Did Morton Smith Forge the Gospel of Philip?

Did Morton Smith Forge the Gospel of Philip? November 14, 2014

The Gospel of Philip was found at Nag Hammadi together with other Coptic texts, and so it would have involved quite a conspiracy for Morton Smith to have forged the text and placed it in the midst of the other Nag Hammadi texts. But since some scholars consider Smith to have been a mastermind at such forgery, we should not let that stop our imaginative exploration of this topic.

However, I should, at the risk of spoiling this post, say something at the outset: I am kidding, but with a serious aim.

The point I wish to make is to explore whether, if Morton Smith had been the one to bring the Gospel of Philip to light, some of the same things might have been said about that find in relation to his own viewpoint, as have been said about the Secret Gospel of Mark, supposedly demonstrating the latter to have been a forgery.

Just take a look at what the Gospel of Philip says. It has hints of lesbianism, when it asks, “When did a woman ever conceive by a woman?”, while it depicts the demonic powers as engaged in same-sex relations when it says “the powers defile themselves.” It says that Mary was Jesus’ “partner” and that he used to kiss her frequently on the…and then there is a lacuna in the text, to tittelate and tantalize, a sure sign that its forger was mocking the modern reader. It also turns Christian kissing into a procreative sex act:

For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another.

Later, it explores the notion of male and female spirits having intercourse with humans:

The forms of evil spirit include male ones and female ones. The males are they which unite with the souls which inhabit a female form, but the females are they which are mingled with those in a male form, though one who was disobedient. And none shall be able to escape them, since they detain him if he does not receive a male power or a female power, the bridegroom and the bride. One receives them from the mirrored bridal chamber. When the wanton women see a male sitting alone, they leap down on him and play with him and defile him. So also the lecherous men, when they see a beautiful woman sitting alone, they persuade her and compel her, wishing to defile her. But if they see the man and his wife sitting beside one another, the female cannot come into the man, nor can the male come into the woman. So if the image and the angel are united with one another, neither can any venture to go into the man or the woman.

And later still, it focuses on animal sex:

The human being has intercourse with the human being. The horse has intercourse with the horse, the ass with the ass. Members of a race usually have associated with those of like race. So spirit mingles with spirit, and thought consorts with thought, and light shares with light. If you are born a human being, it is the human being who will love you. If you become a spirit, it is the spirit which will be joined to you. If you become thought, it is thought which will mingle with you. If you become light, it is the light which will share with you. If you become one of those who belong above, it is those who belong above who will rest upon you. If you become horse or ass or bull or dog or sheep, or another of the animals which are outside or below, then neither human being nor spirit nor thought nor light will be able to love you. Neither those who belong above nor those who belong within will be able to rest in you, and you have no part in them.

If these things had been in the Secret Gospel of Mark, people would be pointing to them as proof that it is a forgery – indeed, someone would be suggesting that the sex involving asses reflects the modern English meaning and is an intentional double entendre.

But in fact, the Gospel of Philip is authentic, and this highlights something that should be obvious, but needs to be said explicitly: Secret Mark, especially when read literally and without reading sensual allusions into it, seems tame by comparison. Much of the alleged sexual innuendo is in the mind of the reader. There is nothing inherently sexual about a man whom Jesus had raised from the dead, still wearing a shroud (which also was the customary clothing of ascetics, such as for instance the Therapeutae), staying up all night to learn about the kingdom of God from Jesus.

What do others think? Personally, I think that most of the arguments that have been offered to make the case that the Secret Gospel of Mark is a forgery have been not only adequately answered, but shown to be seriously problematic. A book which offers both sides, and ultimately convinces me that the text is more likely to be authentic, is Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery?: The Secret Gospel of Mark in Debate: Proceedings from the 2011 York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium, edited by Tony Burke. I highly recommend it, and will have a review of the volume appearing in the near future.

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  • As always, spot on. I think it’s even funnier to put all the objections to to Theodore and arrive at this gay, depressed, athiest who lived out pulp fiction inspired obsessions. Anyone who knew Morton Smith knows how silly this really is.

  • But let’s also not forget the most powerful evidence against Smith – a panel of cherry picked psychologists declared him “mentally unstable” posthumously. So we can add “crazy” to that composite portrait of the distiguished professor. So crazy, gay, depressed, athiest. Ah, the things we learn from scholarship.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      I think this hits the nail on the head. I think that a big part of what is going on here is a personal antipathy in some circles to Morton Smith, which is probably related in some ways to dissatisfaction with the New Quest for the historical Jesus. As for whether he was crazy, gay, depressed, and atheist, I honestly don’t know; I never met the man. I also don’t particularly care. Even if the caricature is granted it wouldn’t make him a forger. The question, the only one that matters for establishing the status of SGM, is whether the evidence that he has furnished makes authenticity more likely than not.

