The Secret Gospel of Mark is an allegedly longer version of Mark that is now lost. It is only known through photographs of a copy of a letter alleged to be by Clement of Alexandria, discovered by professor Morton Smith and publicised in 1973. Naturally most people assume it is a forgery.
If it is forgery then it is of no interest to this blog. So in this post I will give the evidence for it being genuine, and why it matters.
It matters because, quite apart from the contents of "Secret Mark", the letter shows that early Christians were urged to lie: Clement is arguing that discussing the book in public can only help the heretics, and therefore it should be denied under oath, even though it is a genuine document, Bible Goggles at their most blatant!
The case against Secret Mark
The case against Secret Mark is as follows:
- All we have is Morton Smith's photographs. We have no original paper (or papyrus) to examine.
- A good friend of Smith's later fell out with him and loudly accused him of being a forger.
- Even if Morton did not forge it, perhaps some ancient enemy of Clement did.
- Smith was "a sharp witted" homosexual and the "secret gospel" appears to be sympathetic to homosexuality.
- The manuscript was said to be found in the Mar Saba monastery: but a 1940 novel, "The Mystery of Mar Saba" has some parallels to that discovery.
- Some say the handwriting looks like Smith's
- Monasteries do not exist for the benefit of foreign scholars. We cannot just drive up and take everything they have of interest. We used to in previous centuries, and as a result they tend to be very protective of their documents and beliefs. Also, they are monks, not professional archivists. So it is perfectly normal for texts to be hard to gain access to, or mislaid (either deliberately or by accident).
- The ex-friend provided no evidence for his claim. Of course he would suspect that if he now believes Morton was a Bad Person. Equally, a close friend would be utterly convinced that Morton was genuine. That is why we have to deal in evidence, not personal grudges.
- What is the motive for an ancient writer forging a letter attacking a book? Why not just forge the book? Or forge a letter supporting it? Very few people could read and libraries were harder to access, so there was no reason to be so devious as to make a letter pretending to oppose something you really wanted to support.
- Mind reading is not reliable. See below for a closer look at this and other possible motives.
- Likewise with millions of novels written it is inevitable that some will have parallels with the real world. I am reminded of my favourite comic creator, Jack Kirby, who wrote a story about an atomic bomb in the 1940s. This was before the bomb was made public. Atoms were hot science, and Kirby just thought "atomic bomb" sounded cool. The authorities contacted him to see if he must have access to top secrets. no, it was just coincidence. As for Morton Smith, he was professor of ancient history at Columbia University, and would be well aware of earlier discoveries in monasteries why would he copy a cheap novel?
- Other experts say the opposite.
Scott Brown gives the literary case for Secret Mark being genuine in his book "Mark's Other Gospel". It rests on a detailed analysis of what we know about Clement and Mark, and is very technical. But for most people the big question is Morton Smith's motive. Why would a professor forge such a document?
What is the motive?
Brown never intended to be a Smith apologist. But since he found himself in that position he addressed the motive question in 2006 ("The Question of Motive in the Case against Morton Smith",
Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 125, No. 2, pp. 351-383)
- Fame and glory? No critics have suggested this. Presumably it makes no sense. It would not make him rich. And Smith already had a good reputation, so why risk it with a claim that would one day be found out?
- Promoting homosexuality? That is not in the text and Smith does not argue it. Secret Mark hints at a purification ritual. The Essenes on the Dead Sea scrolls had such things. Smith spends 83 pages developing arguments for what it might be. As an off hand comment he once speculates if there could be a physical element. But that is not an argument, just speculation, and it is not based on anything in Secret Mark, but was based on the already known ritual of the eucharist (which symbolises physical union). In his later books he dropped the suggestion, clearly feeling it was unlikely.
- A private joke, to show that his peers were stupid? This claim rests on zero evidence, just mind reading. So this cannot be a serious hypothesis. However, when we look at known cases of such academic tricks, they are always small: such as humour (which the peers do not catch) or a nonsense article submitted to a prestigious journal to see if it will be printed. Instead, Smith spent many years on Secret Mark: the only joke would be on himself for wasting so much time on nonsense.
- A serious experiment to see if a forgery could be accepted as real? Then Smith would have admitted it, or at least left some written indication in his desk to be found after his death. He did not.
In the final analysis, we can never know ancient documents for certain. If we want proof we should only examine things that can be proven. This is why I argue that the Bible is best examined as an economic document: then it does not matter who wrote it, or when, because it can be tested in the here and now.