Also under threat were the sexual orthodoxies of his day. Wilson himself was openly gay, courageously so given the repressive atmosphere of his time, and much of the book depicts English gay subculture. This theme also shapes the Eorpwald hoax. By faking the discovery, Gilbert was subverting the heroic image that the modern-day church has of its founders, to make them confront the possibility that those early predecessors themselves were open to unrestrained "pagan" sexuality. To a large degree, he succeeded, as scholars so uniformly accepted these bizarre claims and integrated them into their understanding of medieval faith.
When Morton Smith was working in 1958, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes had recently been making news as a best-seller. The book had a particular appeal for readers interested in scholarship or in accurate accounts of the scholarly world. With some hesitation, I also raise the controversial subject of Smith's sexuality. He is commonly described as gay, although some commentators report him having relationships with women as well. If in fact he was gay or bisexual, he would have had a particular interest in a novel that was noted as a ground-breaking gay classic.
Leaving aside any biographical material, though, I turn again to the text of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, and point out the obvious parallels to Secret Mark. Wilson's book describes a forgery planted in an early Christian site. In fact, it was in the possession of a famous bishop, who is identified as a disciple of the great English Archbishop Theodore. We recall that Clement's supposed letter was addressed to an otherwise unknown and inexplicable "Theodore."
The intrusive item promises to rewrite church history, by proving that Christian orthodoxy co-existed with controversial clandestine practices. There was the faith on the surface, and the secret undercurrent—quite literally underground. Eorpwald himself was accused of being a sorcerer as well as a Christian, much like Jesus the Magician, as imagined by Morton Smith. As the demented Rose Lorimer proclaims, "the division between these two worlds—the pagan and the Christian—is really rather artificial. Was there so much that finally separated them?" A "dual religion stares at us from Eorpwald's tomb." Moreover, that shadow religion had a strong sexual content.
Now, in order to make his point, Morton Smith could do nothing so crude as plant a bogus idol in an archaeological dig. That was not his area of expertise. He was a manuscript scholar. In order to grant the truth of Morton Smith's alleged discovery of the Mar Saba letter, at the particular time and place, we must accept an outrageous series of coincidences, to which we must now add explicit echoes of two separate contemporary novels. At some point, surely, Occam's Razor requires us to seek the simplest explanation for the whole Mar Saba affair.
There's no mystery here. The Mystery of Mar Saba + Anglo-Saxon Attitudes = Secret Mark.
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. His book The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade is just out from HarperOne.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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