The Gospel Hoax
Thirty-five years ago, a distinguished Biblical scholar claimed he had found a secret gospel containing a text about Jesus and describing a strange baptismal rite. Jill Kamil was enthralled by the story of what has now been revealed to be a hoax
The discovery of a new gospel was all along reminiscent of the Piltdown Man, the famous hoax perpetrated in 1912 when fragments of a skull and jawbone were found in a gravel pit at Piltdown, in East Sussex, in the United Kingdom. They were thought by experts to be the fossilised remains of a hitherto unknown form of early man, and the specimen remained the subject of a controversy until 1953 when it was exposed as a forgery. It was actually the lower jawbone of an orang-utan combined with the skull of a fully developed modern man, and it was the most famous archaeological hoax in history.
Well, what has now been suggested as a literary hoax of grand proportions, a practical joke, has been uncovered. And it is fascinating to learn to what length Morton Smith went in order to fool biblical scholars into believing that he had made a sensational discovery, whereas what he did was to perpetrate a remarkable feat of deception as fascinating, in a different way, as the Piltdown Man.
I was encouraged to read Stephen C. Carlson's 2005 publication entitled The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of the Secret Mark, because biblical scholar Smith claimed that the secret text was originally written by one of the foremost scholars of the Catechetical school in Alexandria, the first religious institution for the study of the scriptures in the world. It also concerned Mark, author of the oldest of the four Gospels, who brought Christianity to Egypt.
Because biblical scholars question until now whether Mark the Evangelist ever set foot in Egypt, I was naturally interested in what Morton Smith found. Perhaps it would provide evidence that Mark did in fact land at Alexandria where he made his first convert, founded the Patriarchate, and was martyred. Anyway, any book with the word "hoax" in its title was worth looking into. So I bought two books: Morton Smith's The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark, which was reissued in 2005, and Carlson's The Gospel Hoax : Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark.
In the former, Smith wrote that one afternoon in 1958, when he was in his cell at the monastery of Sabas (Mar
Saba in Arabic, which lies in the desert roughly a dozen miles southeast of Jerusalem) where he had gone to study ancient texts, he found himself "staring incredulously" at one written in tiny scrawl, which began: "From the letters of the most holy Clement, the author of the Stromateis, to Theodore." Aware that Stomateis was a work by Clement of Alexandria, one of the earliest of the great fathers of the Catechetical School, and also that he was a writer of outstanding importance, Smith enthusiastically set to work. "Even before I finished transcribing the text," he wrote, "I began to think it was too good to be true. Here was new information about Jesus, a new miracle story, a quotation from the secret Gospel of Saint Mark, information that Mark had written a second, secret Gospel, and that Clement had used it!"
How was it, Smith asked himself, that never before had anyone mentioned a secret Gospel of Mark? He decided to get expert opinion. He sought out handwriting experts and biblical scholars to see what they had to say about the fragmentary document, its date, its writer, its content, and stylistic evidence. His aim, he wrote, was to cast light on the time in which the four Gospels gained general acceptance and were included in the New Testament. He waited patiently for feedback, and when it came he concluded that the secret Gospel was an original text, not a fake, and that it contained the resurrection story that provided the source of both Mark and John. He added "...it contained all of canonical Mark plus additional material, both stories and sayings." The italics, incidentally, are Smith's.
First of all, it must be said that the scholarly establishment considered the credentials of Morton Smith above reproach. So when he carried out serious research and claimed he had found a precious fragment of a second-century document, it called for discussion but raised no particular concern. When, however, much later, in 1973, he published his work, he anticipated that the text describing the manner in which Jesus initiated his disciples into "the esoteric practices of his teaching" would be touch-and-go. He wrote that he was well aware that it would change the understanding of the work and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. He also said the provocative yet fundamental questions that he raised following the transcription and translation of the text would be questioned. In fact, they did more than that; they proved to be positively explosive. Smith's claims caused outrage among many critics who were startled by his conclusions.
So what was the content of the secret Gospel? Strangely, I had to delve deep into Smith's book before finding it. I trying to learn about a secret baptismal rite, but details of it appeared only in the second half of the book, in Chapter 10. It reads as follows:
"It was something that was 'taught' at night to a disciple who came 'after six days', wearing a linen cloth over his naked body'. The six days' preparation, the linen sheet and the nudity, but most of all the content of this story in Mark, indicate that the mystery was a baptism. If so, the word 'taught' is strange. In the ancient world mystery rites like baptism were said to be 'given' to initiates. Perhaps the secret Gospel originally had 'gave' and some copyist, influenced by his memories of Matthew and Luke, and changed it to 'taught'."
Why should Jesus' baptismal rite have been secret when John the Baptist's had been public? This question was posed by Smith himself, and he describes how he delved painstakingly into the "mystery of the Kingdom of God" and secret baptism rites in early Christianity. He admitted that he himself questioned the text's authenticity, but wrote that it was his overall conclusion that Jesus conveyed "a secret profundity -- a revelatory and transformative spiritual event -- to those of his disciples who were prepared to receive it."
