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


Gospel Secrets: The Biblical Controversies of Morton Smith

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Last year, a distinguished Israeli historian of religion, Guy Stroumsa, set out to settle the question. His interest is understandable: as a young man, he played a minor but meaningful role in the story. In 1976 Stroumsa drove three other scholars--two of whom, David Flusser and Schlomo Pines, were among the greatest of the Hebrew University greats--from Jerusalem to Mar Saba, where they picked up the Vossius edition of Ignatius, still inscribed with the inventory number Smith had given it, and transferred it to Jerusalem. Flusser apparently thought Clement's letter a fake. But Stroumsa believes the document is genuine. He ascribes most of the resistance to Smith's groundbreaking discovery to more conventional scholars' prejudices: discomfort with what they thought they knew about Smith's sexuality, on the one hand; refusal to accept a radical discovery, on the other. "It is a well-known fact among scientists and epistemologists," Stroumsa has written, "that it takes a long time, up to thirty years, before scientific breakthroughs are widely acknowledged and their implications fully recognized. Smith published the account of his discovery in 1973. It seems the time has come to accept it."

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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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To prove that Smith invented nothing, Stroumsa has published a fascinating collection of primary sources: Smith's correspondence with a lifelong friend, the twentieth century's greatest Jewish scholar, Gershom Scholem. Smith, an adventurer in life as well as in scholarship, went to Jerusalem in 1940 on a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship awarded him by the Harvard Divinity School. Caught in Palestine by World War II, he spent four years there. At the Hebrew University--the pre-eminent German university in the world in those days, thanks to its faculty of erudite, brilliant refugees--Smith studied classics with Moshe Schwabe and Hans Lewy and Jewish mysticism with Scholem. He helped translate Scholem's first great book on the Kabbala, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, and translated an ancient Jewish mystical text under Scholem's supervision. More remarkably, Smith wrote a doctoral dissertation, in Hebrew, on Tannaitic (early rabbinical) parallels to the Gospels and became the Hebrew University's first Christian PhD. Returning to the United States in 1945, he began a career in the Episcopalian ministry, then moved back into scholarship and became, eventually, a professor of ancient history at Columbia University, where he taught until 1990. From 1945 until Scholem's death in 1982, the two men corresponded regularly. Their letters, which Stroumsa and associates have edited, open a new window on Smith's career, the scholarly world in which Smith flourished and the Secret Mark.

For Stroumsa, the documents make one point clear beyond doubt: Smith could not have forged Clement's letter or Secret Mark. For Smith's letters show him discussing the material with Scholem, over time, in ways that clearly reflect a process of discovery and reflection. From the start, he was sure he had a new work of Clement's on his hands. In August 1959, Smith wrote to Scholem that "the material by Clement of Alexandria which I found at Mar Saba last year is turning out to be of great importance, and as soon as I get all minor nuisances off my hands I must work hard at it." Later that year he went into more detail, noting that the letter "contains some amazing information about the Carpocratians and the Gospel according to Mark." By early 1961 he was working up the materials that eventually went into his two books.

But the more radical conclusions took time to emerge. Not until October 1962 did Smith tell Scholem that "I am really beginning to think Carpocrates and the sort of things he represented (and especially the ascent through the heavens) were far closer to Jesus than has ever been supposed." If Smith really forged Clement's letter, then he also must have spent years deliberately deceiving one of the few scholars he deeply respected. Yet he showed remarkable equanimity when his efforts proved partly unsuccessful. When Smith's scholarly book on Secret Mark appeared, Scholem accepted the letter as Clementine. But though he appreciated Smith's evidence about the magical side of early Christianity as "very good and convincing as far as it pertains to the tradition of the original church," he also found himself "not sure whether the story can be truly taken as historical evidence about Jesus himself." Smith, in his reply, showed only gratitude for his friend's detailed critical response: "Your letter pleased me very much and I thank you most sincerely for writing me at such length about my book.... As to Jesus, I should perhaps have emphasized more strongly that all accounts of his teaching and practice are conjectural, and I claim to my own conjectures only that they fit the reports as well as any and better than most." This is the tone of a colleague in inquiry, not a foiled forger.

Scholem, after all, was famous as a scholar for two qualities: a passionate interest in the occult, esoteric and antinomian elements of the Jewish tradition, and a fastidious intolerance of incompetent scholarship that matched Smith's. In 1972 the Jewish scholar Amos Funkenstein and the Christian historian Martin Marty, as well as Smith, published reviews of the three volumes of The Cambridge History of the Bible. In the course of his detailed review of Volume 2, Funkenstein--who could quote reams of texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin from memory--complained that the book failed to deal with the influence of the medieval Jewish thinker Ramban (Nachmanides) on Christians like Meister Eckhart. From Scholem's erudite, minutely critical point of view, this apparently precise remark was actually a gaffe--one so serious as to reveal that Funkenstein was an ignoramus. "What kind of Jewish scholar is this," he wrote to Smith, "who can confuse the Ramban with the Rambam [Maimonides, the medieval Jewish scholar who actually influenced many Christian thinkers]?" Scholem's absolute rigor and integrity--as well as his dedication to the study of magic--inspired Saul Lieberman, an authority on the Talmud, to offer the greatest backhanded tribute in the history of scholarly irony when introducing him at the Jewish Theological Seminary: "You know that I believe that mysticism is nonsense, total and complete nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship. And the man who is about to speak knows more about the history of nonsense than anyone has ever known."

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