. Lawrence's paper I offer some choice quotes:

"My take is that the Mar Saba fragment, whatever its authorship, belongs in the big trash pile of the many far-fetched imaginary portraits of Jesus as magician guru who taught esoteric wisdom and performed various acts of hocus pocus, with implied divine assistance."

"Smith had all his personal papers burned at his death..."

"I assume from innuendo that Smith’s difficulties lay in part because he was a homosexual..."

"...we can assume that Smith was also looking for a homosexual Jesus..."

"Mar Saba presents just the kind of Jesus Smith openly acknowledged he was searching for, a hierophantic woman-hating homosexual."

"Mar Saba reads as they say more like Clement than Clement himself."

In conclusion:

"I believe the case for forgery is even stronger than Jeffery allows."

Lawrence turns Smith's open confession of the presence of fictitious elements in the discovery story (The Secret Gospel, page ix) into a general unreliability of Smith as a person, and Smith's understanding of the the limits of historical enquiry (The Secret Gospel, page 96) into Smith making a case, that he is finding what he is looking for - a homosexual Jesus. Further on, Lawrence turns Smith's openness to the fact that scholars usually try to adapt new evidence into their old paradigms rather than change the paradigms themselves (The Secret Gospel, page 24) into an example of a deceptive "self-effacing admission".

Thus, when Lawrence concludes that "on balance I believe the case for a deceptive Morton Smith is even stronger than Peter Jeffery makes it", I am not really sure if the word "balance" is the best possible choice in this context.


Furthermore, people are free to address me as "prophet" or "seer" from now on. Remember, when I quipped that "wouldn't it be downright bizarre if all the five panelists accepted the accusations of forgery" back in October?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Wanted: A Real-Life Robert Langdon

Are you IMMERSIVE? Are you ACTIVE? Are you PHYSICAL? And most of all, are you ACADEMIC?

The search for a Lead Investigator for the new History Channel series, Decoded, continues to look for a real-life Robert Langdon to explore "each subject matter both physically and mentally".

Requirements: "a strong background in history and symbology", and the ability to look "past the obvious", for becoming "excited to delve into the mysterious".

As most of the biblical scholars I know would fit the bill exactly, you'd better hurry: Deadline to submit an application is December 10th, 2009.