Peter Jeffery: Response to Handwriting Analysis

Did Morton Smith Forge “Secret Mark”?

Back to Did Morton Smith Forge “Secret Mark”?

The controversial text that Smith discovered was a Greek manuscript written on the endpages of a 17th-century book. The apparently 18th-century handwriting recorded a copy of a previously unknown letter from Clement of Alexandria to someone named Theodore.

I think BAR did the right thing in seeking the opinions of Greek experts, which is why I gladly contributed to the fund to pay them. On reading the report of Venetia Anastasopoulou, I have the following reactions.

1. I regret that she did not directly respond to any of Carlson’s arguments, for example about “forger’s tremor” or the similarities he discerned in the shapes of certain Greek letters.

2. There is an important aspect of handwriting analysis that I wish Anastasopoulou had explained better. As outlined in Wilson R. Harrison, Suspect Documents: their Scientific Examination (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1958) 288-91 (which she lists in her bibliography), handwriting identification is a multi-stage process. First, it is essential to distinguish “personal characteristics,” from “style characteristics,” a distinction I discussed at length in my dissertation, “The Autograph Manuscripts of Francesco Cavalli” (Princeton University 1980). Next one should identify any characteristics that may be due to disguise. “Style characteristics,” Harrison says, “derive from the general style to which the handwriting conforms,” and thus will be common to everyone attempting to write in that particular style. Readers who have not been exposed to handwriting analysis, then, may not understand that the table of letter forms on pp. 20-26 is largely an apples-to-oranges comparison, since the questioned handwriting of the Mar Saba text is a cursive script, while the comparison samples of Smith’s handwriting are generally block letters. Thus the particularly notable differences in the letters delta, xi, pi, and phi, as well as more subtle aspects like the angle of writing, are style characteristics, due to the differences between cursive and block writing styles. They cannot by themselves prove whether or not the two samples were written by different people, since some individuals would be able to write in both styles. The angular and pointed form of the circumflex accent, which Anastasopoulou considers a “personal characteristic” of Smith’s handwriting (pp. 26-27), is probably common among Anglophone writers of Greek, since it is a style characteristic in every language that uses the Roman alphabet. Should we really conclude that Smith, had he wanted to imitate Greek cursive, would not have known enough to write the more Hellenic two-curve type of circumflex? The ideal comparison would have been between the Mar Saba script and examples of Smith trying to write cursive or disguise his handwriting, but perhaps no such documents exist.

3. This, however, brings us to her major argument, for Anastasopoulou believes that Smith was unable to write in both styles. The Mar Saba handwriting seems to her to be that of a native Greek-speaker, who is comfortable connecting Greek cursive letter forms and uses accents correctly (but see p. 31). Smith, in the examples she gives, writes Greek like an English-speaking student: one letter at a time, and in a non-cursive, even “immature” hand modeled on printed “copybook” forms (p. 37). This is most obvious in the combination omicron-upsilon (ou), which is often regarded and written by Greeks as a single letter, and even passed as one letter into the Old Slavonic alphabet. But Smith, like most English-speakers who learned Greek in school, usually wrote it as two letters (pp. 33-34). The implication, as Anastasopoulou herself concludes, is that Smith was incapable of writing the kind of rapid cursive we find in the Mar Saba text (nothing about “forger’s tremor” here). This seems to be borne out by the examples she herself presents, assuming they are typical of the material she was given to work with. I believe it does raise the bar for those who argue that Smith penned the Mar Saba document in his own hand (a claim I never made myself). They will need to show, if they can, that Smith acquired or attempted fluency in this type of Greek cursive, even though he did not habitually use it. The second example on her p. 33 shows Smith writing a cursive abbreviation for the word theou (of God) which is not the same as the one in the Mar Saba text. Anastasopoulou describes it as “of poor quality.” Were such attempts frequent or highly unusual for Smith?

4. If the Mar Saba scribe was not Smith, who was it? An unknown Greek accomplice of Smith? A rival of his who successfully deceived him? An 18th-century monk? We still need to know. According to Anastasopoulou (p. 4), this type of cursive “was learned and used by few people because of its difficulties . . . . In each monastery there were a limited number of monks who knew” the characteristic abbreviations and ligatures that identified the house script. Potentially, then, the Mar Saba script could be localized to a specific monastery, but she gives us no bibliographical help in doing this. Therefore we still badly need some thorough analyses by qualified paleographical specialists in early modern Greek cursives.

5. Since the handwriting cannot be earlier than the 17th century (the date of the book in which it was found), no graphological analysis can prove that the Mar Saba text was composed in ancient times. Those who think it a forgery have based their arguments mostly on content, and among them there is general agreement on the features that point to a modern origin: the text was constructed by re-using words and phrases from the canonical gospels and Clement’s authentic writings, the general picture of the Alexandrian church and its practices looks more like the fifth century than the second, Clement’s advocacy of lying seems inauthentic and references modern debates, the hints of ritualized homosexuality seem to assume a modern sexology, Smith’s own account of his discovery is demonstrably deceptive, the many apparent jokes uncannily resemble Smith’s own sense of humor. Those who consider the text ancient, on the other hand, completely disagree with each other as to its origin and interpretation. Does the Secret Gospel pre-date or post-date canonical Mark? Why the secrecy? Are the sexual innuendoes actually present or not? What are the Carpocratians actually being accused of? What is the meaning of Salome’s expanded role? Before they declare victory, those who would place the document in the second century need to face such questions instead of ignoring or minimizing them, and come to some level of consensus on a compelling interpretation that shows why their dating makes the most sense.



Peter Jeffery is the Scheide Professor of Music History Emeritus, Princeton University.

Michael P. Grace II is the Professor of Medieval Studies, University of Notre Dame.

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