Controversial Studies and the Question of Motive: Morton Smith

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here. Part II here.)

Secret Mark is one of the most successful literary forgeries in history, and I awarded it the #2 slot on my top-20 list back in October ’05. Morton Smith should feel so proud. But why did he do it?

Smith forged Secret Mark for the sake of–

(1) Hoaxing. He wanted to test the competency of his colleagues with a prank and “flip off” the establishment.

(2) A Gay Gospel. He wanted to discredit Christianity with evidence that Jesus was gay and approved homosexuality.

(3) A Controlled Experiment. He wanted to study how scholars responded to a controversial document.

(4) Fame. He wanted the fame and prestige that came with discovering an ancient document.

The most penetrating analyses of Smith’s motives, of course, have come in the works of Stephen Carlson and Peter Jeffery. Carlson insists on motive (1), demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that Smith was pulling off an elaborate prank. In a passage sure to be often quoted by those who study fakes, he distinguishes hoaxes from “typical” forgeries:

“Although hoaxes share with forgeries the element of creating a document with the intention to deceive, hoaxes are done with a different motive — to test the establishment, whether to expose flaws in the gatekeepers of authenticity, to exhibit one’s skill and cunning, or to take pleasure in the failure of self-appointed experts to pass the test. Secret Mark functions as a hoax designed to test, not a forgery designed to cheat.” (Gospel Hoax, pp 78-79)

Carlson thinks the fame motive (4) is “the next best alternative” (see here), but I disagree, consigning it to the bottom. With Peter Jeffery I think (2) is the close contender and indeed inseparable from (1). Smith’s “gay gospel” is the hoax. Carlson actually seems to agree with that partly (or in essence):

“Secret Mark supports not only Smith’s love of controversy but also his favorite target. It was written during the 1950s, during an especially oppressive moment in American history when mainline ministers were urging the police to crack down on gay men gathered in public parks. What could be more upsetting to the Establishment in this historical moment than the intimation, revealed in an ancient text by the author of the oldest gospel, that they are crucifying Jesus all over again?” (ibid, p 85)

Carlson claims that the controlled experiment hypothesis (3) “is unlikely”, even if Smith “could have well have been a little curious at the process in which his hoax was accepted” (see here). I agree: this probably became a subsidiary motive for maintaining the hoax, but it was doubtfully present at the start. I’d say the same for motive (4). Smith thrived on controversy and reveled in the resulting outrage over his “discovery”, but that’s not what propelled him to fabricate Secret Mark to begin with.

Peter Jeffrey accepts the hoaxing motive ascribed by Carlson but thinks there were additional “more compelling” motives (The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, p 271, n. 117), all of which blur and — curiously enough — undermine each other:

“One of the slippery things about the whole Mar Saba venture — both the ‘original’ document and Smith’s various publications on it — is that there seem to be three messages, which shift in and out of focus depending on how one looks at it, and which tend to undermine each other. First of all, Smith clearly wanted us to believe he had discovered major new evidence that Jesus approved of homosexuality [motive (2)] — even engaged in it, even imbued it with religious significance… But how could we take Smith’s proposal seriously when, on closer scrutiny, it keeps dissolving into dirty jokes?… But then, just as we are about to dismiss the whole thing as a prank [motive (1)] — lewd, crude, and facetious — the humor fades into hostility. All the experts and eminences whose endorsements Smith claimed to have obtained, and all the other scholars who became convinced that he had discovered a genuine ancient writing, will have good reason to feel abused, more than amused, by the whole sordid mess — arguably the most grandiose and reticulated ‘Fuck You’ ever perpetuated in the long and vituperative history of scholarship. Were all three messages equally intended? Did Smith fully realize what he was doing?” (ibid, p 242)

So we could add a fifth motive to the list — anger/rage — though I think it’s actually encompassed by the hoaxing motive. One can hoax out of amusement or anger, and Smith seems to have had endless supplies of both. Jeffery concludes:

“I conjecture that the letter of ‘Clement’ may have begun as a purposeful, even a wistful, attempt to set the historical record ‘straight’ (or rather ‘gay’) — but that it quickly fell afoul of Smith’s nasty sense of humor, which in turn became the transparent mask of his considerable rage — I suspect without his fully realizing or understanding what was happening… I don’t think Smith could perceive clearly what he was actually communicating.” (p 243)

Perhaps, but I think Smith understood well enough what he was doing if not precisely “communicating”. He wanted people to be incited by the idea that Jesus was gay and approved homosexuality, and his humor and anger propelled him accordingly.

