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The Secret Gospel of Mark is a putative non-canonical Christian gospel known exclusively from the Mar Saba letter, which describes Secret Mark as an expanded version of the canonical Gospel of Mark with some episodes elucidated, written for an initiated elite.
In 1973, Morton Smith (May 29, 1915 – July 11, 1991), a professor of ancient history at Columbia University, claimed to have found a previously unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria in the monastery of Mar Saba on the West Bank transcribed into the endpapers of a 17th-century printed edition of the works of Ignatius of Antioch. The original manuscript was subsequently transferred to another monastery, and the manuscript is believed to be lost. Further research has relied upon photographs and copies, including those made by Smith himself.
The revelation of the letter caused a sensation at the time, but was soon met with accusations of forgery and misrepresentation. Subsequent study, including handwriting analysis of higher quality color photographs of the document, first published in 2000, revealed more possible evidence of forgery, leading scholars such as Craig A. Evans and Emanuel Tov to conclude the work is a hoax, with Smith being the most likely perpetrator. However, while an increasing number of scholars have been convinced of this view, many still maintain that the Mar Saba letter itself is genuine, and debate continues about the authenticity of the letter and the Secret Gospel it describes.
In 1973, Morton Smith published a book on a previously unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria. He stated that, while cataloging documents at the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Saba in the summer of 1958, he discovered the text of the letter handwritten into the endpapers of Isaac Vossius' 1646 printed edition of the works of Ignatius of Antioch. It presented a letter of Clement of Alexandria to one Theodore, who he seeks to warn against a Gospel of Mark falsified by the gnostic sect of Carpocratians. Clement concedes that it gives a 'more spiritual' version of Mark and quotes from it. This letter is consequently referred to as the Mar Saba letter. In his book, Smith published a set of black-and-white photographs of the text. He published a second book for the popular audience in 1974.
For many years it was thought that only Smith had seen the manuscript. However, twenty-five years later, Guy Stroumsa reported that, in 1976, he, along with the late Hebrew University professors David Flusser and Shlomo Pines, Greek Orthodox Archimandrite Meliton, and a Mar Saba monk, relocated the document where Smith had left it. Stroumsa published his account upon learning that he was the last living Western academic to have seen the letter. Stroumsa, Archimandrite Meliton, and the other scholars determined that the manuscript might be safer in Jerusalem than in Mar Saba. They took it back with them, and Meliton subsequently brought it to the Patriarchate library. The group looked into having the ink tested but the only entity in the area with such technology was the Jerusalem police. Meliton did not want to leave the manuscript with the police, so no test was taken.
Subsequent research has uncovered more about the manuscript. In 1977, librarian Father Kallistos Dourvas removed the two pages containing the text from the book to photograph and re-cataloged them. However, The re-cataloging never happened; Kallistos later told Charles W. Hedrick and Nikolaus Olympiou that the pages were then kept separately alongside the book at least until his retirement in 1990. Some time after that, however, the pages were put elsewhere, and various attempts to locate them since that time have been unsuccessful. Olympiou suggests that individuals at the Patriarchate Library may be withholding the pages due to Morton Smith's sensational use of them. Father Kallistos gave his color photographs of the manuscript to Hedrick and Olympiou, who published them in The Other R in 2000.
As of 2012, the manuscript's whereabouts are unknown, and it is documented only in the two sets of photographs; Smith's black-and-white set and Father Kallistos' color set from 1977. The ink and fiber were never subjected to examination.
In the Mar Saba letter, the Secret Gospel of Mark is described as a second "more spiritual" version of the Gospel of Mark composed by the evangelist himself. Its purpose was supposedly to encourage knowledge (gnosis) among more advanced Christians, and it was said to be in use in liturgies in Alexandria.
The letter includes two excerpts from the Secret Gospel. The first is to be inserted, Clement states, between what are verses 34 and 35 of Mark 10:
And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.
The second excerpt is very brief and is to be inserted, according to Clement, in Mark 10:46:
And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them.
