Morton Smith on New Testament Scholars

Morton Smith was one of the foremost New Testament scholars of the modern era. He possessed an enormous range and depth of knowledge about the ancient world, and also had the intellect to leverage such knowledge. He was not only known for challenging his colleagues, but for demolishing those who returned the challenge. While he was alive, few did so in public.

I have been rereading his Jesus the Magician, a book which placed Jesus and his followers in historical context. Miracle workers were by definition some variety of magician, ranging from charlatan to a ‘divine man.’ Morton Smith documented ancient beliefs about magic, and showed how Jesus and the early Christian movement fit into that context. His book was widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. More on that later.

By the time he wrote this book, he had been banging heads with New Testament scholars for nearly three decades. He was openly contemptuous of them. I should note that Morton Smith was also an ordained Episcopalian priest. He was no Hyam Maccoby, even though his colleagues ended up shunning him in much the same way.

In the Introduction, Smith notes:

“Few public figures from the Greco-Roman world are so well documented, but none is so widely disputed. This suggests that there is something strange about the documents, or about the scholars who have studied them, or both.

Probably both. Most of the scholars have not been historians, but theologians determined to make the documents justify their own theological positions. This has been true of liberals, no less than conservatives; both have used ‘critical scholarship’ to get rid of theologically unacceptable evidence. But not everything can be blamed on the scholars. They could not have performed such vanishing acts had there not been something peculiar in the evidence itself” (p. 3, emphasis added).


“Since very little is known of the social forms and milieux of Christianity during the century 30 to 130, and the little known is commonly neglected by specialists in the study of the New Testament, their conjectures, if taken together, would yield a chaos valuable only to discredit the method that produced it” (p. 17).


“When a theologian speaks of a ‘higher truth,’ he is usually trying to conceal a lower falsehood.’ (p. 4)


Elsewhere, he asked, Why is it that the study of religion attracts so many nitwits?


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