physical examination - key to antiquity vs. contemporary

Steven Avery

The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark, by Stephen C. Carlson

Chap 2 - Uncovering Literary Fakes

The stalemate over Secret Mark goes back to the debate between Quesnell and Smith when Quesnell dismissed all of Smith's extensive, internal arguments for the authenticity of Secret Mark with a single wave of the methodological wand:

"Physical examinations alone can make certain we are not dealing with a contemporary."

Quesnell pointed out that the absence of a thorough, physical examination of the sole manuscript script of Secret Mark raises the possibility of a contemporary hoax because the same tools that Smith used to authenticate the text on internal grounds can be used by a hoaxer to fabricate cate the text.2 Quesnell's caution over the authenticity of Secret Mark, however, was not based on specific positive evidence such as errors in the manuscript or its text that Secret Mark was a recent fake.3 p. 13
Physical examination needed as the primary consideration.

Same is true of Sinaiticus.
Tests have never been done, and when they were recently planned, in Leipzig, they were cancelled.
And what elements have been seen, touched and written about point to contemporary.

Clearly, this is in absence of any significant provenance support.

Physical tests of the Dead Sea Scrolls can confirm their antiquity, for example, but no physical test of Secret Mark's manuscript can confirm that its text is older than the 1700s. p. 2

to be successful, a fake first has to catch the intended victim's attention to be successful; otherwise, the fake will simply be ignored. p. 14
An interesting read is how the "Sinaiticus" manuscript made it from Athos to Constantinople to St. Catherine's in Sinai, in the Simonides explanation. St. Catherine's was getting the most focus and attention from the Europeans, and a ms. that landed there c. 1840 would definitely not be ignored for long.


a forgery's success often depends on misdirection, by inducing the intended audience to forgo somehow a detailed examination of the manuscript and overlook its flaws. A common technique is to control the authenticating process, commonly by offering an overwhelming, but ultimately misleading, mass of supporting documentation detailing how well the fake fits into contemporary expectations of what an important, revolutionary find should look like. This approach not only captures the intended target's interest, but it also prevents close inspection of the fake's flaws. The sheer volume of the accompanying documentation makes the arduous task of independently verifying every aspect of the new discovery seem potentially futile, especially if the fake promises to meet a long felt scholarly need. p. 14-15
Coleman-Norton...agrphon .. the mass of irrelevant Information was actually part of the deception because "it distracts the reader's attention from the lack of basic evidence by inundating him with information about everything else." p. 18
Like Pfaff's falsification, Secret Mark was accompanied by a massive commentary in two books totaling about 600 pages, so massive that Smith later apologized for it as being "dreadfully complex."25 Like Coleman-Norton's hoax, Secret Mark appeared as another ancient text emerging from the Arab desert in the mid-twentieth Century. p. 19
And Carlson has more on misdirection on p. 88-89

the art of misdirection

as Smith himself argued, "the supposition of forgery must be justified by demonstration either that the style or content of the work contains elements not likely to have come from the alleged author, or that some known historical circumstances would have furnished a likely occasion for the forgery" (Clement 89, n. 1) p.20
With Sinaiticus the elements that contradict are predominately the physical evidences, while the historical circumstances abundantly support non-authenticity.


No Trace of the Manuscript before 1958

A solid provenance goes a long distance in resolving any residual doubts about the authenticity of an artifact, while a weak provenance can only magnify the problems that a questioned document may bear. The editio princeps for Secret Mark presents a rather negative but truthful assessment of the evidence for the manuscript's origins:

"Thus we have, in the last analysis, no proof that the present text was or was not copied in Mar Saba, or that the MS from which it was copied was or was not in the Mar Saba library" (Clement 290, emphasis original).

In fact, there is no proof that the manuscript or even the book was present at Mar Saba prior to Smith's second visit in 1958.

... Smith noted no ownership or other marks of provenance in the book, and the most probable places for such information, the front cover and first pages, had been destroyed {Secret Gospel 13).p. 35-36
Substitute Sinaiticus and 1840.

As for direct, external evidence of the book's earlier existence at Mar Saba, Smith did not present any catalog information, even though Smith perused a 1910 catalog of "191 titles. . . written without comment. " p. 36
As with Sinaiticus, very dubious catalog claims are discussed. In fact, Sinaiticus is much worse, since it appears that the claim that it was in the "ancient catalogues", used to counter Simonides assertion of late production, was simply a totally bogus fabrication.

If the only evidence that the book existed at Mar Saba prior to 1958 is Smith's word, this brings up a sensitive issue. Great care must he taken before calling a scholar's integrity into question, and accusations of a scholar making intentional falsehoods to the academy should he based on compelling evidence.42 p. 39
This is a situation we also see in Sinaiticus studies. Although it is abundantly clear that Tischendorf stole mss and made various intentional falsehoods for personal gain and political posturing, the "great care" is overdone, and only a few writers even point to the direct truth on those matters (e.g. Nicholas Fyssas, Natalie Tchernetska).

The critics who are most vulnerable to being deceived are those who are contemporary with the production of the fake because they do not have the benefit of the passage of time that eventually exposes many falsifications. If the false document was skillfully crafted to pass current contemporary standards, dectecting the deception can be very difficult on internal grounds because both the creator and the critics are in the same ideological moment and using the same tools. As a result, both a solid chain of custody or "provenance" and physical examination of the manuscript are vital in authenticating any contemporary discovery.
It is rather amazing to see the conclusions that were drawn about the CFA and Sinaiticus in the period from 1846 to the Hort usage in 1871, often working only off a facsimile.


The Piltdown Man hoax, arguably the most successful academic hoax of modern times, is a good illustration of this, showing that scientists can be hoaxed as well as scholars in the humanities. ... provided stunning confirmation of Charles Darwin's theories at a time in which they were still racked with controversy in learned society. ... Some scientists, however, were initially skeptical, but they had difficulty explaining their skepticism and, in any case, they were denied access to the Piltdown remains on the grounds of their immense value. ... a young scientist decided to take another look at the physical remains with a new fluorine-dating technique. Not only did the new technique prove Dawson and Woodward wrong, but the scientist also discovered obvious signs of forgery (such as artificial abrasion on its teeth) that should never have been missed in the first place. p. 91
We see many analogies here (emphasis added).

However, feel free to :) at this from Stephen Carlson:

the subsequent discoveries of Peking Man and Australopithecus provided a useful quantity and quality of real fossil evidence
For a bit of synchronocity, Peking man was originally called Sinanthropus pekinensis.


More related study at:

Archaic Mark - ms 2427