Controversial Studies and the Question of Motive: Paul, Urban II, and Morton Smith

What do the apostle Paul, Pope Urban II, and Morton Smith share in common? Besides colorful personalities, they engaged in offensive controversy: the first attacked the foundation of his faith, the second made violence sacred, and the last forged an ancient document. Their true motives were complex, and at odds with the “understandable” motives scholars often ascribe to them.

In this five-part series we will examine “reasons vs. arguments” — Paul’s for doing away with the Jewish law, Urban’s for summoning the First Crusade, and Smith’s for forging Secret Mark. By whatever odd coincidence, there are four potentials to be considered in each case. Here’s a preview of them:

Paul said “not by law” because he thought–

(1) Faith in Christ was salvifically exclusive
(2) Gentiles were saved as Gentiles
(3) The law was impossible to obey adequately
(4) The law increased sin, or was powerless against it

Urban II summoned the first holy war–

(1) To consolidate papal power
(2) To reform violent warriors
(3) To liberate Jerusalem and the holy lands
(4) To aid the eastern churches

Morton Smith forged Secret Mark for the sake of–

(1) Hoaxing
(2) A Gay Gospel
(3) A Controlled Experiment
(4) Fame

In each case, we will see that the (1)’s are the overriding and most important motives, but also the most general, oblique or hard to understand. Why would Christology, in and of itself, dethrone the law? How could a crusade empower the papacy? Since when do professionals jeapordize their careers for a laugh?

The (2)’s, at first glance unrelated to the (1)’s (though in fact closey related), merge with the overriding motive, and in each case, intriguingly, on behalf of a “problematic other”: Gentiles, violent warriors, and gay men. Paul was converting pagans, Urban reforming knights, and Smith reacting to the oppression of homosexuals. These may be regarded as the triggers of the event in question, as they became quickly subsumed within the overriding motive (1). If not for the (2)’s, the events in question would probably have not happened — no law-free gospel, no crusade, no Secret Mark. Does that make the (2)’s as important, or more so, than the (1)’s?

The (4)’s seem to be the intuitively likely motives — perhaps because they’re appealing — but in fact turn out to be subsidiary to the (1)’s and (2)’s, or arguments supporting them, if they can even be considered motives at all. Theologians love the Paul who rails against a law for crushing the human spirit, because it’s hot theology. Apologists like the idea of defensive wars, because that’s something people can relate to, justify, or at least excuse. Skeptics of Secret Mark can credit that Smith was committing fraud for the sake of his theories and scholarly prestige, because that would explain the risk.

But reality infrequently coincides with what makes sense or what’s palatable. In the next post we’ll begin by dealing with Paul and the possible reasons he had for setting faith against the law. But we’ll do more than just rehash how scholars have beat a dead horse (that horse being the Lutheran one). Our eye will be on Paul’s motives, reasons, and arguments; how they interact with and inform one another.

4 thoughts on “Controversial Studies and the Question of Motive: Paul, Urban II, and Morton Smith

  1. When it comes to the Secret Gospel of Mark my advice is to stick to a subject you actually know something about.Robert Conner

  2. Speaking of Urban II, the Journal of Ecclesiastical Studies just came out with an article called “< HREF="" REL="nofollow">Some New Letters of Popes Urban II and Paschal II<>” by Martin Brett of Cambridge.

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