Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Stephen Carlson’s Questionable Questioned Document Examination: A Guest Post by Scott G. Brown & Allan J. Pantuck

The following article represents the second collaboration of Scott G. Brown and Allan J. Pantuck. Their previous effort - Morton Smith as M. Madiotes: Stephen Carlson's Attribution of Secret Mark to a Bald Swindler (JSHJ 6 (2008), 106-125) - has already been established as one of the key articles in disqualifying the first of the so-called clue arguments, a series of Stephen C. Carlson's more elaborate attempts to prove that the real author of Clement's letter to Theodore was Morton Smith, the discoverer of the document. Having gone through Smith's archives, located in the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Pantuck was able to procure an uncropped photograph of MS 22, the alleged hiding place of the Madiotes-clue. New information gathered from the photograph showed that many of the features necessary for Carlson's argument were either not there, or completely misconstrued due to the insufficiency of information before the new photograph find. (For a more substantial summary of the article, cf. here, about 2/3 down.)

The present text builds upon a more recent archival find, the letter of Julie C. Edison, a professional questioned document examiner whom Carlson hired "to help verify his methods for uncovering the truth", as seen in Carlson's blog Hypotyposeis. As with the Madiotes-clue, Brown and Pantuck again disclose missing information that puts the evidence in a very different light. But whereas some of the vital information omitted from Carlson's presentation of the Madiotes-clue can be excused due to his ignorance of the uncropped photograph, this is not the case with his presentation of Edison's letter. It is considered to be a good scholarly practice to disseminate important information in its entirety, in an effort to let the data speak for itself, so the strengths and weaknesses of an argument can be properly weighed by the reader. Misrepresentation, suppression, or incomplete presentation of data may suggest a hidden agenda or problematic, uncontrolled personal bias.

I have written before of my commitment to the principle of benevolence, an idea that scholars should treat their peers and their arguments with goodwill, unless there are specific reasons for doubting the integrity of others. I am still willing to extend that principle to Stephen C. Carlson, and invite him to write a response, an explanation for what appears to be an attempt to selectively present facts that support his theories while suppressing others that might call these theories into question.

With these thoughts, I present to you Scott G. Brown and Allan J. Pantuck, and their newest cooperative effort:


Stephen Carlson’s Questionable Questioned Document Examination

Hershel Shanks’ announcement that Biblical Archaeology Review had arranged for an expert in Greek paleography and a Greek forensic document examiner to analyze the handwriting of the sole manuscript of Clement of Alexandria’s Letter to Theodore (Mar Saba 65) brought us back to a question that has received surprisingly little attention over the past five years: how capable was the handwriting analysis made by Stephen Carlson? Then a patent attorney, Carlson had no training or prior experience in questioned document examination yet applied its principles to argue that the handwriting of this manuscript was forged by its discoverer, Morton Smith. This autodidactic approach is frowned on by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE), which asserts that competency in distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic documents is acquired, not from textbooks or correspondence courses, but from “a legitimate structured training program” and at least two years of mentoring in “a recognized forensic laboratory or with an examiner in private practice who has previously received proper training,” followed by “comprehensive written, practical and oral examinations that are based on a wide range of problems frequently encountered in document examination.”1 As J. F. McCarthy put it, “the judgments of those dabbling in the field are quite apt to be wrong.”2

Given the unlikelihood that Carlson attained the necessary competence without any training or experience, and the fact that he misapplied these same methods when he incorrectly identified some semiliterate scribbling in Mar Saba 22 not only as a forgery but also as a forgery in the same handwriting,3 it is surprising that his ability to detect forgery has gone unquestioned by so many readers of his book The Gospel Hoax. The most likely reason for this is Carlson’s appeals to a professional document examiner named Julie C. Edison, who advised him and wrote a letter assessing his methods.4 Prior to the release of his book, Carlson posted an excerpt from this letter on the Yahoo Group textualcriticism, which the group’s moderator, Wieland Willker, subsequently reposted on The Secret Gospel of Mark Homepage.5 Shortly after the book’s release, Carlson reposted this excerpt on his blog Hypotyposeis.6 By way of introducing this excerpt, Carlson explained that he “hired a professional forensic document expert” to “review my work” and write a “report.”7 This vague description of Edison’s role is the source for the common belief that a professional forensic document examiner conducted a study of the handwriting in the photographs and concluded that the manuscript is a forgery.8 Craig A. Evans, for example, has vigorously promoted this idea to the evangelical world, turning Edison into a cadre of “experts in the science of the detection of forgeries” who studied the color photographs and discovered “clear and compelling” evidence of fraud.9

It is not surprising that some people think that Edison validated Carlson’s competence and conclusions, for Carlson explains that he sought her services to find out “whether my analysis of the handwriting is competent,” and the excerpt he posted from her “report” is wholly positive. A few eyebrows might have been raised by the fact that he posted only an “excerpt” from the letter, and the two curious ellipses within that excerpt likely raised a few more, but Carlson assured us that whatever salient information he left out could only further bolster his case: “Here’s part of her report to me (omitting discussion of the background as well as another suspicious feature she found).” Yet one author of this paper always wondered, Why do the flattering remarks about Carlson’s research that follow the first ellipsis begin with the word “However”? And the other author wondered, Why did Carlson never appeal to or even name this additional evidence of forgery discovered by a forensic document expert?

