Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Other BAR Expert: "Morton Smith Forged the Letter Containing Secret Mark"

Stephan Huller notifies in his blog stephan huller's observations that the newest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (May / June 2010) contains a contrasting opinion from the other handwriting expert, Agamemnon Tselikas, whom BAR also hired to assess the handwriting in Clement's letter to Theodore. Hershel Shanks reports (thanks to Stephan for the transcription):

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.

One version of Tselikas' CV can be found here.

Opinions should be placed on the comments below, thank you.


  1. That was surprising. We will then have to wait for his report, which he hopefully will submit. But this was the worst possible scenario with the experts giving diametrically opposed opinions on the issue. I suspect then that this just will strengthen the positions by the different camps, each referring to his/her expert. That is unless something extraordinary comes from Agamemnon Tselika’s report. If I correctly interpret what is said, the handwriting in the Mar Saba document does not match the handwriting of the monks who were living there, yet is similar to a handwriting found in another monastery which Smith had visited, then reasonably before 1958.

  2. It would be quite exciting if Tselikas has actually found an 18th century monastic hand that matches that of MS 65, as this would be extemely important new information regarding its provenance. It is not clear from Shanks' short description why Tselikas thinks it is an imitation of this writing, or why he thinks Smith is the imitator (other than having once visited the monastery). If we can believe Venetia A.'s report, the probability that
    Smith could have imitated such a writing rapidly approaches zero, so it will be interesting to see what kind of information Tselikas provides to support this notion. It is interesting that Tselikas studied Palaeography in Athens under Prof. M. Manoussaksas who was one of the experts that Smith originally consulted on MS 65 and who then dated the hand to the early 18th century.

  3. As readers of my blog know, I was aware of personal conversations with associates of his what his opinions of the manuscript were BEFORE he was commissioned to examine the document. Let's just say that it seems that at the time of Shanks' telephone conversations with Tselikas, he hasn't found anything to convince him that it wasn't a forgery.

    I suspect however given the fact that he is a consummate professional he is doing his best to uncover every possible lead to give him the best possible information to get to the right answer. Again, I have no information about his whereabouts other than to say that (a) he has an office in Jerusalem (b) he has very good relationship with the library of the Patriarch in Jerusalem where the document was last seen (c) he has spoken with the head librarian and determined that he too is very eager to rediscover the document and (d) the best, most accurate decision about the authenticity of the document would come from having the original rather than a photograph.

    I haven't spoken to anyone about Tselikas since February 25th which is after he was commissioned by BAR but my guess is that his delay has something to do with his discovery of more evidence which complicates his task of completing his report.

    I did speak to a noted professor in the Mar Saba debate about Tselikas' working hypothesis back on February 25th (I have all the emails posted at my blog) and he said something that is worth noting. If Tselikas found something that connects the Mar Saba document to the handwriting of another monastery that is by its very nature a good thing for us too because it changes the scope of the debate.

    The nature of the argument would then evolve into a debate as to (i) whether or not the two handwritings match and (ii) whether Morton Smith could have been responsible for the Mar Saba document. It will be interesting to see how Tselikas PROVES (ii).

    Tselikas has been saying that Smith was at this monastery for some time. This would not be surprising in itself. But what if the timelines don't match (i.e. that Smith is documented as having visited the monastery AFTER his discovery of the Mar Saba manuscript).

    The point is that if Tselikas has found something it will hopefully narrow the debate. It would represent progress which is a good thing. Because all of us are interested in the same thing, presumably - the truth.

  4. This is akin to saying that I am capable of imitating the Mona Lisa to the degree of fooling art experts because I visited the Louvre.

  5. And one more thing. You'd think that if someone found a manuscript which matched the Mar Saba document in some way it would help our side. As I noted Tselikas started out sharing the belief of most of the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem that the document is a fake. As we have seen with intelligent men from our own culture, presuppositions are a difficult thing to control sometimes. It is difficult to imagine that the Mar Saba document represents a poor copy of anything. As Anastasopoulou notes, there is natural variation in handwriting.

    I am actually VERY excited to see Tselikas' discovery. The fact that he has found another example of the handwriting in another monastery is a game changer. Am actively working my sources to explain the delay.

