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Philip Jenkins


Alexandrian Attitudes

A new source for the "Secret Gospel of Mark."

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If in fact Secret Mark was a hoax, then Smith was almost advertising the fact, presumably to show his contempt for the gullibility of academe. Not only would they miss the obvious clues hinting at forgery—the Mar Saba connection—but they would even accept the outrageous idea of placing Jesus in a homoerotic context. Even in 1973, this notion was far more shocking than any suggestion that the church had once tolerated multiple editions of the gospel text.

But Mystery of Mar Saba was not the only novel to portray such a deliberate deception, and another book may actually be more relevant to the present discussion. I stress that I have no direct evidence that Smith read this other work, any more than he did Mystery, but the parallels to the Secret Mark affair are striking.

In 1956, English author Angus Wilson's novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes was published. Wilson was then at the height of his powers, and the book was widely reviewed and read, in North America as well as Britain. (WARNING: Many spoilers follow.) This brilliant and very funny satire tells the story of an academic fraud at an archaeological site.

Understanding the book's origins requires a little background in contemporary British archaeology, at a time when fraud and "planted" materials were much in the news. The legendary case was of course that of Piltdown Man, involving ancient human fossils supposedly discovered in Sussex in 1912. These materials were finally, and sensationally, exposed as fraudulent in 1953. (Remarkably, responsibility for the fraud has still not been definitely established.) Also famous—if not yet as scandalous—was the widely reported discovery of a Neolithic statue believed to represent the Great Goddess, found in 1939 at the flintmining site of Grimes Graves. Although not definitively exposed as a fake until the 1980s, this "find" had been from the outset a source of gossip in the archaeological community. Also in 1939—and this time, the find was entirely genuine—archaeologists investigated the magnificent Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk.

Wilson's novel synthesizes these three episodes. He describes the 1912 excavation at the Anglo-Saxon site of Melpham, which features the grave of a celebrated 7th- century missionary bishop named Eorpwald. (The date recalls Piltdown, the setting suggests Sutton Hoo.) To the astonishment of the chief excavator, Lionel Stokesay, Eorpwald's grave includes a phallic fertility idol. The only explanation the archaeologists can suggest is that, in these dark early centuries, even the leaders of the venerated Anglo-Saxon church practiced a clandestine syncretism, a dual faith. The heroic Eorpwald was an apostate.

By the time of the novel's main action in the 1950s, that shocking theory has achieved a grudging consensus status among British historians. It is particularly welcomed by "Rose Lorimer," a thinly disguised version of the eccentric real-life scholar Margaret Murray, the inventor of many modern theories about the history of witchcraft and neo-paganism. (Eccentric is the most charitable word I can offer.) Wilson offers a beautifully realized portrait of the English academic world of his day, with many real scholars portrayed under thin disguise: it is a roman à clef. He knew many of these figures first hand through his employment at the British Museum. He depicted with comic precision exactly how academics walk and talk, think and argue.

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is a novel about the dilemmas of professional ethics and personal loyalties. The central character, Gerald Middleton, suspects from the beginning that the idol was in fact planted, and by his old friend Gilbert, the rebellious son of Lionel Stokesay. For multiple reasons, though, not for forty years can he bring himself to investigate the case properly and expose the outrageous fraud. Ultimately, he succeeds in proving what Gilbert Stokesay had done, and his motives for doing so. Gilbert undertook the hoax in order to discredit and disgrace his father. More generally, he was targeting everything his father stood for, the whole generation that would shortly lead the country into war. Gilbert sought to disgrace and embarrass the historical establishment, which he saw as boring, pretentious—and grossly stupid enough to believe an obvious hoax. However much these alleged scholars prided themselves on their critical acumen, a daring novice could deceive them easily.

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