Craig Evans’ take on Secret Mark critically examined: Part Four

Craig Evans’ take on Secret Mark critically examined:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three 
Part Four

Craig A. Evans

In three consecutive blog-posts, I have dealt with the argument Craig Evans considers to be the strongest in showing that Morton Smith forged the Clement letter. According to Evans, Morton Smith showed before he found the Clement letter interest in certain themes which are found in the letter. I find Evans’ assertiveness to be unsupported.

There are however many other arguments presented by Evans which he believes lend strength to the forgery hypothesis. Some have been so thoroughly refuted before, that I leave them aside for the time being. But Evans makes at least a few points regarding Stephen Carlson and the handwriting issue which I cannot resist to comment upon.

Let me quote a lengthy passage from Evans’ paper under the headline “Disputed Science”:

The debate over handwriting analysis requires a few comments. In his 2005 publication Stephen Carlson, assisted by a professional handwriting expert, concluded that Morton Smith penned the three pages of Greek text found at the back of the seventeenth-century edition of the letters of Ignatius. Other scholars have challenged these findings. Dismissing Carlson’s analysis, Hershel Shanks asked two Greek-speaking handwriting experts to compare samples of Smith’s Greek with the Greek of the Mar Saba find. One expert concluded that Smith did not write the Clementine letter. The other expert concluded that he did. The former submitted a written report, which Shanks has posted on the Biblical Archaeology Society web page. The latter expert has not yet submitted a written report. The appeal to native Greek-speakers has not resolved the controversy.

Although Carlson does not regard himself as a handwriting expert per se, his expertise in evaluating documents, as well as procuring assistance and expert advice, should not be quickly dismissed (as I think Shanks has done). Novum Testamentum, a highly respected international journal devoted to the critical study of the New Testament, recently published an article, in which Carlson’s conclusion that “Archaic Mark” (Greek NT ms 2427 = Chicago ms 972) is a modern forgery has been vindicated. This manuscript, written on what at one time was believed to be 14th century parchment, deceived the likes of Edgar Goodspeed, Ernest Cadman Colwell, Kirsopp Lake, and Kurt and Barbara Aland, scholars well versed in ancient Greek manuscripts and hands. “Archaic Mark,” under the number 2427, appears in the list of miniscules in the two standard critical editions of the Greek New Testament. In these editions it is dated to the 14th century, evidently on the basis of the presumed age of the parchment, as well as the paleography. Carlson, however, concluded that although the parchment is old, perhaps dating to the 14th or 15th century, the handwriting is modern and the forger, who imitated 14th century Greek penmanship remarkably well, used Philipp Buttmann’s 1860 edition of the Greek New Testament as his base text. As reported in the recent issue of Novum Testamentum, scientific testing has confirmed Carlson’s conclusion. The ink was found to contain a chemical that was not in use prior to 1874 and Carbon 14 has dated the parchment to the 16th century. It is now believed that the manuscript was produced in the early 20th century. Once again handwriting analysis was at best uncertain. Internal considerations, including evidence of anachronism, pointed to forgery. Scientific testing provided confirmation.

The essential arguments made by Evans in this attempt to rescue Carlson’s handwriting analysis are:

1)      Stephen Carlson concluded based on the handwriting that Morton Smith penned the Clement letter.

2)      He was assisted in his conclusion by a professional handwriting expert.

3)      Carlson’s analysis should not so easily be dismissed since Carlson managed to correctly claim that the so-called Archaic Mark is a modern forgery.

4)      By comparing samples of Smith’s Greek with the Greek of the Mar Saba find, two Greek-speaking handwriting experts came to opposite conclusions. One expert concluded that Smith did write the letter and the other that he did not.

But Evans is ill-informed. It has for a long time now been known that the “evidence” Carlson relied upon when suggesting that the letters were drawn rather than written and that all kinds of signs of forgery could be seen in the document, like tremors and ink blobs, all were due to the poor images he used. When these printed images in Morton Smith’s book were heavily magnified, they gave rise to optical illusions which misled Carlson into believing that the scribe’s hand shook because of slow writing. Se my articles Tremors, or Just an Optical Illusion? and Reclaiming Clement’s Letter to Theodoros. Besides, Carlson was at the time a patent attorney with no experience or training in the field of questioned document examination.

Evans also tries to strengthen Carlson’s conclusion by saying that he was assisted in his conclusion by a professional handwriting expert. This was for sure what Carlson said himself, but later it turned out that he had misled everybody by withholding vital information regarding this professional handwriting expert by the name of Julie C. Edison. Already in April 2010 Scott G. Brown and Allan J. Pantuck consulted Edison and she gave an entirely different description of her contribution. Brown and Pantuck presented their results in the article Stephen Carlson’s Questionable Questioned Document Examination, and they summarize their findings as such:

The people who read Edison’s letter on the internet [published by Carlson] would have been far less impressed had they known that Carlson’s consultant is unable to read Greek, that she met with him for only a few hours, that they looked exclusively at halftone reproductions of Smith’s photographs, that she disavows having expressed an opinion on the manuscript’s authenticity, and that her positive comments were prefaced by the “most important” observation that the absence of “known standards” in Carlson’s analysis violates one of the “fundamentals” of forgery detection. Clearly he hoped that this letter would discourage concerns about the objectivity, validity, and competence of his handwriting analysis, but now that we know the omitted contents and the manner in which he suppressed them, he has ultimately made us more dubious about these things than ever.

