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.
[Christianity] [Gospel of Mark] [historical Jesus] [Secret Mark] [New Testament Studies] [fakes] [fraud] [forgery [Morton Smith]