Question...Does Secret Mark prove the church suppressed the truth at will?



Date: Oct 16, 1999 [Minor addition Nov/2005, adding a closing quote from Carlson's major work on the subject.]

Someone sent in this question:
 

Have you ever heard of a 1958 manuscript being discovered? I read that an agnostic said it is supposed to prove the "Jesus story" was made up. Is this a Gnostic gospel? Here is the quote:
 

"In 1958, a manuscript was discovered at a monastery at Mar Saba, east of Jerusalem, which shows how the Jesus story was rewritten by the Church whenever it suited them at the time. It was found by an American, Morton Smith, Professor of Ancient History at Columbia University, and it included the content of a letter by Bishop Clement of Alexandria, Egypt, an early Christian father, to a colleague called Theodore. It also revealed an unknown segment of Mark's Gospel which had been suppressed. It included in the 'Jesus' story some details of mystery school initiations and it was an account of the raising of Lazarus by Jesus, the famous raising from the dead. In this suppressed text Lazarus called to Jesus before any 'raising' took place, so proving that he was not supposed to be physically dead. There was also another devastating revelation for Christianity. The manuscript makes references to the effect that Jesus was understood to have engaged in possible homosexual practices involving the 'rich young man' mentioned in Mark's Gospel. I am making the point that the Christian hierarchy have been deceiving and lying to their followers right from the start. Bishop Clement's letter was replying to a Christian who was very perturbed to be told the above story of 'Jesus' by the Gnostic group called the Carpocrates. It had apparently been leaked to them by an official in Alexandria. Clement's advice, after confirming the story, was that anything which contradicts the official church view must be denied, even if it is true. The letter says of those who question official orthodoxy:

"For even if they should say something true, one who loves the Truth should not, even so, agree with them... To them one must never give way; nor, when they put forward their falsifications, should one concede that the secret Gospel is by Mark - but should deny it on oath. For not all true things are to be said to all men."

 
 

Let's look at this from a couple of different angles:
 

1. What are the alleged facts about this manuscript?

2. How has the scholarly community viewed this find?

3. To what extent has the agnostic accurately understood the text and/or plausibly drawn conclusions from it?

 
......................................................................................................................

1. What are the alleged facts about this manuscript?
 

"At the 1960 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature Morton Smith reported that he had discovered a previously unknown epistle of Clement of Alexandria, in which was imbedded two fragments of a 'Secret Gospel of Mark'. It was not until 1973 that the text, along with Smith's translation and notes, was finally published. Smith claims that in 1958 while cataloguing the holdings of the library of the ancient monastery of Mar Saba he came upon this epistle, quite by chance, copied onto the back page and inside cover of a seventeenth-century edition of the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch. No one besides Smith has actually seen the letter, though Thomas Talley reports being told in 1980 by authorities at the monastery that the pages in question had 'been removed from the printed volume [of Ignatius]' for repair. No one outside of the monastery has seen these pages."[SHJ:526]  
 
 
2. How has the scholarly community viewed this find?
 

In a nutshell, the answer would be "with extreme skepticism"!
 

A. Some serious scholars believe it is entirely fake, even a forgery!
 
  "The manuscript has not, therefore, been subjected to the normal and necessary rigors of scholarly and scientific verification. Consequently, some scholars doubt the authenticity of the discovery [TN: footnote cites Skehan, Brown, Quesnell]. Jacob Neusner, who knew the late Professor Smith as well as anyone, has recently described this writing as 'the forgery of the century'. That this epistle apparently (and conveniently) lends a measure of support to Smith's controversial contention that Jesus was a magician, perhaps even a homosexual, only adds to the suspicion that this Clementine epistle may well be a fake." [SHJ:526-527]   B. The ascription of the epistle to Clement is highly questionable in itself:
  "It has still to be settled whether the letter derives from Clement of Alexandria or not. Over against the linguistic indications which speak for authenticity, differences of substance as compared with the rest of Clement's writing have been noted. [NTA:1.107f]. Merkel lists some of the major differences between this alleged Clementine letter and genuine ones:
  1. the letter presupposes a conception of the Church which is more strongly institutionalized than it appears elsewhere in Clement.

