Friday, April 16, 2010

BAR Expert: "It Is Highly Probable that Morton Smith Could Not Have Simulated the Document of “Secret Mark”"

First, Scott G. Brown and Allan J. Pantuck once again challenged the first handwriting analysis of Clement's letter to Theodore in Stephen Carlson’s Questionable Questioned Document Examination. Carlson's two-paragraph dismissal of the article can be found in Philip Harland's blog Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean.

Right after that, the Greek handwriting expert Venetia Anastasopoulou, hired by Biblical Archaeology Review to do a professional analysis of the handwriting in Clement's letter, publishes her findings. The resolution: "[i]t is highly probable that Morton Smith could not have simulated the document of “Secret Mark”".

The short BAR article accompanying the report is found online here. The actual 36-page report can be downloaded from here. Anastasopoulou's concluding remarks are worth quoting in full:


The following opinion is based upon an examination of the documents submitted to me for this purpose using the application of appropriate handwriting principles, and my experience and training as a forensic document and handwriting examiner.

It is my professional opinion that the writers of the questioned document of “Secret Mark” on the document listed as Q1, Q2 an Q3 and Morton Smith's handwriting on the documents listed as K1 – K27, are most probably not the same.

Therefore it is highly probable that Morton Smith could not have simulated the document of “Secret Mark”.


This opinion is based solely on the documents listed as having been examined. Due to the limitations imposed in examining document photographs, this opinion is highly probable. This opinion is subject to amendment if additional examinations are performed using additional exemplars which may exhibit evidence not observable in the documents upon which this opinion was based.


  1. Her view of the Mar Saba letter:

    “This calligraphy writing, with so many abbreviations and ligatures looks like an artistic design of good quality. Although it is a difficult style of writing and needs a lot of practice in order to be able to write in this way; the text is written spontaneously with an excellent rhythm. The letters and their combinations are curved fluently while at the same time the grammatical rules are followed. The movement of the writing indicates a hand used to writing in this manner. The letters are written unconsciously.”

    And then her view of Smith’s ability to write Greek:

    “His writing is like that of a school student. It is obvious that his hand is not familiarised in Greek writing so as to be able to use it freely and with ease and be able to express thoughts and beliefs.”
    “His Greek writing is as learned in school, copybook, letter-letter, unconnected, carefully drawn.”

  2. Indeed, when we recall Carlson's assessment of the letter's handwriting on page 35 of The Gospel Hoax...

    "The indications of hesitations, tremors, and retouching of the letters indicate that its apparently hurried cursive was executed more slowly than it purports to be. The orthographic errors and anomalous letter forms indicate that its writer had not fully mastered the style of handwriting."

    ...the contrast with Anastasopoulou's verdict could not possibly be greater.

  3. When you read the details of her report, note the difference she finds between the natural variation that exists in the handwriting of MS 65 (as evidence of unconscious, spontaneous, fluent writing) in contradistinction to the limited range of variation in Smith's Greek hand (constrained, lacking deviation, carefully drawn). As Scott and I noted, "natural variation" in a document such as MS 65 is not "suspicous", it is evidence of authentic writing.

  4. What do you think of graphology? Do you accept that Ms Anastasopoulou is qualified enough to offer a truly expert opinion? I thought you were worried that Carlson doesn't have a PhD, this lady has no serious qualifications.

  5. Here is what is said of her on the BAR website

    "Venetia Anastasopoulou is a prominent handwriting expert living in Athens who has frequently testified in Greek courts. BAR retained her to compare the handwriting in which the Clement letter was written with Greek handwriting known to be Smith’s. She is a member of the National Association of Document Examiners (U.S.A.) and the International Graphology Association (U.K.). She holds a Certificate in Forensic Sciences from the University of Lancashire (U.K.) and a diploma in Handwriting Analysis from the International Graphology Association (U.K.).
    Anastasopoulou compares numerous letters, parts of letters and words in the Clement letter with Smith’s Greek handwriting in her 36-page report. We are offering the entire document here for those sufficiently familiar with Greek handwriting to understand and appreciate her examination."

    She offers reasonable arguments based on her experience as a handwriting expert. After going through those arguments I think most reasonable and unbiased people will conclude that she demonstrates expertise in the area of handwriting analysis.

    As to anonymous' use of the word 'truly' I don't quite understand. Either one has expertise or one doesn't. It would be impossible to argue that she absolutely no expertise on the subject matter. She appears to have expertise - and thus offers a 'truly expert opinion.'

