Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How Many Books Published in the Last Five Years Mention the Secret Gospel of Mark?

The answer, according to Google Books, is 1,590. Looks like my ultimate list of recent works discussing or even mentioning Morton Smith and his discovery will not be completed today nor anytime in the foreseeable future.

Among the amount there are gems to be found. At present time the very first hit is Albert Baumgarten's Elias Bickerman As a Historian of the Jews: A Twentieth Century Tale (Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 131. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck) which devotes a whole sub-chapter to Morton Smith, regarding his friendship with Elias J. Bickerman, a colleague at Columbia. From page 205 onwards:

Smith's insight is revealed in a story told by Moshe Idel. When Idel came to New York to the Jewish Theological Seminary to deliver the lectures later published as Kabbalah New Perspectives (1988) there was an old man who sat in the audience at every talk, taking careful notes. At the last lecture, this man approached Idel and said that he had enjoyed the talks, but thought that the material could be organized differently. He then presented Idel with an outline of the topics completely redone. Idel saw the merits of this alternative way of arranging his subject and adopted it for the book. The old man, of course, was Morton Smith. (206)

[NOTE: The following section was edited after Baumgarten pointed out in the comments below that I had managed to seriously misrepresent his argument concerning Bickerman's faith. For details and my puny excuses, cf. the comments.]

Baumgarten goes on to discuss Smith's "loss of faith" and describes it as "[t]he key to understanding Smith's life, as well as his work as a scholar". (206) Smith's letter to Mrs. Hans Lewy (January 3, 1946) and his article Psychiatric Practice and Christian Dogma (Journal of Pastoral Care 3 (1949), 12-20) indicate to Baumgarten that Smith was undergoing a "personal crisis" regarding his faith. (207) The end result was summarised by Theodore Gaster, another Columbia colleague of Smith, by these words:

Morton Smith is like a little boy whose goal in life is to write curse words all over the altar in church, and then get caught. (209)

But how to combine this characterisation with the facts that 1) Smith never left priesthood but remained on an indefinite leave from clerical duties by the sanction of his bishop, 2) in the beginning of the 1970s replied to the bishop that he did not wish to leave priesthood since he preferred to keep his options open in case he changed his mind (again), 3) retired as a priest when he reached the age of retirement in the 1980s, and as Allan Pantuck noted here, 4) "when Smith died, he still had in his briefcase a card from the Diocese of Maryland identifying him as a priest of the Diocese".

Whatever we make of the character of Morton Smith, I have the feeling that it was far more nuanced than the simple accounts we have used to hearing suggest.


  1. Isn’t this true for all of us, that our characters are far more nuanced than the simple accounts others – especially potential enemies – tend to come up with?

  2. Not me Roger. I have all the depth of a cartoon character. When I get mad for instance, a blow horn sounds, steam comes out of my ears and whatever hat I am wearing gets blown off my head and then lands back sort of crooked. I also have these annoying thought bubbles beside my face lately that show pictures of what I am thinking. It's really annoying.

  3. I agree on one important point in the post. Correspondence with Allan Pantuck has convinced me that Smith's attitude towards his faith may have been much more complex than I presented it in my book.
    However, (1) I knew Smith when I was an undergraduate and his hatred for conventional Christianity and almost any form of Judeo-Christian religion was palpable in class.
    (2) much more important - in my book, I never placed Smith and Bickerman as "in the same boat." I wrote of Smith as someone who had lost his faith, and of Bickerman as someone who was searching for one. The faith I believe Bickerman found was unconventional and far from the usual sort. He was certainly not an observant Jew in any of the ordinary senses, yet I tried to show that the quirky faith he found was real.
    Bickerman and Smith were close friends. They had lunch together once a week and enormous respect for each other as scholars, but they were very different in their attitude towards faith, as they were on other matters.
    I regret that summarizing my argument as putting them in the same boat on this issue is a serious mis-representation of the argument I made.
    Al Baumgarten

