Stephen Carlson on Secret Mark

Stephen Carlson’s The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005) is a short, exciting read that convinced many that the Letter to Theodore (LT) and Secret Mark (SM) were forged.  His introduction (1-4) touches on the debate, observing the general consensus on SM as a 2nd cent Alexandrian gospel allows it to be late enough for NT scholars to ignore (3).  Ch 1 (5-12) introduces the content of LT (5-8) and a bio of Smith (8-12).  Ch 2 (13-22) opens with Quesnell’s objection on physical examination of the ms but, as there is no way out of the predicament that it is lost, we need to use what we have to determine authenticity (e.g., Anthony Grafton on historical anachronisms exposed with passage of time) (13-4).  Other tactics of forgery include controlling the authenticiating process with masses of overwhelming but misleading supporting documentation (15).  Carlson differentiates between deliberate deception to defraud for monetary gain and hoaxes to intellectually challenge scholars or for personal amusement with the payoff through subtly disclosing it is a hoax through deliberate mistakes, jokes or clues (15-6; e.g., Christoph Mattäus Pfaff forgery of 4 fragments of Irenaeus in 1712 and 647 page commentary in 1715 vs Paul R. Coleman-Norton’s amusing agraphon in 1950 [16-20]).  Such clues may be in the plot of the evangelical thriller The Mystery of Mar Saba which has a discovery of a forged Greek text with a naturalistic explanation for a resurrection (note the youth is still alive in the tomb to cry out in SM)  and the letter is printed on back of Voss’ book which purged the Ignatian corpus of forged letters (19-20).

Ch 3 (23-48), after questioning the info provided to Smith’s 10 handwriting experts and their lack of written reports (24), summarizes 3 reasons why this was not by an 18th cent monk: 1. script reveals unnatural hesitations in pen strokes (“forger’s tremor”) and anomalies in shapes of letters compared to other 18th cent mss at Mar Saba, 2. the provenance can’t be traced before 1958, 3. an unnoticed ms from same hand which Smith identified as from a 20th cent individual can be used for comparison (25).  The case revolves around Carlson’s handwriting analysis (25-35), the lack of evidence of whether the ms was copied in or outside Mar Saba library or even the book there prior to 1958 (not in 1910 catalogue, thefts/additions to insecure library, Voss’ book stands out from other material in the liberary from where it was published to its language and subject) (36-9) and Smith’s catalogue of ms no 22 he attributed to a 20th century M. Madiotēs betrays the same hand (similarities in shaping tau, pi, rho and omicron-upsilon ligature, narrow nib pen, blunt edges & forger’s tremor) and has a superficial Greek name (suffix otēs not in a current Greek telephone directory) which broken down means bald swindler (madō “to lose hair” or figuratively “to swindle”) (42-4).  Carlson adds that Smith was competent with 18th cent handwriting (cf. work with mss in 1951-52) and the typography was influenced by Western part of Greece conflicts (cf. Smith’s sample comparison of Callinicus III) which conflicts with the eastern location of Mar Saba (44-5), Smith had prior knowledge of the Voss volume (45) and Smith’s Greek letter formation has similarities to the letter to Theodore and Stählin’s index was available  (46-7).