Eventually, our curiosity about the things that Carlson does not disclose about Edison and her letter got the better of us. We wanted to know, for instance, what kind of images she was working with. Were these the same halftone reproductions of Smith’s black-and-white photographs that Carlson displayed in his book? Was she aware that Charles Hedrick possesses original color photographs? The difference between real photographs and halftone reproductions is essential. Whereas original photographs can reveal more information through enlargement or magnification, halftone images actually lose essential visual information (the entire spectrum of shading between black and white) and distort the line quality when magnified or enlarged to the point at which the individual dots become distinguishable. At the normal viewing distance the evenly spaced black dots meld together in our perception to create “the optical illusion of a continuous tone picture.” But as the apparatus that creates this illusion, the dot formations themselves differ in significant ways from the illusion they create. What up close appears as a jagged line might appear as a smooth gray line in the original photo. Curved lines and straight lines angled away from the orientation of the screen have a stepped appearance that resembles a halting pen movement. The result is phantom tremors and blobs and disconnections that do not exist in the original photographs.10 Evidence like this is worthless, as document examiners have long realized. In 1956, when Ordway Hilton published his findings on the utility of different forms of photographic reproductions in forensic document examination, he stated, “Both half-tones and line cuts have valuable applications, but not for the reproduction of material which is to be subjected to questioned document examinations.” He noted that they do not reveal hidden detail through their magnification. Rather, “with the use of a low-power magnifier the actual make-up becomes apparent even when a fine screen is used. This curtailment on the use of magnification is a serious limiting factor in document examination.”11

The question of what images Edison used was therefore of primary interest. But we also wanted to learn the details of her expertise, the amount of time she devoted to the study of the handwriting, and her entire professional opinion regarding the authenticity of the manuscript. The information she provided us will leave both Carlson’s supporters and critics feeling deceived.

When first contacted, Edison responded, “Regretfully, I do not recall offering a professional opinion regarding Morton Smith’s Letter of Clement.” With further prompting, she recalled having spent a single afternoon in 2005 with Carlson looking, we presume, at the black-and-white halftone reproduction of the letter in Smith’s book: “We only looked at a book containing writings attributed to Clement; and possibly a sheet containing symbols of the 18th century Greek alphabet.” She recalled that “Mr. Carlson spent a great deal of time regarding who may have written Clement’s letter; he was considering writing a book.”12 She was quick to add, “However, please be advised, no professional evaluation of mine was put into writing.  Mr. Carlson paid me for my consulting time, but we did not communicate after than [sic].” We discussed the possibility of retaining her as an expert to generate a written report, but after some consideration she rejected the offer, and without our requesting it she forwarded the full text of the letter that she had previously sent to Carlson with the explanation, “There is nothing further for me to add on this subject, as it is not my area of expertise beyond what is written in the report.”

The missing sections from her letter answered our questions only too well. The “background” information that Carlson omitted precedes the section he excerpted. The contents excised by the first ellipsis read as follows (emphasis original):

Although my undergraduate degree is in history, my knowledge of ancient Greece, Rome, and early Christianity is basic at best. And I have a limited knowledge of the Greek alphabet.

However, some fundamentals exist when determining if a handwriting sample is fraudulent.

Most important: we need to compare the questioned document to known standards. And although Mr. Carlson has Greek writing samples attributed to the 17th or 18th century, he has no known handwriting from Clement or the unknown monk who allegedly transcribed his letters. Therefore, Mr. Carlson may not be able to conclusively state this text is non-authentic – solely on the basis of forensic document examination.

All of this information is at odds with Carlson’s description of what he left out. Edison made two vital points here. She plainly indicated that she herself cannot read the manuscript, and she identified the absence of known standards for comparison as a fundamental problem with his approach to questioned document examination. We will offer our thoughts on these two matters later. Here we note that Carlson’s suppression of this portion of Edison’s letter under the rubric of unnecessary background misled all interested parties to believe that she was properly qualified to render an opinion on this text and unequivocally endorsed his work.