It is not hard to imagine that a handwriting analysis by a properly qualified questioned document examiner would look very different from what we see in The Gospel Hoax.

Could Evans really be unaware of this? He is after all acting as an expert on Secret Mark and that Edison did not support Carlson’s assertion has been known for one and a half year now. Or could it be that Evans is careless with the facts in the same way as he was in Fabricating Jesus, where he wrote that not only did Edison assist Carlson in analyzing the “color” photographs, but “experts [emphasize mine] in the science of the detection of forgeries [were given] the opportunity to analyze the handwriting of the document and compare it with samples of the handwriting of the late Professor Smith?”[1]

Evans made the same kind of statement in Lee Strobel’s book The Case for the real Jesus:

Carlson, a well-regarded patent attorney and amateur biblical scholar, thoroughly investigated the case, bringing in handwriting experts, and writing The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark in 2005.

“What’s your opinion about the authenticity of the letter?” I asked.

Evans’s answer was dramatic: “I think the clues really lead to the conclusion that the letter is a hoax and that Smith is almost certainly the hoaxer.” – – –

When experts examined the magnified photos of the text, they could see what they call ‘forger’s tremor,’ where the text isn’t really written, but instead it’s being drawn by a forger in an attempt to deceive. There are shaky lines, pen-lifts in the middle of strokes—all kinds of indications that this was forged. (Se my article: One Thousand and One Untruths: How Reliable Is the Account of Secret Mark by Lee Strobel and Craig Evans?)

Once again there were according to Evans experts involved, when in fact at that time no expert at all had evaluated the handwriting; not even the one Carlson said had validated his results.

Evans is trying to support his view that the letter is a forgery by referring to distinguished scholars who also believe that the letter is a forgery. He for example says that the “Harvard alumnus and distinguished scholar of Gnosticism Birger Pearson stated that he now believes the Clementine letter to be a hoax”. Pearson expressed his view on this issue in 2008 in “The Secret Gospel of Mark: A 20th Century Forgery,” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 4 (2008), article 6, pp. 1–14.

But in 2009, after reading my articles on Carlson’s flawed methods for examining the handwriting, Pearson wrote the following:

“I read the Viklund pieces with considerable interest. It is curious that Carlson didn’t avail himself of the color photos. Anyway, I agree with Viklund when he says that the only way we can finally know whether Smith forged the letter is to find the actual manuscript, and subject the ink to scientific analysis.” Published by Stephan Huller at Birger Pearson Says It Best – ”It is curious that Carlson didn’t avail himself of the color photos”)

Also this Evans seems to be unaware of. Be that as it may, Evans is not taking into account the fact that Carlson based his study on inferior images which misled him (Carlson has not made any official comments on the issue of the handwriting since I published my articles; he has consequently chosen not to reply to the criticism) and that Edison was neither qualified to provide an opinion on this text, nor did she do that.

Point 3, that Carlson’s analysis should not so easily be dismissed since he correctly managed to claim that the so-called Archaic Mark is a modern forgery, is in itself a remarkable attempt to save Carlson’s so-called handwriting analysis. Actually, the issue of Archaic Mark has nothing whatsoever to do with the question of Carlson’s analysis of the handwriting of the Clement letter. Stephen Carlson may be an intelligent person, a brilliant scholar who has made brilliant discoveries. Still, he was wrong in his handwriting evaluation since he based it on erroneous photographs (i.e. printed images) and he misled everybody by presenting Edison’s letter cropped so that it appeared as if she supported his analysis. It does not matter if he is right on the issue of Archaic Mark or even if Secret Mark is a forgery. His conclusions are still flawed since they are based on incorrect observations – no matter how vigorously Evans is defending him and telling us not to dismiss his handwriting analysis so easily.

Evans is correct in saying that the two Greek-speaking handwriting experts came to the opposite conclusions when it came to deciding if Smith had written the text or not. Yet he says that one of the experts, i.e. Agamemnon Tselikas, “has not yet submitted a written report”. This Tselikas did in May this year and the paper by Evans was presented at the Toronto conference a month earlier.