When Smith's book was published, there was the anticipated, initial flash of publicity, much of it critical. It gave rise to scholarly discussion of the gospel's authenticity and Smith's hypothesis, which has continued unabated for 30 years. When The Secret Gospel came out in its 1982 edition, it carried a Foreword by Elaine Pages, a highly respected scholar and the award-winning author of The Gnostic Gospels, whose words hinted at not a little scepticism. Moreover, she noted that scholarly debates would doubtless continue for decades, because the book invited a wide community of readers to share in the challenge of Smith's discovery and to evaluate for themselves the fundamental question it raised. She hinted at "the historian's dilemma" in investigating evidence concerning Jesus of Nazareth, and ventured that if Smith's "secret gospel" were genuine "it would change our understanding of the work and teaching of Jesus."
Stephen Carlson decided to accept the challenge. Others had raised questions about the authenticity of the text, but his is by far the most thorough investigation to date. He provides convincing evidence that the purported letter of Clement was penned by someone trying to pass it off as genuine, and, combining thorough investigation with his training as a lawyer, he has presented a strong case that the most likely person to perpetrate the hoax was Morton Smith himself.
Carlson's The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark, reads like a detective story, with clues, follow-ups, hypotheses, and, finally, his very convincing conclusion. Mark Goodacre, associate professor of the New Testament at the department of religion, Duke University, reviewed his book and wrote: "Combining the sharp eye of a master sleuth and the erudition of an academic, Stephen Carlson tells the story of an extraordinary literary hoax. With forensic skill Carlson shows how Morton Smith succeeded in fooling many biblical scholars into believing that he had discovered a hitherto unknown fragment of a sensational early Christian gospel. The Gospel Hoax uncovers ... a remarkable feat of deception."
Carlson's book has been called a scholarly bombshell, and it is doubtless being more widely circulated than Smith's original book. He not only exposes the document as a modern fake, but Morton Smith himself, that most distinguished of biblical scholar, as the perpetrator of the feat of deception.
What were his motives for creating a forgery? Carlson speculates that Smith did not create it with the intention to defraud for obtaining money or property, or to fabricate evidence in favour of one of his theories. It was not criminal forgery in that sense. And nor, he suggests, did Smith create a document to deceive, because various clues have been found embedded in the text, in places scholars "typically do not look", as well as hints that it is a hoax.
Larry W. Hurado, Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the School of Divinity of the University of Edinburgh, wrote in the Foreword to Carlson's The Gospel Hoax, that his "study of the purported letter of Clement is small in size but packs a powerful punch." He adds that Carlson's investigation is the most thorough to date; that he has weighed the observations and arguments of previous scholars for and against authenticity of the text, and has deployed "a further battery of original observations, among which his analysis of the properties of handwriting ... opens up a whole new line of discussion." Drawing upon the forensic science involved in forgery detection, Hurado writes that Carlson gives convincing evidence that the purported letter of Clement was penned by else, and furthermore, "the most likely person who perpetrated the hoax is the internationally celebrated scholar of ancient Judaism and Christianity, Morton Smith ... (who) uniquely had the abilities, the opportunity, and the motives."
So, what were his motives for producing a 20th- century fake, which was also a hoax. Was it to deceive? Unlikely! He may have had a different motive -- to test the establishment (i.e. expose flaws "in the gatekeepers of authenticity"), to exhibit his skill and cunning, or to take pleasure in the failure of self-appointed experts to pass the test!
Carlson reveals in his Gospel Hoax that Smith's career, at the time he penned the fake, had come to a standstill. In 1955 he was denied tenure at the university where he had begun his career. "A successful hoax could be exactly what Smith needed," Carlson wrote, "to prove to himself that he was smarter than his peers and might even jump start his career in the process." But that motive, if that was the reason for his hoax, was overcome by events when Smith landed a position at Columbia University, wrote a successful book on ancient history, and was made a full professor in 1962. Was his intention, then, ultimately to fool and then enrage the Establishment, while the scholar in him had to make his confession by planting clues of deception in the text? Carlson thinks so. He suggests that it was a joke in order to reveal, if and when it was eventually discovered, just how clever he was!
If Morton Smith's invention of Secret Mark was, as Carlson reveals, a brilliant work of deception, it is unfortunate that he is not around to witness his exposure. Morton Smith died in 1991.
I like Hurtado's comment: "Far from being some lost version of the story of Jesus, Secret Mark is uncovered as a great practical joke -- one that keeps Morton Smith laughing from his grave".
Nine miles east of Bethlehem
THE GREEK Orthodox Mar Sabas Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in the world, was where Morton Smith carried out research. Its patron saint Sabas was born in Cappadocia in the year 439, was 18 years old when he left for Palestine. After journeying into the desert area south of Jerusalem to fast each lent, nourishing himself only with the bread and wine of the Eucharist, he chose to take up the life of a hermit in an isolated cave in the Wadi Kidron.
Within five years, 70 others had joined him to settle in neighboring caves among the cliffs. Sabas structured their daily lives around the solitary prayer; seven times a day, and work such as basket wearing. He established a laura, where monks came from their isolated cells once a week to join the community, pray, and obtain necessary supplies for the coming week. Sabas died in 532 AD at the age of 93. He was buried in his monastery, and in the 12th century his body was carried off to Venice by the Crusaders. Hi remains were returned to Mar Saba Monastery as a result of an agreement between Pope Paul VI and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch during the Papal Visit to the Holy Land in 1965.