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Smith, Morton


SMITH, MORTON . Robert Morton Smith was born in Philadelphia on May 28, 1915, the son of the physician Rupert Henry Smith and his wife Mary (Funk). He received a B.A. from Harvard in 1936, with a major in English. Thereafter he continued at Harvard Divinity School (S.T.B. 1940), where he studied the New Testament (NT) under Henry Cadbury, Judaism under Harry A. Wolfson, and Greco-Roman religions under Arthur D. Nock. At Wolfson's urging he learned rabbinic Hebrew as background to NT studies. He was awarded a travel fellowship for study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he was stranded by the outbreak of World War II, but he used the time to complete a doctoral dissertation, written in Hebrew, submitted in 1945, accepted in 1948, and published in English translation as Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels (1951). From 1948 to 1950 he returned to Harvard Divinity School, where he eventually earned a Th.D. in 1957 with a controversial thesis, eventually published in 1971 as Palestinian Parties and Politics That Shaped the Old Testament. His first teaching appointments were as instructor and then assistant professor in biblical literature at Brown University (19501955), followed by a year as visiting professor in the history of religions at Drew University (19561957). In 1957 he was appointed successor to Elias J. Bickerman as professor of ancient history at Columbia University. He held this chair until his retirement in 1985, though he continued to teach at Columbia, in the Department of Religion, until shortly before his death on July 11, 1991.

Smith was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1946 and served in parishes in Baltimore (19461948) and Boston (19491950). Though he never officially left the priesthoodhe continued to be listed in the Episcopal Clerical Directory until the end of his lifehe held no subsequent church-related positions. During his later life many considered him an atheist, but it would probably be more accurate to call him an agnostic.

Throughout his life, one of Smith's principal scholarly interests remained the question of boundaries between disciplines, groups, and religions. On the one hand, he endeavored to show the inadequacies of commonly accepted boundaries. On the other hand, he undertook with equal passion to highlight the overlooked distinctions between separate groups within ancient Judaism and early Christianity. He was equally at ease in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and his work frequently involved more than one discipline from among biblical studies, classics, rabbinics, and patristics. Several of his articles, even early in his career, were devoted to breaking down conceptual barriers between Israelite and other ancient Near Eastern religions, such as his 1952 essay "The Common Theology of the Ancient Near East" in Studies in the Cult of Yahweh (vol.1, pp.1527). In his works on Second Temple Judaism, too, he castigated those who, in his opinion, lacked due regard for context as well as due precision in terminology ("Terminological Boobytraps," in Studies in the Cult of Yahweh [vol. 1, pp. 95103]). Smith emphasized affinities across disciplines but also the distinctive character of groups: the "syncretists" and the "Yahweh-alone party" in the biblical period, the Pharisees as a less-than-dominant "sect" in first-century Judaism, the Zealots and the Sicarii as two distinct groups, Pauline Christianity as a minority phenomenon.

Smith is probably remembered most for his publication of a letter attributed to Clement of Alexandria (c. 150before 216 ce). In 1958 he discovered what appears to be an eighteenth-century copy of this heretofore unknown letter in the library of the desert monastery of Mar Saba, about twelve miles southeast of Jerusalem. This letter contains substantial quotes from a "secret gospel" (mustikon euangelion ) of Mark, which combines elements of the raising of Lazarus in John 11:144 with the story of Jesus' encounter with a rich young man (Lk. 18:23 and parallels in Mk. 10:22; Mt. 19:22) inserted in the context of Mark 10:34. The most controversial part of the secret gospeland of Smith's interpretation of itis an allusion to nocturnal teaching, interpreted by Smith as an initiation rite with baptismal and sexual implications (Clement of Alexandria, 1973, pp. 91, 167188; Secret Gospel, 1973, p. 113). It was suggested or insinuated that the letter was a modern forgery, or even that Smith himself was responsible for such a forgery. The most explicit accusations were brought by Quentin Quesnell in "The Mar Saba Clementine: A Question of Evidence" (Catholic Biblical Quarterly 37, no. 1 [1975]: 4867), to which Smith responded in the same journal (38, no. 2 [1976]: 196199). No tests have been carried out on the manuscript, which has been available to most researchers only through the photographs taken by Smith. The manuscript was seen in Mar Saba in 1976 by several scholars, including David Flusser and Guy G. Stroumsa, in the context described by Smith. On that occasion it was taken from Mar Saba to the Orthodox patriarchate in Jerusalem. Since then, it has not been made available to scholars.

