The agony of Morton Smith
He is now best known for his discovery of a text in the Mar Saba monastery in Palestine, and his controversial interpretation of it. The manuscript in question was fairly small, consisting of three pages of Greek manuscript bound in as end-papers to another book, an edition of the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Morton Smith photographed the three handwritten pages, returning the volume to its original place in the library. Subsequently, the pages in question have disappeared. Before this happened, they were photographed in color (with clear evidences of tears on one side of the pages).
What are the contents of those pages? Ostensibly, the document was a previously unknown letter written by the early church father Clement of Alexandria. Moreover, it was a secret letter to his disciple Theodore. The letter congratulates Theodore on trouncing the gnostic Carpocratians, who were citing a libertine version of the Gospel of Mark. The bulk of the letter is spent conceding that there is indeed a "secret Gospel of Mark," but Clement's version of Mark is not the text the Carpocratians favored. Most interestingly, the letter quotes "Secret Mark" to the effect that Jesus had a practice of initiating his male followers into the "mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven." Yet Clement insists that "Secret Mark" does not include the verbiage "naked male with naked male."
IOn 1973 Morton Smith published his findings in two different books. One was a rigorously constructed academic volume from Harvard University Press entitled Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, while the second was a popular account entitled The Secret Gospel.
These two publications were a sensation in the scholarly world, though not always in the way Smith intended. While the attacks have recently been renewed, they are not new. In 1975 Quentin Quesnell published a lengthy article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, claiming that Smith had forged the document, and then photographed his alleged forgery. Smith issued a furious rebuttal, but the debate never progressed beyond these extremes. The unresolved questions lingered.
Morton Smith reported that he found the manuscript in the Mar Saba monastery in 1958, photographed it carefully, and then left the book where he found it. When asked where the original manuscript was, he replied, "On the third floor of the library, where I found it." Four scholars located the manuscript there and saw it.
Then the chief monk became involved, and transferred the book to the Patriarchal Library in Jerusalem. Supposedly, this was part of a project to move all the Mar Saba books to safer keeping. At some point, the librarian at the Patriarchal Library removed the text pages from the end-papers of the book where Smith had found them, and had more photographs taken. Bizarrely, the current stance of the Greek Orthodox Church is that they “cannot find it."
As of early 2008 there are at least three books in print addressing the allegations of forgery: Scott G. Brown's Mark's Other Gospel, Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2005; Stephen C. Carlson's The Gospel Hoax, Baylor University Press, 2005; and Peter Jeffery's The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, Yale University Press, 2006.
Two preliminary points must be made. First, some resistance to Smith’s discovery and his interpretation of it stems from traditionalists who cannot accept the possibility of Jesus being a libertine. This consideration tells one more about the psychology of the writer than the facts--in so far as they are knowable. At the opposite extreme are those, gay and otherwise, who are seeking to find just this kind of “libertine” in the person of the founder of Christianity. Again, the arguments redound on the arguer.
There are, of course, more objective arguments. Only a few of these will be touched on here.
What are the contributions of the three current authors? First, the case for the defense has been presented by a Canadian scholar.
1) Scott G. Brown wrote the first doctoral dissertation on the “secret” Gospel of Mark (University of Toronto, 1999). He teaches courses on Christian origins in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.
In his book Mark's Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith's Controversial Discovery, Brown concludes that forty-five years of investigation, much of it cursory, have yielded five mutually exclusive paradigms, abundant confusion, and rumors of forgery. Strangely, one of the few things upon which most investigators agree is that the letter's own explanation of the origin and purpose of this longer gospel need not be taken seriously.
For his own part, Brown seeks to demonstrate that the gospel excerpts not only sound like Mark, but also employ Mark's distinctive literary techniques, deepening this gospel’s theology and elucidating puzzling aspects of its narrative.
More specifically, Brown's holds that Secret Mark was part of a longer version of the gospel of Mark, written by the same author, but for advanced readers who might be seeking a gnostic understanding of the first version. Longer Mark elaborates themes of discipleship and Christology already in place, especially elements neglected in the shorter version--the one we know--such as the mystery of the kingdom of God (Mk 4:11) and the appearance and flight of the young man in Gethsemane (14:51-52). Brown goes so far as to suggest that Secret Mark is an actual parable of the kingdom:
"As an enacted parable of the kingdom, the raising of the young man...illustrates the paradox that one must undergo death in order to defeat it. The private explanation of this parable [where the young man spends the night with Jesus] expounds this insight by using baptismal imagery of death and rebirth [naked under the linen]... Baptism imagery is used here to interpret the salvific dimension of the young man's rising according to the analogy of dying (drowning in water) and rising again, though the baptism by which the transformation is attained is not the rite itself, but a metaphorical immersion in literal suffering and death." (p 206)
Brown’s work is the product of a resourceful defender of his hero, and the book deserves to be read alongside Smith’s original. However, he seems blind to clues that might suggest forgery, including some alleged instances of humor on Smith’s part.
