In my previous posts I discussed how Morton Smith claimed he discovered a copy of an ancient letter of Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200 CE), written in the back of a 17th century book, by a scribe of the 18th century, in which Clement described a mysterious “Secret Gospel” – an intriguing and possibly scandalous longer version of the Gospel of Mark.
In yesterday’s post I indicated how Smith went about trying to authenticate the discovery. Here I pick up at that point, again, as recounted in my book Lost Christianities.
A key question was whether the copyist who put the alleged letter of Clement of Alexandria that Smith mound into the bak of a book was copying an actualy letter of Clement of Alexandria. There is no difficulty believing that a scribe of the eighteenth century might have had a fragmentary copy of an ancient letter at his disposal – possibly a loose sheet in the ancient library, known for its famous ancient texts – and that rather than simply discard it, he decided to preserve its contents by copying it onto the only spare pages to be found, those in the blank pages at the back of a book at hand. But how could one establish that the letter was from Clement, rather than, say, from a forger pretending to be Clement hundreds of years later (who fooled, then, the eighteenth-century scribe who copied the letter)? The first step Smith took in answering the question was to show the letter to scholars who were experts in Clement; who had spent their lives studying Clement; who would recognize a new work by Clement simply on the basis of its subject matter and writing style. When he did so, the majority of the experts agreed, this looked very much like something Clement would write. If someone had forged it, she or he had done highly credible work.
But how could one know for sure? The only way to decide is by