Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hunter's Experience in the Monastery of Mar Saba

The York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium Series seems to have gotten off to a good start with its commencement last Friday, as evidenced by the pictures posted on Facebook (so that's what some of the people look like!), and at least something new has come out of the discussions of the day. Roger Viklund considers a previously unknown fact, revealed by Allan J. Pantuck in his response to Craig A. Evans at the conference, that James H. Hunter, famous for penning the novel The Mystery of Mar Saba featuring a modern attempt at forging taking place in the monastery, had traveled to the place on a donkey in 1931 and met the monks, much the same way Morton Smith would make it in later years. The similarities between the experiences of the two men could be taken as an explanation for the general similarities their writings happen to share.

But were the experiences of Smith and Hunter at Mar Saba that similar? Smith describes his first visit as a 'strange and beautiful experience', explicitly mentioning 'the silence of the desert' and the hours-long liturgy which was 'dazzling the mind and destroying its sense of reality' -- though he confessed that he required a certain amount of 'suspension of disbelief' to achieve the latter state of mind (Secret Gospel, 4-6). How did Hunter perceive the life of the monastery? A clue to his perspective can be gleaned from the pages of his novel, from one of its longest paragraphs.

Hunter begins by narrating the history of the monastery, but goes on to offer an opinion on its current state of affairs (on pages 229-230):

Such was the weird home of Christian men in past ages, now degenerated into a ghastly institution of superstitious formalism lacking soul and heart, of rites performed by monks whose honesty and mode of life left much to be desired.

That's some vicious thing to say. But once started on this track, Hunter gathers steam.

The life of the monastery was as empty as the burnt-out crater of a volcano. What religious life there was had deteriorated into a burden of prescribed, and ungraciously observed, devotions; of dreary ceremonies begun at midnight with weird chants and rites that make the blood of the casual visitor who stays overnight run cold. With nothing to occupy their time, it was easy to see that the monks had degenerated.

When on the roll, let it roll, I guess.

The older monks were crafty and seemed sub-normal; the younger ones for the most part had fled there to escape the penalty of some misdeed committed among the world of men. The effect of the life there was to reduce the anchorites to a state of deplorable baseness and wretchedness. There was nothing in the life of the monastery conducive to the development of either the body, the mind or the spirit.

Think it could not get any worse, would you?

The rankest of moral weeds could only grow in a corrupting atmosphere like this. In such a miasma, man became obsessed with his fellow-man. In their souls was hate instead of love, tumult where peace should have reigned, as they performed mechanical religious duties, and remained ignorant of the blessed Gospel of the Son of God and the transforming power of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The paragraph quoted above stands out even in a novel rife with xenophobia, uncontrollable orientalism and racism. The ending sentence reveals the purpose of this slander: a struggle between Hunter's evangelical Christianity and the Orthodox Christianity of the monks in Mar Saba. Still, one cannot but wonder why Hunter would choose to portray the monks in this manner? If he really journeyed to the monastery, if he really spent a night in there and attended the nocturnal liturgy, as could be concluded from the 'dreary ceremonies.. at midnight' above, and if he really conversed with the monks and heard their stories of transferred libraries and burned manuscripts that could emerge from secret places of hiding after a time, how could he describe them as such? The vitriol is all the more striking considering that Germans, communists, atheists, freethinkers and other bad people receive much, much less vile in the novel.

And if Hunter did journey to the monastery as his travel plans indicate, one has to wonder what events in fact took place amongst those 'sub-normal' monks who 'became obsessed with... fellow-man'.


  1. I do not think Hunter’s experience at Mar Saba had any direct influence upon his choice of depicting the monks as being so sinister. I remember feeling bad when I read the things you quoted, but then the book is so obviously painted in black and white. Everything Christian is good; everything else is bad. Through the “Shred of Nicodemus”, Christianity will be destroyed and thereby hell literally will break loose. It is only Christianity that can withhold moral and sense. So by revealing the forgery, Christianity can be saved and peace love and understanding will again prevail on earth. The monks were not of the true faith and I believe this is the sole reason for Hunter’s malevolent portrayal of them.

