Doubting Morton Smith and Secret Mark
Although a number of scholars were willing to accept the find as authentic, or at least were willing to accept Smiths account, a number of other scholars suspected the find was a hoax and that perhaps Smith himself was the hoaxer. The matter continues to be debated.
By Craig A. Evans
Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Acadia Divinity College and Acadia University
Wolfville, Nova Scotia B4P 2R6 Canada
At the 1960 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Morton Smith (191591) announced that while examining a number of old books and papers in the Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean Desert in 1958 he discovered three pages of hand-written Greek in the back of a 1646 edition of the letters of Ignatius. These pages purport to be a lost letter of Clement of Alexandria (c. 150215), written to one Theodore, in which a longer, mystical (or secret) Gospel of Mark is discussed. Two passages of this work are quoted, one of which describes Jesus teaching a young man, wearing a linen sheet over his naked body, the mystery of the kingdom of God. In 1973, Smith published his find, now known as the Secret Gospel of Mark, in a lengthy, learned volume (Harvard University Press) and in a briefer, popular version (Harper). Although a number of scholars were willing to accept the find as authentic, or at least were willing to accept Smiths account, a number of other scholars suspected the find was a hoax and that perhaps Smith himself was the hoaxer. The matter continues to be debated.
In April 2011, Tony Burke and Phil Harland of York University in Toronto hosted a one-day symposium devoted to Morton Smiths controversial find. Participants included Scott Brown, Bruce Chilton, Charles Hedrick, Peter Jeffery, Marvin Meyer, Allan Pantuck, Pierluigi Piovanelli, Hershel Shanks, and me. All in all the conference was stimulating and enjoyable. The participants were cordial and the hosts accommodating. All of us owe Tony and Phil our thanks.
About half of the participants view Smiths find with suspicion, if not as an outright hoax. These include Chilton, Jeffery, Piovanelli, and me. The other half of the participants, including the hosts, remain convinced that Smith told the truth. (The authenticity of the find itself, of course, is another matter.) On his blog, Tony has chronicled his thoughts, explaining why after hearing the papers and the discussion he still thinks Smith indeed made the discovery and that Smith was not involved in any way in a hoax.
At one time, I too accepted Smiths account. I assumed that the letter of Clement, however it came to be copied into the back of Isaac Vosss 1646 edition of the letters of Ignatius, was genuine. I viewed the mystical Mark edition, of which Clement speaks and two portions of which he quotes, as a second-century revision of the first-century Mark. It was in reading Smiths 1951 dissertation (Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels), in the context of a study in the mid-1990s comparing the rabbinic-like sayings and parables of Jesus with the sayings of the Tannaitic Rabbis, that I began to have serious doubts.
In a paragraph found on pp. 155-56 of the dissertation, Smith discusses the possibility of secret doctrine in the early Church, as reflected in Mark 4:11 (to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God) and in 1 Cor 2:17 (we speak the wisdom of God in a secret). Smith finds a parallel to the idea of secret teaching in early rabbinic tradition and appeals to Hagigah 2.1. (Smith refers to the Tosefta, but his quotation appears to reflect the parallel in the Mishnah.) Smith paraphrases the Hagigah passage as follows: The (passages of the Old Testament dealing with) forbidden sexual relationships are not to be expounded to three (at a time) . . . and (Ezekiels vision of) the chariot may not be expounded to a single hearer . . . .
In itself, Smiths point is not particularly strange. He suggests a parallel between early Christianity and early rabbinic Judaism because both seem to have made a distinction between public teaching and private teaching. How truly parallel the Christian materials and the Hagigah passage really are I am not sure. For now, all I wish to note is the appearance of Mark 4:11 in a paragraph discussing, however briefly, forbidden sexual relationships. If you look at the Hagigah passage, you will see that it refers to Leviticus 18, which forbids homosexual activity (cf. Lev 18:22).