While Clement endorses these two passages as authentic to the Secret Gospel of Mark, he rejects, as a Carpocratian corruption, the words "naked man with naked man".
Very shortly after the second excerpt - as Clement begins to explain the passages - the letter breaks off. However, just before that, Clement says, "But the many other things about which you wrote both seem to be and are falsifications."
These two excerpts comprise the entirety of the Secret Gospel material. No separate text of the secret gospel is known to survive.
|This section may require copy-editing.|
Through detailed linguistic investigations, Smith argued that it could be a question of a genuine discovery of a letter by Clement. That the two quotations go back to the original Aramaic version of Mark, which served as a source for the canonical Mark, but also the Gospel of Saint John. And that Jesus baptises the resurrected dead man in a possible homosexual act. Smith finally argued his view that the historical Jesus was a magus possessed by the Spirit. The libertinism of Jesus was then later suppressed by James, the brother of Jesus, and Paul.
Early on, there have been suggestions that, while Mar Saba manuscript may indeed be a genuine old manuscript, it could well contain an ancient or medieval forgery, based on canonical texts. Nor is it established whether the letter derives from Clement of Alexandria or not. Linguistic indications speak for authenticity. However, differences of substance compare with Clement's other writings have been noted. The text contains none of the errors typical in the manuscript tradition. Charles Murgia (1975) followed Quesnell's allegations of modern forgery with further arguments.
F. F. Bruce (1974) saw the story of the young man of Bethany clumsily based on the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John. Thus he sees the Secret Mark narrative as derivative, and denies that it could be either the source to the story of Lazarus or an independent parallel. Raymond E. Brown (1974) came to the conclusion through his own research that the author of Secret Mark most likely relied on the Gospel of John at least from memory. Skehan (1974) supported this view, calling the reliance on John "unmistakable". Robert M. Grant (1974) found in Secret Mark elements from each of the four Canonical Gospels  and arrived at the conclusion that it was written after the first century. Helmut Merkel (1974) also concluded that Secret Mark is dependent on the four Canonical Gospels after analyzing the key Greek phrases.
Frans Neirynck (1979) argued that Secret Mark presupposes the Canonical Gospels. The author of Secret Mark seems to have pulled together the various places in the Synoptics where the Greek word neaniskos ("young man") was used (Mark 14:51; 16:5; Luke 7:14; Matt 19:20,22). Neirynck also shows other similarities.
Ron Cameron (1982) and Helmut Koester (1990) argued that Secret Mark preceded the canonical Mark, and that the canonical Mark is in fact an abbreviation of Secret Mark. This would explain the narrative discontinuity above. John Dominic Crossan (1985) has also been supportive of these views of Koester: "I consider that canonical Mark is a very deliberate revision of Secret Mark." More on the possible connection of Secret Mark to the Synoptic problem can be found in The Secret Gospel of Mark and the Synoptic Problem.
When the Swedish historian Per Beskow was preparing an English edition of Strange Tales about Jesus 1983, cast doubt on the Gospel, Morton Smith responded by threatening to sue the English language publisher, Fortress Press of Philadelphia, "for a million dollars" causing Fortress to amend the offending paragraph.
In addition, Peter Kirby speculated that (if the letter is authentic) Clement may have been mistaken in his view that "Secret Mark" was a longer version of the Gospel of Mark written specifically for the spiritually elite. Instead, it may be the case that "Secret Mark" was actually the original version of the Gospel of Mark. If this scenario is the case, the excerpts Clement claims are additions to the Gospel were actually part of the original, but were edited out by scribes (possibly because of the perception of homoeroticism). Since the only knowledge we have of "Secret Mark" is from the Mar Saba letter, it is currently impossible to know if Clement's view of "Secret Mark" as an extension of the canonical Gospel of Mark was accurate, or if "Secret Mark" was actually the original version of the Gospel of Mark.
It is believed that the first scholar to suggest in print that Secret Mark was a modern forgery, possibly implicating Smith, was Quentin Quesnell in a 1975 article.
