In the past two months a number of papers have dealt with the handwriting of Clement's letter to Theodore. Below I wish to collect together the papers and the responses they have received, and offer some further observations on the present state of the debate.
First, Scott G. Brown's and Allan J. Pantuck's Stephen Carlson’s Questionable Questioned Document Examination (blog edition with comments; PDF from Wieland Wilker's The Secret Gospel of Mark Homepage) reports of their recent contact with Julie C. Edison, a professional document examiner who wrote a letter to Stephen C. Carlson, assessing his methods of handwriting analysis. As Brown and Pantuck put it, the information they received leaves "both Carlson’s supporters and critics feeling deceived". Among other things, Edison did not read Greek, was able to study only the halftone reproductions of the Mar Saba MS, with no known standards to compare the handwriting with, while spotting natural variation in the handwriting - all details that seriously undermine the validity of Carlson's analysis in The Gospel Hoax (2005) chapter 3. The most disturbing part of the paper is the implicit accusation that Carlson had deliberately withheld this information, quoting only select parts of Edison's letter. Or did he really judge the above to have been unnecessary "discussion of the background", as stated in his blog Hypotyposeis.
Even more curious is the aftermath. When kindly asked to provide "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", Carlson indeed complied, and what better place to post a response than as a comment to a completely unrelated blog? A good blog, mark you, that Philip Harland's Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean, but still. And as for the response itself...
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.
The book (The Gospel Hoax) actually concludes that "[i]nstead of being scribed by an eighteenth-century monk at Mar Saba, the evidence shows that it was penned by an imitator" (page 47), and again on page 73: "The manuscript was written in what may appear to be handwriting of the eighteenth century, but the hesitation and shakiness of its strokes and the retouching of its letters, coupled with twentieth-century letter forms, indicate that the handwriting is actually a drawn imitation of an eighteenth-century style."
To my mind, the wording - in the indicative mood suggesting that the statement's are either factual or have a strong probability of being factual - of shows, was penned, was written, and indicate that.. is actually does not "cautiously state" that the hoax hypothesis on the basis of the handwriting analysis is merely raising questions; it unapologetically claims the manuscript a forgery!
Why do we not get phrases like "the evidence suggests", "the manuscript appears to be written", "the hesitation and shakiness... point to the possibility", etc.? As I have noted previously, the language of probabilities in The Gospel Hoax is lacking to a degree where I can count the instances with only one hand. Why are the conclusions attached practically nowhere with qualifications like "probable", "possible", and "improbable"? Under conditions of normal science the assessment of probability is fundamentally important, for an argument is valid only if all of the individual units it is composed of are also valid. I propose that the opposite is true for non-science, pseudoscience, or the style of conspiracy theorising, whichever name one would like to use.
It is not just a question of language, of streamlining our literary expressions for aesthetic and interpretative reasons, or of shielding our arguments from criticism. On the contrary, our use of the language is the question of our thinking, and due to the nature of the multitudes of cognitive biases, we are better off thwarting them any way we can. There is no great mystery here. To take but one relevant example, Tom Davis in his fairly recent The Practice of Handwriting Identification (The Library 8, 251-276) emphasises the importance of keeping confirmation bias at bay, reached by applying the methods of QDE rigorously enough. In practice, Davis instructs the examiner to draw an analytic chart of all the letters in the sample document i.e. the document containing the known handwriting from the suspect, going through it industriously letter by letter. After this procedure the chart is to be locked away, and a similar process, a new chart, to be produced from the handwriting in the questioned document. According to Davis, it is of essence to begin the comparison of the charts only after both have been completed, for jumping to the questioned document too early we will tend to look for those significant similarities between the handwritings all too eagerly. Furthermore, Davis points out that the examiner is supposed to look for both significant similarities (pointing to the possibility of identical author) and significant differences (pointing to the possibility of different authors). That the latter is lacking in The Gospel Hoax, as observed by Brown & Pantuck in the article as well, may suggest that the confirmation bias was responsible for much of its interpretation, yet another sign that Carlson's handwriting analysis was not up to the standards of QDE.
Every time I make a qualitative statement I remind myself that my intuitive understanding of the interpretation of the evidence - an intuitive understanding I have developed in the course of reading myself into that particular field I have happened to read myself into - may not be shared by my colleagues, and the consensus in my particular field. Writing with the language of probabilities I keep it fresh in my mind that I may have gotten it all wrong, that my individual perspective on the interpretation of the evidence is not an all-encompassing, universal and "true" understanding of the matter, nor the end of the debate, nor are all the other scholars who disagree with me unqualified to do research.
On the other hand, if we go on writing nonsense, we will begin to lean in that direction in our thinking as well. If we start to write with strong propositions, we may very well forget that others approach the evidence from different angles, see different things, and construct their cases differently. This style of writing is one of the themes that crops up in numerous pseudoscholarly works. The author usually comes to her topic from the perspective of an outsider. She usually spots a great number of things the experts in the field have gotten all wrong. She usually has no grasp of the questions of philosophy of science pertaining to the field, and goes straightforward for "the truth" or "the true account". She asserts that her conclusions are natural, rising directly from the evidence. And finally, she has usually forgot somewhere along the way that true academic discussion is about having a dialogue with fellow scholars, not about making a case and defending it with ever more contrived arguments for all eternity - at least, this would be my ideal understanding of the workings of academia.
As for the latter part of Carlson's response, I am a bit puzzled. While it is true that Morton Smith did not publish pictures of MSS from Mar Saba, and that Carlson was the first one to do so, I fail to see the difference they are supposed to make. There is no doubt that MS65 looks like it was written in the 18th-century; we do not need the Mar Saba MSS for that. For what do we need them for? As far as I can see, it was Edison's and not Brown's and Pantuck's observation that "Mr. Carlson did not have known standards from Clement or the 18th century monk who may have transcribed his 3rd century letter". Without known standards there is no way to ascertain that MS65 is either genuine or forgery - even if there was a poor line quality to be seen (highly doubtful, cf. the work of Roger Viklund), it is irrelevant until we know if the alleged writer did or did not produce poor line quality in all of her other writings, too.