The Case of the Vanishing Tremors

Tony Burke drew attention to the publication of an interesting article about the Secret Gospel of Mark:

Roger Viklund and Timo S. Paananen, “Distortion of the Scribal Hand in the Images of Clement’s Letter to Theodore,” Vigiliae Christianae 67 (2013): 235-247.

The article is based on material which had previously been made available online by one of its authors, Roger Viklund. And so you can see there, even without a subscription to the journal, what the gist of the argument is: the examples of supposed forger’s tremors – i.e. places where Stephen Carlson alleged, in his book The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark, that one could see where a forger had stopped his pen mid-letter, are a product of the lower quality images consulted, and are not there in high-quality images of the manuscript.

  • Just Sayin’

    It’s still a forgery though.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      What leads you to that conclusion?

  • Just Sayin’

    Based on the character of the forger, and the various clues he left in his forgery.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I’m not at all persuaded that either will support such claims. I’m not saying that it isn’t an ancient forgery, but I am not persuaded that the case for forgery is as strong as you seem to think it is. Have you read anything by those who knew Morton Smith (in particular who interacted with him about the find), or by those who have assessed whether he had the skills to forge the text? Have you considered counter-evidence such as the fact that Smith’s translation of terms in the text has been challenged – something hard to account for if he wrote it?

      • Just Sayin’

        A clever (and malicious) forgery — which this one was — would have no problem incorporating these elements, giving it an appearance of authenticity.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Sure, in theory. Have you talked with anyone who knew Morton Smith, to get their perspective on this? Have you looked into whether Smith had the ability to produce a Greek text that looks like the manuscript? Have you reflected on whether it is plausible that he would write about the text over the course of many years in the way that he did, and discuss it with other scholars in the way that he did, if this was a forgery?

          I am not completely certain that it is not a forgery – I don’t think the evidence supports strong confidence one way or the other. But I do think the forgery theory attributes to Smith both skill and maliciousness that may exceed what the evidence from those who knew him and/or have studied his work can justify.

          • Just Sayin’

            I’m not sure why I would need to talk to a forger in order to know that he’d forged something. And how would you, or me, or anyone, ever be completely certain about it, one way or another? It’s a balance of probability thing and it’s beyond reasonable doubt, in my view, that it’s a forgery. A clever, very clever, one.

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              I do not see how you can consider something to be beyond reasonable doubt and yet not make a case for it.

              My point is that there are people who knew Morton Smith, his students, his colleagues, his peers, his friends, and their impression is not irrelevant. Of course, someone can be a forger and it will be a surprise to all who knew them. But if the evidence itself is far from clear cut, then testimony pertinent to motive and character are not irrelevant.

              • Just Sayin’

                I’m persuaded by the case that’s already been made by experts, at least twice.

                Friends and colleagues of the forger wouldn’t be the most unbiased evidence, would it? In any case, their impressions of him are largely irrelevant since it’s the document that one is weighing up. It has been weighed, by experts, and found clearly wanting.

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  Which experts are you referring to? It doesn’t sound as though you have read very widely on the topic, since your impression that there is a consensus about the text being a forgery is simply incorrect. There are at least as many who are persuaded it cannot be a forgery as there are scholars who are persuaded that it is one, and a great many of us who are unsure and do not consider the evidence clear cut enough to say one way or the other.

                  • Just Sayin’

                    Carlson laid it out very clearly, but it’s never possible to convince everybody.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I can only assume that you have not read the responses to Carlson’s book – perhaps not even the one that I linked to in this post. If you have, then which of his points do you still find persuasive?

                      P.S. I should add that I thought Carlson was persuasive until rebuttals appeared. As Proverbs says, the first person to present his case seems right, until another steps forward and questions him.

