Jesus the Magician
by Morton Smith
Harper and Row, 222 pp., $12.95
Most of us have a passion for secret history, for the real dirt concealed by the official version. There is a gross justification for our interest, for experience shows that official versions almost invariably have a lot to hide; and there is a subtler one, which is that the most truth-seeking of narratives has to achieve consonances and Illusions of simple causality which are incompatible with a desire to tell all. Of course, the story we want—absolutely candid, free of the guilt and bias of the official version—is itself subject to similar distortions and omissions, and just as incapable of bridging the gap between the written text and something that is supposed to have actually happened. But we want it all the same (“So that’s how it really was! Now that makes more sense”) and believe it because it was suppressed, and is therefore more fun to believe; or because, since it reveals error and duplicity in something else, it seems to be ex officio on the side of truth.
This is the origin of conspiracy theories, of books demonstrating that Homer was a woman or that Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford. But mistrust of the official version may also be the impulse behind scholarship of a high order. There may be relations, previously unconsidered, between certain documents; there may be unconsidered documents; and somebody makes new sense of a piece of the world. Our excitement is not only in that new sense, but in the process of its discovery; examples that come to mind are Panofsky on Gothic and Wittkower on Renaissance architecture. Or, a document or person formerly obscure is exposed as having some bizarre importance—A.J.A. Symons on Frederick Rolfe, or Hugh Trevor-Roper on Sir Edmund Backhouse.
A remarkable instance of high scholarship engaged in a quest for missing sense is Frances Yates’s book The Valols Tapestries, a work which offers the excitement of a tenacious pursuit of clues, yet is inconceivable without the prior possession of an extraordinary amount of digested learning. This combination of heroic learning and heroic persistence in a single quest is pretty rare. It is essential to the kind of inquiry I am talking about, for without it you may have either mere folly or a lifeless assemblage of facts; yet the possession of the double gift is by no means an unmixed blessing. You may have to pursue your clue past the point where a more prudent inquirer would turn back. Frances Yates has always taken risks, for the most part triumphantly and with vast rewards; but now and again learning and common sense may nod for a moment, and the new sense is too tenuously achieved and too implausible to supplant the official version.
Morton Smith is an ancient historian of immense learning and a passion for the quest, so he runs similar risks. The most cursory acquaintance with his career will enable one to see it as an unconscious preparation for the …
In Quest of Jesus December 21, 1978