  6. Strongly agreed that Tselikas' work here sounds erratic at best. Personally I don't put much stock in handwriting analysis either way, though I think that broad conclusions can usually be reached on the basis of evidence. I also agree that if Teslikas has actually found handwriting that matches MS 65, that would be an extraordinary find. I likewise see no reason why we should assume that Smith was therefore the forger (rather than that MS 65 was written by that very same monk), but we will have to wait for the remaining details, if there are any, before drawing further conjectures.

  7. On a related note, I've finished my critique of Francis Watson's recent article, "Beyond Suspicion", appearing in the April issue of JTS. You can read the critique (in several posts, starting from the bottom) here.

  8. Personally I don't put much stock in handwriting analysis either way...

    That's probably the most intelligent thing said in this thread. Handwriting analysis isn't graphology, to be sure, but as a forensic method it's been received very guardedly by the courts. In the Secret Mark debate over the years, I've put the least stock in conclusions reached by examining the handwriting (Carlson's book could have done just as easily without it). There's an avalanche of damning evidence without it: Hunter's novel, Smith already having the elements of his "find" beforehand in published work, the salt and homoerotic signatures, the Anglican Catholic liturgical elements -- that's plenty.

  9. Loren, I normally wouldn't even bother to respond to this kind of post but since my dog is having her anal sacs cleansed I thought it would be only fitting to type out a quick reply to comments.

    I read your recent review of Watson's article and was amused by the manner the two of you can limit what Clement is saying in to Theodore to familiar arguments developed by Morton Smith. Watson did his best to avoid Scott Brown's interpretation of the context of the letter. It was as if Brown didn't even exist (or at the very least he is relegated to the footnotes where only his interpretation of Morton Smith's interpretation of the letter is considered).

    If you want to dismiss the letter and you want the letter to be forgery why bother even develop arguments any more? Why even pretend we are engaging in a rational debate?

    So many things have happened in the last few months which SHOULD HAVE challenged your certainty that the very fact you are trumpeting your continued certainty leaves me to doubt what the point is to even engage you in this forum.

    Viklund has demonstrated that the Carlson's strongest proof for forgery can't be taken seriously. Brown and Pantuck have demonstrated other methodological short comings in the work. Now Anastasopoulou has developed a very convincing case that Morton Smith couldn't have been responsible for the handwriting in the letter.

    Despite all these developments you come out trumpeting your certainty that the text is a fake based on a number of weak arguments which never convinced anyone other than those who went into the discussion wanting to be convinced.

    The world has changed in the last seventy two hours. It might change again with new arguments and new discoveries but the recent developments have made the case for authenticity stronger and the case for forgery weaker. There is absolutely no question about this.

    If you want to engage in a productive discussion by all means. But if you just want to be 'convinced' of your inherited presuppositions why not enter one of those forums for people who think that Obama isn't an American or that global warming is a hoax.

    Let's hope for your sake that Tselikas brings something new to the table for your side because the whole thing is getting rather boring ...

  10. See, and I thought I would never see the day that Mr. Rosson III would ever change his mind about anything having to do with Secret Mark, but I guess nothing changes his mind faster about the worth of forensic handwriting analysis than an analysis supporting the possibility that Smith did not forge it. Setting aside the question of the validity of questioned document examination, I guess kudos are due to BAR for presenting the ENTIRE report of its consultant rather than just presenting misrepresentative excerpts.

  11. If you want to dismiss the letter and you want the letter to be forgery why bother even develop arguments any more?

    Well Stephan, it's not so much that I ever wanted the letter to be a forgery (I'd be quite pleased, actually, to learn that something like Secret Mark actually existed), only that the letter deserves to be dismissed. But you got me in any case, because I concluded my post saying that advocates for Smith's innocence should simply be ignored, and here I am, ignoring my own advice.

  12. Well I feel honored that you aren't ignoring me. The bottom line is when we stop engaging one another we end up drifting off into self-serving rhetoric which isn't constructive for understanding of this text, Clement, the development of the canon and ultimately the advancement of science.

    No one is in possession of absolute truth. That's why I honestly feel that Carlson's arguments have been a 'good thing' regardless of whether or not we all agree with his conclusions.