In an article that appeared in 1958 (BJRL 40 : 473521), the year Smith visited Mar Saba, though written before the visit, Smith discusses, among other things, secrecy, initiation, union between believers and a deity, and Clement of Alexandria, who was fond of secrecy. Along the way, Smith remarks: If a Jew [i.e., Jesus] could be supposed to invoke Beelzebub, he could be supposed to invoke Eros [the god of love] (p. 485 n. 1).
In a lengthy and severely critical review (HTR 48 : 2164) of Vincent Taylors commentary on the Gospel of Mark (1952), Smith speaks of a Markan source with other Johannine traits (p. 26) and of material that the evangelist Mark would leave out . . . even if he did not deliberately censor it (p. 35). Smith also returns to Mark 4:11, commenting that the early Church had a wide variety of motives for attributing secret doctrine to Jesus, and among them may well have been the recollection that Jesus (also for a wide variety of motives) practiced secrecy (p. 29).
I draw attention to these two curious proposals (i.e., the linking of the secrecy of Mark 4:11 to prohibited sexual practices and the idea that Marks sources may have included materials with Johannine traits) because they are the notable features of Smiths Mar Saba find. First, Smiths Clementine letter quotes a passage omitted from public Mark, in which a young man wearing a cloth over his naked body comes to Jesus at night and is taught the secret of the kingdom of God (Mark 4:11). Clement goes on in his letter to complain of those who interpret the passage in a carnal and blasphemous sense and asserts that the words naked man with naked man do not occur in the text. The discussion in the letter makes it clear that the passage quoted from Secret Mark could be understood and in fact was understood by some as hinting at homosexual activity. Secondly, the story of the raising of the young man parallels the story of raising Lazarus in John 11 (which Smith acknowledges and discusses). The long quotation of mystical Mark is an example of material at the evangelists disposal that contains Johannine traits.
In short, Smith claims to have found in 1958 a lost letter of Clement that contains two unusual elements that Smith himself discussed in pre-find publications, that is, works that Smith published in 1951, 1955, and 1958. What are the odds? Please understand what I am saying here. I am not saying that Smith interpreted his 1958 find in the light of his pre-find publications and interests. What I am saying is that his 1958 find (the Clementine letter and its quotations of a mystical Mark) contains the themes that Smith himself talked about in previous publications. This is what makes me so suspicious. This is why I no longer use Secret Mark in my research.
The amazing and unlikely parallels that I have pointed out do not constitute proof, in some sort of legal sense. What they do is raise troubling questions and arouse suspicion.
There are other parallels. In places, Smith seems to echo James Hunters novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba (1940). In the novel, the British archaeologist Sir William explains his reasons for visiting the old monastery in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War: This monastery . . . is one of the oldest religious institutions of its kind in the world, and at one time housed many manuscripts. Most of these were removed, but I have always had the feeling that some might have been overlooked and hidden away. My supposition proved correct (p. 279; emphasis added). Smiths reasons and expectations were remarkably similar. Smith explains: I had not expected much from the Mar Saba manuscripts since I knew that almost all of them had been carried off to Jerusalem in the past century and were listed in the catalogue of the Patriarchal library. But there was always the chance that something had been missed, or that other manuscripts had been brought in by monks coming from other monasteries (Secret Gospel , 11; emphasis added). It seems neither the fictional British archaeologist nor the non-fictional American scholar expected to find anything at Mar Saba.
However, both did make surprising discoveries. The novels Sir William explains: I was prepared to leave Mar Saba, reconciled to the negative results of my research, when a monk told me he had certain manuscripts in his cell that had evidently been overlooked . . . (p. 293; emphasis added). Likewise reports Smith: I was gradually reconciling myself to my worst expectations and repeating every day that I should discover nothing of importance. Then, one afternoon near the end of my stay, I found myself in my cell, staring incredulously at a text written in tiny scrawl . . . (Secret Gospel, 12; emphasis added).