  2. Reading the novel, the portrayal of the monks of Mar Saba really stroke me. There were evil Germans and smelly arabs everywhere, but it was the monks who got a whole paragraph that dragged on and on with ever more vicious insults in it. No other group gets that kind of treatment. And do I read it right that 'men who become obsessed with fellow-men' is a subtle allusion to the (alleged) homosexual activities between the monks in the monastery?

    But no, I don't think that anything out of the ordinary happened in Hunter's trip to the monastery. His perspective on the anchorite life, however, was (apparently) very different from Smith's (initial) respectful attitude.

  3. David C Hindley02 May, 2011 06:17


    I wanted to point out that Hunter's description of the Anchorite Monks is mirrored a bit by Rena Hogg's description of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, in her biography of her father John Hogg, _A Master Builder on the Nile_ (1914):

    "Their religious leaders were "epistles of Christ" in whose corrupted text might be wrongly read Christ's license to drunkenness and vice; while the errors that had crept into their creed set the seal of Christ's name upon a religion in which salvation was divorced from sanctification, and purchased by pious ejaculations, the use of the sacraments, fastings, alms, and the intercession of Mary and the saints. …

    And if we ask how the Coptic Church, with so fair a history, had sunk so low, the answer is not far to seek, and carries its own warning to us all. Her people had lost their Bible. It had been entombed for them in a language once their own, long since forgotten. Only now through the efforts of strangers in the nineteenth century was it being given back to them in Arabic, their adopted tongue. Meanwhile they had been sorely tried, and the soul that does not simply "trust in God and do the right" is submerged by sorrow, instead of being borne by its waves to higher levels. We have not always stood life's test so well that we can marvel or condemn when we find that instead of being perfected by suffering they had sunk under it, injured morally as well as physically by their ordeal.

    It was little wonder, indeed, that the race had deteriorated. For centuries freedom and safety were matters of purchase, while to appear wealthy was to court ruin. They strove to adjust themselves to their circumstances by worldly prudence. The gaining and hoarding of money had become in all classes the prime aim in life, its concealment the path of wisdom, lying and deceit their weapons of defence. Not so are nobility and honour nourished. Still more fatal was another adjustment. To protect their women from the dangers that threatened them in the enjoyment of their ancient freedom, they adopted for them the Mohammedan custom of seclusion. Close upon the heels of the new custom followed the taint of the attitude of mind which it embodied. Their women, degraded by both custom and attitude, soon sank in the main to the level of man's contempt, and the life of the people was poisoned at its source. [94-95]

    a third picture was drawn [for the Patriarch], a picture of the Coptic Church of the day, and of the ignorance, Sabbath-breaking, drunkenness, and immorality of its spiritual guides throughout the country … [108-109]"

    Was James Hunter Hogg related to this missionary family?

    David Hindley, USA

  4. I think the monks being sinister was probably just a plot device, but I do think that he did not really like the idea of monastic life. He was impressed by the dramatic locale, the physical structure, and the history of Mar Saba, but in 1932, he called it strange, a weird monastery in a desolate land whose isolation he found oppressive and depressing. Clearly, his experience of the place was very different from Smith’s who enjoyed the peace, isolation, and tranquility.

    He also told how dangerous it was to get to Mar Saba without a guide, and how that summer some German tourists and British military had gotten lost and almost died. I somehow think this episode may have planted a seed for his idea for his novel.

  5. I briefly looked at another book by James Hogg Hunter a few years ago. I think it was The Great Deception. It was exceptionally anti-Catholic. So I don't doubt that the paragraph you quoted represents Hunter's own views.

  6. Generally speaking, the Protestant take on monasticism has been a bit strained ever since Martin Luther ran away from his monastery and married another runaway nun.

    The differences between Smith and Hunter remind me of a visit to a synagogue some two dozens of first-year university students made as part of their course work (years ago). While I became impressed of the place and of the determined intelligence of our Jewish guide, another student saw only 'the spiritual emptiness of the place and of the worship practiced there' (her actual words), in a not-so-subtle way of underlining her own conservative interpretation of Christianity. JHH certainly had similar ideas.