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.

Endnotes

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

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4 thoughts on “Controversial Studies and the Question of Motive: Morton Smith

  1. <><>A Gay Gospel.<> He wanted to discredit Christianity with evidence that Jesus was gay and approved homosexuality.<>I hadn’t been thinking of the Gay Gospel motive in quite that way, but, put it that way, it would be compatible with the hoax/prank motive. (Brown even reclassified Akenson’s version of it as a hoax.)I supposed I had been tending to think of the Gay Gospel possibility in line with a forgery motive; i.e., that Smith allegedly wanted a document to mislead others that there was evidence that Jesus was gay (to support some position of Smith about Jesus?). I didn’t see much evidence in Smith’s writings for this variation of the Gay Gospel motive.

  2. <>I supposed I had been tending to think of the Gay Gospel possibility in line with a forgery motive; i.e., that Smith allegedly wanted a document to mislead others that there was evidence that Jesus was gay (to support some position of Smith about Jesus?). I didn’t see much evidence in Smith’s writings for this variation of the Gay Gospel motive.<>I think it’s obvious that Smith did “want a document to mislead others that there was evidence that Jesus was gay” — whether or not to support another position he held about Jesus. He did use a bit of this “evidence” in <>Jesus the Magician<>, but only minimally, as you’ve noted, so that he wouldn’t become a victim of his fake and give himself away.But he was ultimately testing others — not really trying to establish an unorthodox theory — which is why Jeffery’s point is important: the gay gospel and hoaxing motives actually undermine each other. One can only go so far in <>discrediting<> Christianity with a <>joke<>. Perhaps this helps explain why Smith never fessed up?

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