    I don't know that any single paper or opinion can prove authenticity or forgery but at least BAR is being completely transparent citing her entire report and letting her expert opinion speak for itself.

    She makes a very good case for the idea that Morton Smith did not forge the document. I think there is much more to argue and debate but that proposition has effectively 'bit the dust' at this point.

  6. Sorry, that was me.
    Certificate in Forensic Science, University of Central Lancashire = part time home-based study for one semester (maybe two) (no exams). Not far off a mail order qualification.
    Diploma in Handwriting Analysis, International Graphology Association = 30 lessons of distance education, an open-book exam (non-accredited) all about handwriting analysis for personality assessment (hocus pocus). This looks even more like a mail order qualification.

    I'm not saying this lady is not smart enough to compare two Greek scripts, but I am not convinced of the "expert" claim.

    Arguments that support the view you already have should be subjected to critical examination, right?

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  8. First off, yes, I'm a human being and I like arguments that support my working hypotheses. When I was intimate with black women and they told me I was like a black man I believed them even though it probably wasn't true.

    But that's another story.

    I look at the University of Lancashire website and they say that there is a three year program for Forensic Science.

    I imagine you know how the British higher education system works so I will take your word that you can do it in less time and less rigorously than what is described here (although even you don't seem to be sure exactly how long the program(me) is).

    The bottom line is that her arguments line up with what was being said in the Brown/Pantuck article. There is the argument that Ehrman makes that “with any skill at all, and a little practice,” it would be easy for Smith to learn to fake the 18th-century handwriting in which the Clement letter is written.

    This is clearly an exaggeration.

    As I said in my last comments:

    It would be impossible to argue that she absolutely no expertise on the subject matter. She appears to have expertise - and thus offers a 'truly expert opinion.'

    I assume then that you would argue that she wasn't "truly qualified" to argue that Morton Smith didn't write Greek well enough to copy this handwriting.

    I don't know which part of her argument you take issue with.

    She says of the author of the Mar Saba document that "the whole writing shows freedom, spontaneity and artistic flair. It also shows a skillful penmanship of a well educated and trained writer who uses the
    language effectively in expressing his thoughts." [p. 17]

    She also says of Morton Smith that "there is an obvious difference in his mother tongue writing and in his Greek writing. His writing in English language is fluent with letter connections between the words, with personal abbreviations and characteristics, whereas the Greek words are written letter-letter as copy book at a lower speed, without ease and the
    range of variations is very limited. His writing is like that of a school student.
    It is obvious that his hand is not familiarised in Greek writing so as to be able to use it freely and with ease and be able to express thoughts and beliefs." [p. 18]

    There is of course more than this to her report but I think it provides a reasonable foundation that it is unlikely that he ever possessed the ability to pull off the Mar Saba document.

    Again as I said here (in the earlier comment) and at your blog:

    "I don't know that any single paper or opinion can prove authenticity or forgery but at least BAR is being completely transparent citing her entire report and letting her expert opinion speak for itself.

    She makes a very good case for the idea that Morton Smith did not forge the document."

  9. I have just emailed Venetia to clarify how long it took her to complete here program(me) in Forensic Science at Lancashire. I will let everyone know what she emails back to me.

  10. I doubt than anyone who has looked at Smith's Greek hand could seriously imagine that he made an essentially flawless jump into what looks almost like a Greek version of shorthand, ligatures and all. It must also be mentioned that Smith consulted experts on Greek script to date the approximate time of writing. With all due respect to Peter Head et al, the forgery horse is dead. You can stop beating him any time now.

    Robert Conner

  11. Whatever Anastasopoulou's forensic document examination credentials are, it is curious that she is also (apparently) a practicing graphologist. If you, Stephan, receive a response from her, you can also ask about the graphologist part, explaining that it is the one thing in her entire report that many, myself included, are a bit uncomfortable with. Maybe she can clear things up.

    As for beating the dead horse, that too happens, but I would not put Peter Head into that section. I think everyone who has already invested a certain amount of time and energy to take a stance either for or against the hoax hypothesis, may be excused for doing that. For everyone else, the situation - with 100% contrary evaluations and neither side budging an inch - must seem chaotic, and Peter's verdict What do I think? I wish I knew in Evangelical Textual Criticism is probably the most sane available.

  12. I read Peter's position and it made quite an impression on me. I agree with almost all of it but in the end I think that if the material can't be proved to have been forged by Morton Smith (and 'proof' requires a blockbuster argument like Carlson's forger's tremor was originally thought to be) than it is difficult not to accept the text as Clementine.

    And about Anastasopoulou having a degree in one pseudo-scientific field, if her arguments are sound what does it matter?