Summary: Priest, Pope, Apostle

Smith’s true motives are located in (1) and (2) almost equally. If not for his sexual identity crisis, his anger at the homophobia of the 1950s, his need to have fun at the expense of others — and, above all, his penchant for underscoring how gullible and stupid people are — he would have never forged Secret Mark. A hoaxer is just the kind of person he was, and a gay Jesus was just the hoax he needed to gratify himself personally.

Like Paul and Urban, Smith was a Christian pastor; souls were in his keeping. But his solution to the problem of homophobia differed from Paul’s to Gentile-phobia, or Urban’s to the stigmatization of warriors. Denying precisely what he was, he consigned gays to hell as stridently as a medievalist(1), then afterwards renounced God and the priesthood, retreating into a private world where he could show people up on his own terms.

In the next and final post we’ll wrap up the series.


(1) “Psychiatric Practice and Christian Dogma”, Journal of Pastoral Care 3 (1949): 12-20. This article is cited at length by Peter Jeffery.

Integrity vs. Innocence

The scholars of The Context Group have done much to explain the culture of the bible, particularly by contrasting its honor-shame values with the innocence-guilt code we cherish in the west. People in shame cultures are driven by a concern for honor, vengeance, and saving face — all based on what others think of them. People in guilt cultures care mostly about truth, justice, and the preservation of individual rights — based on what they think of themselves (i.e. conscience).

Historian Richard Landes has also written about honor-shame (more in relation to modern Islam than ancient Judaism and Christianity), but he calls the opposite culture one of integrity-guilt instead of innocence-guilt. (Hat-tip to Stephen Carlson for the reference.) Is “integrity” preferable to “innocence” in the guilt model?

Admittedly it makes more sense to speak of someone of integrity as we would speak of a someone of honor. (“Someone of innocence” sounds awkward and perhaps childish.) But I see a problem here. “Integrity” is defined as a “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values” (Merriam-Webster), and as far as I can tell, that code could be based on either guilt or shame. Some dictionaries and thesauri even point to integrity as the quality of being honest and/or honorable — the condition of being free of defects and flaws in either of those areas. Similarly, “dishonesty” and “dishonor” can both be considered antonyms to “integrity”. So I’m not sure that integrity runs parallel to honor, as Landes tries to make it. It includes honor, just as it includes honesty. Maybe “honesty” is the word Landes is really after?

But the question of honesty is only a part of the whole issue. It’s true that lies and deceptions are more socially acceptable in honor-shame societies (as I’ve written about here), but this points back to more over-arching sets of values. The idea of innocence gets at our value systems more expansively than honesty (“integrity”) does. James Atherton explains helpfully:

“In a guilt-culture I will defend my innocence even if everyone else is blaming me. My internal and individualistic judgment is what counts. But by the same token, I may be wracked with secret guilt even if the world believes me innocent.

“In a shame-culture, what other people believe is much more powerful. Indeed, my principles may be derived from the desire to preserve my honor or avoid shame to the exclusion of all else. The down-side is the license it appears to give to engage in secret wrong-doing.

“The positive aspect of guilt-culture at its best is its concern for truth and justice and the preservation of individual rights. The sense of guilt might also preserve us from engaging in wrong-doing which no-one would ever discover: but it can also be misplaced and potentially neurotic.

“[The positive aspect of shame-culture at its best is that] it may motivate me to ensure that I am not only innocent but am seen to be innocent: that I not only do not engage directly in criminal or antisocial behavior, but that I stay far enough away from it not to be tainted by association in any way… On the other hand, suspicion becomes sufficient to convict in judicial terms.”

In this light, innocence seems more all-encompassing than integrity. But I confess to liking the way integrity sounds. “A person of honor” vs. “a person of integrity” makes intuitive sense. But “a person of innocence”?

Anyone care to comment?

Controversial Studies and the Question of Motive: Urban II

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here.)

No one, least of all the pope, had any idea the First Crusade would start a five-century movement. At the time Urban’s battle-cry was seen as providing “a narrow and once-only escape from the burden of sin” (John France, “Patrongage and the Appeal of the First Crusade”, in The Crusades: The Essential Readings, edited by Thomas Madden, p 199). But his motives for the summoning the crusade have been controversial. Three arguments were presented in his sermon at Clermont; a fourth was provided by critics who knew better. Which (if any) were his actual reasons?