The section omitted by the second ellipsis reveals the possible suspicious feature:

Although Mr. Carlson did not have known standards from Clement or the 18th century monk who may have transcribed his 3rd century letter, Mr. Carlson offered examples [of] Greek writing attributed to the 18th century. This examiner noticed that these letters appeared as though they had been mechanically reproduced.

Before the industrial age, professional penmen – and religious writers – transcribed essential texts and records. This uniform quality of the letters is also found in early American writing, such as the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and many early land records.

Based upon Greek standards supplied by Mr. Carlson and this examiner’s exposure to early American documents; this examiner noticed the questioned manuscript contained a far greater degree of natural variation than what was typical for professional penmen of that era. Natural variation in known standards became more common in the 20th century, when a greater number of citizens learned to write. [Albert S.] Osborn devoted an entire chapter to it – “Chapter XIII. Variation in Genuine Writing.”

This section largely conforms with Carlson’s description of the second thing he omitted. Yet we still wonder, Why would he omit it?

Two possible reasons present themselves. First, the omission begins where Edison reiterates her description of a fundamental problem with Carlson’s analysis—the absence of samples of authentic handwriting in this particular eighteenth-century hand to use as known standards for comparison. Carlson has to eliminate both references to this problem if he is to keep his readers ignorant of it. Second, the additional “suspicious feature” identified by Edison turns out to be a high degree of “natural variation”; all of the textbooks on forensic document examination identify the phenomenon of natural variation as a feature that favors authenticity. Anyone who consulted Osborn’s book would learn that forged documents rarely display natural variation.

There are, then, three important issues raised by the material Carlson removed from Edison’s letter: her inability to read Greek, the necessity of having known standards for a proper analysis of the signs of forgery, and the fact that the manuscript handwriting displays a high degree of natural variation. We will offer our own thoughts on these matters in the sections that follow.

Professional Examination of a Foreign Script

The question of whether a document examiner can professionally assess a document that is written in an unfamiliar script occasionally arises in the secondary literature. In an article on this issue, Jay Levinson explained that the basis for any professional judgments about what is unusual about a particular writing is expertise in what is usual. Someone working on a document in an unfamiliar script does not possess that expertise. Hence, “It is clear that the examiner not knowing a script (even familiar with it enough for reading, but lacking extensive examination experience in it) cannot professionally examine materials as he should.”13 The cause for concern, as McCarthy noted, is that “Examining writings in foreign alphabets and scripts may lead the unwary experienced examiner to make the same kinds of mistakes that a novice examiner may make in the examination of domestic systems of writing.”14 According to Levinson, such an examiner is “working in the dark,” “working from insufficient knowledge[, which] is little more than guesswork.”15 The appropriate thing for an examiner to do in such situations is acknowledge his or her limitations: “But, can the document examiner admit professionally that there are certain types of handwriting problems that he cannot handle? Yes, he can make that statement, because sometimes it is the only honest statement that can be called professional.”16

Edison is aware of her limitations and made the proper acknowledgement, both in her letter to Carlson and in her discussion with us. Whether she should have commented at all on this document is an individual judgment call.17 Her acknowledgement that she does not have the expertise to conduct her own investigation and render a professional opinion about this document and the fact that she met only briefly with Carlson raise the question, Is she really in a position to attest to the competence of Carlson’s analysis? Carlson implied that she can and did do this by stating that he hired her in order to find out whether his analysis was competent and by hiding her inability to work in Greek and her criticisms of his method. Edison herself, however, more realistically stated that Carlson “asked me . . . to help verify his methods for uncovering the truth.” In other words, she was writing about the validity of his methods, not certifying that he applied them competently, which is something she cannot do without acquiring the necessary expertise and conducting a study of her own using standards of authentic writing. What she does venture to certify is his “research into the questioned document field,” which she believes “has been exemplary.” She is impressed that he “carefully studied” Albert S. Osborn’s 1929 book of 1028 pages. How she is in a position to verify this is not explained.18

The Necessity of Standards of Genuine Writing

When studying questioned handwriting, document examiners pay special attention to features they call the signs of forgery and the signs of genuineness. The latter,19 which were strangely neglected in Carlson’s analysis, comprise the characteristics of free and spontaneous handwriting and therefore normally point to genuineness,20 whereas the former suggest lack of spontaneity and conscious attention to form and are therefore potentially suspicious. Their actual significance depends on whether or not they are found in the known standards or make sense within the particular writing situation. As Katherine Koppenhaver put it:

Presence of any of the signs of forgery does not necessarily indicate fraudulent handwriting. Any of the signs of forgery could be present in genuine handwriting. The signs reveal the fraudulent nature of the handwriting if they are not present in the known handwriting.21