2. J. Munck points out that the description of the Carpocratians in the third book of the Stromateis is very different from the one given here.

3. W.G. Kilmmel (ThR 40, 1975, 302) mentions reservations expressed by H. von Campenhausen against authenticity: 'Not only the manner of the transmission speaks against it, but also the description of a church archive containing secret writings, the recommendation of a falsehood to be fortified by a false oath on polemical grounds, the idea of two stages of secret teaching of Jesus, and the report of Mark's migration to Alexandria contradict everything that we know from Clement.'

 
"The novelty value of this text and of the reporting of its find justifies the mention of it in this collection, but its antiquity and genuineness are questioned by many scholars. " [TANT:148]  
C. Clement himself is quite questionable as to the credibility of this "Secret Mark""
  "Aside from the question of whether or not the writing is a forgery (whether by Smith himself, as Neusner believes, or by someone else), there remains the important question as to Clement's credibility and the credibility of this 'secret Mark' that he describes to Theodorus, the man to whom his epistle is addressed. Assuming for the moment that the epistle is genuine, why should anyone assign credibility to what Clement says about this secret edition of Mark? Clement quite gullibly accepts the Preaching of Peter and the Apocalypse of Peter as produced by the Apostle Peter (cf. Strom. 2.15.68; 6.5.39-41; Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 6.14.1). He does not hesitate to ascribe to Jesus various sayings found in the apocryphal Gospel of the Egyptians and Gospel of the Hebrews. Thus, Clement's claims about Mark's travel and writing activities may rest on nothing more than pious legend and spurious reports, while the 'secret Gospel of Mark' from which he quotes could be nothing more than a second-century apocryphon." [SHJ:527f]

"But Clement apparently accepted that the text he quotes (though not the Carpocratians' adaptation of it) did in fact derive from Mark. The relevance of Smith's discovery to our subject thus depends ultimately on how much reliance may be placed on Clement's judgement on this matter. And here a decidedly cautious verdict is in order, for Clement's other writings show him to be both a lover of ideas of secrecy, esoteric teaching, mystical experiences and the like, and also much more open than most patristic writers to accept the authenticity of purportedly apostolic writings such as the Preaching of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and the Gospel of the Egyptians.' ...Keen as Clement was on opposing what he regarded as heretical, he seems to have been uncritical almost to the point of gullibility in accepting material which chimed in with his own predilections. [EJ:83]

"That the letter-writer was disposed to acknowledge it as part of a fuller edition of Mark's Gospel, written by the evangelist himself, is quite in line with evidence which we have of Clement's credulity in face of apocryphal material." [BCANON:308]

 
D. The data is strongly against this "Secret Mark" being historically more reliable than our canonical Mark, and certainly not earlier than it! [in spite of the Jesus Seminar's attempts to make it prior, see especially the discussion in SHJ.]
  "Finally, even the Marcan character of the fragment is not without its problems. 'The style is certainly Mark's, but it is too Marcan to be Mark'; such was already C.C. Richardson's verdict in 1974, and E. Best in 1979 confirmed this judgment in detail. In Mark itself the Marcan peculiarities of style are nowhere so piled up as in the 'secret Gospel'!...Accordingly, everything points to the view that the 'secret Gospel' is an apocryphon resting on the foundation of the canonical Gospels. On this ground alone any conclusions relating to the historical Jesus are not possible.' [NTA:1.107f]
 

"Such a conflation and adaptation of elements from canonical stories is found frequently in the apocryphal gospels and the secret initiation tacked on to the composite story is the sort of thing we might expect to appeal to a Gnostic group. None of this need occasion any surprise, if this 'secret gospel' can be identified as a typical Gnostic apocryphal gospel. On that basis there is no reason to give any more historical credence to this material than to any of the other second-century Gnostic developments we have been noticing...So, despite Clement's claims for his Alexandrian version of Mark, it does not seem responsible to regard it as having any greater claim to historical value than the other Gnostic products of the second century. It is hardly an adequate foundation on which to build a total reconstruction of Jesus as a practitioner of magical rites." [EJ:83]
 

"The fact that the expansion is such a pastiche (as it seems to me), with its internal contradiction and confusion, indicates that it is a thoroughly artificial composition, quite out of keeping with Mark's quality as a story-teller." [BCANON:308]
 

