The Nation, 26 January 2009

26-jan-nationEric Foner finds much to praise in Abraham Lincoln, chiefly his “capacity for growth” and his belief that “there was a bedrock principle of equality that transcended race- theequal right to the fruits of one’s labor.”  Foner dwells on the Second Inaugural, asking us to imagine the moral courage it must have required for Lincoln to name the evil at the heart of the Civil War not as Southern treason, but as “American slavery.”  The famous passage saying that we must acquiesce in God’s will to punish us for that sin even if  “all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword” raises Foner’s special approbation.  “In essence, Lincoln was asking Americans to confront unblinkingly the legacy of bondage and to think about the requirements of justice.”

Two other pieces deal with the relationship between modern institutions and the ancient past.  Britt Peterson‘s  review of several books about looted work from southwest Asia and southeast Europe that has made its way into museums around the world begins with a story that raises a basic question.  In 1995, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was forced to send acollection known as”the Lydian hoard” to Turkey, since the artifacts had been stolen from sites in that country.  However, the Turks had not yet come to Turkey when those artifacts were produced in the seventh and sixth centuries BC.  Therefore, the artifacts are not especially interesting to nationalist-minded Turks.  They are now housed in a small museum in the town of Usak.  This museum receives barely 100 visitors a year, fewer than the exhibit used to recieve in a typical  hour at the Met.  Some pieces have been stolen and replaced with obvious copies.  Do the artifacts have a value intrinsic to themselves?  Or is their worth a function of the use we make of them and the concern we have for them?  If the latter is the case, then what, exactly, was stolen from the Turks when the Hoard was originally looted? 

Anthony Grafton’s review of the recently published correspondence of Gershon Scholem and Morton Smith revolves around the question of whether Morton Smith’s greatest claim to fame was a forgery.  In 1973, Morton Smith published a document that he claimed to have discovered fifteen years before.  This Greek manuscript, apparently written in the eighteenth century, Morton Smith identified as a copy of a second century letter from one of the fathers of the church, Clement of Alexandria.  The letter consisted of a complaint that a group of heretics were giving Christianity a bad name by following practices outlined in a text they called “the secret gospel of Mark.”  The letter allows that there was in fact a secret gospel of Mark, which added to the canonical gospel stories about Jesus initiating select followers into mysterious kinds of knowledge.  The heretics, the letter claims, have taken this secret gospel and added even more to it.  In fact, they claimed that Christians were exempt from all moral laws and could find salvation by committing sins.  Their favorite sins seems to have involved homosexual behavior, and their version of “secret Mark” seems to have suggested that Jesus also had a fondness for such behavior. 

As soon as Morton Smith published the letter, there was suspicion that it was a forgery.   Red flags went up when it was noticed that every single word in the letter appears somewhere else in the extant works of Clement of Alexandria.  Students preparing assignments for ancient Greek and Latin prose composition classes have traditionally been required to imitate the style of one or another ancient author.  Those students will typically draw their vocabulary from lists of words their model used.  But of course the author himself would not have had such a list in front of him. Writing in his native language, he would have been at liberty to use whatever word seemed best to him.  Indeed, no ancient text of any substance consists exclusively of words the author uses elsewhere.  The fact that this letter does makes it look more like the work of an outstanding Greek prose comp student, which Morton Smith was, than like a genuine ancient text.  As a clincher, a writer named Stephen Carlson pointed out that a reference to the packaging of salt in “Clement’s” letter makes no sense in the context of ancient practices, but is intelligible only in light of the anti-clumping process patented in 1910 by the Morton Salt Company.  Thus, Morton Smith may have signed his work.

UPDATE:  It’s in this issue that Stuart Klawans praises Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas’ film about Mennonites in Mexico, and delivers one-paragraph slams against Oscar contenders The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, and Doubt.   I’ve seen Doubt and liked it, but his description is as funny as it is unfair:

Doubt: It was a dark and stormy night in American Catholicism, when Sister Meryl Streep and Father Philip Seymour Hoffman settled in for 104 minutes of shouting at each other. Co-starring Amy Adams as the sweetest young nun in the parish–a role I’d be happy to see her play, if John Waters were the director. Maybe in the new year.

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  1. cymast

     /  February 8, 2009

    “Christians were exempt from all moral laws and could find salvation by committing sins.”- That at least partially explains its popularity.

    Too bad gay Jesus was exposed as forgery. Maybe the next lost book will be less salty.

  2. acilius

     /  February 8, 2009

    There are still scholars around who think that the letter Smith published might have been legit, but they seem to be fighting an uphill battle. Smith himself had been an Episcopal priest who left the clergy to become a Greek professor. During his professoring days Smith was openly gay and privately an atheist. So if he did forge the letter, it isn’t surprising that it has to do with homosexuality, and that it depicts a scholarly priest (Clement) struggling with ideas that he doesn’t want to accept.

  3. cymast

     /  February 8, 2009

    The world would be a better place of all religious letters and books were given the same external power- none. IMO

    Wow- a gay, former priest who is an atheist. No wonder he forged a letter.

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