Gospel Secrets: The Biblical Controversies of Morton Smith | The Nation


Gospel Secrets: The Biblical Controversies of Morton Smith

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But almost from the start, some have suggested a much more radical explanation. In 1975 Quentin Quesnell, a Catholic New Testament scholar, argued that the manuscript was a modern forgery--presumably, though he did not say so directly, the work of Smith. This theory has continued to find supporters. Two recent books--The Gospel Hoax, by a lawyer named Stephen Carlson, and The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, by Peter Jeffrey, a Princeton musicologist, MacArthur Fellow and renowned expert on the history of liturgy--argue that Smith composed the text. The sexual undertones of the document have led some to suggest, explicitly or by innuendo, that Smith, a gay man, forged the text for personal reasons. In fact, Smith laid relatively little emphasis on the document's sexual implications, as opposed to the more general evidence, as he saw it, that Christ taught salvation through sin. But Jeffrey, in the course of an intricate, minutely detailed analysis, argues that Smith deliberately made his case by indirection, distracting readers from his true purpose as a magician distracts the members of his audience.

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Anthony Grafton
Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University, is the author, most recently...

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Who is right? One problem with the scholarly arguments--a problem that often comes up in arguments about the authenticity of a text--is that they have tended to move in spirals. Is the letter really by Clement? From Smith on, scholars have attacked this problem by comparing the letter's language and syntax with those of Clement's better-known works, using detailed indexes published in the 1930s. The document is full of words and thoughts that appear only in Clement. Some are unique. But does that mean, as Smith held, that Clement wrote it? Or that its author--perhaps Smith--steeped himself in Clement, using the modern indexes that listed every word in his writings, before he went to work? Some claim that the document uses too many words found only in Clement--is, in other words, too Clementine--to be genuine. Others disagree. In the absence of a complete corpus of his work--something we have for no ancient writer--how can we know, except by assuming what we want to prove? Stalemate threatens.

Some of the arguments, pro and con, have reached a staggering level of ingenuity. In the document, Clement warns against the Carpocratians' interpolated Gospel: "the true things being mixed with inventions, are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt loses its savor." This reads like an analogy between the words of the text and the Christians themselves, to whom Jesus had said, in the Gospel of Matthew, "Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted?" But Carlson argues that ancient salt--which came in lumps, not in free-flowing crystals--could not be adulterated, as Clement suggests. Only after 1910 did a chemist find a way to keep salt from clumping. He, of course, worked for Morton Salt. Could Morton Smith have mischievously added the salt reference to assert his authorship, as forgers sometimes do? The new text was entered in the last pages of the 1646 edition of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch. The corpus of Ignatius's letters had included forgeries, which the editor of that edition, Isaac Vossius, omitted. The first page of Clement's letter actually faces the end of the printed text of Vossius's commentary, where the editor denounces forgers. Could Smith have chosen these endpapers for his text in order to let the cleverest readers know that he had written the letter himself? Or are these coincidences simply the result of chance? The more questions are raised, the more evidence is brought into play, the more the letter becomes a Rorschach for its readers and the harder some find it to decide what they think. Even Bart Ehrman, a University of North Carolina professor who has written some notably polemical popular works on the corruption and interpolation of all the documents of early Christianity, refuses to take a firm position on Secret Mark.

One way to arrive at certainty seems obvious: study the manuscript pages, using scientific methods to date paper and ink, and assess the script, drawing on the less scientific, but still elaborate, methods of paleography. But if the scholarly disputes over Secret Mark resemble the caucus race from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the manuscript plays the role of the Cheshire cat. The volume of Ignatius's letters remained at Mar Saba, where Smith left it, until the 1970s. But then it was transferred to the library of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem. And here it disappeared--or so, at least, the librarians claim--without ever being subjected to chemical tests. Stasis again, so it seems.

The situation is distressing--especially for those who admire, as many do, Smith's immense learning and independence of mind. For in his case it has particularly unpleasant implications. Smith was the kind of critic who makes grown scholars tear off their own heads for fear of reading his reviews. He regularly pulverized others' publications, compiling remorseless lists of errors and responding to stupidity with searing wit--as when he suggested that the printer had omitted one word at the end of an especially conventional article in the first volume of The Cambridge History of the Bible: "Amen." To a conference session in honor of one of his former students, the famously prolific and famously contentious Jacob Neusner, Smith brought two boxes of copies of Saul Lieberman's fiercely negative review of Neusner's "preliminary translation" of the Palestinian Talmud. When recognized during the question period, he read a prepared statement and then "began marching up the aisle like a staff sergeant, distributing the reviews to a stunned audience," an academic journal reported. Sometimes, Smith was more severe than his victims deserved. But to accuse him of forgery--or deception of any kind--is to call him a hypocrite of a particularly systematic and deliberate type. The worst thing about stasis is that it leaves these suspicions undispelled.

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