Monday, January 23, 2006

The Gospel Hoax by Stephen Carlson

The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark
Stephen C. Carlson
Baylor University Press, 2005, 151 pages

"The way of testing it, therefore, was not to consider what the machine had read, but rather how it had read it....Regardless of the thoughts passing through the mind, the thought patterns record themselves unique to the person. I compared yours with a record of Murugan's which I found in Yama's laboratory. They were not the same. I do not know how you accomplished the body-change, but I knew you for what you were." Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light

One of life's simple pleasures is enjoying a book that unmasks a good hoax. Many a pleasurable hour I have spent with such works as Hugh Trevor-Roper's The Hermit of Beijing, Linda Sillitoe's Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders, and Robert Harris' Selling Hitler. Most recently I have been eagerly following the ongoing exposure of Gavin Menzie's fake Qing dynasty world map, which purports to be based on a Ming dynasty map from 1418. It was thus with great joy that I added Stephen Carlson's The Gospel Hoax, a well-written and educational unmasking of Morton Smith's forging of Secret Mark, to my list of must-read books on hoaxes and forgeries. Carlson offers a pithy, accessible work that presents not only a minute examination of the evidence, but also functions as a primer in how to understand hoaxes and fakes.

Secret Mark is a text allegedly discovered by Morton Smith in 1958. The text purports to be a lost passage from the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus teaches an a young man the secrets of the kingdom of God, spending the night with him. The It comes authenticated by a letter from Clement of Alexandria, one of the patristic fathers, who attests to its unorthodox nature. Many academics questioned Secret Mark, but it managed to gain a certain acceptance among scholars, who, as Carlson points out, continued to use it as a resource even when in footnotes they noted its controversial nature.

Carlson requires just seven chapters and accompanying appendices to show that Secret Mark and its accompanying letter are both modern forgeries by Morton Smith, their alleged discoverer. Carlson demonstrates that Smith possessed the necessary means and abilities to obtain the 17th century volume in which the forger placed the text of the letter from Clement and the citation from Secret Mark, and to forge the text of the letter and of the Gospel passage. He also shows how Smith left tell-tale signs of forgery, and even encoded into Secret Mark and the Letter to Theodore the knowledge that he himself had forged the text, for Smith had a wonderful sense of humor. Finally, he demonstrates how Secret Mark is meant to appeal to a certain "ideological moment," the social and religious concerns of a particular period in history, identifies what Smith was writing to, and then shows how the passage of time has blunted the topicality of Smith's forgery, and thus, revealed it for the fraud that it is.

One of the most useful aspects of The Gospel Hoax is its discussion of the nature of hoaxes and forgeries. Carlson excels at making connections between how forgeries and forgers behave, and in locating those behaviors in Smith's own interactions with Secret Mark. For example, the key moment in any forgery is not its revelation but its initial authentication. Unless the object is authenticated by experts, it has no value, either as a hoax (a fraud perpetrated for personal motives, such as a practical joke) or a forgery (a fraud perpetrated for gain). The forger must thus gain control over the authentication process one way or another, to ensure an outcome beneficial to his cause. In Smith's case, Carlson shows how Smith managed the "authentication" of Secret Mark to give the appearance that it had been authenticated by experts, without any such authentication actually taking place. This strategy is quite common among forgers, and was used most recently in authenticating the fake Qing Dynasty map that purported to show that Chinese sailors had circumnavigated the world in the 15th century. As one Chinese expert noted in his debunking of the map:

Liu Gang bought the map for 4,000 yuan Renminbi from a Shanghai book dealer in 2001. Because he suspected at that time that the map might be a fake, he asked "five experienced collectors to verify the map and they affirmed that the map was at least 100 years old." Later, he asked a group of foreign "experts" (Professor Robert Cribbs, Dr. Gunnar Thompson, Charlotte Harris Rees, Lam Yee Din, Robin Lind, Gerald Andrew Bottomley and Anatole Andro) to examine this map (which in English was referred to as "The 1418 Map" to assesses its veracity. It was noted that "To date, all experts who have given their opinion on the 1418 map consider it to be genuine." I would like at ask how these "foreign experts" assessed a map from the 16th year of the Yong-le reign to be genuine.

