Morton Smith: Did the late historian make-up a fake "secret gospel"?

Historians in the News

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....

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....

Read entire article at Peter Steinfels in the NYT

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