The view of Secret Mark and the Mar Saba manuscript as modern forgeries was promoted after Morton Smith's death by Jacob Neusner, a specialist in ancient Judaism. Neusner was Morton Smith's student and admirer but later, in 1984, there was a very public falling out between them after Smith publicly denounced his former student's academic competence. Neusner subsequently described Secret Mark as the "forgery of the century". Yet Neusner never wrote any detailed analysis of Secret Mark, or an explanation of why he thought it was a forgery.
The fact that, for many years, no other scholars besides Smith were known to have seen the manuscript contributed to the suspicions of forgery. This dissipated with the publication of color photographs in 2000, and the revelation that Guy Stroumsa and several others had viewed the manuscript in 1976. In response to the idea that Smith had kept other scholars from inspecting the manuscript, Scott G. Brown noted that he was in no position to do so. The manuscript was still where Smith had left it when Stroumsa and company found it eighteen years later, and it did not disappear until many years after its relocation to Jerusalem and its separation from the book.
Furthermore, as many other scholars have concluded, it is inadvisable to rest too much on Secret Mark. The alleged letter of Clement that quotes that it might be a forgery from more recent centuries. If the letter is genuine, the Secret Mark to which it refers may be, at most, an ancient but secondary edition of Mark produced in the second century by some group seeking to promote its own esoteric interests.
In 2001, scholar Philip Jenkins drew attention to a popular novel by James Hunter entitled The Mystery of Mar Saba, that first appeared in 1940. This novel presents some unusual parallels to the events associated with Mar Saba MS, that have unfolded in real life after 1958. Later, Robert M. Price also drew attention to this novel. In 2007, musicologist Peter Jeffery also published a book accusing Morton Smith of forgery, arguing that Smith wrote the Mar Saba document with the purpose of "creat(ing) the impression that Jesus practised homosexuality". Some wonder if this accusation was made on the grounds that Smith himself was a homosexual, and had a well-established reputation as a sharp-witted cynic.
In 2005, writer Stephen Carlson published The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark, in which he spells out his case that Morton Smith, himself, was both the author and the scribe of Mar Saba manuscript. When Carlson examined the photographs supplied by Smith, he claimed to observe a "forger's tremor." Thus, according to Carlson the letters had not actually been written at all, but drawn with shaky pen lines and with lifts of the pen in the middle of strokes. Carlson also claims that his comparisons with Morton Smith's typical rendering of Greek letters (such as in his own correspondence and notes) reveal that the unusual formation of the letters theta and lambda in the Mar Saba text matched Smith's own peculiar formation of those letters. Yet these claims by Carlson have been, in their own turn, challenged by subsequent scholarly research, especially by Scott G. Brown in numerous articles.
In 2010, two further handwriting analysis of the Mar Saba MS were undertaken by two Greek graphologists at the behest of Biblical Archaeology Review. The first, Venetia Anastasopoulou, a forensic handwriting expert witness with experience in many Greek court cases, compared the Mar Saba photos with known samples of Morton Smith's Greek handwriting, and concluded that it was most probably not written by Morton Smith. However the second graphologist, Agamemnon Tselikas, a paleographer, director of the National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation and also of the Mediterranean Research Institute for Paleography, Bibliography and History of Texts, concluded it was a 20th century forgery of 18th century script, and that the most likely forger was either Smith or someone in Smith's employ.
In addition, surveying the sets of photographs and comparing them to images of the Voss book taken in 2000, Scott G. Brown suggests that the evident chemical composition of the ink makes it unlikely that it could be a 20th century forgery. He argues that it would have taken at least 25 years, and possibly much more for the ink to deteriorate to the state evident in Smith's photos.
Therefore, it is still an open question if forgery occurred and whether Smith had someone else forge the letter.
The two excerpts suggest resolutions to some puzzling passages in the canonical Mark.
