Sunday, May 15, 2005

Neusner on Morton Smith

The following was posted to the Biblical Studies list, owned by Jim West. I suspect that we're going to see a lot more of this over the next few weeks. I am confident that Carlson is right, and so are the others who have seen the paper. But I think it would be best if everyone held off with the attacks on Morton Smith, and later engaged in thoughtful post-mortems rather than vengeful pre-mortems.

On the other hand, I can't resist noting that will be fun to watch Carlson's demolition of Secret Mark in conjunction with the James Ossuary trial.

I hope NT studies can come out of this with a renewed commitment to catching and killing forgeries before they become ensconced, as well as renewed suspicion toward artifacts already accepted. In particular, Tel Dan stinks for me, and a scholar interested in forgeries once suggested to me that the Mesha Stele is a probable forgery (it certainly stinks). It might be good to put some time and effort into re-examination of the various inscriptions turned up in the 19th century, such as the Sergius Paulus inscription found outside Paphos in 1877. There's probably lots of stuff out there that should be looked at again.

Kevin P. Egdecomb writes:

Stephen Carlson's tantalizing announcement regarding his work on the "Secret Gospel of Mark" letter brought to mind a scathing indictment I'd read of Morton Smith some time ago penned by Jacob Neusner. Neusner notes in his lengthy foreword to the 1998 combined edition of Birger Gerhardsson's Memory & Manuscript/Tradition & Transmission in Early Christianity (xxvi-xxvii, xxxi) that Smith was the major reason for Gerhardsson's work being ignored for so long. I think list participants will find informative (and perhaps even enjoy!) the following excerpt from Neusner's foreword:

[begin quote]
Like Arthur Darby Nock, but lacking the perspicacity and cultivation, Smith made his career as a ferocious critic of others. Smith thereby surrounded himself with a protective wall of violent invective; what he wished to hide, and for a while succeeded in hiding, was the intellectual vacuum within. Of his entire legacy one book survives today, quite lacking influence but still a model of argument, and a handful of suggestive but ineffective articles. In all Smith wrote three important contributions to scholarship, one a model of argument and analysis though broadly ignored in the field to which it was devoted, another a pseudo-critical but in fact intellectually slovenly and exploitative monograph, and the third an outright fraud. But in the early 1960s, when Gerhardsson's book became a target of opportunity to demonstrate his capacity to seize the jugular, no one could have known the reality. I took as my model his sharp pen and his analytical wit, not understanding that Smith had no constructive capacities and would never on his own write an honest and important book.

The model of argument comes first. His Th.D. dissertation, written at Harvard under the general supervision of Harry A. Wolfson, the greatest academic scholar of Judaism of modern times, on Palestinian Parties and Politics That Shaped the Old Testament, in my view remains a model of scholarly argument and insight. Smith completed that work in the late 1950s, and it would mark not the beginning but the apex of his contributions to learning. It was what he could do when a great mind guided him. What he could do on his own suffers by comparison, being slovenly and poorly formulated. His prior Hebrew University Ph.D. dissertation, Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels, presented at the Hebrew University, where at that time scholarship in the New Testament cannot be ranked as informed, was the work of an autodidact. No professor of New Testament criticized the Gospels part, and the Tannaitic parallels part pursued issues no professor of Rabbinics addressed -- thus, self-instruction. As I have demonstrated in vast and accurate detail in Are There Really Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels? A Refutation of Morton Smith, Smith presented very dubious arguments in behalf of remarkably obtuse propositions.

As to the scholarly fraud, who speaks of it any more, or imagines that the work pertains to the study of the New Testament at all? I need not remind readers of this reprint of the scandal of Smith's "sensational discovery" of the Clement fragment, the original of which no one but Smith was permitted to examine. Purporting, in Smith's report, to demonstrate that the historical Jesus was "really" a homosexual magician, the work has not outlived its perpetrator. In the end many were silenced -- who wanted to get sued? -- but few were gulled.
Apart from malice, which I think animated nearly everything Morton Smith ever wrote or encouraged others to write (or indeed actually wrote for them, under their names), what prevented him and others then close to him from paying attention to the careful language Gerhardsson used? It was the assumption that the only valid scholarship answered the narrowest historical questions: did it really happen? did he really say it? and if so, what kind of history can we make of it all, meaning, what can we say about what was really said and done? Smith honestly believed that he could write the life of the historical Jesus, which is why the spurious Clement fragment would form the center of the scholarly oeuvre that would occupy nearly his whole active career -- that and the Jesus the Magician that would convey his (self-)hatred for Jesus and for Christianity -- and would therefore bring about an irreparable breach between him and me.
[end quote]


Anonymous said...

My understanding is that the Clementine letter transcribed into the 17th century book Morton Smith discovered has been accepted as genuine by most scholars, while the "Secret Mark" excerpts in the letter are discounted or ignored. Is that still the case?

Michael Turton said...

Pretty much my understanding too. There have been some interesting stylistic studies of the Clementine letter, however, that Carlson points up. Can't wait for that paper!

Anonymous said...


That delightful quote from Neusner's forward was cited in Donald Akenson's Saint Saul (p 274). Like you, I'm excited to read Stephen's new book. Nothing would please (or amuse) me more than to learn of genuine connections between homosexual subtexts and early Christianity, but of course no such evidence exists. I've been waiting for someone to prove the obvious for years now (I enjoy Akenson's rants, but they're more affrontive than argumentative). Judging from posts on XTalk, Stephen seems well equipped for the task.

Nice blog, by the way. This is my first time visiting.

Michael Turton said...

LOL. I said pretty much the same thing about Akenson in my review (link on the sidebar).

Thanks for the kind comments!