All Scholars

SMITH, Morton

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  • Date of Birth: May 28, 1915
  • Born City: Philadelphia
  • Born State/Country: PA
  • Date of Death: July 11, 1991
  • Death City: New York
  • Death State/Country: NY
  • Education:

    A.B. Harvard, 1936; Ph.D. Hebrew U. of Jerusalem, 1948; Th.D. Harvard Divinity Sch., 1957.

  • Dissertation:

    "Mqbilot ben haBesorot le Sifrut haTannim" (Jerusalem, 1948) = Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels, Journal of Biblical Literature Monogr. Ser. 6 (Philadelphia, 1951); "Judaism in Palestine I: To the Maccabean Revolution" (Harvard, 1957).

  • Professional Experience:

    Asst. prof. bibl. lit. Brown, 1950-5; vis. prof. hist, religions Drew U., 1956-7; asst. prof, to prof. hist. Columbia, 1957-85.

  • Publications:

    The Ancient Greeks (Ithaca, 1960; many reprints); Heroes and Gods, with Moses Hadas (New York, 1965; reprt. Freeport, NY, 1970); Palestinian Parties and Politics that Shaped the Old Testament (New York, 1971; 2d ed., London, 1987; Ital. trans. Gli uomini del ritorno: il Dio unico e la formazione dell'Antico Testamento, trans. P. Xella [Verona, 1984]); The Secret Gospel (New York, 1973; repr. Clear-lake, CA, 1982; Wellingborough, 1985); Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge, 1973); The Aretalogy of Mark (Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1975); The Ancient History of Western Civilization, with Elias J. Bickerman (New York, 1976); Jesus the Magician (San Francisco, 1978, many reprints; German trans, Jesus der Magier [Munich, 1981]; Span, trans. Jesaus el mago [Barcelona, 1988]); Hope and History: An Exploration (New York, 1980); Der einzige Gott: die Geburt des biblischen Monotheismus, with contributions by Smith, B. Lang, & H. Vorlftnder (Munich, 1981); Religions and Politics in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods (Como, 1985); What the Bible Really Says, ed. with R. Joseph Hoffmann (Buffalo, 1989); Kleine Schriften: Studies in the Cult of Yahweh, ed. Shaye J.D. Cohen (Leiden, 1996) (with bibliography).Festschrift: Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults: Studies for Morton Smith at Sixty (Leiden, 1975).

  • Notes:

    Morton Smith was in the tradition of Eduard Meyer, A. D. Nock, his Columbia predecessor Elias J. Bickerman, and Arnaldo Momigliano rather than that of Theodor Mommsen and Ronald Syme. He believed that the history of religion was of more lasting importance than political or military history. Further, he did not come to classics through philology. He majored in English as an undergraduate. He was deeply religious, even mystical as a young man and he had decided in college to become an Episcopal priest. He wrote: "My serious work began in 1937 at Harvard Divinity School, especially with New Testament under Henry Cadbury and rabbinics under H. A. Wolfson." He learned Hebrew in a year and obtained a Sheldon Fellowship for study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was trapped there by World War II and took his doctorate in 1948 with a dissertation written in Hebrew on Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels. He became an Episcopal priest and briefly in the forties had a parish. For reasons unclear he lost his faith. He then taught and studied the subject he no longer believed. Indeed with the wrath and inside knowledge of the apostate, he often attacked both Judaism and Christianity unmercifully. He returned to graduate study and began his career in Biblical literature rather than classics.His appointment to succeed Bickerman in 1957 determined his subsequent career in ancient history. In 1963 a Harvard appointment was personally vetoed by Nathan Pusey. Although he taught Greco-Roman history, his publications and the dissertations he directed except for several textbooks were largely in Hellenistic Judaism and in early Christianity. His discovery in summer 1958 at Mar Shaba Monastery SE of Jerusalem and publication in 1973 of a long fragment of a Secret Gospel of Mark preserved in a lost letter of Clement of Alexandria made him famous. The fragment could be interpreted as evidence for the homosexuality of Jesus and was connected by Smith with "the scantily clad youth" at Mark 14.51-2. Reaction was volcanic and Smith was even accused of having forged the text. The fragment turned his scholarly attention to magic in the ancient world. He did not live to complete his projected history of magic in Greece and Rome. A lifelong bachelor free of domestic distraction, he assembled a large personal library and devoted his whole life to scholarship. He was a fearless fighter who loved controversy, an honest reviewer, and a loyal, generous teacher and friend who helped immeasurably those intelligent enough to seek his advice.

  • Sources:

    William M. Calder III, Gnomon 64 (1992) 382-4. The vast NachlaƟ of personal and scholarly correspondence was destroyed by Smith's literary executor, David Smith, in accord with his wishes in 1991.

  • Author: William M. Calder III