Continuing Conversation with Craig Evans about Secret Mark

Brian LePort kindly posted a response from Craig Evans to my blog post about his recent article in The Bible and Interpretation (see also his paper on the subject on his web site). I will be the first to admit that, for Morton Smith to have been telling the truth about finding the text at Mar Saba, rather than having forged it himself, one has to accept some particularly striking coincidences, most notably the similarities with the novel The Mystery of Mar Saba.

I’m not sure whether everyone in their youth becomes fascinated with “mysteries of the unexplained” and spooky coincidences. I was. And one that comes to mind as I consider this is particularly relevant. In 1898, Morgan Robertson wrote a novel about a practically “unsinkable” ocean liner named the Titan, which strikes an ice shelf and sinks in the Atlantic Ocean in April, carrying less than half the necessary lifeboats for its passengers. The novel was called Futility or the Wreck of the Titan.

Presumably there is little need to remind anyone that in April of 1912, an ocean liner named the Titanic met a similar fate in real life. Can the similarities between what actually happened and the earlier novel really just be a coincidence? I think that the answer must be yes, and if one acknowledges that such correspondences do occur from time to time by coincidence, then the appeal to Hunter’s novel to cast doubt on the authenticity of Smith’s find is at least somewhat undermined.

I will leave to one side the question of dependence on Papias, since my point was not that the Secret Gospel of Mark is not a forgery of any sort, but simply that we may have good reason to conclude that it is not a modern one perpetrated by Smith. That the letter of Clement in which the mentions of it are embedded could be an ancient forgery is a different matter.

The suggestion that Smith had a well-developed view of Mark as depending on a source with Johannine characteristics prior to the discovery of the Secret Gospel, even if correct, would only explain why Smith made the case for Secret Mark being earlier than canonical Mark and thus pre-Johannine. But in fact, the source for this supposed view of Smith’s that I have found quoted most frequently is Smith’s review of Vincent Taylor’s book in HTR in 1955, an article which I am quite happy to say is accessible through JSTOR and EBSCO. In that review, Smith discusses Taylor’s suggestion that Mark 2:5ff combines two sources. That Smith would note the striking verbatim agreement with John in this story, particularly in an era that was witnessing an upsurge in the view that John did not depend on the Synoptics, is scarcely surprising, given the context. It is also scarcely a basis for concluding that he was thinking in terms of a general Johannine-type source for much of Mark. On the contrary, in the context of the review (p.26), Smith’s point is precisely that that story, which contains verbatim agreement with John, also features a public use of Son of Man which he considers typical of John rather than Mark, so that a source with Johannine traits is an explanation of elements of that one story, not the Gospel of Mark (whether canonical or in a different version) more generally.

Smith’s response to Taylor’s book also included a rejection on Smith’s part of Taylor’s rationalization of miracle stories as having derived from actual events that had more mundane, natural explanations. And that fact makes it striking that Secret Mark’s account of a resurrection akin to Lazarus’ has elements which would allow for the young man to have been alive and misdiagnosed as dead – precisely the sort of thing that Taylor proposed and which Smith objected to. And so here we would have Smith forging a document which would play right into the hands of his opponent. Why would he have done so? Why would he have pared from John those very details that could help Taylor or someone with a similar viewpoint counter Smith’s own argument?

I must confess that, having taken the time to think through a number of the points Evans made, the result is that I find myself less skeptical about the Secret Gospel of Mark than I was previously, rather than more. When I consider the above in tandem with recent handwriting analysis and the considerations I mentioned in my previous and other posts, my inclination is to view Morton Smith as having been essentially truthful about his find. But having said that, there are still many questions about Secret Mark and the letter of Clement that mentions it which remain to be answered, and among them is the possibility that, while the work may not be a forgery of Morton Smith’s, the Clementine letter and/or the Secret Gospel might be ancient forgeries. But that is a separate matter, best left for another time.

