Batson comes out of the belfry: The history books may not have to be rewritten . . .
By ROBIN LANE FOX
25 May 1991
(c) 1991 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved
BATSON D. Sealing has come in from the cold and his mysterious Egyptian text has taken a new turn. 'Could it even so be an elaborate hoax,' I wondered in last Saturday's Weekend FT: the chances are always high with an untraceable document, purporting to give sayings of Jesus in an unexpected ancient language. 'If so, it is not an obvious one . . . if it is not authentic, quite another story remains to be told.'
The story has taken an hilarious twist: against me, I admit, and against quite a lot of other people, including some wary scholars. In November, friend Batson sent his text to an Egyptological journal in Oxford, enclosing a photocopy of what purported to be its debut in print, back in 1875 in an obscure journal in New Orleans. He mis-translated it from top to bottom.
In January, the text was translated correctly, apparently as sayings ascribed to Jesus, most of them known in other sources. After submitting his text, Batson failed to answer further inquiries. In mid-January, he sent a second letter, giving forwarding addresses from Montana to Iowa, at various academic departments. When we contacted them, they had not heard of him. 'Bisy Batson,' I began to imagine, remembering the infamous note from Christopher Robin in Winnie-the-Pooh. A spotted or herbaceous Batson would have been nearer the mark.
The curious text was first brought to my notice by chance in late March; mysterious suspicions still surrounded its origins. For scholars, these suspicions centred on the text: nobody could trace the journal in New Orleans which was supposed to be its source. Yet, Batson's photocopy was impressive, using different type-faces. Without the text's original transcript, who could be sure?
Those who fix their eye on the ball (not the Batson) fail to notice when fielders play games behind their back. The text's true meaning had intrigued various scholars; it was studied at a seminar in Oxford; its source began to be referred to as Sealing and we all know that Americans' names can sometimes seem curious in English. Naturally, I tested it for anagrams: BELONGS AT SAND or GIN SODA BEATS . . . it eventually produced BADIAN'S LONGEST, a notorious academic critic of Alexander the Great. But, I fear, none of us spotted the obvious Batson spoor.
If in doubt, ask your daughter. Mine thought I must have noticed, but the text survived the miscreant scholar's joke: Bats On The Ceiling. Obsessed with the text, we had all missed the name's meaning, by which the author, surely, was announcing that he was a spoof.
Does this mean the text must be a spoof also? I think it must be, although others still wish to hedge their bets. A few charitable souls still think that poor Batson has been unfortunately christened; others think that the text could be genuine, although the man who produced it called himself a lunatic: he did, after all, mis-translate it. Others think that a genuine text might exist somewhere, even though the 1875 journal appears to be a spoof too. It remains a very intricate document: other fake stories have had a partially genuine ending.
Still, I am sure that its spiritual uncle is Batson D. Belfry, even though the text is extremely subtle and therefore, as I remarked last week, no ordinary hoax. So the plot thickens: who is the real Batson?
The text has not been composed from other bits of text which already existed in Egyptian demotic script: it combines new phrases with near-translations of sayings preserved in Greek or the later Egyptian script of Coptic. The sources of these sayings are rather recherche; the translation is not exact and the little differences are significant. The real Batson must know this text very well indeed. He also had the wit to submit a time-bomb, mis-translate it totally and hope for the off-chance that somebody would unravel it. The unravelling of words, by Oxford's Mark Smith, remains a very sharp piece of linguistic detection.
The hoaxer is therefore, a skilled scholar in Egyptian texts who is well informed on the sources of alternative sayings ascribed to Jesus. He has chosen known sayings about secret meanings which have added point if you know that their author is himself a forger: the text has possible references to the mystery which he has devised.
He (or she) has also faked part or all of a photocopy, as if from an old New Orleans journal, complete with different types and a title-page. He has sent artfully-constructed letters whose address to Oxford is on a typed label. If the label is removed, it shows the name of Batson D. Sealing in ballpoint pen, erased by felt-tip pen, as if the envelope had first been addressed to himself. He has referred to forthcoming articles, due in 1991, although neither has yet been received by the promised publishers. One of them, on a point of terminology, sounds wonderfully quaint, but scholars do sometimes waste ink on nothing better.
There is, however, a clue: the editress who received his first letter happens to have kept the envelope. Its stamp is post-marked San Antonio, Texas, on November 16 1990. Batson's letters have never mentioned a Texan connection. San Antonio happens to be the home town of the journal by which the next article by Batson is supposed to have been accepted: is it a coincidence or somehow a clue to the fake's academic home? A rivalry, perhaps, between scholars or editors or their periodicals, with Oxford receiving a Texan time-bomb?
Batson has come down from the ceiling but he may yet have to come out of the woodwork. It is not Jesus, obviously, but it does not look like a very Christian story, either.
The Financial Times Limited (AAIW/EIW)