Obvious signs of forgery include patched writing, hesitation as revealed by ink blobs and breaks in the line of writing, pauses in the writing, tremor causing poor line quality, and erasures. Presence of any of the signs of forgery does not suffice to indicate that the document in question is not genuine as any of the signs could be part of the writer’s normal habits.22

Similarly, Osborn wrote:

The fact to be kept in mind in a handwriting investigation is that the genuineness or the identity of a handwriting is determined by the number and nature of its characteristics, and a positive opinion is not given by the competent witness unless an adequate amount of standard writing for comparison is supplied. In this, as with other subjects, superficial knowledge or hasty examination often leads to serious error.23

Accordingly, the secondary literature contains caveats like the following:

The common belief that the presence of tremor indicates a forgery is not correct as, if the same type of tremor is present in the disputed as well as the specimen writings or signatures, it will then be one of the points of similarity rather than pointing towards forgery or non-identity.24

If the writer places the pen on the paper before starting to write, the lines will have blunt initial strokes. Some writers habitually place the pen on the paper before starting to write, resting the pen on the paper long enough to leave a small blob of ink at the beginning of the writing line.25

The standard textbooks on questioned document examination echo Edison’s emphasis on the need for standards of genuine writing.

The pitfalls of attempting questioned document examination without adequate standards were well illustrated by an experiment in which “two court-qualified state forensic document examiners” examined authentic samples of signatures without being informed that the writing was impaired by arthritis. The examiners incorrectly judged 68 percent of the arthritic-impaired signatures to be forgeries and classified the remainder as inconclusive. They were misled by the fact that the impaired handwriting contained all the usual signs of forgery (“laborious, shaky, or nervous lines”; “retouching/patching”; “retracing of strokes”; pen-lifts within connecting strokes; “lack of rhythm, inconsistent letter formations, and the general appearance of ‘drawing’”; and “blobbed ending strokes”), whereas the standards did not reveal that these features were sometimes normal. When the examiners were provided with larger samples of known normal and arthritic writing for the same writers but were still not told about the impairment, they changed their minds and classified 92 percent as authentic with the qualification “attempted to disguise.” In other words, they correctly identified the arthritic-impaired signatures as authentic writings of the writers in question when they knew that these people sometimes wrote this way, but they incorrectly inferred that the writing was unnatural due to disguise rather than arthritis.26 The more one knows about the writer and the situation, the less likely one is to misinterpret the signs of forgery.

Natural Variation

Natural variation in writing is generally considered to be evidence of authenticity, as variation in a hand generally shows natural, spontaneous, unconscious writing. With respect to forgery, it is the lack of natural variation that is suspicious, not its presence, because forgers tend to write words the same way each time, always copying from the same few instances of those words in their exemplars:

Forgers limit the letter forms they copy, making fraudulent writing more consistent than genuine writing. Forgers duplicate words exactly when they are repeated in a text. Therefore, lack of variation and exact duplication are signs of spurious writing.

The forger doesn’t recognize the need for natural variation and makes the words and letters as close to the known writing as possible. This is obvious when he or she attempts to copy extended writing. The forger will exactly duplicate the letter form, crossing the “t” at the same angle and in the same place, dotting the i in the same location, forming the design of the letter exactly like the model, giving the writing a rubber stamp look.27

Edison’s impression that the extent of natural variation in Mar Saba 65 is suspicious is a hypothesis based on her familiarity with important American documents and the Greek book hands that Carlson used as comparisons. Writing of this sort has an artistic quality for the reader to appreciate. Mar Saba 65, however, is a documentary hand, a form of writing used to make everyday records. It needs to be compared to other Greek documentary hands of the period. The Greek documentary hands that the authors have seen do not display that mechanical quality with which Edison is familiar.

Concluding Thoughts

The people who read Edison’s letter on the internet would have been far less impressed had they known that Carlson’s consultant is unable to read Greek, that she met with him for only a few hours, that they looked exclusively at halftone reproductions of Smith’s photographs, that she disavows having expressed an opinion on the manuscript’s authenticity, and that her positive comments were prefaced by the “most important” observation that the absence of “known standards” in Carlson’s analysis violates one of the “fundamentals” of forgery detection.28 Clearly he hoped that this letter would discourage concerns about the objectivity, validity, and competence of his handwriting analysis, but now that we know the omitted contents and the manner in which he suppressed them, he has ultimately made us more dubious about these things than ever.

It is not hard to imagine that a handwriting analysis by a properly qualified questioned document examiner would look very different from what we see in The Gospel Hoax.


1ABFDE, “Frequently Asked Questions” and “Certification,” American Board of Forensic Document Examiners,;

2J. F. McCarthy, “Some Aspects of Normal Behavior: Their Use in Understanding Problems Encountered by Document Examiners,” Journal of Forensic Sciences 21 (1976): 205. Albert S. Osborn frequently complained about untrained document examiners. The following is typical: “There is sometimes greater danger from half-knowledge, ‘a little learning’, than from complete ignorance. If a smattering of knowledge from limited experience or superficial reading or information, is accompanied by presumption, as is often the case, then truth and justice are in peril when one thus prepared testifies in court regarding grave and important issues.” Questioned Documents (2d ed.; Albany, N.Y.: Boyd Printing Co., 1929), 374.

3See Scott G. Brown, “Factualizing the Folklore: Stephen Carlson’s Case against Morton Smith,” Harvard Theological Review 99 (2006): 293–98; Allan J. Pantuck and Scott G. Brown, “Morton Smith as M. Madiotes: Stephen Carlson’s Attribution of Secret Mark to a Bald Swindler,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 6 (2008): 106–25.

4Stephen C. Carlson, The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2005). Carlson thanks Edison for her advice on p. xix and her assistance on p. 112 n. 9.

5Stephen C. Carlson, “Re: The Gospel Hoax - my opinion,” textualcriticism, posted October 23, 2005, Wieland Willker, “Discussion of Carlson’s Gospel Hoax on the Textualcriticism List Nov–Dec 2005,” no date,

6Stephen C. Carlson, “Some Initial Reviews and a Second Opinion,” Hypotyposeis, posted November 26, 2005,

7The two introductions are similar. We quoted the phrase “review my work” from the post on textualcriticism, and the other phrases from the post on Hypotyposeis.

8Timo S. Paananen, for instance, cited the excerpt from Edison’s letter on Hypotyposeis to show that, “Contrary to what [Hershel] Shanks suggests . . . , Stephen C. Carlson has in fact consulted a professional forensic document expert, Ms. Julie C. Edison, whose testimony confirms the findings of Carlson: ‘Mr. Carlson’s research into the questioned document field has been exemplary’” (italics removed). Paananen, “As the Secret Gospel of Mark Walked in to a BAR . . . ,” Salainen evankelista, posted November 28, 2009,

9Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2006), 95; repeated in Craig A. Evans and Emanuel Tov, Exploring the Origins of the Bible: Canon Formation in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective (Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 169; idem, “How Scholars Fabricate Jesus,” in Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors (ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 144. In an interview related in Lee Strobel (The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ [Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2006], 49, 50), Evans refers to Carlson “bringing in handwriting experts” and vividly describes how, “When experts examined the magnified photos of the text, they could see what they call ‘forger’s tremor.’” Edison actually does not refer to “forger’s tremor” in her letter.

10Roger Viklund, “Tremors, or Just an Optical Illusion? A Further Evaluation of Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis,” The Jesus Character Critically Examined,; idem, “The Difference Between Real Photographs and Printed Photographs,” Salainen evankelista, (Part One, posted February 7, 2010); (Part Two, posted February 10, 2010); (Part Three, posted February 13, 2010).

11Ordway Hilton, Scientific Examination of Questioned Documents (Chicago: Callaghan & Co., 1956), 282–83.

12We are unsure whether Edison’s recollection is fuzzy here because Carlson referred on his blog to “Chapter III of my forthcoming book” four days later: “My SBL Paper Proposal Accepted,” posted May 10, 2005, Hypotyposeis,

13Jay Levinson, “Questioned Document Examination in Foreign Scripts,” Forensic Science International 22 (1983): 250 (emphasis original).

14McCarthy, “Normal Behavior,” 205.

15Levinson, “Foreign Scripts,” 250, 252.

16Levinson, “Foreign Scripts,” 250.

17Levinson, “Foreign Scripts,” 251.

18The body of that book actually ends on page 689, after which comes a Part Two consisting of brief quotations from legal rulings pertaining to the matters of questioned document examination covered in Part One. The rulings would be of interest to lawyers in Osborn’s day who needed to know what kind of evidence and testimony the courts of different states permitted in 1929 but would not be of much assistance to someone interested in learning how to study Mar Saba 65.

19See “Proof of Genuineness of a Disputed Document” in Osborn, Questioned Documents, 363–76.

20The signs of genuineness can point to forgery when the questioned writing displays a higher degree of skill or vitality than known samples. For example, forged deathbed signatures tend to be stronger and smoother than authentic signatures from the same day.

21Katherine M. Koppenhaver, Forensic Document Examination: Principles and Practice (Totowa, N.J.: Humana, 2007), 93. She makes the same point in idem, Attorney’s Guide to Document Examination (Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 2002), 90.