Ch 4 (49-64) reviews the low number of hapax legomena (words that occurs only once in an author) in LT and Criddle’s statistical analysis of vocabulary and biblical citations (50-2).  This makes this hyper-Clementine imitation a modern forgery as it would be impossible before the age of printing and without Stählin’s concordance and LT seeks to pass modern authenticity tests involving hapax legomena (53-4).  The literary sphragis (a textual device of self-authentication where authors identify themselves and past works) and “seal of authenticity” (cf. Murgia) is unnecessary in a supposed private letter (used clay seals or personal couriers).  Its description of the Carpocrations reminds of the Stromateis and extensive quotations of SM rather than just denying the line “naked with naked” is to interest external readers in a supposedly private letter (54-8).  Contradictions with Clement’s corpus, which Smith wrote as going against forgery, may be due to the difference of private and public correspondence (58-9).  On anachronisms, LT’s allusion to a Synoptic saying reflects mixing modern free-flowing table salt with an adulterant to change its flavour (contra Clement’s saltwater metapor in Strom., salt in lumps in Protr 2.14.2; 2.22.4, Strom. 7.4.26) and the solution of a chemist in 1910 to prevent salt from forming clumps at the Morton Salt Company (59-61).  Smith’s further comments on it linking Matt 5:13 to Jer 28;17 does not work in the Greek (Jeremiah’s echoneusan means “shaping metal objects” or metephorically to create false things, not to mix truth & lies) and Jer 28:17 LXX refers to a goldsmith (another clue) (62-3).  Finally, his “Image of God” article published before his return to Mar Saba mentions Clement 4 times and is indebted to Stählin (63-4).  Ch 5 (65-72) argues “he remained with him that night” is unnecessary as SM already mentioned Jesus lodging at the youth’s house and is an unparalleled idiom in its ancient context but a euphemism for casual sex in a modern one.  This is reinforced by the youth’s love for Jesus , the rejection of 3 women, the Jude passage in LT which had been used against modern homosexuals (cf. 126 n. 12), and the sexual ineuendos do not fit the ancient world where homoerotic encounters took place between social unequals but the context of gay urbanities in 1950s seeking relationships in public parks (66-71).  Smith had also connected Mk 4:11 to forbidden sexual relationships in his PhD thesis and “Image of God” article (71-2).  Ch 6 (73-86) sees a triple confession in M. Madiotes, allusions to his own name and the sphragis of his own scholarly writings (73-4).  Scott Brown’s defense relies on the disparagement of Smith’s abilities in Greek and in the patristics (especially Clement) (74-6).  Smith’s motive was to put forward a hoax to test the establishment (note the dedication to the sceptic Nock) and to prove himself after denied tenure at Brown in 1955; his fanciful theories were deliberate obfuscation (i.e. he couldn’t have forged LT if it does not support his theories) to distract from LT’s vindication of Smith on a common source behind Mark/John and secret libertinism against orthodox Christian views (78-86).  Ch 7 (87-98) wraps up the case as an academic hoax.


Paul Foster, “Secret Mark: Uncovering a Hoax” ExpTim 117 (2005): 66-68 is a positive review but notes that a scribe copying an unfamiliar text may hesitate at points when re-checking, that inconsistencies in letter-formation or the form of nomina sacra or deviations in orthography are all found in P.Cair. 10759 (so-called Gos of Peter discovered at Akhmîm in 1886/7) dated between 7th-9th cent (67), there may be reason why a philosophical work with specialized vocabulary like Stromateis has more hapax legomena and sexuality & cultic practice may not be anachronistic (68).  Kyle Smith inclines to Carlson’s case yet challenges the point on LT’s use of the salt metaphor as either anachronistic or un-Clementine in “Mixed with Inventions: Salt and Metaphor in Secret Mark(cf. Carlson’s response).  Further developments on the handwriting analysis include Roger Viklund’s “Tremors, or Just an Optical Illusion” (asking if the low-resolution black & white photos instead of the colour photos led to Carlson’s results), Allan Pantuck and Scott Brown “Stephen Carlson’s Questionable Questioned Document Examination” (takes issue with Carlson doing the handwriting analysis himself and posts the letter of professional document examiner Julie C. Edison), and BAR two handwriting analyses by professional Greek questioned document examiner Venetia Anastasopoulou (Greek of LT too advanced for Smith) and Greek paleographer Agamemnon Tselikas (forger imitated the style of late 17th/early 18th cent and Smith put the book in the library monastery).   Scott Brown works tirelessly to try to refute Carlson:  “Reply to Stephen Carlson” ExpTim 117 (2006): 144-49, “The Question of Motive in the Case against Morton Smith” JBL 125 (2006): 351-83 (cf. Carlson’s response); “Factualizing the Folklore: Stephen Carlson’s Case against Morton Smith” HTR 99 (2006): 291-327; with Allan Pantuck, “Morton Smith as M. Madiotēs: Stephen Carlson’s Attribution of Secret Mark to a Bald Swindler” JSHJ 6 (2008): 106-25; “The Letter to Theodore:  Stephen Carlson’s Case Against Clement’s AuthorshipJECS 16 (2008): 573-597.

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