  4. afterthought to my previous post
    I scrupulously avoided any mention of Smith's work on the secret gospel in my book on Bickerman. I focused on the relationship between the two men, especially on their scholarly agendas. I thought the debate about the secret gospel was irrelevant to my focus.
    I do not usually follow the ever expanding literature debating whether Smith forged the secret gospel. However, to the extent I do, I cannot avoid the impression that to an unpleasant extent this whole discussion is too much like an academic or intellectual freak show.
    I post as anonymous, since I can't figure out how to enter a proper profile choice. However, since I sign my posts, I clearly have no desire to remain anonymous.
    Al Baumgarten

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I edited the original post not to misrepresent Bickerman's faith; my apologies. I must confess that having learned of the existence of Elias Bickerman As a Historian of the Jews only some minutes before writing this post, I read only the portion on Morton Smith (sans the missing page Google Books didn't show me) and decided to share the two anecdotes offered, ones I had not previously heard.

    So, thanks for Al Baumgarten for coming to the rescue -- stop the lies, start the truths and all that :-)

    It is interesting to learn that you knew Smith as an undergraduate, and that he dismissed conventional Christianity in class room hard enough to make a lasting impression. I have occasionally discussed the character of Smith on this blog. Never been given the chance to meet him in person I "know" him only through his writings, and that person I find to be full of wit and charm even though he occasionally crosses the boundaries of good taste and acceptable scholarly conduct.

    You mention that you deliberately avoided bringing the Mar Saba letter into your discussion of Smith and Bickerman and their relationship. I agree that it was a good choice. Regarding the Secret Gospel I try my best not to bring any of the mortonsmiths -- whether real or literary -- into the debate, but others do feel the character of Smith is important for the evaluation of the alleged forgery. That you summarize the recent debate as "too much like an academic or intellectual freak show" is most interesting, for try as I might I know I will never rise to any sort of objective vantage point, having already invested too much energy into the controversy. I might regret asking you to elaborate on your point of view, but if you have the time, I would be interested to learn what made the impression?

  6. It is hard to turn down an invitation to talk about the teachers of one's youth.
    I had Smith as an undergraduate and then he was the supervisor of my doctoral dissertation. He was a difficult man, with a corrosive sense of humor, opinionated in the extreme, but the most perceptive historical insight of virtually anyone I ever met. He could do more with whatever someone else was working on than that person could do on his/her own.
    He led a strange life. He lived for his work. He ate most meals out, and used the stove in his apartment to store books and files of correspondence (there is a great anecdote on that point in one of the footnotes of my book).

    As my book was on Bickerman, and had a chapter on his peers, one of whom was Smith, I thought that the issue of the secret gospel was irrelevant. I also thought that Smith's complicated relationship with Jacob Neusner was irrelevant to my focus.

    As I wrote already, in my book, I presented Bickerman as someone raised without a faith, who experienced the tragedy of WWII (he was in France until the summer of 1942; his mother in law was killed at Auschwitz) who went looking for one and found a quirky one. In spite of the significant alternative narrative proposed by Pantuck, I still see Smith as someone who began with a faith, lost it, and was then troubled by that loss for the rest of his life. Perhaps Smith's struggle over that loss of faith was responsible for the evidence Pantuck has uncovered that shows the ways in which Smith still behaved like a believer. In any case, I stressed the difference between Bickerman and Smith, and that prompted my original post.

    Smith could be very mean. I could fill at least one more post with anecdotes on this point. I never figured out why he tolerated or liked me. I was no smarter than all the fools he destroyed in class or in conferences. When I was an undergraduate, he was especially nasty if aspects of faith were involved, although he came to be more moderate over the years I knew him. I keep kosher, and when we went out to eat he always made sure there was something I would eat on the menu. What mattered to him was scholarship, and so long as one was not pseudorthdox (the term he coined for a kind of liberal Christianity he especially despised), you were OK.