      That said, I do think that the fact that other scholars were never able to examine the manuscript is problematic. That does not however necessarily mean fraud however. More fundamentally it impeded further study, and that is a problem, whether forgery or otherwise. Exactly how to handle that problem is an open question in my mind.

      • Mike K.

        Hi Jonathan, a few other scholars did see the manuscript exactly where Smith left it in the manuscript and David Flusser, Schlomo Pines and Archimadrite Meliton even attempted to get the ink tested but Archimadrite Meliton did not want to hand over the manuscript to the Israeli police. See Gedaliahu A.G. Stroumsa, “Comments on Charles Hedrick’s Article: A Testimony” Journal of Early Christian Studies 11.2 (2003): 147-53 and the historical survey in Tony Burke’s introduction. If I can plug my own forthcoming work “The Gospel on the Margins: the Reception of Mark in the Second Century” that will be out in February, I think that Secret Mark is still so uncertain about its authenticity and I largely leave it to an appendix. However, if it is genuine, it would only supplement what other church fathers tell us. Clement of Alexandria tells us there was an interest in the pericope of the rich man (Mark 10) in Alexandria and Irenaeus tells us that the Carpocratians cite “the mystery Jesus taught his disciples” to justify whatever they believed and practiced.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          Huh. I wasn’t aware that others had seen the manuscript. My bad. In any case my view is similar to yours. It doesn’t really tell us that much anyways. And as someone who works in historical Jesus I find it yields even less new information than might someone who works with the second century fathers.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          BTW, I just looked up your forthcoming volume on Amazon. Looks very interesting; definitely will be looking forward to giving it a read. Was this your dissertation?

        • I will second the recommendation of Mike Kok’s forthcoming book on the Gospel of John!

          • Mike K.

            Hi Jonathan, my view is pretty much the same as yours: it does not tell us anything about the historical Jesus, but it might be useful for how a small group was reading Mark in the second century. This was based off my dissertation and I appreciate the kind words. And thanks James for the recommendation of the Gospel of Mark book and sorry for the self-plug 🙂

          • No need to apologize – if you hadn’t plugged it I would have! 🙂

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I’m very interested in the topic. I have spent a lot of time thinking about why the four canonicals have the attributions that they do. Why, for instance, is Mark’s Gospel attributed to someone named Mark and not someone named, say, Andrew? So anything that helps me think about such matters is something that I want to read.

  • sbh


    You know, all that stuff about the mystery of Mar Saba et al would be quite interesting if we knew on independent grounds that Morton Smith had in fact forged the Clement letter-fragment. It could provide material for speculations about his means and motives–though not more than speculation as far as I can see. Without such solid evidence it’s on a par with the wild hypotheses the Ogburn family used to spin about Edward de Vere and how he secretly wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

  • High-quality forgeries do exist. The Baruch ben Neriah bulla was one of them. In this case, there is a huge paucity of evidence, thus making it difficult to determine whether this is as fake as GJW or is from much earlier than the 20th century.

    • Sure. But what about Mar Saba 65 makes it more suspicious than let’s say Codex Sinaiticus? You’ve got an even stronger cast of unsavory characters there. We have had the manuscript in our possession but no one wants to perform scientific tests on that sacred cow. I’ve never understood why all controversial discoveries aren’t carbon dated as a matter of scholarly protocol. Yet it is hard to deny that the person assault against Smith was deliberately cultivated to raise doubts about the discovery. If we were to evenly apply ‘suspicion’ to all early texts and traditions we wouldn’t be left with many certainties in this field.

      • Sinaiticus, I think, is too long to forge. I, too, agree that all controversial discoveries with substantial amounts of datable plant material associated with them should be dated routinely.

      • Jonathan Bernier

        I suspect that the reason radiocarbon dating is not used as a matter of course is because it is destructive. Refinements have meant that far less material needs to be destroyed now than when the technique was first introduced in 1950, but there is still some destruction. I think that the preference is to consider on a case by case basis whether the possible information gained outweighs the material that will be lost not just to us but to all future investigators, especially when there are other dating techniques that are not destructive.