Scott Brown’s take on the handwriting of the Mar Saba letter

Scott G. Brown

A couple of month ago I happened to watch a Swedish television programme called Veckans Brott (Crime of the week) in which a few people practiced for a while and then tried to imitate someone else’s handwriting. Their efforts were then judged by a professional document examiner working at the forensic department at the police, and all of the “forgeries” were easily spotted as forgeries. The expert told the reporter that it is very difficult to forge another person’s handwriting and almost impossible if the forgery was a long text over several pages.

Of course I already knew this, having studied the handwriting of the Mar Saba letter for quite a long time, but still it struck me what an extremely difficult task it would be to forge a letter like the Mar Saba letter. It has often surprised me to find that even highly qualified and respected scholars so easily have imagined that Morton Smith would be able to first create this letter in “perfect” ancient Greek, imitating both Clement and the author of the gospel of Mark, and finally being able to write it fluently in an extremely elaborated eighteenth century Greek monastic hand. I cannot help wondering how on earth they thought that he would be able to accomplish such a “supernatural” task?

Then, when the questioned document examiner Venetia Anastasopoulou published her report on the handwriting of the Mar Saba letter (A Handwriting Expert Weighs In), she really gave support for the opinion that Smith could not have forged the letter. My previous attempts and efforts of showing that the so-called signs of forgery which Stephen Carlson claimed to have spotted really were just optical illusions due to the poor printed images he chose to study (here and here), were now strengthened by the opinion of a real expert in the field. But on top of that, Anastasopoulou’s report went far beyond my study, which really just dismissed Carlson’s claims, and she almost proved that Morton Smith could not have written the text of the Mar Saba letter. Her report is to be found here and my summary of it and her later clarification, both in Swedish, can be found here and here.

Now it pleases me to see that Scott Brown once again has contributed in puncturing one of Carlson’s argument, and this time given his view on the handwriting by supplying additional information to the results presented by Anastasopoulou. His new article My Thoughts on the Reports by Venetia Anastasopoulou, can either be reached from this BAR site or directly from this url.

Although nothing ever is impossible, I would say that from now on it will be extremely problematic for those who still argue that Smith forged the letter and especially if they claim that he wrote it – if they intend to stick to the actual circumstances concerning the handwriting and the opinions among the handwriting specialists.

I for one have for a long time claimed that the only realistic scenario of the letter being a forgery would be if Smith forged it. The other alternatives seem to be too unrealistic to be taken as serious alternatives. Now, I have to stick to this, and since Smith hardly could have done it, I will have to state that the letter in all likelihood is genuine.


Scott G. Brown

I will just give a short survey of the things Scott Brown deals with. Of course, you will need to read his article. Scott Brown summarizes Anastasopoulou’s observations and conclusions and then compares these to the descriptions presented by other authorities within the field of document examination. He manages to show that just about everything which Anastasopoulou found in the handwriting of the Mar Saba letter also is strong evidence in support of authenticity.

Brown summarizes Anastasopoulou’s main arguments. He notices the difficultness of keeping a consistent style and refers to Albert S. Osborn, who states that “the successful forgery of a whole document is a task of extraordinary difficulty and requires intelligent attention to many particulars and details that do not enter into the task of fabricating only a signature.” Anastasopoulou do confirm that the Mar Saba letter is written in a consistent way. Brown says that forging “a document in a foreign alphabet is not only extremely difficult but also mentally exhausting”.

He then turns to the line quality, which in a genuine document should bring “smoothness, continuousness, and confidence”, everything found by Anastasopoulou in the Mar Saba letter.

There should also be freedom and natural variation in the handwriting and this is an “important implications in the detection of forgery”. Brown refers to Osborn who speaks of “the extreme difficulty of simulating a whole document with the natural variation of genuine writing” and that if this can be found it is a “strong evidence of genuineness.”

Brown then focuses upon the rhythm and artistic flair, which is something quite esoteric. A skilled document examiner can spot these signs which are not so easy to describe in words. It is like a perfect dance or harmonic music, almost impossible to imitate. Brown refers to Harrison by saying that the “[h]andwriting rhythm concerns the overall flow of shapes across the page, not the elegance of individual words or letters …”

Especially one quote from Wilson R. Harrison’s, Suspect Documents: Their Scientific Examination (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958), p. 339, caught my attention:

“… no handwriting which is disguised or copied can be expected to approach the standard of the rhythm shown by the normal hand; as this is so, a fluent, rhythmic script of good line quality is extremely unlikely to have been either forged or disguised.”

Brown notices that a “fluent, rhythmic script of good line quality” is what Anastasopoulou finds in the Mar Saba letter.

After he has given this additional support for Anastasopoulou’s view that Smith could not have forged the handwriting, he also turns to the subject I dealt with in my studies (here and here), and by giving a few examples, he shows that the tremors and the pen lifts which Carlson has presented only lies in the poor images of the printed reproductions which Carlson used for his study, and that the line screen in these images are the actual reason why Carlson found any tremors and pen lifts at all.

It should also be noticed that Stephen Carlson declined BAR’s  invitation to respond. It seems like almost every proponent of the forgery theory do so. There is at least one exception though, and that is Peter Jeffery.  For that he is worthy of great praise.

In the end Brown summarizes his conclusions:

“Anastasopoulou observed none of the characteristics that normally appear in forged documents, but she did observe the hallmarks of spontaneous writing. My own survey of the secondary literature indicates that the particular set of characteristics that she observed is extremely unlikely to occur in a forgery of a whole document. In other words, we can rule out Smith, not only as the scribe of this letter, but also as its author.”

Roger Viklund, 2011-01-25

1 kommentar

  1. Ed-M said,

    28 februari, 2011 den 18:43

    Why is it that people seem to be convienently ”losing” ancient and important resources that would shed light on early Christianity? On Palatine Hill in Rome, there was a destroyed crucifixion graffito close to the Alexamenos Graffito Blasphemo. The centre of the destroyed graffito was rubbed out and only the extremities of the cross remained. Apparently some offended person was offended, for all we know, by some gross indecency in the graffito, which could have shed light on the Roman practice of crucifixion.

    But at least we have photographic copies of the Mar Saba Letter.



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