I have finished “the Gospel Hoax”

I got the book “The Gospel Hoax”, written by Stephen Carlson, and subtitled “Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark yesterday. I saw down and finished it tonight. It is riveting! I immediately wrote the following email to the author, and thought I should share it with all of you, not to blow my own horn but to bring into greater clarity one of the great disputes in Scriptural scholarship of the last 35 years.

Dear Dr. Carlson:

I have just finished The Gospel Hoax and wish to first congratulate you on a masterful and convincing argument. I was a student of Morton Smith’s (undergraduate, Columbia College 1970-1974, BA Latin and Greek, 1974) and even at that early date (Clement of Alexandria was published during the time I and others I knew were his students) we felt certain that the Secret Gospel and Clement’s letter were hoaxes and, moreover, that Morton was responsible for them. He always refused to discuss it with us even in a colloquium on the Synoptic Gospels in which discussion of Secret Mark would have been appropriate.

I would like to add some impressions of Morton that you may be (I actually would find it difficult to believe that this information was not available to you) familiar with but that were not included in the book.

Much of the writing and comment against Secret Mark took Smith to task because of his difficult personality. In class he was manifestly a woman-hater; those women who were bold enough to take his class were at once ignored and, if noticed, insulted. One was so incensed at his treatment of her that she paid to have a pie thrown in his face outside Philosophy Hall.

His wit was noticeably absent in his courses: he required us to buy his book “The Greeks” for his Ancient History introductory course; we felt that it may not have been the best available work on the subject but that Morton required it for the royalties. I saw an article in Newsweek that noted a chemistry professor’s decision to require his own book for his course as it was the best available; however, the professor refunded the royalties to each student who purchased the book. I cut the article out of Newsweek and put it on his desk before he entered the class. He looked at it, and scowled, and that was that. I didn’t expect any refund, but I thought I might get him to crack a smile.

He was also homosexual. As I am an Anglican (and was an Episcopalian when I lived in the United States), I was told by someone on Bishop Moore’s staff (Bp. Moore was then the Bishop of New York) that Smith was discovered in a compromising position with a young man and was forced to resign his orders. That was the way things were done in those early days. My informant may be wrong, but it has the ring of truth. At a colloquium on Secret Mark held at St. John the Divine in (I think) 1975 Pierson Parker drove Smith to fury by referring to him as “Father Smith”. Morton tried to get his own back by referring to Parker as “Father Parker” but of course Parker was a priest so it was a damp squib.

Morton, during the time that I knew him, chose a new research assistant yearly. It was always a male graduate student, and the one whom I knew best told me that Smith was forever “hitting on him” sexually. Smith was also very vain of his appearance, swam daily, and kept extremely trim. In 1974 he was nearly 60 years old but still had a figure that would have been the envy of many young men, not to mention his contemporaries.

The reason I mention this is not to blacken his reputation in any way (at the time, I suppose it was not uncommon for professors, other academics, and businessmen to “hit on” their students or employees; nowadays you’d be slapped with a harassment charge immediately). However, I think it sheds more light on your argument in chapter 6 about Morton’s motives. More than Smith’s atheism, I think that the fact that Smith always vehemently denied (and many times in my hearing) that he himself had said anything about Jesus’s “homosexuality” in Secret Mark says volumes about his real motive for writing Clement and Secret Mark. I believe that his leaving the church due to homosexuality impelled him to turn the tables and purport to discover a text that cast aspersions of a homosexual nature on Jesus. However, he tried to “cover” his apparent motive by loudly denying that he himself had ever said such a thing, and thus brought even more attention to that very motive.

When I began reading Chapter 6, I was expecting that each new paragraph would mention the situation I’ve described in my last three paragraphs. I never saw it. As it is impossible to libel a dead person, I conclude that either you were unaware of his sexual orientation (improbable) or you deliberately excluded one of the (in my mind) most telling motives he could have had. I suppose that since a lot of the argument against Secret Mark has been insulting polemic, perhaps you excluded it on the grounds that it would simply seem to be “more of the same”. However, I think it would have fitted right into Chapter 6 (after the bulk of the objective evidence had been set down) and delivered the coup de grace, as it were.

If on the other hand you were unaware of it, then consider this letter a bit more evidence of the correctness of your arguments.

A sidelight to all this is that in the lesbian and gay religious community (of which I am a member) Secret Mark has been quoted and praised liberally ever since the books were published as an example of how the “institutional Church” suppressed any whiff of a mention that Jesus might have been homosexual. In 1992 I had a long argument with a priest of the diocese of Chicago who lives in Nicaragua. He was convinced that Secret Mark and Clement were genuine, and moaned about how the Church was yet again taking an opportunity to do us down. I told him the facts and impressions I have shared with you above, but could not move him. When a fact is as attractive as that one is to lesbian and gay theologians, it will take a crowbar and considerable force to dislodge it. I think that my priest friend is enamoured of it _still_. Perhaps I’ll send him a copy of “The Gospel Hoax” with my compliments! I’m sure that Morton followed this trend of gay theological thought with much joy and satisfaction that, not only had he made the mainstream theologians uncomfortable, but he’d also hoodwinked the lesbian and gay theologians who’d stayed behind in the Church from which he had been excluded. I have been trying for many years to right the assumption in the community that Secret Mark is genuine. Every time in email groups and in fora in which I participate that the subject comes up, I add my two cents to the argument. But as the conclusion that Secret Mark is a hoax is unattractive to those who advance the opposite, I find it very difficult slogging indeed.

I must confess that in response to a scathing review in the Boston Herald of “Secret Gospel” in the mid-70’s I wrote a letter (which was published) taking the reviewer to task for saying that Smith was an “ersatz scholar” or some such phrase. Whatever else he was, Smith was a real scholar and extremely talented, intelligent, and learned. I told the reviewer to counter Smith’s arguments, not call his credentials into question. This is what you have done, and I am very happy you have done it.

So, in closing, thanks so much for writing this book; I found it riveting and hardly put it down until I had finished it. As I am no longer professionally a classicist (I ended up in computer science as a software tester and test manager, and now as a consultant in testing training and test management) I enjoy dipping back into the field and your arguments were not only good, but intelligible to those of us who are not intimately involved in the field still.

I hope that sales are brisk and that your future writings prosper as well. I do feel sorry for that gentleman who wrote his dissertation on Secret Mark defending its authenticity. He must be feeling most unhappy at the moment.

I shall spare a thought for him this evening.


Chris Hansen

UPDATE: I received a reply from Dr. Carlson in which he states that he was aware of Smith’s sexual orientation but felt that including references to it would detract from the logical arguments he gave in the book. However, he also said that another book is coming out later this year from Yale University Press that also debunks Secret Mark, and includes more references to Smith’s personality and his homosexuality. I can’t wait for that one! As Carlson said, “It never rains but it pours.”

Carlson’s blog is in my Friends list under .

One Response to “I have finished “the Gospel Hoax””

  1. vasilatos says:

    Very informative and fun to read, Chris. I didn’t know much about it, and obviously, both of you do. Cool, it makes me feel “in”. 🙂