22Koppenhaver, Attorney’s Guide, 90 (list numbers omitted); cf. 142. Carlson cited this book in Gospel Hoax, 112 n. 9, and he cited this page of this book (i.e., p. 142) in connection with the forger’s lapse in Gospel Hoax, 117 n. 64.

23Osborn, Questioned Documents, 261.

24Dewan K. S. Puri, “Tremor: Forged or Genuine,” International Criminal Police Review 282 (1974): 242. Cf. Joe Nickell, Detecting Forgery: Forensic Investigation of Documents (Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996), 68–69, 149.

25Koppenhaver, Attorney’s Guide, 89 (bold emphasis omitted from first sentence). See also idem, Forensic Document Examination, 114. On the subject of retouching in genuine documents and the difference between ordinary and suspicious retouching, see Roy A. Huber and A. M. Headrick, Handwriting Identification: Facts and Fundamentals (Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC, 1999), 290; Osborn, Questioned Documents, 332–33. Osborn notes that retouching is suspicious insofar as it is “unnecessary, delicate and hidden.” Is this what we see in Carlson’s examples? See Roger Viklund, “Reclaiming Clement’s Letter to Theodoros: An Examination of Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis,” posted February 7, 2009, Retouching. A few points are worth noting. Illegibility and obvious overwriting are characteristic of genuine writing, not forgery. Likewise, ugly letterforms—especially simple ones that are normally written well—are indicative of inattention to writing; forgers pay too much attention. And places “where the pen comes off the paper but is not stopped and shows continuity of motion are, as a rule, indications of unconsciousness of the details of the operation and point toward genuineness” (Osborn, Questioned Documents, 364).

26Larry S. Miller, “Forensic Examination of Arthritic Impaired Writings,” Journal of Police Science and Administration 15:1 (1987): 51–56 (quoting from 53, 52, 54); also summarized in Huber and Headrick, Handwriting Identification, 206–7.

27Koppenhaver, Forensic Document Examination, 99, 125; cf. idem, Attorney’s Guide, 142 (as mentioned in n. 22, above, this is a page that Carlson cited in Gospel Hoax, 117 n. 64). For additional discussion, see Osborn, Questioned Documents, 296, 369–70.

28Carlson has avoided setting the record straight. For example, when Walter M. Shandruk suggested that Edison was likely unfamiliar with “18th century Greek script” and that “the blame should ultimately lay with her for not suggesting a more rigorous analysis or not offering any serious warnings over the photographic evidence,” Carlson neither confirmed her unfamiliarity with the Greek alphabet nor acknowledged that she criticized his method, although he posted comments defending himself. See Walter M. Shandruk, “Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis on Secret Mark,” Thoughts on Antiquity, posted August 5, 2008,


  1. Wow! Bombshell. It's unbelievable really. I always thought that the study of early Christianity was for the most part an unconscious conspiracy to uphold a commonly held set of beliefs.

    Unlike Descartes they say 'we believe therefore it is and has always been.'

    Carlson it would seem, knowingly or unknowingly tapped into that unscientific 'putting the cart before the horse.'

    Its unbelievable that no one thought to examine the photos as Viklund did or check out this stuff. Scary stuff.

  2. This should be a wake up call for scholarship. I don't think we will ever find the Mar Saba document simply because Carlson et al so maligned the discovery as a forgery full of all sorts of slights against Christianity that they wanted to destroy it. It is almost incalculable to imagine how much damage this man has done to scholarship. And for what? To make a name for himself? To flatter those who secretly wanted to believe the text was a forgery but couldn't muster the proof necessary to brush it aside.

    Well Stephen Carlson managed to make a name for himself, alright. He managed to use that notoriety to study under one of the top academics in the field. But in exchange for all of that what are we left with? Look at the damage he caused. Now the manuscript is gone. Morton Smith's reputation is in tatters. All this evil done in the name of blind ambition. It's utterly reprehensible.

    He should be banned for life from the field.

  3. Excellent piece Allan and Scott. Looking over the notes I scratched into my copy of Carlson's book, I noticed I had some similar reservations about his forgery hypothesis.

    On p. 26 he alludes to the possibility that shaky lines, blunt ends, etc. (real or imagined in the photographs he used) can be "attributed to the writer's age, fatigue, stress level, etc." (a comment similar to the discussion of arthritic writers mentioned above); but Carlson never returns to this possibility, maintaining instead that it is evidence of forgery.

