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


Gospel Secrets: The Biblical Controversies of Morton Smith

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No one understood Scholem's attitude better, or shared it more completely, than Smith. He took one lesson above all away with him from Jerusalem: "the difference," as he put it in 1945, "between books, on the one hand, that display a special way of thinking that is worth reflecting on, and all other books, on the other hand." Smith's sense that most scholarship was second-rate made him reluctant to become a professor, since he felt "more and more opposed to the reading of the nonsense that needs to be read to become an expert in any given research method." Even after he decided to cast his lot with Wissenschaft, and even after his success was assured, he wondered--as he confided to Scholem--"why is it that the study of religion attracts so many nitwits?" He took delight in witnessing the "squelches" that Scholem administered to lesser scholars during a conference discussion. Nothing pleased Smith more about the visiting professorship he helped arrange for Scholem at Brown University, it seems, than being able to explain why the university's professor of Old Testament did not want Scholem to require that students in his seminar know Hebrew: "He says he thinks there would be a number of students who would like to take a seminar with you, but who could not meet that requirement. (He is right at least as to one student--himself...)." To Stroumsa, it seems psychologically impossible that Smith could have spent years deceiving the man to whom he owed, and whom he admired, so much, and whom he saw as one of the few who shared his sense of what makes true scholarship.

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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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Yet the depth and rigor of Smith's scholarship don't necessarily absolve him from suspicion. Great scholars--scholars intolerant of complacency, stupidity and error--have also been forgers. Erasmus, the greatest of the Renaissance humanists, insisted that theologians read the New Testament in the original Greek, not just the Latin Vulgate. He also omitted a controversial verse that supported the doctrine of the Trinity from his edition of the New Testament when he found that the Greek manuscripts did not contain it. This daring scholarly move brought swarms of traditionalists out of their nests, determined to sting him. He cheerfully beat them off--until they produced a manuscript written for the occasion in which the verse appeared in Greek. In his commentaries on the texts and in his satires, Erasmus rallied scholars across Europe to join him in extirpating the folly and ignorance of conventional theologians--for instance, the Dominicans who used the Bible to support the persecution of witches. Yet we know he forged a complete work by the early Christian writer Cyprian in order to support his views about Christian martyrdom.

Smith's letters, moreover, show that he possessed at least a couple of the qualities of the successful forger, and in spades. Unlike British and European scholars, most Americans receive relatively little training in composing ancient Greek and Latin. We have as yet produced no counterpart to "Herodotus at the Zoo," a brilliant homage to the Greek traveler and historian Herodotus composed by the legendary expert on Athenian pottery, J.D. Beazley. Smith, however, was a gifted and assured practitioner of prose composition--he wrote his dissertation and his first letters to Scholem in Hebrew. Most philologists, as is well known, have little sense of humor--something every forger needs. But Smith's letters are consistently witty, at others' expense and his own. In 1960, when he decided to turn down an offer from Cornell and stay at Columbia, he explained his decision to Scholem with a characteristically neat paradox: "If I buried myself in Ithaca I should never forgive myself for having sacrificed the theater and the opera and the galleries, but so long as I stay here I can indefinitely put off going to them, and feel happy and virtuous about it." A really good academic novelist--someone like Allegra Goodman, who wove the dismal straw of contemporary laboratory life into fictional gold in Intuition--could find rich material here for a tale of how the ironist of Providence and Morningside Heights became the forger of Mar Saba.

But another story--a less dramatic one suggested by the letters--seems much more likely to be the true one. When Scholem learned that the Mar Saba discoveries bore on the Carpocratians, he replied enthusiastically: "I am amazed to hear that there is still unknown information about the Carpocratians to be found. Those are the Frankists of Antiquity. Produce it as soon as possible!" The Frankists were the followers of Jacob Frank, an eighteenth-century Polish Jew who had taught that those who followed him were free from the law and should pursue salvation through ecstatic sexuality. In a famous essay published in 1937, not long before Smith joined him in Jerusalem, Scholem explored the mysteries of what he called "redemption through sin": "It would be pointless to deny that the sexual element in this outburst was very strong: a primitive abandon such as the Jewish people would scarcely have thought itself capable of after so many centuries of discipline in the Law joined hands with perversely pathological drives to seek a common ideological rehabilitation." In this characteristically imaginative way, Scholem, no religious believer, re-created the deep meanings that Judaism had even--or especially--for its heretics in another age.

How much of Scholem's vision did Smith take away with him from Jerusalem? Back in America in the late 1940s, Smith wrote to Scholem as a busy, engaged Episcopalian cleric, giving sermons and organizing youth groups. Soon afterward, however, he abandoned the church for the academy. The evidence of the letters--like that of his books--makes clear that he also abandoned, and even came to despise, Christianity (in one letter to Scholem he thanked "the non-existent" for a special piece of good fortune). Again and again, over the past 200 years, Christians and Jews raised in traditional Orthodox communities have found their faith challenged, or even destroyed, when a training in scholarship forced them to confront the fact that the Bible is not infallible. Bart Ehrman, for example, has described how studying New Testament textual criticism at Princeton Theological Seminary prompted him to stop "reading the Bible as an inerrant blueprint for our faith, life, and future" and to start "seeing it as a very human book, with very human points of view, many of which differ from one another and none of which provides the inerrant guide to how we should live."

As a midcentury Episcopalian, Smith would never have thought the Bible inerrant. But he did think almost that of Scholem. Could Scholem's enthusiastic comparison of Carpocrates to Frank have set Smith on the way to making Jesus a magician? Could Scholem's teaching have inspired Smith to rethink the nature of religious experience, and Christianity, and find new meanings in the life of Jesus? It seems very likely, to me at least, that Scholem's way of thinking about redemption and salvation, religion and sex, acted slowly but irrevocably on Smith--in just the time-bomb way that great teaching often acts: like so many of the great Jewish scholars he knew, he found in history of a particular kind a way to appreciate the emotional richness of traditions to which he could no longer pledge personal loyalty. In The Secret Gospel, Smith described Scholem's deep impact on him and recalled that when he told Scholem about the letter, "he pounced immediately on the mention of the Carpocratians," whose leader supposedly "taught that sin was a means of salvation.... A remotely similar theme was important in the writings of some seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jewish heretics whom Scholem had been studying (Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank)."

The newly published letters, though they suggest and support this reading, don't quite clinch the case: indeed, they suggest that Smith, writing years later, may have remembered as conversations exchanges that actually took place on paper. I believe that Smith really found his letter, and that Scholem gave him the framework into which he inserted it. But that's just what I think. Many will disagree. This time, the professor is the Cheshire cat. He smiles and is gone.

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