"Even if the letter is authentic, however, we can deduce no more than that an expanded version of Mark was in existence in Alexandria about A.D. 170. When Smith seeks to go back to the last years of the I st century for the composition of the expanded Mark, that rests on pure speculations" [NTA:1.107]
 

"As to the analysis of its contents, it strikes us as equally plausible (and perhaps more so) to view the pericope quoted above as an artificial and secondary blend of Marcan and Johannine elements." [SHJ:530]

  "The raising of the young man of Bethany is too evidently based--and clumsily based at that--on the Johannine story of the raising of Lazarus for us to regard it as in any sense an independent Marcan counterpart to the Johaninne story (not to speak of our regarding it as a source of the Johannine story)." [BCANON:315]  
E. Even Morton Smith's interpretation of the documents has been unconvincing:
  "M. Smith's conclusions have been rejected by practically all critics; nevertheless he has set them out afresh in his book Jesus the Magician" [NTA:1.109]

"The conclusions that Smith drew from Secret Mark regarding the historical Jesus as a homosexual 'magician' are so bizarre as to hardly warrant mention. The scholarly consensus--even among those who are sympathetic to the document--has strongly rejected this sort of interpretation." [CSSG:333n16]

 
So, as it stands, we have


So, how seriously should we take this? (that's a rhetorical question that doubles as a quick IQ test, by the way...smile)
 
 
 
 

3. To what extent has the agnostic accurately understood the text and/or plausibly drawn conclusions from it?
 

Here what I want to do is to go phrase by phrase through the agnostic's comment, and assess it against the data we have looked at above [agnostic text in bold]:
 
 

"In 1958, a manuscript was discovered at a monastery at Mar Saba, east of Jerusalem, which shows how the Jesus story was rewritten by the Church whenever it suited them at the time.

Fascinating accusation, but the "whenever it suited them at the time" clause would be impossible to justify from just this one alleged case!
 
 

It was found by an American, Morton Smith, Professor of Ancient History at Columbia University, and it included the content of a letter by Bishop Clement of Alexandria, Egypt, an early Christian father, to a colleague called Theodore.

All of the above facts are HIGHLY disputed and quite doubtful....
 
 

It also revealed an unknown segment of Mark's Gospel which had been suppressed.

It is speculation to assert that it was a 'segment' of Mark's Gospel, and, indeed, the data is more suggestive of a gnostic expansion or conflation of canonical sources.
 
 

It included in the 'Jesus' story some details of mystery school initiations and it was an account of the raising of Lazarus by Jesus, the famous raising from the dead. In this suppressed text Lazarus called to Jesus before any 'raising' took place, so proving that he was not supposed to be physically dead. There was also another devastating revelation for Christianity. The manuscript makes references to the effect that Jesus was understood to have engaged in possible homosexual practices involving the 'rich young man' mentioned in Mark's Gospel.

Let's look at the relevant fragment of this SGOM (taken from the standard reference work NTA1):

Fragment One:

"And they came to Bethany. And there was a woman there, whose brother was dead. And she came and fell down before Jesus and said to him: Son of David, have mercy on me. But the disciples rebuked her. And in anger Jesus went away with her into the garden where the tomb was; and immediately a loud voice was heard from the tomb; and Jesus went forward and rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And immediately he went in where the young man was, stretched out his hand and raised him up, grasping him by the hand. But the young man looked upon him and loved him, and began to entreat him that he might remain with him. And when they had gone out from the tomb, they went into the young man's house; for he was rich. And after six days Jesus commissioned him; and in the evening the young man came to him, clothed only in a linen cloth upon his naked body. And he remained with him that night; for Jesus was teaching him the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. And from there he went away and returned to the other bank of the Jordan." Now, I have to ask here: how much "detail" is given here about "mystery school initiations"?!!! Your friend is seriously reading something into this simple passage, to say the least.