Stroumsa (2003) notes that a perusal of the extensive correspondence between Smith and Gershom Scholem, the foremost scholar of his generation in the field of Jewish mysticism, reveals the gradual development of Smith's thought about the letter and the gospel as his studies progressed. Although it took Smith fifteen years between discovery and full publication, he had described his Mar Saba manuscript finds in the patriarchate's journal, Nea Sion, as early as 1960. His interpretation of the gospel and the letter have not found wide acceptance, and even the discovery itself remains highly controversial (Ehrman, 2003). The continued popular as well as scholarly interest in Smith's discovery is evidenced by the space devoted to it on the internet (see and by a special issue of the Journal of Early Christian Studies (11, no. 2 [2003]) devoted to "The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Discussion." The work on the Mar Saba manuscript strengthened Smith's interest in magic, which led to his equally provocative and controversial book Jesus the Magician (1978). This interest had been stimulated by his early contacts with Gershom Scholem's work on Jewish mysticism and magic. It is evident already in Smith's seminal 1956 essay "Palestinian Judaism in the First Century" (Studies in the Cult of Yahweh, vol. 1, p. 108), which highlights the diversity of Jewish groups, the Pharisees being only one among many. His continued interest in magic found expression in several articles on the subject (Studies in the Cult of Yahweh, vol. 2, pp. 208256). His catalogue of the British Museum's collection of magical gems remained unfinished at his death but has since been published by Simone Michel, Peter Zazoff, and Hilde Zazoff (Magische Gemmen im British Museum, 2001).

While Smith's fame (or notoriety) was based on his unconventional and, to many, uncomfortable ideas, the questions he raisedif not the answers he proposedhave profoundly influenced scholarship in the fields he dealt with.

See Also

Jesus; Judaism; Magic; Pharisees; Scholem, Gershom.


Calder, William M., III. "Morton Smith." Gnomon 64, no. 4 (1992): 382384. This obituary contains concise but detailed biographical information.

Ehrman, Bart D. "Response to Charles Hedrick's Stalemate." Journal of Early Christian Studies 11, no. 2 (2003): 155163. In his critique of Hedrick and Stroumsa, Ehrman argues that homoerotic elements in Secret Mark are central to Smith's interpretation and that the correspondence between Smith and Scholem (to be published by Stroumsa) does not prove the authenticity of Smith's manuscript find.

Hedrick, Charles W. "The Secret Gospel of Mark: Stalemate in the Academy." Journal of Early Christian Studies 11, no. 2 (2003): 133145. Encourages scholars to integrate the study of the Secret Gospel of Mark into their reconstruction of early Christianity.

Meyer, Marvin. "Secret Gospel of Mark." In Secret Gospels: Essays on Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark, pp. 107178. Harrisburg, 2003.

Smith, Morton. Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels. Philadelphia, 1951; corrected reprint 1968. This dissertation received a book-length reply in Jacob Neusner, Are There Really Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels? A Refutation of Morton Smith (Atlanta, 1993). Some of the shortcomings of Neusner's argumentative and personal attack on the person he still calls "the sole really important teacher I ever had" (p. x and passim ) have been exposed by Shaye J. D. Cohen, "Are There Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels?" Journal of the American Oriental Society 116, no. 1 (1996): 8589.

Smith, Morton. Palestinian Parties and Politics That Shaped the Old Testament. New York, 1971; 2nd rev. ed. London, 1987. A brilliant attempt to identify diverse ideologies behind different parts of the Hebrew Bible.

Smith, Morton. Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark. Cambridge, Mass., 1973. The voluminous scholarly edition and commentary on the Letter of Clement of Alexandria from the Mar Saba library.

Smith, Morton. The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark. New York, 1973. A description of the discovery of the Letter of Clement and a popular commentary on its contents.

Smith, Morton. Jesus the Magician. New York, 1978. Smith's controversial comparison of Jesus with magicians of late antiquity.

Smith, Morton. Studies in the Cult of Yahweh. Edited by Shaye J. D. Cohen. 2 vols. Leiden, 1996. Contains forty of Smith's more important articles, many not easily accessible in their original publications, plus a full bibliography (283 items) of his writings (vol. 2, pp. 257277) as well as "In Memoriam Morton Smith" (vol. 2, pp. 279285) by the editor.

Stroumsa, Guy G. "Comments on Charles Hedrick's Article: A Testimony." Journal of Early Christian Studies 11, no. 2 (2003): 147153. Stroumsa reports on his visit to Mar Saba, during which the manuscript published by Smith was located and transferred to Jerusalem. Stroumsa is also preparing the first edition of Smith's correspondence with Scholem, in which the issue of the Secret Gospel of Mark and its implications for the study of Jesus and early Christianity was raised on a number of occasions beginning in 1959.

Joseph Sievers (2005)

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