Secret Mark vs. Secret Morton

Craig Evans wrote a piece for The Bible and Interpretation about the Secret Gospel of Mark, explaining why he is very suspicious and considers it likely that it was in fact fabricated by Morton Smith. Mike Kok, Rod of Alexandria and Tom Verenna also shared views on the subject.

There are questions that it is crucial to keep distinct when discussing the topic of the Secret Gospel of Mark. One is whether Morton Smith forged it. Another is whether someone else might have. And when it comes to the matter of authenticity, the letter of Clement may be authentic but not the Secret Gospel of Mark, or (at least theoretically) vice versa.

Evans’ article is focused primarily on one piece of evidence, namely that Smith was thinking in terms of what the Secret Gospel of Mark contains before he went to Mar Saba and (according to his account) discovered it.

That might seem like damning evidence, but in fact the connections that Evans sees between secrecy, sexuality and Jesus in Smith’s earlier writings are rather subtle. And to the extent that the evidence for naked baptism comes from other sources, connecting Christian initiation with sexuality was possible for anyone willing to let their imagination run rampant, and did not require the Secret Gospel of Mark. The early church fathers also engaged in polemical accusations of sexual immorality against Gnostics and others.

All this to say that it was possible to think along the lines that Smith seems to have on the basis of other, already well-known sources, and to the extent that Smith interpreted the Secret Gospel of Mark in those terms, one must ask whether that shows that Smith most likely composed the work so as to reflect the views he already held, or interpreted the work he found in line with views he already held.

Evans considers the former to be more likely. And he may be right – I can’t honestly say that I know (I’m not “the one who knows” mentioned in Smith’s dedication!). But as I blogged back in May, there are some strange things if Smith forged Secret Mark. Smith spent years transcribing the text and making notes about it and its interpretation as he worked on his books on the subject. Would it no be overkill for a forger to do that just to lend an air of authenticity, and yet to allegedly put clues about his hoax in the work at the same time, as Stephen Carlson claims? And Allan Pantuck has shown how, rather than precisely reflecting his earlier views, the discovery of the Secret Gospel of Mark actually changed Smith’s view on what the term mysterion might mean. And in some instances, Smith’s interpretation or translation has been challenged, because it reflects his own distinctive understanding of the text but not precisely what the text itself says.

When it comes down to it, there is sufficient uncertainty about enough aspects of the matter of Secret Mark to make it impossible to draw firm conclusions. But whether one should treat it with not just caution but suspicion is not as clear to me as it is to some other scholars whom I respect greatly.

As I shared in the recent Biblical Studies Carnival early edition, D. Miller recently posted a quote from Morton Smith on the topic of forgery. Smith wrote (referring to 1 Maccabees 10): “…This anachronism is one of the many traces of an unusually clumsy forger, who may have had some genuine text to expand, but who expanded it with palpable absurdities.” It seems to me that it may be “palpably absurd” for us to attribute to Smith both long years of note-taking and transcription aimed at throwing the suspicious off the scent of his forgery, and embedding of clues into the text itself so as to allow for its discovery. Presumably if the case for forgery is to be made, then those making it will have to choose one or the other.

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  • Rodney Thomas


    Do you know of any 1 or 2nd century texts where the author referred to himself or herself as the author of another text? I find it quite suspicious.

  • James F. McGrath

    How about Acts, and some letters in the NT attributed to Paul? :-)

    • Rodney Thomas

      I can’t find anything in Paul’s letters. Acts is probably the closest, but still, the author’s identity is not announced, he doesnt say I, Luke, author of the Gospel of Luke, etc.,etc..

  • James F. McGrath

    Are you treating that first line as though Clement wrote it, as opposed to it being a title provided by a copyist?

    • Rodney Thomas

      I read it as part of the text; it was the Morton translation.

  • Roger Viklund

    but it is obviously a heading, mentioning a collection of letters: “From
    the letters of the most holy Clement, the author of the Stromateis. To

  • Anonymous

    I don’t believe Morton Smith fabricated this document.  I am under the impression he believed it was authentic.  I also don’t believe this is part of the Markan tradition or from Clement; this post-dates them in my opinion.  Has anyone considered the possibility of a copying error, where marginal notes from a scribe were accidentally inserted into the text by a later scribe? 

    • Gabriel Bienzobas

      Sounds like a plausible idea!

      We are all so up for a conspiracy theory these days!

  • Anonymous

    Indeed.  These sorts of instances sometimes have rather banal explanations that become lost in the trends of conspiracy.

  • James F. McGrath

    As I said, it is important to keep several issues distinct. It is possible to regard it as extremely unlikely that Morton Smith forged the work, but to consider it an ancient forgery, or an authentic letter of Clement about an ancient forgery (or, or, or…).

  • James F. McGrath
  • Anonymous

    Hi James

    Excellent article.  You might want to also mention two other pieces of information to your readers that John of Damascus, a resident at Mar Saba in the early years of the monastery cites three times from a collection of “letters of Clement of Alexandria” (of which there were at least twenty one in the collection).  If Smith forged the letter his placing of the manuscript in that particular monastery was deliberate and necessary to make the forgery have a precedent.  The second piece of evidence is that Smith did not know he would get access to the library until he had already arrived in Jerusalem in the summer of 1958.  There is no reference to the cataloging effort in any of his surviving letters.  There was a new Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1957 who used to be the bishop of Tiberias and whom Smith seems to have had no prior contact. 

    The question then becomes would the new full time professor at Columbia have had time to waste on such an elaborate forgery (a fragment of Mark, a letter of Clement, mastering 18th century handwriting) take it with him to Jerusalem all without knowing he would access to the only library where the existence of a discovered letter of Clement would make sense?  

    Il ne semble pas très raisonnable ni même défendable.

    Thanks so much.  Big fan.  

  • James F. McGrath