Similarly, how does one find an 'understanding' in this passage of "homosexual practices"? The reference to the linen cloth is certainly not enough--the rich man would not have worn his woolen outer garment inside the house necessarily, and there still is nothing to suggest any disrobing or even physical contact. (This comment is likely to be included to simply identify the character with canonical Mark, from the probably auto-biographical reference in Mark 14.51.) The reference to "remaining with him that night" is not enough, since ALL the disciples were there ("remaining with him" also) as he taught THEM ALL the mysteries of the kingdom of God. One simply cannot find any real clues to ANY kind of sexual contact, content, or intent in this passage. It is pure speculation (and counter to what we know of the culture and history of the day) to somehow imagine these words to refer to homosexual behavior. [Standard Greco-Roman references to such behavior is very explicit and clear, so the absence of such images and terminology would constitute a prima facie case AGAINST seeing it in this passage.]
 
 

I am making the point that the Christian hierarchy have been deceiving and lying to their followers right from the start.

Again, the agnostic here would be logically fallacious to move from "one Christian leader perhaps did this" to the sweeping condemnation above: "the Christian hierarchy have been deceiving and lying to their followers right from the start"!!!
 
 

Bishop Clement's letter was replying to a Christian who was very perturbed to be told the above story of 'Jesus' by the Gnostic group called the Carpocrates.

Actually, we have no idea if the Christian was "perturbed" nor what he might have been "perturbed" about...
 
 

It had apparently been leaked to them by an official in Alexandria. Clement's advice, after confirming the story, was that anything which contradicts the official church view must be denied, even if it is true.

Again, arguing from this specific case to "anything which contradicts the official church view" is ENTIRELY unwarranted (and in a minute we will see that it is altogether false as well!).
 
 

The letter says of those who question official orthodoxy:

"For even if they should say something true, one who loves the Truth should not, even so, agree with them... To them one must never give way; nor, when they put forward their falsifications, should one concede that the secret Gospel is by Mark - but should deny it on oath. For not all true things are to be said to all men."   Now, let's take a closer look at this passage, to see whether this statement above can be taken to mean the 'truth suppression' motif of the agnostic author. [I will be using the English translation given by F. F. Bruce at the Ethel M. Wood Lecture, 1974; first published by Athlone Press, University of London, in 1974...reprinted in BCANON.]
 

First, let's quote it in context (I will insert [markers] in front of passages I will refer to, simple bold text is the agnostic's quote):

"You have done well in muzzling the unmentionable doctrines of the Carpocratians [TN: henceforth, Cx]...They cast themselves unawares into the gloom of the [A] darkness of falsehood...These people must be opposed in every way. [B] Even if they were to say something true, not even so would the lover of truth agree with them; everything that is true is not necessarily truth. Nor should one prefer the apparent truth which is according to human opinions to the real truth which is according to faith. But of the matters under dispute concerning the divinely-inspired Gospel of Mark, [C] some are utterly false and [D] some, even if they contain certain things that are true are corrupted by those that are fictitious, so that, as it is said, 'the salt has lost its savour'...Mark, then, during Peter's stay in Rome, recorded the acts of the Lord, [E] not however reporting them all, for he did not indicate the mystical ones, but selected those which he thought most useful for the increase of the faith of those undergoing instruction...and on his death (Mark's) he left his (expanded gospel document) to the church in Alexandria, where even until now it is very well guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries...

"But abominable demons are always devising destruction for the human race, and so Carpocrates, having been instructed by them, used deceitful devices so as to enslave a certain elder of the church in Alexandria and procured from him a copy of the mystical Gospel, which he proceeded to interpret in accordance with his own blasphemous and carnal opinion. Moreover, he polluted it further by [F] mixing shameless falsehoods with the holy and undefiled sayings, and from this mixture the dogma of the Carpocratians has been drawn out. To these people, then, as I have said already, one must never yield, nor must one make any concession to them when they pretend that [G] their tissue of falsehoods is the mystical Gospel of Mark, but rather deny it with an oath. [H] It is not necessary to speak all the truth to everyone; that is why the wisdom of God proclaims through Solomon: 'Answer a fool according to his folly' (Prov. 26:53-- meaning that [I] from those who are spiritually blind the light of the truth must be concealed. Scripture also says, 'From him who has not will be taken away' [Mk. 4:251 and 'Let the fool walk in darkness' [Eccles. 2:141]. But we are sons of light, having been illuminated by 'the dayspring from on high' of the Spirit of the Lord [cf Lk. 1:781, 'and where the Spirit of the Lord is', Scripture says, 'there is liberty'[2 Cor. 3:171; for 'to the pure all things are pure' [Tit. 1: 151. To you, then, I will not hesitate to give an answer to your questions, [J] exposing those people's falsehoods by the very words of the Gospel...

