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.


Anonymous said...

The conundrum of the Secret Gospel is complicated and not so easily dismissed. Carlson's book is flawed in a number of ways not least of which is his selective use of the facts to support his personal opinion.

Let's begin by pointing out there is no manuscript called the 'Secret Gospel of Mark'. What Smith found was a letter written by Clement of Alexandria that contains passages from a previously unknown version of the gospel of Mark. The letter also contains comments that make it clear that the excerpts used in the letter were removed from the Gospel and deliberately kept secret by church leaders at the time. To clarify, your comment on there being a secret gospel with a supporting letter is a distortion of the facts, there is only a letter which contains excerpts.

Carlson's central premise is that Smith controlled the authentication of the MS by preventing access, not only is this false but once the real facts have been examined it can be shown that Carlson's argument completely collapses into a bitter unfounded attack on Smith, the reasons for this can only be guessed at.

Smith never made any attempt to prevent anyone else from seeing the MS for themselves. In fact in 1975 a team led by Guy Stroumsa visited the monastery at Mar Saba and viewed the MS, they found nothing wrong. This simple fact seems to have been overlooked by many who believe Smith was the only person to see the original MS. Following this, the authorities at Mar Saba removed the MS for restoration and it has not been seen since, to sum up the Christian powers that control Mar Saba are responsible for the restricted access. The controversy surrounding Smith has distracted attention from the fact the Church are directly responsible for the suppression not Smith.

The truth is simple, the MS is genuine and the interpretation is an uncomfortable reality for the established theocracy, it is time to stop throwing mud at a decent scholars reputation and face up to the truth that the Church are the real fraudsters in this debacle.

Ma At Neb Men Aa

Michael Turton said...

Carlson's central premise is that Smith controlled the authentication of the MS by preventing access, not only is this false but once the real facts have been examined it can be shown that Carlson's argument completely collapses into a bitter unfounded attack on Smith, the reasons for this can only be guessed at.

Accusations of persecution are par for the course among forgery-defenders. Secret Mark is a total forgery that is not from the hand of the original writer of Mark -- I knew that long before Carlson ever wrote. It is easily demonstrated from the structure of SecMark, which is totally unMarkan in nature.


Anonymous said...

"Accusations of persecution are par for the course among forgery-defenders." If there is proof that Smith never prevented access to the original MS and that proof extends as far as to show the Church is responsible what other reasonable assumption is there other than Carlson was either doing it for personal reasons or financial reasons, both require him to besmirch the reputation of a respected scholar. I am not defending Smith just pointing out the facts, I have no agenda.

"Secret Mark is a total forgery that is not from the hand of the original writer of Mark." Then you know something all other Biblical scholars do not, that being the author of the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Mark, as it exists today, is accepted by just about all Biblical scholars not to be the original. The last twelve verses were additions which are not present in the oldest Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, nor in numerous other copies of this gospel. In fact the original Gospel makes no mention of a resurrection at all. This is not my opinion it is a fact and can be researched easily on the Web.

"I knew that long before Carlson ever wrote." Sorry, but all the available evidence is against you.

"It is easily demonstrated from the structure of SecMark, which is totally unMarkan in nature." Again, Mark was written by more than one person, the version that exists today is a forgery, no contemporary, 'original' copies exist, the Gospel was believed to be written no earlier than 68AD. Add this to the simple fact the extracts that appear in Clement's letter are too short to establish a 'style' and yet the letter is entirely consistent with Clement's own style and the obvious conclusion is that far more effort has gone into debunking the letter than study of the findings. Further to this the motif of secrecy in Mark was recognized long before the Mar Saba letter was revealed.

So unless you are privy to an original manuscript that proves 'Mark' was contemporary to Jesus, contains the added last 12 verses and is signed by the author your argument is completely unfounded.

Ma At Neb Men Aa

Michael Turton said...

"I knew that long before Carlson ever wrote." Sorry, but all the available evidence is against you.

I'm not going to argue with you. I already know how to tell what's original and what's not in Mark, so yes, in that sense, I do have something no other exegete has. SecMark is more than long enough to demonstrate that the passage is non-Markan in nature, if you know what you're doing....if not, well, you can join the crowd that thinks the Jesus Family Tomb is the Real Thing, and fervently believes Oded Golan is innocent.


Peter Jeffery said...

For the controversy surrounding my book, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery, see

All shades of opinion are and will continue to be listed.

Peter Jeffery