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  • Anonymous

    Hi James

    I don’t know why there is so much smoke and mirrors in religious scholarship generally.  Carlson, Watson and now Evans just cite a small part of the original material from Smith’s article (Carlson and Evans just a sentence).  If you are going to claim that this is ‘proof’ or even a smoking gun you’d figure that they would bring forward the whole section (it’s very short).  I think is very deceptive and a desperate attempt to create ‘suspicion’ where none is warranted.  Here is the entire original section (the only section in the whole article which ever cites from the gospel of John in an ongoing discussion about Mark and Vincent Taylor’s discussion of Mark):

    From Smith’s Comments on Vincent’s Commentary on Mark ( The introduction to the section supposes that two stories have been combined, but the commentary says, “The reference to forgiveness at a point where one expects the word of healing is abrupt. The inference seems justified that Jesus traced the man’s plight to sin and believed that his spiritual restoration was a primary and indispensable condition to recovery.” Such a contradiction in an ancient document would lead one to suspect composite authorship and to designate the first author as ‘the critic,’ the second as ‘the moralist.’ This is not to say that the critic must be right. Both may be wrong. That they are is suggested by the peculiarities of the Streitgespriiche in which this story occurs. They have many points of contact with Jn. For instance, they contain the only passages in Mk. (2.10 & 28) in which Jesus prior to his trial is represented as using ‘the Son of Man’ publicly with apparent reference to himself. (Jn 8.38 the phrasing is such as to make the hearers think he is speaking of someone else.) In Jn. Jesus uses the term of himself publicly and frequently (v. esp. chs. 5 & 6 and 12.23-34). Other points of contact are Jesus’ supernatural knowledge of men’s hearts (Mk. 2.8 // Jn. 2.24 f.), his command to the paralytic (Mk. 2.11 // Jn. 5.8), the bridegroom metaphor (Mk. 2.19 // Jn. 3.29) and above all the use of miracles as a proof of his divine commission (Mk. 2.10, cf. Jn. 5.36 &c.”) and the early plot against Jesus’ life motivated by his healing on the Sabbath (Mk. 3.6 // Jn. 5.16 ff.). Now two characteristics of Jn.’s style are sudden change of subject and use of apparent non sequitur. Using a miracle to break off an argument is just what one would expect of a source with other Johannine traits. Therefore its occurrence here need not be explained by the hypothesis that two stories have been combined. But if it is a Johannine trait, what lies behind it is probably allegory or deliberate Johannine obfuscation, not psychological diagnosis. John’s Jesus did not trace all afflictions to sin (Jn. 9-3).I bet I can show people fifty books which have been written in the last hundred years that have connected Mark 2:5 to the Gospel of John.  There is no smoking gun here let alone a gun.  

    Your points are much more illuminating mine.  I just want to show your readers how much smoke and mirrors there are in these discussions.  

    Thanks for being so determined to show the truth about this most embarrassing chapter in the history of the religion.


  • Just Sayin’

    Sorry James, but “Secret Mark” has the stink of forgery steaming right off it.  I suggest that you read up on some of the famous forgeries — and specifically some of the famous forgers — of the past.  Smith fits right in there and so does his forged “gospel.”

    • Anonymous

      Well there’s another coherent argument for forgery.  Do you realize that after Simonides claimed that he forged Sinaiticus there were books written about that text being falsified?  It is possible to have a culture of ‘suspicion’ and those writing nonsense proved wrong.  Last I checked no one ever tested the ink on Sinaiticus.  

      James Keith Elliott Codex Sinaiticus and the Simonides Affair 

  • Brian LePort

    @James: I am enjoying the interaction between the two of you. It has been an enjoyable topic to have you two address.

  • James F. McGrath

    @JustSaying, I think that some of that impression may be due to misinformation that continues to circulate about his find. There are people who have been told and pass on to others that no one other than Smith saw the actual original pages with the text, and/or that when people went back to check, the pages or volume in question were no longer there. The latter did happen eventually as a result of actions by the diocese, but not at first.

    There certainly are some surprising, suspicious, and frustrating aspects of the whole story. But what is it that makes you say that it has the “stink of forgery”? I can’t help but wonder whether it is due to the actual facts of the matter, or some variations on the facts that have been circulating.

  • James F. McGrath

    @Brian, thanks for providing a platform for the conversation on your blog!

  • Just Sayin’

    Secret Mark was manna from heaven for Morton Smith.  Unfortunately, he baked it himself . . .