"Immediately after the section which begins And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem and continues to after three days he will rise [Mk 10:32-34], there follows, as the text goes: [Fragment One, quoted above, goes here]...After this there follows And James and John came forward to him and all that section [Mk 10:34-45]. [K] But as for 'naked to naked' and the other things about which you wrote, they are not to be found. After the words And he comes to Jericho [Mk 10:46a] it adds only 'And there was the sister of the young man whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome; and Jesus did not receive them' (TN: Fragment Two) [L] But as for the many other things which you wrote, they are falsehoods both in appearance and in reality..."

 
Now, let's go through the markers and make observations about the flow of argument:
[A]. Clement here accuses the Cx of 'falsehood'--not of teaching some truth that needed to be suppressed.

[B]. This statement merely says that Christians were not supposed to agree with the Cx, even if what they said was true. This does NOT mean they were supposed to "disagree", but rather not to give some level of affirmation to the Cx.

[C]. Some of what the Cx were saying about the Gospel of Mark were utterly false (again, not 'unfavorable truth')

[D]. Other things they were saying contained both a measure of truth and a measure of false--but the mixture of the two was overall "false"

[E]. Mark did not 're-invent' the story of Jesus; he merely had a more complete version of the gospel, for those more mature. In other words, some truth was 'advanced' and not to be given to (a) heretics [cf. "cast not your pearls before swine"] or (b) immature believers [because they weren't ready yet--"meat belongs to them who have exercised"--Hebrews 5:14]. "Withholding truth" (because someone was not 'ready' for it) is not the same as "suppressing truth"!!!!

[F]. Carpocrates created a "mixture" of "shameless falsehoods" and the SGOM, and his teachings were drawn from this mixture of "true and false" (remember, #C above).

[G]. The Cx asserted that their constructed mixture--the "tissue of falsehoods" (#F)--was the real (Secret) Gospel of Mark! Clement is telling the reader to deny that their "mixture" is the true SGOM, not to deny that the real (Secret) Gospel of Mark is true! And, since Clement refers back to something ("as I have said already"), what was being denied in the first instance (#B) is simply a mixture of true/falsity. He is not telling the reader to suppress truth, but to deny a mixture of truth/falsity.

[H]. This simply makes the same point in E--that there was no requirement to teach all things to all people, irrespective of their spiritual condition. This does NOT say to "speak falsehood"(!), but to not teach the 'advanced truths' to people who are not qualified/ready/mature enough for it.

[I]. This continues the point in H--the deeper truths of the SGOM is not for the immature, it is to be taught to those in a healthy spiritual condition. This is not saying that falsity should be taught--but rather that NOTHING should be taught these people.

[J]. Here he calls them 'falsehoods' again (not 'unfavorable truths'), and proceeds to demonstrate to the reader where the real SGOM varies from the Cx' "mixture of truth and false". This validates the interpretation above, that the issue was a mixture of the true SGOM and the Cx' spurious additions.

[K]. BTW, the 'naked to naked' passage is sometimes forced to serve the 'homosexual theory', but there are major problems with this: (1) the phrase does NOT occur in the 'young man' section at all (!); and (2) we know the Cx were sexually promiscuous heterosexually (sharing wives)-- this addition is more likely to have served THAT dogmatic agenda rather than some unknown and undocumented homosexual praxis.

[L]. Again, it is clear from this comment that Clement is trying to get the reader to 'dissect' the 'tissue of falsehoods' constructed by the Cx from legitimate (according the Clement) texts from the SGOM, and from cult-serving additions (most of which do not appear in this epistle, of course).

 
If we step back for a moment, what emerges from this data is quite different from the understanding of the agnostic. Instead of Clement telling the reader to out-and-out lie about a secret document keep hidden by the hierarchy, he is rather telling him to deny the MIXTURE of truth/falsity that the CX advance as the real text/truth of this document. He is told to deny their mixture, but not to 'correct' them by revealing teachings that are reserved for the more advanced followers. He is specifically shown where their errors lie, with respect to the text.
 

