Monday, November 15, 2010

One-Sided Reception of the Hoax Hypothesis

Craig S. Keener discusses the Secret Gospel of Mark in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels: Jesus in Historical Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). In four paragraphs on page 60 he summarizes the situation thus:

The “Secret Gospel of Mark,” not to be confused with the canonical Gospel of Mark, is an important source for John Dominic Crossan's reconstruction of the historical Jesus. But while some scholars have wished to use the “Secret Gospel of Mark,” more scholars have cautiously warned against its use in reconstructing the life of Jesus.112 In fact, Secret Mark, once hailed by some New Testament scholars (especially by its putative discover Morton Smith) as an early (even pre-Mark) source,113 has come to be regarded by most as a forgery dating from anywhere between the late second and the twentieth century.114 The most recent discussion suggests that a twentieth-century date is most likely for the forgery, offering New Testament scholarship's own version of science's famous “Piltdown Man.”115

The only manuscript (actually, a photograph of a manuscript) seems to derive from a different provenance than the monastery where it was supposedly found, and evidence appears to suggest that it appeared at the monastery only in recent times.116 Its attribution to Clement is stylistically open to question;117 it also clearly presupposes modern idiom and perhaps modern custom.118 In fact, recent analysis reveals the typical “forger's tremor” throughout the document,119 as well as characteristics of Morton Smith's Greek handwriting style, convincing many that Smith himself was the forger.120

Smith's publications on Secret Mark reflect the same “cut-and-paste” excerpting techniques that characterize the composition of both Secret Mark and the allegedly Clementine document in which it is embedded.121 Its understanding of homosexuality reflects that of Smith and his twentieth-century context rather than that held in the first century,122 and some thus suggest that it may have been composed precisely to advance that twentieth-century perspective.123

The work may even reflect some twentieth-century literary models.124 These include a novel about a fraudulent document discrediting Christianity, discovered at the very same monastery and exposed by one “Lord Moreton” -- published one year before Morton Smith's first visit to this monastery!125 We are all capable of being taken in occasionally, and it is understandable that many scholars (including myself) would have been reticent to charge such a noted scholar as Morton Smith with forgery. Given the breadth of information today, we must depend on other scholars at many points. The evidence, however, now seems to be in on this case: the Secret Gospel of Mark is a forgery, hence any reconstructions based on it must be re-reconstructed.

112 Charlesworth and Evans, “Agrapha,” 526-32; cf. Marcus, Mark, 47-51.
113 Cf. Jeffery, Secret Gospel, 247: “we were supposed to accept that these two fragments of the Secret Gospel, preserved only in an (allegedly) eighteenth-century copy, represented a text as early as, or even earlier than, any canonical New Testament writing.”
114 Stanton, Gospel Truth, 93; Neusner, “Foreword,” xxvii; cf. Losie, “Gospel.” Brown, Death, 297, dates it earlier, to c. 125.
115 As late as the 1700s some writers followed the ancient convention of pretending to translate ancient writings seen by no one else (Lefkowitz, Africa, 111); for a Gospel forgery from 1860, see Millard, Reading and Writing, 53. For one popular retelling of the “Piltdown Man” forgery or hoax that misled many earlier paleontologists for four decades, see Millar, Piltdown Man (though Millar favored Grafton Elliot Smith as the culprit, there has been no consensus).
116 Carlson, Hoax, 35-40.
117 Carlson, Hoax, 49-64; also Jeffery, Secret Gospel, 41, 99 (citing others' observations that it provides much more distinctively Clementine vocabulary than Clement's normal passages do).
118 Carlson, Hoax, 65-71. Jeffery, Secret Gospel, 55-70 (cf. also 71-90), finds there elements of Smith's Anglican liturgical background; it does not fit second-century Alexandrian liturgy, and Smith misunderstood eastern liturgy (cf. 123-48).
119 For this and other features suggesting forgery, see Carlson, Hoax, 26-35.
120 Carlson, Hoax, 42-47, esp. 46-47; Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 96-97. It also contains some obscure information on which Smith had previously published (Carlson, Hoax, 71-72). Jeffery, Secret Gospel, suggests other cases of Smith's deception (e.g., 127, 134, 147, although these cases might reflect simply a shift in perspective), sexual humor (e.g., 128-29), misreading another culture in light of his own (132-33, 136-44), and agendas powerful enough to seriously distort data (144-45).
121 Jeffery, Secret Gospel, 119, 121.
122 See Jeffery, Secret Gospel, 49-50, 185-212, 248. Jeffery also notes that the Mar Saba text's portrayal of homosexuality better fits “the 'Uranian' homosexual subculture of nineteenth-century English universities” than its putative context (Secret Gospel, 225; the entire argument is 213-25). For the reversal of Smith's own position (and his movement from an Anglo-Catholic to his belief that early Christianity was a conspiratorial construct), see Jeffery, Secret Gospel, 149-84.
123 Jeffery, Secret Gospel, argues that Smith composed the work to defend homosexual love against traditional Christian views (119-21, 239, 242-43, 247).
124 Jeffery, Secret Gospel, 226-39, 241-42, citing Oscar Wilde's Salomé (note esp. the seven veils suggested in Smith's document, 229, reflecting an image developed by Wilde, 227-28, and certainly known to Smith.)
125 Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 97.