Urban summoned the first holy war–

(1) To consolidate papal power. The crusade represented a practical expression of papal ideology, leadership, and power.

(2) To reform violent warriors. The crusade emerged out of ecclesiastical reform, as an alternative to the Peace of God program which had failed to curb civil violence.

(3) To liberate Jerusalem and the holy lands. The crusade’s purpose was to take back the holy lands from Muslim control.

(4) To aid the eastern churches. The crusade was a defensive war, to help the Byzantines against invading Muslims.

The reasoning becomes increasingly apologetic as you go down the list. Thus someone like Robert Spencer sees (3) and (4) at work, but especially (4): the crusade was a defensive war. On the scholarly side of things, things become more complex. Carl Erdmann saw everything except (3) in Urban’s motives. In his view, the crusade was a means to harness Europe’s military energy for church purposes, and to convince the Byzantines to accept papal primacy; popular reactions expanded the mission to include Jerusalem, but that wasn’t part of Urban’s original goal.

Thomas Asbridge and Christopher Tyerman rightly emphasize (1) and (2). The crusade allowed Urban to channel knightly aggression outwards, against Islam, and even more broadly, secure his leadership independent of secular authorities. That he exploited the Byzantine call for military aid and capitalized on an opportunity to take back the holy lands doesn’t mean they were his primary objectives. Asbridge explains it better than anyone:

“The problems addressed by the First Crusade — Muslim occupation of Jerusalem and the potential threat of Islamic aggression in the East — had loomed for decades, even centuries, provoking little or no reaction in Rome. Urban II’s decision to take up this cause at Clermont was, therefore, primarily proactive rather than reactive, and the crusade was designed, first and foremost, to meet the needs of the papacy. Launched as it was just as Urban began to stabilize his power-base in central Italy, the campaign must be seen as an attempt to consolidate papal empowerment and expand Rome’s sphere of influence.” (The First Crusade, p 19)

That’s motive (1). Asbridge continues:

“Having grown up among the Frankish aristocracy, the pope was only too aware of the spiritual dilemma facing the knightly class. Bombarded by a stream of warnings about the dreadful danger of sin, but forced to resort to soul-contaminating violence in order to fulfill their duty and their rights, most nobles were trapped in a circle of guilt, obligation, and necessity. Urban was personally responsible for the soul of every single Christian living in the West. It was incumbent upon him to lift as many of his flock as possible towards salvation. The campaign launched at Clermont was, therefore, in one sense, designed to answer the prayers of a polluted class in Urban’s care… Knights would now be able to prosecute violence in the name of God.” (ibid, pp 20-21)

That’s motive (2) — the desire to export violence — which we glean from Urban’s sermon: “If you must have blood, bathe in the blood of the infidels. Soldiers of hell, become soldiers of the living God!” The crusade accomplished what the Peace of God movement never could, saving knightly souls — and Europe from civil chaos.

But if (1) and (2) were Urban’s reasons, (3) and (4) were his arguments. In his sermon he thundered about repossession and defense more than anything, stressing the need to recover holy territory, and help eastern Christians against Islamic invaders. This was propaganda. The holy lands had been in Muslim control for more than 400 years, and Christian pilgrims had been coexisting in relative peace ever since. As for “invading Muslims”, there was little to distinguish the recent Seljuk victory in Asia Minor from any other military struggle. Islam and Byzantium had “developed a tense, sometimes quarrelsome respect for one another, but their relationship was no more fraught with conflict than that between the Greeks and their Slavic or Latin neighbors to the west” (ibid, p 17). Most obviously, there was no pan-Islamic threat to Christendom at this time. In the 11th century Islam was more fragmented than it had ever been, which is exactly why the First Crusade was able to succeed.

Summary: Pope and Apostle

Urban’s overriding agenda was to establish his position in Italy. He needed the popularity and power that would turn the tide against his secular enemies, and the crusade gave him both. Knights now had an unprecedented opportunity to use their profession for salvific purposes, and kill Muslim infidels in the name of Christ. Safeguarding holy places and aiding eastern Christians were the means to this end.

Urban was like Paul in that his arguments obscured his reasons. He worried about Muslims invading Europe as much as the apostle did about sin invading the law. These men were really concerned about stigmatized people in their pastoral care — knights and Gentiles — and their visions of crusading and faith-righteousness were propelled accordingly. The irony is that in both cases, rhetoric evolved into la raison d’etre. Paul’s arguments against the law were seized on by later theologians in a world where the Gentile issue was obsolete and legalism a growing dilemma. Urban’s quest for Jerusalem became a popular goal as knights were reformed and papal leadership secured. Reasons call new ideas into existence; arguments linger, popularize, and sanitize those ideas.