In Mark 14:51-52, a young man in a linen cloth is seized during Jesus' arrest, but he escapes at the cost of his clothing. This passage seems to have little to do with the rest of the narrative, and it has given cause to various interpretations. Often it is suggested that the young man is Mark himself. Some commentators believe that the boy was a stranger, who lived near the garden and, after being awakened, ran out, half-dressed, to see what all the noise was about (vv. 46-49). W. L. Lane thinks that Mark mentioned this episode in order to make it clear that "all (not only the disciples) fled, leaving Jesus alone in the custody of the police."
The same Greek word neaniskos (young man) is used in both Secret Mark and at Mark 14:51. If we accept Helmut Koester's theory that the canonical Mark is a revision of Secret Mark, another explanation is possible: namely, that the ancient editor who deleted an earlier encounter of Jesus with such a young man in a cloth, then added this incident also involving a young man during Jesus' arrest.
There is another occurrence of neaniskos in Mark, this time as a youth dressed in white at the tomb of Jesus (Mark 16:5). For this particular passage, there are also parallel passages in both Matthew and Luke, but neither of the other Synoptic Gospels use the word neaniskos. (In Matthew 28:2 it is "an angel of the Lord" dressed in white that appears and, in Luke 24:4, there are two "men" (Greek: andres)). Thus, it is also possible that all three of these occurrences of neaniskos in Mark and in Secret Mark are somehow related. The proponents of Secret Mark as a forgery, on the other hand, suggest that Secret Mark was created based on Mark 14:51 and 16:5.
Morton Smith indicates that in Clement's letter, the presentation of the young man in the linen cloth has homoerotic connotations. Following Mark 10:34, Clement writes in his letter, the story of Jesus raising the young man from the dead, who then loves Jesus and begs to stay with him. After six days, the young man comes to Jesus in the evening, clothed in nothing but a linen garment, and spends the night, during which time Jesus teaches him the mystery of the Kingdom of God.
The authenticity of this passage has been called into question on the basis of biographical details about Morton Smith. Some speculate that the homoerotic overtones were included by Smith because he himself was a homosexual. Although this speculation may not be relevant, Smith's reluctance or inability to present the original document of Clement's letter for inspection has left room for forgery accusations. He made photographs of the document available, but that has not convinced many skeptics.
The second excerpt fills in an apparent lacuna in Mark 10:46: "They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside."
The lack of any action in Jericho is interpreted by some as meaning that something has been lost from the text, and the second excerpt gives a brief encounter at this point.
The story of the resurrection of the young man by Jesus in Secret Mark bears clear similarities to the story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel (John 11:1-44), and this was already noted by Morton Smith.
Smith tried to demonstrate that the resurrection story in Secret Mark does not contain any of the secondary traits found in the parallel story in John 11, and that the story in John 11 is more theologically developed. He concluded that the Secret Mark version of the story contains an older, independent, and more reliable witness to the oral tradition.
Helmut Koester agrees with Smith that the two stories are very close,
"That it is, in fact, the same story is evident in the emphasis upon the love between Jesus and the man who was raised by him (cf. John 11:3, 5, 35-36), expressed twice in the additions of Secret Mark. Both stories are also located in Bethany.
Further, Koester argues that the resurrection story in Secret Mark appears to be independent from that of John 11, and that the author of Secret Mark may have acquired it from some other source, possibly from the free tradition of stories about Jesus,
"But it is impossible that Secret Mark is dependent upon John 11. In its version of the story, there are no traces of the rather extensive Johannine redaction (proper names, motif of the delay of Jesus' travel, measurement of space and time, discourses of Jesus with his disciples and with Martha and Mary). As to its form, Secret Mark represents a stage of development of the story that corresponds to the source used by John. The author evidently still had access to the free tradition of stories about Jesus, or perhaps to some older written collection of miracle stories."
However, other scholars have come to the conclusion that Secret Mark is dependent on John, and not the other way around. Raymond E. Brown finds it likely that the author of Secret Mark relied on John at least from memory. Skehan, in reviewing Brown's work, calls the reliance on John "unmistakable".