If the reader peruses the website for 1421, he will find this statement of Charlotte Harris Rees:

"Although this map may seem shockingly modern for 1418 - based on my research it is what I would expect a Chinese map of that era to be. However, I have only seen a picture of this 1418 map. Others will have to fully authentic it. One thing we do know is that Chinese of that era had maps and that most of those maps were purposely destroyed during a period of China’s shut down from the world. That a map escaped the burnings and a later copy of it is now found seems plausible to me. . (The fact that my tax records from 20 years ago no longer exist does not prove that they never existed. Likewise, if I find my W-2 from 20 years ago, it does not mean that I just invented it.)"(emphasis mine)

In other words, Ms. Rees not only not a relevant expert, but has not even seen the map. Her degree is from a Bible college, Columbia International, and the fact that it is not given in her presentation indicates that it is probably not related to the topic at hand. Even knowing nothing about the absurd claims of the map, it is easy to see based on the behavior of Liu, the collector who allegedly found the map, that the map is a forgery. The "authentication" process has been controlled to yield an apparent authentication. Since a collector acting in good faith would have no need to stage-manage the authentication, the map is most probably a modern forgery. Smith's similar handling of the authentication of the manuscript of Secret Mark indicates, at minimum, his knowledge that the document was a forgery.

If this book has any flaws, it is that it is too short. Finishing The Gospel Hoax was rather like that disappointment experienced when returning to a buffet only to find that some scoundrel has already eaten the last piece of chocolate mousse cake. More, please! A minor nit: the figures could have used clearer pointers to what they were supposed to show.

In sum, a magnificent effort by Carlson, well-worth the investment in time and effort. Not merely of interest to New Testament scholars, this work will be useful to anyone who is studying hoaxes and forgeries. I look forward to more books in the future from Carlson on antiquities fraud.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Gibson on Mark 14: Was Jesus Killed in the Temple?

I finally got a minute to read Gibson's paper on the blasphemy charge in Mark 14, which he posted to the list a last week.

In this essay Gibson argues that the writer of Mark intended to compare the Sanhedrin who tried Jesus to the Zealots of the Jewish rebellion. Gibson locates parallels between the trial before Jesus and the sham trial of Zachariah son of Baruch by the Zealots:

"Here, as in Mk 14:54-63, we have a capital trial before a hastily summoned Sanhedrin. Here, as in Mk. 14:54-63, the trial occurs in the Temple precincts and in an atmosphere not only of crisis but of eschatological expectation centering in the God of Israel's imminent deliverance of his people from oppression and the destruction of Israel's enemies. Here, as in Mk. 14:54-63, those who convene the trial believe in holy war. Here, as in Mark, we have the appearance of false witnesses and the sounding of the theme of a predetermined verdict. Here, as in Mark, the one brought into court is a figure who is known and identified as standing in opposition to the ideology of those who have convened his trial. Here, as in Mark, the accused speaks out forcefully against the ideology of those who would condemn him. Here, as in Mark, the remarks of the accused evoke from his accusers both physical and verbal expressions of rage and indignation. Here, as in Mark, we find an outworking of a theme that standing on the side of the accused creates risks for those who might do so. And here, as in Mark, the one accused is handed over to mockery and an ignominious death."(p11)

Gibson follows Joel Marcus and the majority of exegetes in seeing Mark 13 as a reference to the Jewish War of 66-70. I argued several months ago on my blog that Mark 13 actually refers to the Bar Kochba revolt of 135. One part of my argument was that the writer of Mark coded a reference to the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus that Hadrian built on the Temple Mount. That makes a far better candidate for the "abomination of the desolation/makes desolation" than anything that happened prior.

The sequence in Mark 13 acts as a typology for the experience of Jesus during his Passion. The parallels run:

Disciples before Councils
Jesus before Sanhedrin

Disciples beaten in Synagogues
Jesus beaten after Sanhedrin Trial

Disciples before Governors
Jesus before Pilate

Disciples brought to trial and "handed over"
Jesus on trial and "handed over"

Brother betrays brother
Judas betrays Jesus

Disciples hated in Jesus' name
Reaction to Jesus' claim to be the Blessed One.

The very next verse is of course the "abomination of the desolation" which of course, if it completes the typology, is a reference to where Jesus died. Where was that?

TE Schmidt argued that Jesus' procession out to Golgotha was essentially a mock triumph. Schmidt was among a small number of exegetes who have observed that Golgotha may also be translated as head as well as skull. That would make Golgotha the Place of the Head. A Roman legend records that in Rome when a temple was being built on a hill, a human head was found with its features still intact. According to the legend, the soothsayers then said this meant the hill would be the head of all Italy. The hill was thus named Capitoline Hill. The significance of this should not be missed: the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus on Capitoline Hill, the Capitolium, the placed named after the Death's Head, was the terminus of every Roman triumph.

But as I just noted, there was also a hill in Jerusalem surmounted by a Capitoline Temple, the Temple Mount itself. The writer of Mark may be making an oblique reference to that Temple to Jupiter installed by Hadrian. Jesus was led out in triumph to a Capitoline hill, but it was another one, in Judea. That is what the author is trying to tell us.

That brings us back to Gibson, for Gibson's parallels imply a second vector on the question of the location of Jesus' death in Mark: Zachariah was killed in the Temple. Just like Jesus?