In the next post we will examine Morton Smith’s motives for forging an ancient document.

In Christ There Is Jew and Greek

Steven Carr asks a good question: “Did Paul think Gentiles were not as good as Jews?”. This was my reply:

“In some ways Paul portrays Gentiles as better than Jews in Galatians: Jews are under a curse (Gal 3:10-12), while law-free Gentiles are the real descendants of Abraham (Gal 3:6-9,13-14). But at the same time he’s calling for an abolition of distinction (in view of the apocalypse): ‘in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek’ (Gal 3:27-28).

“He portrays Jews as the better group in Romans (Rom 3:2, 9:4-5, 11:1-32). But for the most part we should say he thought Gentiles were as bad as Jews, though in different ways which preserve ethnic distinctions between the two groups. Gentiles are under the domain of sin without the Torah (1:18-2:5), Jews under its power with the Torah (2:17-3:20). In Christ there is Jew and Greek: through baptism Gentiles are liberated from the power of sin which ruled them as immoral pagans (6:15-23), while Jews are liberated from the power of sin which ruled them through the law (7:1-6). Paul respects ethnic identity in Romans and keeps distinctions intact, contrary to Galatians.

“The fact that Paul treats Gentiles as the better race (even while trying to abolish distinctions between the two) in Galatians, then Jews as the better race (even while insisting that both are in messy situations without Christ) in Romans, tells against him thinking like an egalitarian. In his ancient mind, someone always had to be better than the other.”

Paul was no more an egalitarian than Jesus, and by the time of Romans he had even given up on the apocalyptic formula of Gal 3:27-28 (cf. I Cor 12:13). The reason is simple: Gal 3:27-28 was offensive, impractical, and doomed to fail in the ancient Mediterranean, where different ethnic groups, genders, and social classes could get along only by preserving their identities. Attempts to eliminate distinctions in honor-shame societies only encouraged groups to re-assert their identities in aggressive ways. That’s why there is Jew and Greek in Christ, after all.

Rom 6:1-7:6 was the winning formula, not Gal 3:27-28. Likewise, it was better for Paul to insist that his own race was superior to the Gentiles, rather than imply the opposite in trying to eliminate distinctions.

UPDATE: See Mark Goodacre’s comments, with which I agree, as he notes that “for ‘egalitarian’ in scholarship on the New Testament, we should substitute ‘eschatological’.”

Crossan and the Context Group

Chris Petersen says:

“In the past I have been reluctant to read anything by the aptly named ‘context-group’ of scholars. I think this has been partly due to my bad experience with Crossan’s The Historical Jesus in which he utilizes the cultural anthropological features of the 1st century Mediterranean environment as his controlling paradigm for his reconstruction of the historical Jesus. Admittedly, Crossan’s abuse of sociological and anthropological models for his historical Jesus investigation left a bitter taste in my mouth for such ‘context’ approaches.”

Chris isn’t alone in being put off by the Context Group in advance on account of Crossan’s crimes. Crossan, of course, was sharply criticized by Context Group scholars for not assimilating their work properly back in the early 90s. His book may deal a lot with honor/shame and patronage/clientage, but you’d never guess his Jesus ever lived in such a culture. He could have never functioned in it.

The subject of table-fellowship is a glaring for-instance where Crossan misunderstands/misuses the models of the Context Group. William Herzog critiques him and the Jesus Seminar as follows:

“Jesus is labelled a ‘glutton and a drunkard’. Some members of the Jesus Seminar have taken this to mean that Jesus was a bon vivant and a party animal. He did it for the hell of it, to show that living in the present is all that mattered, but it hardly needs to be said that this view trivializes the social significance and theological import of Jesus’ actions. Crossan thinks that this ‘open commensality’ modeled the egalitarian tendencies of Jesus… The difficulty with the way Crossan interprets open commensality is that egalitarianism is a modern notion unlikely to be found in the ancient world, nor would it have been valued if it had been found. The issue is not equality, but reciprocity and mutuality. In return for brokering God’s forgiveness, toll collectors and sinners offer Jesus table companionship. Their hospitality is their expression of gratitude, their reciprocity.” (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 222)

Also see Jack Elliot’s railroading critique of the egalitarian nonsense.