Other scholars such as Robert M. Grant, Helmut Merkel, and Frans Neirynck also point out Secret Mark is most likely dependent on the Synoptics as well (see "Other Views" above). If Secret Mark is dependent on all four canonical gospels, then it was written after John and could not have been used as a source by John's author.
Until recently, the opinion has been very common that the raising of the young man, portrayed in Secret Mark, has primarily a baptismal significance, as a sort of a 'baptism of initiation.' This was the opinion that Smith himself originally proposed. Along these lines, the statement "Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God" was typically read as a reference to the rites of baptism.
But recently, there has been some debate about this matter. For example, Scott G. Brown (while defending the authenticity of Secret Mark) disagrees with Smith that the scene is a reference to baptism. Thus, he says, "[T]here is no mention of water or depiction of a baptism." He adds that "...the young man’s linen sheet has baptismal connotations, but the text discourages every attempt to perceive Jesus literally baptizing him." S. Carlson seems to agree with Brown. The idea that Jesus practiced baptism is absent from the synoptic gospels, though it is introduced in the Gospel of John.
According to Brown, for Clement, "the mystery of the kingdom of God" meant primarily "advanced theological instruction." These matters have a bearing on the debates about the authenticity of Secret Mark, because Brown clearly implies that Smith, himself, did not quite understand his own discovery.
Scholar John Dart (2004) has proposed a complex theory of 'chiasms' (or 'chiasmus') running through the Gospel of Mark -- a type of literary devices he finds in the text. "He recovers a formal structure to original Mark containing five major chiastic spans framed by a prologue and a conclusion." According to Dart, his analysis supports the authenticity of Secret Mark.
In 2008, extensive correspondence between Smith and his teacher and lifelong friend Gershom Scholem was published, where they discuss Mar Saba MS over many years. The book's editor, Guy Stroumsa, argues that Smith could not have forged the MS, because these letters "show him discussing the material with Scholem, over time, in ways that clearly reflect a process of discovery and reflection." Those letters can be interpreted differently. Smith wrote in 1948 that he was working on the early Fathers, "especially Clement of Alexandria" (p. 28). In 1955 Smith wrote that he was at work on a chapter "for a book on Mark" (p. 81). Later in 1955 Smith writes of "my book on Mark." (p. 85)
The November/December 2009 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR 35:06) features a selection of articles dedicated to the Secret Gospel of Mark. It includes articles by Charles W. Hedrick, Hershel Shanks, and Helmut Koester. Generally, they are supportive of the authenticity of the Mar Saba MS.
If what is portrayed in Secret Mark is indeed a baptism, then the placement of this story within the canonical Mark is highly significant. What precedes the story is the third prediction of the Passion/Crucifixion (Mark 10:32-34). And what follows next is the story of the Sons of Zebedee (Mark 10:35-45), where baptism is mentioned explicitly. James and John ask Christ for positions of higher honor once Jesus is an earthly ruler. Jesus responds,
"You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" (Mark 10:38)
Here baptism is clearly seen as a symbol of Jesus' coming crucifixion, and this is widely accepted by Christian commentators. This understanding of baptism seems to be based on the teachings of Paul, according to whom, those who "were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death" (Romans 6:3). Among the Synoptic gospels, only Mark mentions baptism in this passage; thus the interests of the author of Secret Mark parallel those of the author of Mark, which also parallel the teachings of Paul.
In his later work, Morton Smith increasingly came to see the historical Jesus as practicing some type of magical rituals and hypnotism, thus explaining various healings of demoniacs in the gospels. Smith seems to have developed his libertine understanding of Jesus starting from about 1967. He carefully explored for any traces of a "libertine tradition" in early Christianity, and in the New Testament. Yet there's very little in the Mar Saba MS to give backing to any of this. This is illustrated by the fact that Smith devoted only 12 lines to Mar Saba MS in his book Jesus the Magician.