At the time of its initial publication, Stephen C. Carlson’s The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005) was hailed by a number of scholars as a definitive answer to the persistent questions surrounding the authorship of the mysterious Letter to Theodore. Mark Goodacre hailed the work as “fascinating, compelling, and utterly convincing”; Larry Hurtado proclaimed, “Far from being some lost version of the story of Jesus, Secret Mark is uncovered as a great practical joke—one that keeps Morton Smith laughing from his grave.” Among Carlson’s arguments that the Letter to Theodore was penned by Smith himself is its reference to salt losing its savor (an apparent allusion to Jesus’ words in Mark 9:49-50; Matt 5:13; Luke 14:34-35), which Carlson identifies as both an anachronism presupposing the existence of free-flowing, composite table salt and an unmistakable allusion to Smith’s given name:
“For the true things being mixed with inventions, are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt loses its savor” (Letter to Theodore I.13-15).
Carlson concludes, “The imagery in Theodore involves mixing an adulterant with salt and spoiling its taste. For salt to be mixed with such an adulterant, it would have to be loose and free-flowing, but free-flowing salt is a modern invention” (developed by the Morton Salt Company in 1910; p. 60). Moreover, references to the degradation of salt upon contact with undesirable additives are unattested in antiquity—an omission which is not especially surprising given its widespread availability and low cost. Much of this portion of Carlson’s thesis has been challenged by Scott G. Brown (e.g., “Factualizing the Folklore: Stephen Carlson’s Case Against Morton Smith,” in Harvard Theological Review 99.3 , 291-327), who notes that the letter describes the gospel message, rather than the salt, as the pure entity in danger of pollution. Additionally, given the consistency of modern manufacturing and the potency of modern preservatives, a metaphor employing an image of spoiled salt is much more cogent in an ancient context.
The debate between Carlson and Brown on this subject returned to my mind yesterday afternoon, as the members of Prof. Wendy Mayer’s engaging seminar on Antioch were reading and discussing a number of primary sources, especially those that shed light on the disparate Christian movements active in the city between the fourth and seventh centuries. One such source is the correspondence of Severus of Antioch (c. 465-c. 540 CE), an anti-Chalcedonian who briefly served as Patriarch of Antioch in the early sixth century. In a letter to the presbyter Theotecnus, Severus discusses the importance of extending fellowship to those who had previously embraced opposing views; as an example, he briefly recounts the conciliatory attitude of his predecessors towards the sophist and author Asterius when he periodically repented of his nagging Arianism:
[Asterius] was often received and often returned to his vomit [2 Peter 2:22], insomuch that this expression of his is cited in histories. He cried out lying on his face before everyone and saying, “Trample upon me, the salt which has lost its savour” (Letter 515-8).
While I haven’t had the opportunity to examine this text in its original language (the letters of Severus survive only in Syriac), Asterius’ statement—in which he links the present state of his character, tainted by his heresy, to degraded or spoiled salt—is a striking parallel to the comments found in the Letter to Theodore. It may be some time before I have the opportunity for a deeper analysis, but at the moment I’m more and more inclined to the opinion that The Gospel Hoax, with its depiction of the letter and its purported gospel quotations as deviously encoded documents ready to reveal their true nature to the perceptive sleuth, displays some notable structural similarities to The da Vinci Code. Given the virulent reactions of many scholars to the latter book, this seems exceedingly ironic.