    Finally, on the Secret Gospel freak show. I spent many hours working at the Bickerman Archive at the JTS library. I got to know the staff quite well. Smith's papers are there as well, and talking with the staff I got the impression that every crank and crackpot in creation wanted to see them in order to find something in the papers to support their view of the secret gospel.
    I've written far too much
    Please excuse me
    Anonymous Al Baumgarten

  7. FWIW we read in Pantuck's recent volume that in one of Smith's earliest letters to Gerschon Scholem, he admits to reading and somewhat admiring the writings of Aleister Crowley.

    I'm not entirely convinced that Smith lost his faith, though I think he was probably always a ambivalent about his religiosity. My impression is that he always considered himself "spiritual" (even when his spirituality crossed the line into the bizarre) but was consistently conflicted about what that meant.

    Smith could indeed be vindictive and even petty--the way he turned on Neusner is quite understandable but somewhat histrionic, IMO.

    Alas, Smith's crazed and totally unsupportable ideas about erotic magic and early Christianity have badly tainted his (IMO very real) discovery of the Mar Saba manuscript.

  8. Hi Timo and Al,

    this is a topic that has been interesting me, and if I write one more paper revolving around Smith, I think it will be on why he became a priest and later left clerical work. I think the key to understanding Smith is not necessarily the paper in the Journal of Pastoral Care (which was written after Smith had already ended his career in pastoral care, was likely commishioned as a point/counterpoint by the journal's editor and was meant to be provocative, and which Smith stopped listing in his CV quite early on). I think the key to Smith is his paper On the Present State of Old Testament Studies. I don't think Smith is the first or the last person whose faith was altered by historical-critical study of religion (think Ehrman for example, but there are many others). But, Smith seems to have had strong attachments to aspects of the Church going back to his childhood(the art, the music, the architecture, the social dimension, etc), but clearly he had little appreciation for its theological teachings (and as he said, people who don't believe in the teachings of the church should have the decency to leave it). What I can't find, going back to the 1930s is a single personal statement of faith or even interest in being a priest, so it is hard to make a case for a dramatic "loss of faith". He made efforts to avoid actually taking a clerical position in 1945 looking for a job as a teacher of biblical literature, was clearly not particularly happy in the ~2 years he worked as a priest, and very quickly returned to Harvard to get back into academics. But he dilgently, year after year, filed reports with his Bishop to maintain his status as Priest, and he devoted his life to the study of religion. He was asked why he devoted his life to the study of what he considered superstition. Because, he answered, it is an important topic and he was interested in simple, factual, historial truth.

  9. Clearly there is both need and material for a comprehensive biography of Morton Smith. It would be nothing less than a fascinating work due to the source material alone. Anyone up to the task?

  10. "he was interested in simple, factual, historial truth" And then you say "he had little appreciation for [the Church's] theological teachings?"

    Sounds reasonable to me. The only time it make sense to be stuck in the middle of a school of fish is if you are being chased by a shark. Even Ehrman describes himself as having an agnostic outlook. Isn't having an agnostic outlook necessary for engaging in a scientific study of religion?

  11. I have been asked whether I would follow-up Bickerman's biography with one on Smith. I declined, for two reasons. First, the Bickerman biography was a digression from the sort of research I normally do (a digression that lasted 6 years), and I want to get back to my usual areas of inquiry. Second, despite the Secret Gospel, and despite the significant narrative reconstruction of Smith's life by Allan Pantuck, which differs from my own impressions, I think Smith was not as interesting as Bickerman.
    Nevertheless, one more anecdote. I remembered it in response to the comments exchanged on this blog. I hope I remember it right.
    Smith was having dinner at Theodore Gaster's house when Gaster's son asked Smith why he was interested in history. Smith supposedly replied that history fascinated him because it had so many interesting puzzles for him to solve. Gaster's son then responded, "Prof. Smith, the puzzles are yours, not history's"
    Al Baumgarten

  12. Pseudo-Sibelius29 August, 2010 12:48

    I think the Morton Seminar would give that anecdote a red vote, meaning "sounds like him." It accords with the "criterion of coherence," in this case, coherence with something Smith actually wrote in a letter. Smith himself preferred "what his enemies said about him." Ironically, in his own case, those anecdotes usually deserve a black vote, meaning "sounds like something made up to discredit him."