                    • Just Sayin’

                      Okay, you know more about this than I do and are more up to date. It seems to me that Carlson has nailed it: everything fits and rings true to both human nature and the facts of the matter. But, you’re right, I haven’t read the responses. What little I have seen seems to me to be a mixture of naivete and wishful thinking, and the even less persuasive “They’re only saying that because they’re Christian conservatives and he was gay” sort of response.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      It was my impression that Carlson had nailed it, too, when I read the book. Then I read scholarly responses, and it now seems to me that his case as put forward is unpersuasive. That does not mean that it has been definitively proven not to be a modern forgery, and if it isn’t then there is a good chance that it is an ancient one. But several points that scholars have since addressed include the following:

                      It is not clear that Smith had the ability to write Greek in perfect imitation of an earlier style. There are no forger’s tremors, and his own Greek handwriting is much less adept and significantly different.

                      Smith behaved over the years after his find like someone who was trying to make sense of a find, not someone trying to perpetrate a hoax. He may be a mastermind trickster, but that is not the only explanation, nor necessarily the most likely.

                      The details which Smith interpreted in ways that have led some to regard it as a hoax – such as same-sex sexual ritual – are, on the one hand, things that the Carpocratians were accused of in other extant texts, and on the other hand, in the version of the Secret Gospel of Mark that Clement regarded as authentic in the letter, simply not present. Early Christians were baptized naked, wearing white immediately prior, and “to stay with at night” did not have connotations of “spend the might with” in ancient Greek.

                      If you read scholarly responses and are still convinced that the matter is clear cut, so be it. Scholars disagree on this topic, and I have no objection to anyone having a different viewpoint. But it seems to me inappropriate to treat a matter as clear-cut without investigating the matter thoroughly. That, and that alone, is the point I am trying to insist upon here.

                    • Just Sayin’

                      Thanks for that.

      • the_Siliconopolitan

        Smith’s translation of terms in the text has been challenged – something hard to account for if he wrote it?

        I assume you’re summarising beyond recognition here.

        Why shouldn’t it be possible to challenge Smith’s translation, even if he wrote it himself? He’d have to have made choices in his Greek, and any other translator would need to make choices again when returning to English.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          If you are a skilled forger of the sort one would have to be to perpetrate this, how do you then end up proposing an English translation for a Greek term which the usage of that term does not justify? Wouldn’t you almost certainly start with your meaning in English and make sure that the Greek text matched the meaning you wanted your “translation” to have?

          • the_Siliconopolitan

            That’s what I meant. But translation is not one-to-one. Just because a forger started with one meaning in English and then translated that into Greek, it doesn’t mean that the Greek cannot then be translated back into something slightly different in English by someone else.

            But I don’t know the argument in case – how significant are the differences for instance?

            Secondly, even skilled forgers make mistakes. We all make mistakes with language, that’s why there are still copy editors – it’s very hard to discover ones own mistakes, since one obviously *knows* what it’s meant to say.

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              Well, how about if we start at the beginning. What persuaded you that this text is a modern forgery as opposed to an ancient one? What do you make of the evidence that Morton Smith himself did not have the ability to imitate this earlier style of scribal writing of Greek (particularly now that it has been shown that the alleged forger’s tremors are not there)?

    • Gary

      “Based on the character of the forger”. It is interesting that there is such a gut reaction to this, which must be based upon the content of the document. If the document is genuine (old), it doesn’t mean it’s content is true. Just means some guy 2000 years ago had a good imagination, or a unique opinion. I find the Secret Book of John good reading, expressing a unique point of view from 2000 years ago, but no one finds that it is a modern forgery. And I don’t think a multitude of odd named angels made Adam’s individual body parts, and Yahweh violated Eve. So I assume the gut reaction to Morton Smith is a “gay” thing? Or am I wrong?

      • Gary

        Sorry, got my Gods wrong. Yaldabaoth violated Eve, and produced two sons, Yahweh and Elohim. I love this stuff. Much wilder than Jesus having a gay old time (in someone’s imagination 2000 years ago).

  • newenglandsun

    Wow. Bad reviews.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      What has bad reviews?

      • newenglandsun

        The book on Amazon. Only 3.2 stars. The Gospel Hoax. 18 reviews and 6 one stars along with 2 two stars. 7 five stars and 3 4 stars though.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Wow, I would not have given it bad reviews. It convinced me, and sparked much-needed discussion. If it had not done so, some of the work that supports authenticity, investigating Smith’s handwriting and ability to write Greek for instance, might not have been done.


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