The New York Times
March 31, 2007
Was It a Hoax? Debate on a ‘Secret Mark’ Gospel Resumes
By PETER STEINFELS
Imagine the discovery of a previously unknown Gospel of Mark, a secret text suppressed by church authorities that pictured Jesus initiating his disciples with a hallucinatory, nocturnal and quite possibly homosexual rite. Imagine the headlines, the four-alarm book promotion and the cable network special.
Ho-hum, you say? Isn’t it simply Easter season, when fresh Gnostic gospels or dubious ossuaries show up like spring daffodils?
Ah, but those with long memories know that just such a “secret Gospel of Mark” once did make headlines. In 1973, Morton Smith published both a dense scholarly tome (“Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark,” Harvard University Press) and a popular book (“The Secret Gospel,” Harper & Row) describing a manuscript that he had found in a Greek Orthodox monastery south of Jerusalem.
Used as reinforcement for the binding of an early modern book, it was an 18th-century copy of an otherwise unknown “letter to Theodore” from Clement of Alexandria, a church father of the late second century.
Clement, in this letter, acknowledged the existence of a longer Gospel by Mark known only to initiates. Clement quoted a section involving Jesus’ raising of a young man from his tomb and a nighttime encounter in which Jesus taught the lightly clad youth “the mystery of the kingdom.” Finally, denouncing a heretical sect that had “polluted” this secret text with “carnal doctrine” and “falsifications” emphasizing the nakedness of the encounter, Clement demanded that Theodore deny the existence of this secret longer version of Mark altogether, even under oath.
This was enough to inspire reviewers with the word “sensational” — but also to cause them to question whether the passages quoted by Clement and their hints of libertinism really stemmed from the Mark who wrote the first of the four Gospels rather than from one of the many spurious texts later created by esoteric groups of Christians.
Yet there were always deeper suspicions — namely, that the whole thing, the letter from Clement and the Marcan passage it contained, was a clever forgery, perhaps the work of a mischievous medieval monk, perhaps the work of a modern scholar or perhaps even the work of — shh! — Professor Smith himself.
If some experts preferred merely to hint at his complicity, it was because Professor Smith, who died in 1991, was an eminent teacher of ancient history at Columbia University and a man of enormous erudition. He was also a superb writer — his account of finding the manuscript in the Mar Saba Monastery is a screenplay in waiting — and a fierce combatant in academic battles.
Add to that screenplay the complication that the manuscript and the book where it was found have disappeared; all that remains are photographs made by Professor Smith in 1958 and by other scholars in 1976. Add, too, that he had many of his personal papers destroyed at his death.
Now two books have thrown down the gauntlet. “The Gospel Hoax” by Stephen C. Carlson (Baylor University Press, 2005) is subtitled “Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark.” Peter Jeffery had finished writing “The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled” just published by Yale University Press, before receiving a copy of Mr. Carlson’s book.
In many ways, the books are complementary. Mr. Carlson, a lawyer, wields forensic science, the kind of handwriting analysis and word usage used to expose forgeries. Professor Jeffery, a musicologist at Princeton expert in the history of Christian liturgy, looks to the content of the Clement-Mark passages, arguing that its assumptions about Christian worship and initiation rites reflect ideas about early church practices popular half a century ago in the world Professor Smith inhabited rather than what is now known about the world of Clement of Alexandria.
The two authors converge on the point that the understanding of same-sex relations informing the Clement letter is in fact a modern understanding and unlike anything in the Hellenistic world.
And both authors insist that Professor Smith planted double entendres and teasing hints of his own authorship.
But this raises the question of what could have possibly motivated an eminent professor to devise such an elaborate fake and then spend from 1958 to 1973 bolstering it with every scholarly reference at his disposal. Mr. Carlson leans heavily on the category of “hoax,” a virtuoso’s one-upmanship of his academic colleagues, a notion that implies that proper recognition of Professor Smith’s skills would require the eventual exposure of his fakery.
Professor Jeffery seems to waver in his view of Professor Smith, sometimes portraying him as an embittered survivor of his few years as an Episcopal priest. Yet Professor Jeffery also calls the fabrication of the Marcan text “an astoundingly daring act of creative rebellion” aimed at giving homosexuality a Christian foundation.
But the battle is not ending there. Scott G. Brown, who teaches at the University of Toronto, has come out guns blazing. Before these two books appeared charging that secret Mark is really secret Smith, Dr. Brown had argued in “Mark’s Other Gospel” (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005) that secret Mark was indeed the New Testament’s Mark and not Professor Smith’s.
Dr. Brown charges in with his own handwriting analysis and his conviction that Professor Smith is a victim of academic “folklore” about the man, that the detection of sly jokes and hidden confessions is nonsense and that the focus on homoeroticism is much more in the minds of his critics than of the professor himself. Dr. Brown has been firing away in The Journal of Biblical Literature and The Harvard Theological Review — and he promises more.
Scholarly debates are never to be quelled. But could it be time for the television producers and writers to take over? Maybe the world has had enough Easter season docudramas about Jesus and other people in robes, cloaks, togas or linen wraparounds. Bring on the secret Mark wars. Really, it is time for “CSI: Academia.”