    He also goes on to mention some inconsistency in the letter formations (see p. 29 where he says "it is the only instance in the manuscript in which the scribe failed to use a ligature for omicron-upsilon pair"). My marginal comment here was, "but inconsistency is *good* evidence". I came to this conclusion having worked on enough 11th-15th century Greek manuscripts to know that copyists are rarely consistent in their use of abbreviations and letter forms. And it just so happens that this contributes to the evidence mentioned above for natural variation.

    BTW, this is why I criticized Carlson for not having a Ph.D.; it's one thing to sit back as an outsider of a discipline and find "objective" errors but sometimes we insiders, with our years of training, actually know something.

  4. If having a PhD magically transforms ordinary people into critical thinkers, how do explain all the PhDs that lined up behind Carlson without bothering to critically examining his evidence?

  5. I disagree with attributing to having or not having a Phd. I think the difference is based on gender. If you look all the people who thought the text was a forgery were men. It's interesting to see that there were no women who fell for Carlson's argument. A woman's intuition is her 'sixth sense'. She lives or dies by it.

    Since women tend to be preyed upon more than they are predators, they have a uniquely developed sense of trouble. (which they don't always follow, but they have it). Have you ever watched deer or any other animal that is a herbivore... it has to have some kind of defense. The sixth sense is an intuition and a very strong signaling system. People who work on developing this sense tend to make fewer mistakes in life than those who disregard it. That is not to say that decisions shouldn't be mitigated by other factors, but if I have a strong sense about something, I will definitely listen because in the past, when I didn't I paid the price!

    Anyway, because men get caught up in the small details of things they lose sight of the big picture. I just didn't buy into the basic premise of Morton Smith developing such an elaborate hoax.

    Women have evolved more emotionally and intellectually than men. So women have inherently got a more advanced understanding of how a person acts and reacts to a certain situation.

    I couldn't prove that Carlson's argument had methodological issues like the men write here but I wouldn't have bought into his premise in the first place because what he was saying went against basic human nature.

    Anyway, that's what I think.

  6. Thanks for this. Helpful investigative stuff. Does look like a lack of full disclosure on Stephen's part.

  7. John's comment: "If having a PhD magically transforms ordinary people into critical thinkers, how do explain all the PhDs that lined up behind Carlson without bothering to critically examining his evidence?"

    I'm not saying having a Ph.D. makes you brilliant, just that I don't appreciate the arrogance of statements made by people like Carlson and Jeffery that those within the discipline who have commented on or worked on Secret Mark can be shown up by outsiders or novices who somehow know better because their skills (law, musicology) are more up to the task than our's. My comments are a defense of our discipline, not individual members within it whose biases against Secret Mark attract them uncritically to accept Carlson's arguments.

  8. Well, I for sure have no PhD.
    Excellent research Allan and Scott!
    I believe there is one thing which I have never said and that some people might not be aware of when it comes to printing technique. It is primarily the added screen which creates the optical illusion of tremors. You normally never add screens when printing letters, as the screen will make them “fuzzy”. Normally you only add screens when printing images in order to be able to produce different shades and in order to lower the contrast. Why then did they add screens when printing Clement’s letter? The reason is that they did not intend to produce images where the individual letters could be magnified and evaluated, but produce images where the actual book pages could be seen as they were with their paper and damages and so on. It was printed in order to show the world how the text was written in the book. They simply destroyed the quality of the photo in order to make it appear better when viewed from a distance.

  9. I think this is a very interesting discussion but I am starting to wonder whether Carlson should be 'blamed' for the methodological shortcomings of his work. He wasn't a 'serious scholar' in 2005. The Gospel Hoax can actually be admired in a certain way for the manner in which it BEARS AN UNCANNY RESEMBLANCE to a 'serious academic work.' But when you stand back from the dazzling attention to detail in many of the arguments you can't help see what amounts to being an extremely silly premise.

    Carlson had the right as any writer does to develop a ridiculous premise. The fact that he managed to convince as many experts and people who SHOULD HAVE scrutinized those arguments which went through a peer review process almost makes you admire his intellect.

    I just don't know how by what standard now we should 'condemn' Carlson's methodology in that book when - one could argue - it should never have been taken seriously.

    That doesn't mean that I am now going to take the position that amateurs shouldn't be allowed to formulate opinions on the subject matter. But added scrutiny should be given to people making arguments who aren't accredited 'authorities' on the topic at hand. Carlson wasn't a handwriting expert, he wasn't an authority on anything related to the Mar Saba document nor did he claim to be anything than what he was - i.e. an amateur writer.

    The real blame rests with the Craig Evans's and Larry Hurtado's and the rest who made him out to be something - at the time - that he wasn't.

    It still is an interesting book which certainly generated a lot of interest here and elsewhere.

    If only we who support the authenticity of the work could write a book which is one bit as interesting as the Gospel Hoax, we likely wouldn't be having this 'debate' in the first place ...