Far from being a conspiratorial 'cover up' by the church, this is nothing more than trying to untangle "cult additions" from texts that were considered sacred. All believers, as they grew in their spiritual maturity, would have had access to the SGOM, and its character was simply that of additional teachings of Jesus (not denials of what the believers would have been taught already)...

A recent assessment of this work reaches a similar comclusion:

"Morton Smith, followed by Crossan, Koester, and others, has argued that the Secret Gospel of Mark was a source of canonical Mark's narrative. This position, though, is untenable. First, despite the modern consensus, the possibility that the letter is a modern forgery from the eighteenth century has not been completely excluded. Second, Clement is often unreliable in his use of sources, and so even if his letter is authentic, this does not mean that what he says about the Secret Gospel of Mark is correct. Third, what we have of this document is highly fragmentary. Fourth, no consensus exists among those who see this document as a source of Mark." Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the Secret Gospel of Mark, if it existed at all, was a source of canonical Mark. Smith's efforts to reconstruct the history of early Christianity on this uncertain foundation, arguing that a sexually libertine, magic-working Jesus was reinterpreted in later canonical Gospel tradition, is correctly regarded by the vast majority of scholars as pure fantasy." [Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament (Eerdmans:2000), p.211]

The most detailed--and 'overwhelming' (but a fun, fun book to read!)-- analysis of this document I have seen is from Stephen Carlson [ The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark, BaylorUP:2005.] Leaving no avenue "untrod", his conclusions are difficult even to question:

"Secret Mark is not what it appears to be. All three components of Secret Mark—the pseudo-Markan fragments of a secret gospel, the letter ascribed to Clement of Alexandria, and the physical manuscript itself—are twentieth-century imitations. The manuscript was written in what may appear to be handwriting of the eighteenth century, but the hesitation and shakiness of its strokes and the retouching of its letters, coupled with twentieth-century letter forms, indicate that the handwriting is actually a drawn imitation of an eighteenth-century style. Theodore, too, is an impersonation, mimicking the style and vocabulary of Clement of Alexandria but contradicting him with a simile that evokes modern salt-making technology. Secret Mark is also an imitation, with its Markan parallels deviating only at its climax, in language that resonates with mid-twentieth-century expressions of sexuality. On three independent grounds and at three different levels, Secret Mark is a deliberate, but ultimately imperfect, imitation.

"Even more conclusive than the evidence that Secret Mark is a modem fake is Smith's own triple confession to his involvement in all three components of Secret Mark. He gave a self-descriptive pseudonym of M. Madiotes for the scribe, he inserted allusions to his own name in Theodore and the accompanying commentary, and he put a sphragis to his own writings at the climax of the Secret Mark fragment. Though uncoerced confessions are among the most persuasive evidence in criminal trials, confessions are not necessarily truthful, and Smith's admissions must be analyzed critically. In the classic, analytical framework of the "means, motive, and opportunity" triad, Smith meets all three criteria and it is hard to identify anyone else as suitable as Smith." (p74f)

 

...................................................................................................

Summary:

 
1. The manuscript itself is highly questionable, and--for that reason--not used for 'support' by many scholars today.
 

2. The ascription of the MSS to Clement is highly questionable.
 

3. The views of Clement on 'secret gospels' is not very credible.
 

4. The Secret Gospel of Mark looks strangely like the 2nd century gnostic 'expansions' and conflation of the canonical gospels.
 

5. The data in the SGOM does not support some alleged homosexual practice of Jesus!
 

6. The agnostic's position has made many, many unwarranted conclusions from this one data point--even if it were as he/she/they present it. There is simply no way to get from "one bishop did this once, maybe" to "all the church leaders did this routinely, from the inception of the church"!
 

7. Even the agnostic's understanding of Clement's argument is flawed--it actually has nothing to do with suppression and coverup of truth.


Accordingly, I have to conclude that the SGOM (and this "possible" Clementine epistle) is essentially useless for forming a grounded opinion on the matter of church "cover-ups" and conspiratorial suppession of unfavorable truths...

I hope this helps you with the question, friend,

Glenn Miller
October 18, 1999


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