2) Stephen C. Carlson is an independent scholar who maintains several web sites, including one on the synoptic gospels. Carlson, who had read Brown’s book, takes issue with four or five sentences in Brown's book and dismisses the rest of it with a footnote.
Carlson detects tell-tale slips, or perhaps sly jokes, inserted by Smith to permit the truth to emerge, if only the reader is diligent enough. These have been summarized by one reviewer as follows
-- The author of Secret Mark seems to have read James Hunter's 1940 novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba. We owe our knowledge of this connection to Philip Jenkins, who first made this connection in 2001. The novel concerns about a forgery at the Mar Saba library, exactly where Smith "discovered" Clement's letter. Furthermore, as Carlson notes, both Secret Mark and the novel's fictional discovery reinterpret a resurrection account from the gospels in naturalistic terms.
-- The letter to Theodore sounds hyper-Clementine, as if someone went out of his way to mimic Clement. (This point was argued at length by Andrew Criddle in 1995).
-- The letter goes out of its way to authenticate Secret Mark, identifying the author Clement, who in turn vouches for Secret Mark's authenticity; and his full citation of Secret Mark is unnecessary and gratuitous for the concerns he is supposedly addressing. (These points were made by Robert Murgia in 1976).
-- Shortly before his discovery of Secret Mark, Smith published a paper in which he connected both Clement of Alexandria and "the mystery of the kingdom of God" (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1). Carlson seems to be the first to have observed this.
-- Smith planted three sly hints, revealing himself as the author of Clement's letter:
(1) M. Madiotes -- the "bald swindler".
(2) Morton Salt -- the company which invented the kind of salt presupposed in Clement's letter.
(3) Jesus' gay affair -- with the young man later seen in Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested, thus evoking the cultural milieu of America in the 1950s, where police were cracking down on gay men meeting in public parks and gardens.
Identifying these last disclosures constitutes the bulk of this book. Taken in conjunction with the rest of the evidence, they do seem substantially to weaken Smith’s case.
Other points, such as handwriting analysis, would appear to be moot.
3) The third book is by Peter Jeffery, a musicologist who teaches at Princeton University. Like Carlson, Jeffery reaches conclusions damaging to Morton Smith.
Jeffery also detects slips, or deliberate insertions, that imply modern authorship. In his view the three features of Secret Mark's initiation rite--resurrection symbolism, a period of teaching followed by a night vigil, and the wearing of a white cloth--reflect the Anglican Paschal liturgy prior to the liturgical renewal movement of the 1960s. Moreover, Clement and the Alexandrian church maintained a theology of baptism based not on the easter event of Jesus' resurrection, but on the epiphany event of Jesus' baptism by John. Secret Mark should thus have Epiphany motifs (such as creation, the heavens opening with light, the descent of the Holy Spirit and fire, the seal of priestly and messianic anointings) rather than Easter motifs (i.e. Pauline associations between baptism and resurrection).
More generally, Jeffery holds that homoeroticism found in Secret Mark makes no sense in an ancient context. It seems anachronistic. Secret Mark was evidently written by a modern person who assumed that ancient homosexuality would have followed Plato's model of an older teacher with a young disciple, but who did not fully understand how the roles played out.
Strikingly, Jeffery finds that Clement's letter is riddled with allusions to Oscar Wilde's nineteenth-century play, Salome. In the play Salome does the "dance of the seven veils," which is echoed by Smith's Clement, who evokes "the truth hidden by seven veils.”
Jeffery notes Smith's brief career as an Anglican priest, citing his harsh judgments on homosexuals in a 1949 article, quite severe by Anglican standards at the time. It would seem that Smith was going through his own sexual crisis, a crisis that caused him to leave the priesthood a year later. Interestingly, in the same 1949 article, Smith alluded to a nineteenth-century debate between Catholics and Protestants over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church.
As one reviewer noted, Jeffery expresses sorrow and contempt. Smith "became what he opposed: a hypocritical Clement who condoned lying for the sake of a fundamentalist sexology"; "a man in great personal pain," who didn't even understand himself despite pretensions to a superior gnosticism; a bitter academic, whose hoax stands as "the most grandiose and reticulated 'F--- You' ever perpetuated in the long and vituperative history of scholarship.” Maybe so, but whether Smith wrote his hoax more as a playful experiment or an angry act of revenge remains unclear.
The score then is two against one, Carlson and Jeffery against Brown. However, such crude score keeping does not tell the whole story, for Brown’s defense is a meticulous one.
Recently, the philosopher Bernard McGinn has sought to create of School of Mysterians, those who acknowledge that some puzzles can never be solved. Ho hum, one might say, didn’t the ancient Skeptics hold that view? And, of course, Kurt Goedel’s incompleteness principle cut the ground out from under--in advance--any ambitions to create a Final Theory of the universe.
It has been thirty-four years since Morton Smith published his two books. Today, we seem no closer than every to knowing the truth about those fascinating pages. We may simply have to leave the matter at that.