It is though not entirely correct that they came to different conclusions by comparing samples of Smith’s Greek with the Greek of the Mar Saba find. Venetia Anastasopoulou did compare the writing of the Clement letter to a number of examples of Smith’s Greek handwriting, and she came to the conclusion that based on the presented material, Morton Smith most probably did not write the Clement letter. Agamemnon Tselikas did not make such a thorough evaluation by comparing the handwriting, but mainly evaluated the writing in itself. He could not find anyone from Mar Saba with that particular hand and based on how some of the letters were drawn he did not think that it was written by a Greek-speaking monk. He therefore suggested that the letter is a forgery, and for other reasons (which to me seem quite obscure) he concluded that the most likely forger was Smith. When it came to the issue of Smith’s handwriting, Tselikas only made this conclusion:

A comparison of the handwriting of the Greek letters of Morton Smith with the handwriting of Clement’s letter can not give significant evidence that Morton Smith is the scribe, and this because as imitation, certainly the scribe of the letter would not use the own personal style. Nevertheless, some factors point to Morton Smith.

Tselikas then presents six comparative examples which are far from identical. Although I of course cannot challenge Tselikas’ expertise, I do find his conclusions to be quite extraordinary. He is saying that you cannot get any significant evidence by comparing the handwriting of the Clement letter with that of Morton Smith since an impersonator would not write in his own personal style. But is not this what a questioned document examiner to a certain degree of probability is supposed to decide by comparing an allegedly forged text to that of other handwriting samples?

Evans summarizes this issue by writing:

Where does this leave us with regard to Smith’s Mar Saba find? With uncertain and conflicting handwriting analysis. Carlson and two handwriting experts, one English-speaking and one Greek-speaking, think Smith wrote the document in question. Another Greek-speaking handwriting expert thinks he did not. Which conclusion is correct?

But the fact is that there has only been one handwriting analysis done in which Smith’s own handwriting has been thoroughly compared to that of the letter, and that analysis showed it to be highly unlikely that Smith could have written the text. Carlson’s analysis should be entirely dismissed because he is not a trained expert and besides made his analysis on distorted images. Edison should also be dismissed, since she is not qualified to evaluate Greek text and did not even analyze the text. Tselikas’ judgment is of course valid. But when it comes to deciding if Smith could have written the Clement letter in his own hand, also Tselikas fails to make (or refrains from making) any serious contribution since he has not presented an in depth analysis based on a comparison between the Clement letter and Smith’s Greek writing.

Roger Viklund, 2011-09-15

[1] Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, (2006), p. 95.


5 kommentarer

  1. 16 september, 2011 den 19:38

    While I am sure that the hoaxers won’t care much for my advice, I think they have to stop trying to rescue the Gospel Hoax. Once you hear that Carlson (a) based his ‘forger’s tremor’ on images of the lowest possible resolution and (b) misrepresented the claims of his handwriting expert his credibility is impugned. The problem for them however is where else do you go? What other arguments are there? Carlson had such success convincing scholarship generally that he will always be canonized in the hoaxer’s canon of saints. It was his work which seemed to mark a new era in the age old controversy. Things seemed to be going their way so they can’t let go. I think they should be attempting to following some of Tselikas’s arguments rather than propping up discredited (and for the most part, utterly outlandish) claims of Carlson. I bet if someone developed a critical apparatus for many of Tselikas’s claims it would be very well received. At least it is something new. The old Carlson arguments simply don’t have any legs.


  2. 16 september, 2011 den 22:55

    I am a bit amazed that Tselikas’ arguments haven’t been given more attention than they have. Maybe it’s because he has presented them in such an incoherent way, but they are after all arguments laid out by one of the world’s leading expert. After all, Tselikas hasn’t claimed that there are tremors and ink blobs which should be seen as signs of forgery.


  3. 17 september, 2011 den 00:16

    I think Tselikas’s arguments have been ignored by these people because they lack imagination. Many are dogmatic believers and most refuse to admit they ever wrong about anything. Given the fact that all these people were all too eager to jump on the bandwagon without checking Carlson’s actual claims with the original photos, they keep pounding the same drum hoping for a different result.

    I find it ironic that these people are willing to accept the idea that Morton Smith was morally bankrupt enough to perpetrate a massive forgery on friends and colleagues helping him ‘make sense’ of the discovery but overlook what Carlson seems to have done to them (i.e. forgot to tell everyone he was using the worst quality images and misrepresents the handwriting experts opinion).

    Ah but you see – I think I heard someone whisper here is another argument for forgery. ”Scholars aren’t to be trusted! They can ‘hoax’ other scholars.” Or perhaps as was noted long ago – wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.


  4. 17 september, 2011 den 08:02

    Ah, since it was you who quoted this wise German expression, I suspected that it was Nietzsche who had said it – and it was!


  5. 17 september, 2011 den 09:59

    I only studied philosophy so I could drip lines like this at cocktail parties in the middle of conversations. And look what happened! By the time I started attending parties I found drunken people staggering around citing Kim Kardashian, the Real Housewives and movies like the Hang Over. Oh what a colossal waste of time and energy! Who would have thought that Nietzsche, a man Wagner once ridiculed for masturbating too much, would be useless to help pick up women at parties – wie unglaublich!



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