    For her main argument comparing the handwriting of the man who produced the Mar Saba document with the handwriting skills of Morton Smith in Greek I think she has sufficient expertise to pull that off. Remember when I said those things about a PhD in the context of Carlson's meta-thesis about the Mar Saba document. I think he went beyond merely arguing that there were anomalies in the Mar Saba manuscript and saying that because of the anomalies it was likely that Smith was the forger.

    As has been demonstrated at your blog on at least three occasions he seems to have to cut corners in order to help bolster what amounts to being fantastic claim about Smith's motives, motives so outlandish they are normally reserved for villains in comic strips!

    I don't think that Carlson would have operated like this or made silly arguments like this if he had a professional reputation to uphold.

    Anastopoulou examines Greek documents for a living. I don't know that she is the last word on whether the document could not have been forged by Carlson. We're still waiting on Tselikas's report (I hope).

    Anastopoulou has a professional reputation to uphold. She is an expert in the field. Her paper makes a convincing argument but it is not 'proof' that Morton Smith couldn't have forged the text.

    If another person comes along like Tselikas - i.e. with equal or better credentials - and says much the same thing, the case will be that much stronger.

    Unless of course someone comes along and finds out that Tselikas works as a part time astrologer. Or that he is a world champion mud wrestler. Oh my God, that will certainly prove his views can't be accepted once and for all! ...

  13. Further to Stephen Huller's point: I wish there were more champion mud wrestlers in our field;)

    Phil H.

  14. I should mention that there is more news in the latest issue of the BAR which has went under reported. Agamemnon Tselikas who is by far the more respected of the two authorities came to a very different conclusion than Anastopoulou. I paid five dollars to get this information from BAR:

    Agamemnon Tselikas, on the other hand, has concluded that Morton Smith forged the letter containing Secret Mark. I report this conclusion based on several very pleasant telephone conversations with Dr. Tselikas. However, Dr. Tselikas has failed to submit a written report, missing several agreed deadlines, the last of which was shortly before we went to press. When and if we receive a written report, we will let our readers know.

    Based on our conversations, this is the basis for Dr. Tselikas’s conclusion: He has examined other manuscripts from Mar Saba and concluded that the Secret Mark letter was not written by a monk there. He has located another document at another monastery that he believes was written by the monk whose handwriting Smith was attempting to imitate. He has also learned that Smith was at this other monastery examining manuscripts. This, as best as I can reconstruct it from our telephone conversations, is Dr. Tselikas’s reasoning. If I have erred, I hope Dr. Tselikas will correct me.

    I had actually heard a version of this story a while back from a mutual friend, but, like Shanks, I could make sense of the information.

    Obviously if Tselikas concludes that the text is a forgery that will be problematic. His testimony will be unquestionably weightier than Anastopoulou's. Let's see what happens next.

  15. My response to Ms. Anastasopoulou's report will be found at .

  16. I actually enjoyed reading Jeffrey's response. I don't agree with many of his claims about "what's wrong" with the manuscript including the homo-erotic nonsense. I am not sure anyone will ever know exactly what the context is for the 'naked man with naked man' reference was (i.e. is it an misinformed Carpocratian reference to Clement's Alexandrian Gospel of Mark, a deliberately insulting reference to Clement's Alexandrian gospel, a Carpocratian reference to their own variant secret gospel of Mark etc.). How this ambiguity can be turned around as a 'proof' for forgery has always been beyond my intellectual capabilities.

    But I certainly agree with Jeffrey's final point which is:

    Before they [those on the side of authenticity] declare victory, those who would place the document in the second century ... and come to some level of consensus on a compelling interpretation that shows why their dating makes the most sense

    I believe that while it was necessary to disprove some of Carlson's most important 'proofs' the difficult task of figuring out how the text fits in within late second century and early third century Christianity has yet to be attempted.

    Most of those who argue for the hoax proposition already 'know' what the truth is - it is found in a universal acceptance of the orthodoxy outlined by Irenaeus and the sources he ultimately introduced to the world (the fourfaced gospel, Ignatius, his own cleaned up version of Polycarp etc.). It's going to be a challenge for anyone to explain why Clement seems to go along with Irenaeus' program but nevertheless can be demonstrated to clandestinely go along with those whom Irenaeus attacks throughout the five books of Against All Heresies.

    It's going to be a challenge and I don't know who among us is up for it. As Jesus says in the gospel of the heretic Mark (AH i.20.2) "I have often desired to hear one of these words, and I had no one who could utter it."