Review: Stephen C. Carlson's The Gospel Hoax

Stephen C. Carlson, of the blog Hypotyposeis, has written a book about the Secret Gospel of Mark (SGM) – The Gospel Hoax, Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark. Though relatively short, it is packed with analysis supporting its central conclusion – that the “discoverer” of SGM, Morton Smith, actually forged the document as a hoax on the academic community. (I have previously discussed one reason why I thought forgery was a possibility).

SGM was supposedly discovered by Morton Smith, then a graduate student at Columbia University, in 1958. SGM was reportedly found by Smith while he was cataloging the manuscripts held by the Mar Saba Monastery. To be clear, what was supposedly found was not a new gospel as we understand them, but a 17th century manuscript which quoted a letter written by Clement in the late second-century which referred to the SGM and quoted parts of it.

SGM stirred controversy because it purports to be an early, secret, version of the Gospel of Mark meant for advanced initiates that includes passages suggesting a more magic-oriented, homoerotic Jesus. Questions about its authenticity have been raised from the beginning, but could not be answered because the manuscript itself was – suspiciously to some – lost before any tests could be run. Only Smith’s description and a set of photographs he took remain.

In The Gospel Hoax, Stephen Carlson seeks to break the logjam on the question of authenticity by examining a number of aspects of SGM, Mr. Smith, and the circumstances of the discovery. In so doing, Carlson attempts to do more than simply settle the issue, he also offers guidance on how to detect other academic frauds. He is successful on both counts, though I have some reservations that I will mention below.

Carlson sets the stage by recounting the discovery of SGM and then spends a chapter discussing how other academic hoaxes have been uncovered and raising some suspicions about SGM. Then he carefully moves through the evidence. First, he convincingly demonstrates that the SGM manuscript (the supposed 17th century writing) is a modern forgery and not an older writing recording an ancient letter. The most convincing argument raised by Carlson is the handwriting analysis, which reveals the SGM manuscript to be forged and raises further suspicions about Smith’s role in the discovery. Other arguments raised by Carlson, which he takes to be hints from Smith about his role in the hoax, are interesting but apart from other evidence would not be necessarily persuasive.

Next, Carlson questions the authenticity of the supposed letter by Clement recorded in the SGM manuscript. Relying on linguistic comparisons between the letter and Clement’s other writings, Carlson concludes it is too good to be true, i.e., it is too much in accord with Clement's style to be from Clement. To Carlson, this suggests inauthenticity. He is openly indebted to the analysis of another and I would want to spend more time researching the issue to trust a determination about something being too much like an author’s style to be by that author. Carlson also finds additional hints from Smith suggesting admissions of a hoax which are again intriguing, but are better evidence of the identify of the hoaxer once one is convinced of the case in chief. On firmer ground is the argument that Smith would have possessed sufficient knowledge of Clement’s writings and linguistic ability to pull off the hoax himself -- which some defenders of SGM have denied.

The following chapter targets the fragments of the supposed Secret Gospel itself and concludes that they are products of the 20th century around the time of the late fifties. The focus on homoerotic portrayals, Carlson argues, would have been meaningless if written in the first or second centuries, but were particularly appropriate for the time period and circumstances in which Smith lived and worked. I did not find the 20th-century appropriateness as “uncanny” as Carlson does, but it is an interesting point and could be a useful tool for discovering other hoaxes. More discussion of attitudes in the first and second centuries would have helped the discussion but may have been too tangential for Carlson's tastes. Additionally, I fear that such a criteria may be overly subjective and would require getting into not just the time period of the suspected hoaxer, but would require a deeper examination of that person's mind and personal circumstances than we are likely to be able to achieve in many cases.

Carlson’s wrap-up is convincing in its conclusion that SGM is a modern hoax perpetrated by Morton Smith. It is also valuable in that it offers approaches and criteria for the uncovering of other academic hoaxes. Though I was not as persuaded as he as to the efficacy of some of those tools, the discussion itself is valuable and The Gospel Hoax effectively offers future debunkers much with which to work. Those are minor quibbles and go, as we lawyers sometimes say, to the weight of some of the evidence rather than its admissibility. Well-written, well-researched, and well-done.


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