Sir William of Hunters novel found a leaf of Greek text that tells a story of the removal of Jesus body from the tomb, which is why Jesus followers subsequently find it empty and mistakenly come to believe that their master had been raised up. Sir Williams discovery stuns and demoralizes the British Empire, reducing the will to resist Adolf Hitler. Fortunately, it turns out the leaf of Greek is a forgery and the hero who exposed the nefarious Nazi plot is one Scotland Yard Inspector Lord Moreton.
The parallels between Smiths discovery and Hunters novel are quite amazing. Could it be that the novel inspired Smith? Francis Watson thinks so. In a recent study (Beyond Suspicion: On the Authorship of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark, JTS 61 : 12870), Watson explores a number of troubling parallels between Smiths pre-Mar Saba find publications and the Mar Saba find. He looks at the parallels between Smiths account of his find and Hunters novel. He also observes that Smiths find in places appears to be dependent on the language of Papias, in a way that would be hard to explain of Clement of Alexandria but not hard to explain of a modern scholar who may well have need of the assistance of a second-century church father. As the title of his study indicates, Watson believes Smiths involvement in the production of the Mar Saba text is beyond suspicion.
The reason that Watson, I, and others regard Smiths discovery with suspicion is because Smith had articulated some of the unusual aspects of the Mar Saba text before he found it. With this point in mind, allow me to refer to another example. I have suggested that Paul Coleman-Nortons spurious amusing agraphon, published in 1950 and said to have been found in North Africa in 1943 (CBQ 12 : 43949), may also have been inspired by Hunters novel. Coleman-Norton, former Associate Professor of Latin at Princeton University, says he found the leaf of Greek inside an old book in a mosque. What he says he found is an unknown saying of Jesus, followed by a page of patristic commentary. The saying is occasioned when a disciple asks Jesus how the toothless wicked will be able to weep and gnash their teeth when cast into outer darkness, where people will weep and gnash their teeth. Jesus replies, Teeth will be provided! What gives Coleman-Norton away, besides the modernity of the humorous quip, is that he had regaled his Princeton students with this witticism many years before making his discovery. Bruce Metzger recounts the episode in his 1971 SBL presidential address (cf. JBL 91 : 3-24; idem, Reminiscences of an Octogenerian , 13639).
Because the end pages of Vosss book, on which the Clementine letter and quotations of Secret Mark appear, have gone missing, there has been no scientific testing that might clarify when the ink had been applied to the paper. Handwriting analysis of the photographs of Smiths find appears to be deadlocked, with experts weighing in on both sides, concluding either that Smith himself wrote the text or that Smith did not write the text. Some of this analysis has been posted on the Biblical Archaeology Society web page, for which we may thank Hershel Shanks.
I do not know if Smith held the pen or if Smith had a confederate (who may or may not have known what Smith was up to). Nor do I think I have proven that Smith has perpetrated a hoax on the academy (as many think he has). What I think I have are grounds for suspicion (and in correspondence Hershel Shanks has conceded as much). Smith had great interest in what he found before he found it (and here Piovanellis paper will shed significant light) and the question of provenance is murky (and here Chiltons paper is apropos). Moreover, what Smith found seems to reflect modern issues more than ancient ones (and here Jefferys work is telling). In any event, the parallels that Watson and I have adduced are very troubling. How could Smith have anticipated the discovery of a text that links, as Smith had, the secret of the kingdom of God with restricted teaching, such as prohibited sex? A discovery, moreover, that confirms that the evangelist Mark had omitted materials that contained Johannine traits? No gospel scholar prior to Smith had entertained such strange ideas. Yet within a few years of publishing these ideas Smith finds an ancient text that contains them!
No, I have not proven that Smith fabricated the letter of Clement, along with its quotations of Secret Mark, but I do not see how critical scholars can make use of such a text and still call their work critical and scholarly. Scholars interested in the early history of the Gospel of Mark, the historical Jesus and his understanding of the kingdom of God, and critical issues debated by Clement and other Christians in the late second and early third centuries are well advised to make no use of the Mar Saba Clementine.
The full text of my York paper will be published under the editorship of Tony Burke and Phil Harland.