Friday, April 28, 2006

Fessing Up: What was Morton Smith's Payoff?

Over a fun Wednesday lunch, Stephen Carlson (who was passing through town) and I talked about why Morton Smith never admitted to fabricating Secret Mark. If he created Clement's letter for the reasons Stephen thinks, one would expect him to have fessed up in order to prove how smart he was.

Recall Carlson's distinction between forgeries and hoaxes:

"While the circumstances surrounding Secret Mark do not support the conclusion that it is a criminal forgery done to defraud, that does not exhaust the possibilities of its being a twentieth-century fake. Secret Mark could also be a hoax. Although hoaxes share with forgeries the element of creating a document with the intention to deceive, hoaxes are done with a different motive -- to test the establishment, whether to expose flaws in the gatekeepers of authenticity, to exhibit one's skill and cunning, or to take pleasure in the failure of self-appointed experts to pass the test." (Gospel Hoax, p 78)

On my earlier list of Top 20 Literary Hoaxes, I made no distinction between forgeries and hoaxes (since by most definitions they're often the same thing), though I distinguished between motives involving profit, attention-grabbing, or ideological-support (Carlson's "forgeries") and pranking/testing (Carlson's "hoaxes"). I confess that Stephen's terminology has grown on me for these motive factors.

Reason being, forgers don't want to get caught while hoaxers ultimately do. That's their payoff: not money or ideology, but satisfaction from showing the world how superiorly clever they are. That's why Dionysius, the "Ern Malley" authors, and Alan Sokol (#’s 6, 11, & 15 on my list) came clean. The fallibility or gullibility of others goes unnoticed unless the hoaxer eventually fesses up. But Morton Smith never fessed up. Does this undermine Carlson's (and Donald Akenson's) claim that Secret Mark was fabricated, above all, for the sake of testing scholars and having a good laugh?

Stephen was asked this question by Steve Shoemaker, whose radio interview is archived online (see Nov 27, '05). Stephen's response squares with what he hints at by way of irony on p 86 of Gospel Hoax: it was Smith's friends who ended up "running with Secret Mark", while his enemies refused to be taken in by it. ("If Smith was motivated partly by malice against his opponents, it is ironic that exposure of Smith’s hoax may end up hurting mainly those who trusted him." p 86) Smith, in other words, created more of a monster than he'd ever bargained for. With fellow-liberals like Koester devoting their careers to Secret Mark, how could he have played into enemy hands by undermining their scholarly credibility?

Then too we should bear in mind that not all pranksters reveal themselves in the long run, and Smith may not be as exceptional as initially supposed. No one disputes Paul Coleman-Norton's prank (#20 on my list), but he never fessed up either. Perhaps, in the end, Coleman-Norton and Smith had a sense of shame after all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Smith and Koester were close friends and as I understand it, had many long, personal conversations about Secret Mark, which is why Koester beleived it was not a forgery. Also, as I've understood it, Koester tried to convince him not to publish the arguments for Jesus' homosexuality because he felt like it would be too distracting from what the text actually says. You're right, if it is a forgery, it would be a deep betrayal of his closest friends.


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