Keener's assessment is fairly typical among the recent works of secondary literature on Secret Mark. He 1) takes the case for fraudulent Gospel, as presented by Stephen Carlson and Peter Jeffery, for granted, 2) does not mention that dissenting voices are occasionally heard, and 3) cannot avoid to bring at least one of the alleged 'clues' to the picture; this time it is 'Lord Moreton', an argument I first saw proposed by Chris Price at CADRE Comments, now cited from Evans' Fabricating Jesus. Although Keener does not say it aloud, the juxtaposition of 'Moreton' and 'Morton' is clearly intended to give the impression that the similarities between the two names are not idle coincidences.

Consequently, we need a further analytical distinction between the various 'clues' Morton Smith allegedly left behind. An argument that Smith took inspiration from Hunter's novel has the virtue of being at least fathomable if nothing else. But how on Earth is the name of a minor character, who is introduced in the last quarter of the novel, supposed to function as a clue to Smith forging Clement's letter to Theodore? Was he further inspired by the similarity to his own name? Should he have been inspired to reveal the forgery instead of propagating it, since Lord Moreton is the chief of the London Police? Or could we, at least with this one random connection, try and agree that the similarities between Lord Moreton and Morton Smith result from an insignificant twist of fate, and nothing more?


  1. We live in an age where truth really doesn't matter. I don't know if you are aware of this living in Suomi but the United States has been divided along a political fault line ever since Reagan. This has spread to religious people in other English speaking cultures (Canada, the United Kingdom). I don't even think these people care less whether or not Smith did or didn't discover the document. They the very presence of the letter as a challenge to their faith.

    The real question in my mind would be what would have happened if the letter had been discovered a hundred years earlier. Would any of this conservative reactionism be at work? Of course not.

    There is a tendency among Christian believers now to see themselves as 'defenders of the faith' in any action they take to reject modernity (except of course the 'updating' of the Christian faith to make it appeal to young people). That's doing the Lord's work apparently.

    The real thing they object to is thinking outside of the box with regards to their sacred religion. The unconscious conspiracy that used to favor the Christian religion at the highest levels of government no longer exists.

    That's what has made them so vocal. We don't 'naturally' celebrate Christmas, Easter as a culture. Non-believers are just 'assumed' to have subordinate role in the greater culture.

    They have declared war against anything that helps put their faith in the corner and to Theodore does exactly that because no one can figure out what to do with it. All the certainty about early Christianity suddenly disappears.

    The Nag Hammadi texts are just a freak show. There is no identification of authorship, no association witha a Church Father so who cares. There have always been wierdos and gnostics are just that.

    Having Clement of Alexandria explicitly point to 'something' else being present at the heart of Christianity which none of our parents and ancestors passed on to that ... big problem.

    So attack the messenger, attack Morton Smith.

  2. I agree that this is fairly typical. And clearly not correct w.r.t "the most recent discussion". It is an interesting study in its own right as to why this type of approach is so common.

  3. Thanks for the comments. The one problem I have with Stephan's suggestion is scholars like Ehrman, Pearson, Klauck and others who certainly are not 'defenders of the faith' yet still deem the hoax hypothesis as the most plausible one. But, indeed, why should we learn nothing of Brown and Pantuck in the secondary literature, is an interesting question to ponder.

  4. There are clearly a number of motivations for the same behavior. The interesting thing with Pearson at least is that he accepted the core argument of Carlson without actually examining the original images. I have the highest respect for Pearson. He is one of my inspirations. Yet he's only human.

    It's one thing in my mind to ask why do individual smart people get it wrong and another to say why does the current academic environment favor the idea that one of their own perpetrated one of the biggest scholarly forgeries in recent history.

    Is this cynicism limited to the current academic environment? Is it just 'cynicism' that is at work here?

    I think it goes back to broader trends in the culture - a culture which is sick and undeniably in decline.

    There can be no doubt in my mind that Smith's discovery would have been accepted a century earlier as authentic. The change can't be attributed to 'progress.' Rather the shamelessness of contemporary society allows scholars to raise unthinkable questions without even having a smoking gun or a plausible motivation.

    I do think that a certain degree of jealousy is at work among the most eminent critics of Smith. They essentially only talk about early Christianity and Smith actually discovered something earth-shattering.

    The forgery hypothesis brings everyone back to the same playing field.