    Many of us know more about the microscopic detail of this document than any other ancient text, down to the shape of individual letters and strokes of a pen! It's utterly surreal sometimes.

    If only we paid the same degree of attention to other manuscripts, imagine the things we would uncover about them too.

  13. Now, everyone, be nice. There is room for disagreement here.

    Having said that, I think that the "homoerotic signatures" are certainly an illusion, as are the claimed connections with 20th c. Anglican liturgy. Nor are there any meaningful connections between salt and anything implicating Morton Smith in the letter.

    Hunter's novel is worth discussing further, though my opinions on the subject should be clear by now :)

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  15. The purported similarity between The Clement letter and Hunter’s novel is based on mathematically flawed statistics. You need to take into account every other novel that has been written before 1958, because if you start by looking for a novel with a content that resembles the Clement letter and its discovery, the chance of finding one that share some similarities rapidly increases with the number of books you put into the calculation. If you’re allowed to use the whole world literature with its vast number of novels counted in hundreds of thousand or perhaps millions, the chance of finding a novel which at least superficially resembles the finding of Clement’s letter, seems to be fairly high. Further you have to take into account that they both are, and are relying upon, Gospel material, and therefore are bound to show similarities. Further the purported similarity that both are forgeries made at Mar Saba is not to be dealt with in a statistical analysis, as the suggestion that the Clement letter actually is a forgery cannot be part of any parallels when in fact this very issue is the thing that is proposed and therefore the object of the investigation. If put that into the calculation, it will be part of a circular reasoning. The question we should ask our self is if we would take any event in modern history and tried to find a novel written before that event with a content that resembles it, if we likely would come up with a parallel?

  16. The statistical problem is compounded by what is called the problem of multiple comparisons. What would be the probability of finding at least one spurious association between two randomly chosen books, or more to the point, two books written on a similar topic or genre? If I allow myself to retrospectively compare the books according to non-predefined varibles, including hundreds of pages with thousands of possible comparisons (character names, individual words, locations, plot details, dates, etc). How does one estimate the liklihood that such an association might be due to chance alone?

    As Wikipedia explains, in statistics, the multiple comparisons, or multiple testing, problem occurs when one considers a set, or family, of statistical inferences simultaneously. Errors in inference, including confidence intervals that fail to include their corresponding population parameters, or hypothesis tests that incorrectly reject the null hypothesis, are more likely to occur when one considers the family as a whole. Several statistical techniques have been developed to prevent this from happening, allowing significance levels for single and multiple comparisons to be directly compared. These techniques generally require a stronger level of evidence to be observed in order for an individual comparison to be deemed "significant", so as to compensate for the number of inferences being made.

    Say our null hypothesis is that two books are completely independent and have no relationship to each other. With just one test performed at the 5% level, there is only a 5% chance of incorrectly rejecting the null hypothesis if the null hypothesis is true. However, for 100 tests where all null hypotheses are true, the expected number of incorrect rejections (ie false positives) is 5. If the tests are independent (ie not dependent on each other), the probability of at least one incorrect rejection is 99.4%.

    Another way to look at it: for example, one might declare that a coin was biased if in 10 flips it landed heads at least 9 times. Indeed, if one assumes as a null hypothesis that the coin is fair, then the probability that a fair coin would come up heads at least 9 out of 10 times is (10 + 1) × (1/2)10 = 0.0107. This is relatively unlikely, and under statistical criteria such as p-value < 0.05, one would declare that the null hypothesis should be rejected — i.e., the coin is unfair.

    A multiple-comparisons problem arises if one wanted to use this test (which is appropriate for testing the fairness of a single coin), to test the fairness of many coins. Imagine if one was to test 100 fair coins by this method. Given that the probability of a fair coin coming up 9 or 10 heads in 10 flips is 0.0107, one would expect that in flipping 100 fair coins ten times each, to see a particular (i.e., pre-selected) coin come up heads 9 or 10 times would still be very unlikely, but seeing some coin behave that way, without concern for which one, would be more likely than not. Precisely, the likelihood that all 100 fair coins are identified as fair by this criterion is (1 − 0.0107)100 ≈ 0.34. Therefore the application of our single-test coin-fairness criterion to multiple comparisons would more likely than not falsely identify at least one fair coin as unfair.