Spending the Night with Jesus

Spending the Night with Jesus December 2, 2014

One objection to the antiquity of the Secret Gospel of Mark is that it uses the phrase “to spend the night with” (εμεινε συν αυτω την νυκτα εκεινην), which has sexual connotations in our time, but was not so used in antiquity.

It should be obvious that this is a circular argument. If the phrase had no connotations of sexual intimacy in ancient times, that would be a good reason to think that sex is being read into Secret Mark, rather than intentionally introduced by the person who composed it.

On the one hand, the word clearly does not in and of itself have sexual connotations. It was drawn to my attention recently that an imprecise but relevant parallel occurs in Plutarch’s “Life of Dion” 55:2. The English text provided by Perseus is Bernadotte Perrin’s 1918 translation. Here is the relevant passage:

He was terribly shocked, and, becoming apprehensive, summoned his friends, told them what he had seen, and begged them to remain and spend the night with him, being altogether beside himself, and fearing that if he were left alone the portent would appear to him again. 

The Greek word used, συννυκτερεύειν, means precisely “to pass the night.” No innuendo.

ancient-greek-clothing-2On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that in the right context the word could not be connected with spending the night with someone for sexual reasons. Achilles Tatius uses the word (6:21) when the character Thersander exlaims, “You a virgin, who passed night after night among a gang of pirates! I suppose your pirates were eunuchs?”

And so what does this suggest? That the use of this sort of language in the Secret Gospel of Mark is not indicative of forgery, and that sexual overtones are likely to be in the eye of the beholder, unless the text says something besides the mere fact that a night was passed together.

For those note familiar with it, there are neither pirates nor eunuchs in Secret Mark. That the form of the text that the letter of Clement discusses did not have inherently sexual connotations – but was open to having them read into it – is made clear by the fact that the Carpocratians, in order to give the text a sexual spin, had to add to the text.

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  • Charles w. Hedrick

    Good Morning James,
    Thanks for the parallel. There is even a closer parallel in the New Testament. Check out the Greek of Luke 24:29.
    Charles Hedrick

  • Neko

    For those not familiar with it, there are neither pirates nor eunuchs in Secret Mark.

    Ha! A pity.

    Since I find Morton Smith’s Jesus as Jewish magician argument pretty compelling the notion seems reasonable that Jesus and the “youth” may have engaged in a mystery rite (six days purification plus linen dress was standard for that practice, as I understand it). Still, in Smith’s translation anyway, Secret Mark certainly has homoerotic overtones.

  • Michael Wilson

    James, you seem to lean toward secret Mark’s genuineness, but what’s your opinion on its relationship between it and canonical Mark? Ive heard arguments that it was part of a sign gospel used by Mark and John, that it was a late addition to have Mark conform with John, or that secret mark is an invention of the capodotians(sic)

    • I’m more inclined to think that it was a second edition of Mark than the earliest form of it, although it is very hard to say one way or the other on the basis of the information we have.

  • Ken Olson

    James,

    I think you understate the argument for Clement’s Letter to Theodore being a modern forgery. First, I’m not sure any scholar has made an argument of the form: “the phrase ‘to spend the night with’ (εμεινε συν αυτω την
    νυκτα εκεινην), which has sexual connotations in our time, but was not so used in antiquity.” Can you cite one? I think the point is rather that the letter does clearly raise the issue of Jesus engaging in homosexual acts. To quote George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011 version): “It’s topicality makes it suspect.”

    Second, your observation that “the form of the text that the letter of Clement discusses did not have inherently sexual connotations – but was open to having
    them read into it – is made clear by the fact that the Carpocratians, in
    order to give the text a sexual spin, had to add to the text” (emphasis mine) ignores the fact that we don’t have Secret Mark except as it is found in the frame of Clement’s Letter to Theodore, which highlights the possible sexual connotations by explicitly denying them (i.e., the rhetorical technique of preterition).

    In the framing narrative of the letter, Clement is replying to an
    enquiry from Theodore about Secret Mark. He congratulates Theodore on refuting the Carpocratians with their “boundless abyss of carnal and bodily sins;”
    “servile desires;” one of whom polluted Secret Mark with “blasphemous and
    carnal doctrine.” And after giving the “uncorrupted” text of the letter, Clement
    assures Theodore that “naked man with naked men” and the other things about
    which he wrote are not in it. So if we had the text of Secret Mark by itself,
    which we do not, we might read it as being free of the suggestion of Jesus
    engaging in homosexual acts. The document we actually have is Clement’s Letter
    to Theodore, which provides external comment on Secret Mark which deliberately brings to mind the sexual reading we might otherwise have missed. So, yes, you can hypothesize an original Secret Mark that was innocent of sexual suggestions, but the actual text we have, Clement’s Letter to Theodore, definitely has them, They are not merely “in the eye of the beholder.”

    Best wishes,

    Ken

    • Thanks for this comment, Ken. We have evidence for the sexualized interpretation of texts by Gnostic groups independently of the Letter to Theodore, and so it isn’t as though this is suggestive of forgery. What Carlson argued (to answer your first question) is that the use of language that has sexual connotations in our time but not in ancient times was a clue to this being a forgery. I dispute that, for the reasons given here.

      • Ken Olson

        Thanks for the reply, James. Do we have other texts specifically suggesting Jesus engaged in homosexual acts? That there may be “sexualized interpretation of texts” by Gnostics is a bit general. It is very striking when we have a fragment referring to Jesus’ wife even though we have canonical texts saying Jesus spoke of wives, attended weddings, and even representing him as a bridegroom. And I think you misinterpret Carlson’s point about the language (Gospel Hoax 66-67). It’s not that the MENW + SUN + NUKTA (acc.) meant something different (and innocuous) in antiquity, it’s that it’s not found at all. The author could have used the attested verb SUNNUKTEREUEIN but did not. You can argue Carlson is setting the bar too high for what would count as a parallel, but he’s not making a circular argument.

        • Sorry for taking so long to reply. You may be right that my main objection is that Carlson is setting the bar too high for what would count as a parallel.

          It might also be added that Mark is not renowned for his ability to put things in the ideal or most appropriate manner in Greek, and using several words where someone more polished or articulate would use one could be treated as a sign of this being Mark’s work. 🙂