Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark

What can be said about Gospel Hoax? In a sentence, that Stephen Carlson's case is entirely convincing, and nearly irrefutable.

I was going to write one of my long detailed reviews, but for this book I think that would be cheating the reader. This is a rare conspiracy-thriller come to life -- unmasked, finally, after three decades of controversy -- and it's just not fair to spill the beans with the surprising details. Suffice to say that Carlson goes beyond rehashing arguments as to why Smith likely fabricated Clement's letter to Theodore. He proves it, beyond a reasonable doubt, by exposing hitherto unnoticed "confessions" planted in the letter. Smith didn't forge Clement's letter to support his academic theories; he wanted to test his colleagues with an elaborate prank.

Because of this, Carlson insists that "hoax", and not "forgery", is the appropriate term. But actually, both terms apply: Clement's letter remains a forgery by definition. I see what Carlson is getting at. His point is that when people think of forgery, they usually imagine motives other than hoaxing. I would simply say that in this case, hoaxing was the motive for forgery.

There won't be many defenders of Secret Mark's authenticity after Gospel Hoax becomes widely read. If there are, then there's a serious problem in academia, and Donald Akenson's indictment bears repeating:
"We examine the Secret Mark issue because it is a rare moment, a clear adjudication point that allows laymen -- anybody with a literate interest in the bible -- to judge the competence of leading scholars in the field...and to determine, not to put too fine a line on it, whether they have at least as much common sense as God gives to a goose. For look: Secret Mark is a forgery and not one that requires forensic methods and high magnification to detect. Anyone who could not spot it as a forgery from the height of 3000 feet should not be allowed to make authoritative pronouncements on the authenticity of texts that relate to Jesus of Nazareth." (Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, pp 86-87)
I agreed with this when I wrote my amazon-review for Akenson's book back in December 2000. But we need to add a caveat now: It's true that it doesn't take a specialist to spot the fraudulent nature of Secret Mark. But it did take a legal expert to prove it.


Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

Secret Mark is a forgery and not one that requires forensic methods and high magnification to detect.

But, ironically (?), it did take forensic methods and a good magnifying glass to prove....


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