Biblical studies closely follows the signs of the times. James G. Crossley examines the influence of historical and political context on the studies of Christian origins in his 2008 monograph "Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century". He comes to a firm conclusion: predominant ideologies direct the scholarship from choosing a research question onwards.1 David S. G. Goodman summarizes this observation in the following way: "Writing of all kinds - fiction as well as academic writing - contributes to the creation of an intellectual environment." The created intellectual environment, in turn, influences the manner in which preserved sources are read in the study of history: the production of texts evolves in a constant interaction with the interpretation of texts.2
In chapter 4.3 we analyzed the birth of the culture of modern conspiracy theory thinking as parallel to the birth of the culture of postmodern, and the development of electric tools of communication. I argued there that the rise of HTTP as the standard protocol of the Internet with the popularity of WWW during the 1990s, the possibility for effortless connection to the Internet, and the culture of blogging, have transformed conspiracy theory thinking into a wide-spread alternative viewpoint to the world of postmodern shattered. In the 3rd millennium an important literary genre comes to complete the list: "textual puzzle -thriller", or as Joshua Gunn and Thomas Frentz choose to label it, "page-turning, puzzle-solving mystery".3 The core element in this genre is the classic tale of mystery, in which the protagonist solves a puzzle. "Textual puzzle -thriller" aims to hook its reader by utilizing numerous minor mysteries during the course of the narrative. In their most simple form these minor mysteries are e.g. plays on words, and riddles. According to Gunn and Frentz novels that define the genre are e.g. Ian Caldwell's and Dustin Thomason's "The Rule of Four", Umberto Eco's "Il Pendolo di Foucault", Arturo Perez-Reverte's "The Club Dumas", and Rhonda Byrne's "The Secret". As the brightest of the crown jewels shines, naturally, Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code".4
Every contemporary writing construes the cultural space in which even scientific research is conducted. For this reason it is easy to be worried together with Goodman about the future of scientific inquiry: conspiracy theories - whether fictitious or those espoused in all seriousness - make the distinction between fiction and scientific fact ever more laborious to uphold.5 In the field of biblical studies "textual puzzle -thriller" is clearly represented by John Dart's "Decoding Mark" from 2003, which even in its name assures us that it is solving a puzzle, this time from within the Gospel of Mark. In his monograph Dart tries to decode the hidden message of the Gospel of Mark. Chiastic structure - ABCB'A' - is a known technique of memorization used by ancient rhetoricians and poets. If the Gospel of Mark gets to be reconstructed as a single, giant chiastic structure, have we arrived at the original Markan composition? According to Dart the answer is yes, even though the argument seems to be simply circular in nature. For Dart builds an enormous, multi-leveled chiastic structure, and argues from the exercise that the existence of said structure proves that his exercise of building the structure is valid.
In a likewise manner, Stephen C. Carlson seems to follow the signs of the times. He, too, wishes to solve a "great puzzle" the Theodore-letter provides.6 He, too, basis his answer on numerous small mysteries, plays on words, and riddles. As is the case with the novel of Dan Brown, it is hard to discern the exact place where factuality gets substituted with fiction. Even though I have argued in this thesis that Carlson's hoax hypothesis as a whole is improbable, and that his clue arguments, those subtle hints Morton Smith hid, are pseudoscientific, I feel that I can sympathize with Carlson's general attitude. As his witty blog post on "Opposite Day" under the pseudonym "Carl Stephenson" shows, Carlson has a predilection for textual puzzles; furthermore, he has the ability to present them interestingly, and solve them in ingenious ways.7
In the end, the problem we are facing is not that it would have been impossible for Morton Smith to hide clues of the writer's true identity to the Theodore-letter. The real problem is in the impossibility to control the search for these clues in any sensible manner, in any methodologically sound way. The best hoax is the one that cannot be shown to be a hoax by any tool at our disposal. If Smith performed the best possible hoax with the Theodore-letter, the Academy can do nothing but use the Secret Gospel of Mark as a valid historical source, as is appropriate for the current paradigm in the field of Biblical studies.
1Crossley 2008, 3-19. There is nothing controversial in the analysis for it represents the standard conviction among historians; cf. e.g Kajava 2005, 254.
2Goodman 2006, 363.
3Gunn 2008, 214.
4Gunn 2008, 216-217, 232.
5Goodman 2006, 363.
6Carlson 2005, xvi.
2013 SBL Annual Meeting Diary
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