January 28, 2009

Morton Smith and History

Morton Smith thought he had found what he thought was a letter confirming that there was a secret gospel of Mark, whether he had or not has been a subject of discussion ever since. Anthony Grafton, a superb and thoughtful scholar, has laid out the controversy better than I could ever in the Nation this week. What I think is interesting about the article is the way it shows the scholarly process: if Smith was right and the secret Mark is a true ancient text, then the issues of how early Christianity developed would be revolutionised: a text with the potential claims that Smith invoked- claims about the nature of morality and the nature of the Trinity- would if authenticated demonstrate the plurality of beliefs about the nature of Christ which ran right back to the generation of the Gospel writers (approximately fifty years after Christ was crucified)- so the stakes are high.

Smith was a great linguist and scholar with a very methodical bent: the problem with his thesis lies though in the fact that scholarly evidence itself is uncertain. Take a text like a Gospel: imagine it was written down on a piece of parchment sometime in the first century A.D., now imagine all the wars, revolutions, natural disasters and human errors that have occured since then. This evening I spilt a cup of tea on a book- just imagine for a minute how many times that manuscript would have had food, alcohol, tea, water, whatever else spilt on it across the centuries it existed. Imagine the amount of erosion from damp, the amount of times that as it was taken out rain damaged it- and you will see why most of the texts we have from that era, from any era are actually copies. It is no accident that many ancient texts that we do have are partial- so we are missing the entire reign of Caligula in Tacitus's Annals for example because at some point that part of the manuscript was damaged. But now of course you come to the copier- who particularly with religious texts- may have their own agenda. Furthermore sometimes documents were invented- purported to be older than they were (for an example the famous Donation of Constantine which confirmed the Papal Church's authority over the Western Empire was forged probably in the early middle ages)- or copiests inserted words- or sometimes just misread words.

I am just trying to give some idea of the difficulty of dealing with ancient history. It is not impossible- obviously we have good historical sources from the Roman Republic and Empire- sources that often corroborate each other and great libraries like that of Nineveh or Alexandria or later private libraries in Constantinople or monastic houses preserved texts: but it is difficult and scholars continually face the problem of interpreting fragments of evidence. For some scholars, they spend a career putting together a papyrus to make a sentence- it depends on realising that that part of the sentence probably goes with that end of the sentence but of course it could be based on an error, and errors are simple to make. Everyone afterall comes to the evidence with their own idea of how it will look: the best methods of scholarship teach you to have a dialogue with the evidence- that your ideas change to fit what you see and then as you see more, the ideas you had about the last source change- but there is always the possibility of being wrong. And everyone who has studied history properly knows that feeling- the sensation that having added the pieces together what you have actually done is created a vision of your mind's idea of the world, rather than a vision of the world.

What has that got to do with Morton Smith and the Clementine letter? It explains I think something of the controversy- I do not have the learning to take a position on the issue though Grafton's is a voice that I would listen to- however what I do know about is doubt. A historical religion like Christianity which depends on a historical issue like the resurrection is always going to draw strong arguments to it: and for those who have faith, their faith provides them with the truth. But if we look at it from a historical perspective, rather than a fideist one, I do not think that there are reasons that we can say either that Smith was right or wrong: we will have opinions but those opinions are subject to doubt. The issue is that whereas I can say to you that Rome fell on such and such a date and that Gibbon wrote his history of that fall on such and such a date, what I actually mean is that the probability of Rome falling then and Gibbon writing then exceeds some limit, I am not saying there is an absolute truth. The limit may approach, like a rising curve, certainty but it never reaches it. The more fragmentary the evidence the lower the probability until I get to the position where I have to say that possibly x or y happened. Historical truth is not absolute and it is important to realise that everywhere you look in history there is reasonable doubt: that is as much true of 'religious' questions as it is of normal historical questions (whether for the former there is a separate level of proof because of the greater nature of the claim made by religion is a separate and interesting question)- but it is important to realise.

When we claim absolute certainty about the past, given our fragmentary evidence about it we can be confident that that is the begginning of error. There is such a thing as historical truth- but there is no such thing as historical certainty.


Georg said...

Hallo Gracchy,

I think you have said it very nicely.

Always a pleasure to read you.


Gracchi said...

Thanks Georg!