    1. There is a world full of people who want to believe it is a hoax so a book defending it would never get the attention or notice as Carlson.

  10. I obviously meant to write " ... people who SHOULD HAVE scrutinized those arguments, ARGUMENTS which SHOULD HAVE went through a peer review process ..."

  11. It is clear from Hurtado's foreword to Carlson's book that he thought the detailed critical evaluation and (attempted) refutation of Carlson's arguments would follow the publication of the book. This is not thought (by Hurtado, presumably Baylor UP, and I guess more generally) to be a significant part of pre-publication peer review.

  12. Yes Peter. I sometimes liken the situation to the country that many people on the right would like to create here in America - a completely free market. So Carlson comes along and decides he wants to be a surgeon. Okay, someone's thinking of getting heart surgery. You walk into Carlson's office and there's no diploma but instead you see all these pictures of hearts, brains and all kinds of medical books and journals and you say to yourself - 'well he seems pretty informed.' Then you decide to go for an appointment and he seems even more intelligent. He also tells you that he has some innovative new techniques to prevent heart attacks through brain surgery and that he's working to get people out of his office the same day after surgery, and your thinking - 'this is too good to be true.'

    The only thing that's preventing you from trying this new surgery technique is the fact that he hasn't went to medical school.

    But then you go realize that Carlson has written a book on heart surgery (one where he doesn't have an MD beside his name) and its endorsed by one of the top heart surgeons in the country. And then you go to your family doctor and he tells how sure he is that Carlson's new method is going to revolutionize medicine and then he adds (oh, he's just been accepted into medical school and should have his degree in a few years) some people in this new Wild West are going to think 'based on all the recommendations, it's worth taking a shot at this. Besides I want to get back to work as soon as possible because they don't cover me when I am away on sick leave.')

    In any event, I guess my point again is that some people will say that arguing about the authenticity of the Mar Saba document isn't on the same degree of importance as preventing medical malpractice. I guess they have a point. Again, I don't begrudge Carlson the right to write a fascinating book like has.

    I guess my point that just like it is in the interest for the medical field to self-regulate itself to prevent doctors from endorsing unproven theories the same should be true here in our/your field.

  13. Stephen Carlson left a comment on Philip Harland's Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean. I quote it in its entirety below, the original can be found here:

    "It is hardly damaging. Brown and Pantuck have misunderstood a fairly standard disclaimer and used to attack a position I have not espoused. All the disclaimer says, rightly, is that without a sample from the person is supposed to have written it, it cannot be shown to be forgery “solely on the basis of forensic document examination.” My book, of course, does not make that claim and more cautiously states that the examination raises a question of its genuineness.

    Furthermore, Brown’s decrying of the lack of “known standards” is especially rich, considering that I was the first person to publish any comparison of the handwriting with genuine 18th cen. samples from Mar Saba, something which neither Smith nor Brown had done."

  14. I guess he's never going to admit he made a mistake. He's going to steadfastly defend his position even when it's obvious that he didn't give full disclosure. Awwww, it brings tears to my eyes.

    Our baby is becoming a 'modern academic' right before our eyes.

    They grow up so fast don't they ...

  15. Hot off the press, in the opinion of BAR's handwriting expert, Smith could not have simulated the handwriting of Secret Mark:

  16. Woow! As a layman I have come to the conclusion that the writing must have been done by a skilled scribe and thereby excluding a modern forgery, especially by Smith since there seemed to be no traces of his handwriting in the script. It’s good to read that this also is the opinion of someone skilled enough to make a judgement.

  17. The only question is - where is Agamemnon Tselika's report? There were two experts hired. There's one more shoe to drop.

  18. As I have said before in several venues, Carlson did what lawyers do: he cast doubt on a particular version of events (Smith's) and proposed a different version of events (his) designed to appeal to the prejudices of his "jury," conservative Christian scholars who disliked Smith and his interpretation of his discovery. Carlson continues to defend his work in legalistic terms, despite continuing revelations of the shoddiness of his work. As an attorney, Carlson should be quite familiar with the minimum qualifications of a document examiner and should know that he does not by any stretch of the imagination meet those qualifications. At the very least Smith had experts in Greek script look at the evidence before he published and listed the names of those experts. Based on my own imperfect study of the Clement letter, I predicted several years ago that Carlson's attack on Smith would be discredited and would, in fact, become a case study of all that's wrong with New Testament studies generally. Let me be the first to say, "I told you so."

    Robert Conner

  19. I think that Carlson's position basically belongs to the emerging conservative Evangelical "scholarship." I quite agree with Robert Conner's comment above.

    Thank you very much Paanen for your rich post.