Morton Smith and A “Secret Gospel of Mark”

 

Grafton relies on new evidence taken from Smith’s recently published correspondence with his life-long friend, the great Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem. These letters make it clear beyond any reasonable doubt that Smith could not have forged either Clement’s letter or the passages of “Secret Mark” contained therein.

Over the past few decades there have been multiple articles, books, academic papers, and blog posts regarding the late Columbia University historian Morton Smith’s discovery, publication, and interpretation of a so-called “Secret Gospel of Mark” in 1973. According to Smith, fifteen years earlier he had come across, quite by accident, a copy of a letter of Clement of Alexandria at the Greek Orthodox monastary of Mar Saba, southeast of Jerusalem, in which Clement quoted portions of a version of the Gospel of Mark that contained additions to our canonical Mark that he, Clement, considered authentic. Thus the term “Secret Mark.” According to Clement these special additions were not to be shared with all, but only with those initiated into the mysteries of the Christian faith. The clear implication was that there were two versions of the Gospel of Mark circulating in Clement’s time (early 3rd century AD), one for public distribution–presumably the version we all have today in our Bibles, and the other only to be shared with those who could understand and accept some of the deeper teachings of the “mysteries” of Christianity. Unfortunately, for us at least, Clement only quoted two short portions of “Secret Mark,” so that is all that is available to us today. The letter of Clement, with its quotations from “Secret Mark,” and an abundance of commentary, is available at Secret Mark. Smith not only considered these materials early and authentically from Mark’s original gospel, but he saw them as providing a glimpse into an underground form of Christianity, shared only with initiates, that had much to say about the real Jesus and his earliest followers.

I well remember the storm of controversy Morton Smith stirred in the Fall of 1973 with the publication of both his scholarly tome from Harvard University Press titled Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, as well as his popular summary thereof, published by Harper & Row, titled, The Secret Gospel. I was at the University of Chicago at the time, just beginning my Ph.D. work. I will never forget how the late Norman Perrin did an oral review of the Harvard volume for the weekly faculty/student forum in the Divinity School and castigated Smith in the harshest terms imaginable for his sloppy sensationalism, even hinting, way back then, that maybe Smith had “forged” the document himself. It was clear that Smith had stirred up much more than the proverbial bee in a bonnet. That Harvard University volume contains so much more than Smith’s newly discovered fragment of “Secret Mark,” it serves as an impressive compendium of Morton Smith’s lifelong work on the early Jesus movement and how it fit within and functioned within the mystical/magical world of Hellenistic religions and philosophy in the ancient world. For me it remains one of the most valuable books in my library.

Although the authenticity of Smith’s text of Clement was generally accepted by scholars and has made its way into numerous critical works and sources, the controversy among experts was generally over Smith’s interpretation thereof, rather than seriously questioning the authenticity of the text itself. However, with the publication of attorney Stephen Carlson’s The Gospel Hoax(Baylor University Press, 2005), and Peter Jeffrey’s The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled (Yale University Press, 2006), any number of scholars have joined the “forgery” bandwagon, so that the issue of whether Morton Smith might have forged the document itself is clearly out on the table. In my view, Scott Brown, in his definitive article, “Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s Controversial Discovery,” in the Journal of Biblical Literature(122: 2003: 89-110), had addressed most of the main arguments for forgery, showing them to be baseless.

I knew Morton Smith reasonably well for close to twenty years, from my student days at Chicago until his death in 1991. Based upon our correspondence and many hours of face-to-face discussions over the years I have always been utterly convinced that the charge Smith forged this text was absurd, completely without basis, and blatantly disrespectful of the scholar I knew him to be. I continue to maintain that no one who truly knew Morton Smith and worked with him over the years would think him capable of such behavior. I am pleased to note that a most recent piece by Anthony Grafton, “Gospel Secrets: The Biblical Controversies of Morton Smith,” published in The Nation(January 7, 2009) and available on-line, argues the same. Grafton relies on new evidence taken from Smith’s recently published correspondence with his life-long friend, the great Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem. These letters make it clear beyond any reasonable doubt that Smith could not have forged either Clement’s letter or the passages of “Secret Mark” contained therein. The manner in which Smith’s own views and understanding of his discovery develop and change over time are clearly demonstrated in these letters, as he debates with himself the significance of the text he has found and shares his insights and his questions with Scholem. Indeed, Grafton argues that Smith’s interpretation of the Markan passages, and his subsequent conclusions regarding Jesus as a libertarian “magician,” were largely influenced by his relationship with Scholem.

Discussions of the possible relevance of the texts Smith called “Secret Mark” to our understanding of Jesus and the character of his movement will continue but I for one think we will be far ahead to drop the unfounded speculations that Morton Smith forged the texts themselves. I commend Anthony Grafton for publishing such a clear and useful article that in my estimation goes a long way in setting the record straight.

In subsequent posts I want to offer my own analysis of the significance of these texts of “Secret Mark,” given their context as part of the tradition passed on by Clement of Alexandria in the early 3rd century CE, for understanding Jesus and his early followers.

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