The Secret Gospel of Mark

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Part of the controversy over this Gospel involves its very discovery, by Morton Smith (1915-1991). The back-story is that in 1958, he went to a monastery 12 miles south of Jerusalem to catalog their manuscripts during a sabbatical year from his teaching position at Columbia University. He was a professor in Ancient History and had previously been to this monastery when he was stranded in Palestine during the Second World War. Smith had been invited back to do this work, and, intrigued by the mess the library was in, he agreed. The monastery was known as Mar Saba.

While there, he worked diligently, and though he discovered a few interesting manuscripts, everything else was pretty mundane. One day, however, he found something that would become a turning point in his life. Coming upon the 1646 edition of Isaac Voss' book, Genuine Letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Smith discovered three pages written in a tiny scrawl on the end pages. This was a letter by Clement of Alexandria written to "Theodore," commending him for besting the Carpocratians. Nothing more is known about the nature of the discussion or how victory was gained over this sect. As part of the debate, the Carpocratians quoted from the Gospel of Mark. Clement replied to Theodore by quoting several passages from a "secret" gospel of Mark.

Clements claimed this "secret" gospel had been added to Mark's gospel after Peter's death. It was primarily for those Christians who were more "spiritual." These texts were held in Alexandria and only used for those being initiated into the "great mysteries." Somehow or other, Carpocrates had been able to get a copy for himself and was known to have misused it (or at least misquoted from it). That act had tainted the value of the secret gospel, whereupon Clement encouraged Theodore to deny Mark was its author "even under oath."

Apparently, Theodore had some questions about what the Carpocratians had been saying, so Clement quoted two passages from this "secret" gospel that had been misinterpreted. The first was an addition to Chapter 10 of Mark, between verses 34 and 35. It set the story in Bethany and claimed a woman approached Jesus because her brother had died. The disciples rebuked her, but this angered Jesus, who then went with the woman to the tomb. Jesus rolled away the stone and the young man cried out to him. They went in where the young man was buried. Stretching out his hand to the young man, Jesus raised him up. The young man, "looking intently at [Jesus], loved him, and started begging him to allow him to stay with him." They left the tomb together and went into the home of the young man (who was very rich). Six days later, Jesus agreed to meet him again. The young man came to Jesus wearing nothing but a linen cloth [here the Carpocratians had translated "young man with naked man," which Clement said was an incorrect reading] and stayed with Jesus all night because Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. Then Jesus left and went to the other side of the Jordan.

The second passage should be inserted at 10:46. "Then he came into Jericho. And the sister of the young man whom Jesus loved was there with his mother and Salome, but Jesus would not receive them." As the letter continued, Clement was about to share the real meaning of these passages, but, unfortunately, that's where the document ends.

As a side note, these two excerpts actually shed light on some passages in Mark that have puzzled scholars for ages. One involves Mark 14:50-51, where a young man, clad only in a linen cloth, is grabbed during Jesus' arrest. He manages to escape, but loses his clothing in the process. In searching for a plausible explanation of these verses, scholars have suggested that this might have been the author's "Alfred Hitchcock" moment where he inserted a cameo of himself into the story. Others maintain that he was a complete stranger who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Interestingly, however, the word for "young man" is the same in Mark as in the Secret Gospel of Mark. That leads scholars to question whether an editor deleted the account told in the Secret Gospel and inserted the young man in a later scene at the garden. The final use of the Greek word is used to describe the "youth" dressed in white at Jesus' tomb (Matthew claims this was an angel; Luke states there were two men). Scholars have asked whether there could be a connection between these three uses. That discussion is ongoing.

The second passage fills in a gap at Mark 10:46. Within one verse, Jesus and his disciples arrive and leave Jericho, suggesting something is missing. The second excerpt about the women means that at least one thing happened while Jesus was there. These passages, of course, then raise the question whether the Secret Gospel was the original and the canonical Mark is an abbreviated version of it, or whether the Secret Gospel was a separate apocryphal document. The fact that the longer passage resembles the raising of Lazarus in John 11 has also been discussed by scholars, but without any consensus. It is possible they shared a similar source, or the Secret Gospel could have been dependent on John, or vice versa. Or not.

When Morton Smith found this letter in 1958, all he could do was photograph the three written pages. (Stealing them was not an option!) He shared his discovery at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and upon returning to America, he went to his mentors to get their opinions. No one knew for sure whether this was an authentic letter because all they had were the photographs. Nonetheless, scholars were very intrigued.

Two years later, Smith reported on his discovery at the Society of Biblical Literature, and led an open discussion of the letter. The New York Times featured him on its front page the following morning, with a positive review of his presentation. His first book, a scholarly rendition, was published in 1966. However, in 1973, he published a smaller book, a conversational version, which was made available to the public. A firestorm ensued. Scholars are still putting the pieces of the controversy together.

It seems that in his analysis of the text, Morton Smith took seriously the historicity of Jesus' healing of the young man. It led him to the conclusion that Jesus really was a miracle-worker, that he actually performed "magical" feats. Among them was a baptismal initiation rite in which he "gave" his followers a glimpse of the heavenly sphere through an altered state of consciousness – accomplished through repetitive prayers, hypnosis, hymns, etc. Such rites were common during the first century and were practiced by Jewish mystical groups, the people at Qumran, and even the Greeks. Needless to say, this was a fundamental difference from traditional scholarship that has always maintained the historical Jesus did not dabble in mystical elements. Morton Smith saw this evening ritual as a form of baptism, which Jesus personally administered on a case-by-case basis. The result of this "baptism" was that the disciple was possessed by Jesus' spirit and united with him. Together, they would ascend into heaven and enter into the kingdom of God. Thereafter, they would be free from the laws of the material world. This spiritual union may have also had a physical component.

Maybe it was that final thought, with the mere suggestion of a homoerotic moment, or maybe it was the suggestion that all of this really happened, or maybe it was the suggestion that there were initiation rites, or maybe it was the suggestion that the line between Christianity and magic and mythology wasn't quite as distinct as people would like to believe, that led to what some scholars now refer to as "the inquisition" – of Morton Smith!

Even in his lifetime, accusations of forgery were rampant, though he always responded with a vigorous defense. Since his passing, however, the accusations have escalated. Handwriting experts weighed in on whether or not Morton Smith himself was the forger. Last year, the Biblical Archaeology Review hired two experts – one said no, the other said yes. Scholars also intimated that Morton Smith was gay because he found a "gay gospel." Perhaps that says more about the recent scholars than about Smith, since a casual reading reveals that Clement said the Carpocratians had mistranslated that section. In the 38 years since Morton Smith published his second book, scholars are no closer to knowing the truth about those three pages (which have since disappeared) than they were in the beginning. The answer might have to wait until there is another discovery.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha