The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Controversial Scholar, a Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, and the Fierce Debate over Its Authenticity

The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Controversial Scholar, a Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, and the Fierce Debate over Its Authenticity

Geoffrey S. Smith and Brent C. Landau
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2023; xi + 227 pp., hardcover, $35.

One of the greatest twentieth-century puzzles in New Testament scholarship is a letter discovered at the Mar Saba monastery in present-day Israel by the biblical scholar Morton Smith in 1958.

It is a fragment of a letter from the second-century church father Clement of Alexandria to one Theodore, and it discusses a secret version of the Gospel of Mark. According to this letter, Theodore (whose own letter has not survived) has an alleged copy of this text, but believes it has been corrupted by insertions of the Carpocratians, a libertine sect of the era.

Clement claims that this secret, longer version of Mark—“a more spiritual gospel for the benefit of those being made perfect”—was still preserved in the church of Alexandria in his time, though it was “very well guarded, being read only by those being initiated into the great mysteries.”

Clement also writes that he has a copy of this Gospel and compares his version with passages sent to him by Theodore. Clement quotes a passage from this secret Gospel. It describes the resurrection of a “young man” like the Lazarus of the Gospel of John. One evening six days later, says this Gospel, “the young man comes to him wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, because Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God.”

Some people see sexual antics here, and so apparently did the Carpocratians, because their version of this Gospel adds the expression “naked man to naked man,” but this and other passages mentioned by Theodore “are not found” in the authentic Secret Gospel, writes Clement.

Smith introduced this text to the learned world at a biblical conference in 1960, arousing a tumult that has not settled to this day. Smith’s own view of this letter was straightforward: he considered it to be a genuine document by Clement and that it described an initiation involving “the mystery of the kingdom of God.”

Many other scholars scoffed at this suggestion with cruel vehemence. Smith himself, some claimed, had forged the letter as an elaborate practical joke, leaving hidden “clues” to his identity in his handiwork. To give one especially ridiculous example, at one point Clement writes, “true things mixed with fictions are effaced, so that, as it is said, even salt loses its saltiness.” Guess what? This supposedly points to Morton Smith as the forger, because—Morton Salt! Get it?

Many other such pieces of “evidence” range from the ludicrous to the insane, but over decades of scrutiny, certain facts were sifted out. To judge from the handwriting, the text, found written in the inside of a seventeenth-century Latin volume, probably dates from the eighteenth century, so it was not from the author’s own hand (but that is true of practically all texts from antiquity). Its literary style is completely like Clement’s—too much so, some contend, that very fact marking it as a forgery.

This new book on the Secret Gospel controversy takes the discussion further. It goes through the previous claims of forgery by Smith and refutes them in a way that would be difficult to counter. Nevertheless, say the authors, the letter is a forgery—only not by Smith, who published it in good faith. They contend that it was written between the fifth and seventh centuries by an unknown monk supposedly legitimating “same-sex pairings through the special relationship he had with one younger, ‘beloved’ male disciple.” As these authors indicate, the Greek Orthodox church did in that period have a rite of adelphopoiesis (“making brothers”), which joined two men in a quasi-sacramental bond of chaste friendship that some have likened to gay marriage. The authors contend that Secret Gospel was written to vindicate this kind of same-sex relationship, chaste or not. Indeed the Secret Gospel says that after his resurrection, “the young man, looking at him [Jesus], loved him, and he began to beg him to be with him.”

This book’s discussion of the Secret Gospel debate from 1960 to the present is clear-headed and enlightening. But Smith and Landau’s arguments for their own hypothesis are almost as absurd as the ones they refute, and in fact they put their idea forward only in the briefest and sketchiest terms at the end of the book. In the first place, they make no reference to any polemic about same-sex relationships among monks, either in the period they mention or at any other point, so we have no reason to believe that this was an issue to begin with.

Furthermore, anyone wanting to concoct Scriptural evidence for same-sex relationships would not have written this text: it is too oblique for that purpose. It does not even mention same-sex relationships, except in the reference to “naked man to naked man”—but the letter itself says that this detail is not authentic to the Secret Gospel. Moreover, someone engaging in this supposed polemic could just as well have used quotes about the beloved disciple from the Gospel of John, which was universally accepted as canonical.

As for the fact that the young man “loved” Jesus, the Greek word here is egapesen—from the familiar Greek word agape—which does not connote any erotic or amorous themes; indeed it is the word the ancient Greeks used when those elements were absent.

It makes sense that Smith and Landau would see this text in the light of same-sex relationships, since present times are preoccupied with them and find homoerotic connotations wherever they exist and in many places where they do not. But the absurdity of their own theory merely vindicates Smith, who at least did not resort to hilariously speculative overcomplications.

Why have so many scholars refused to take this letter of Clement at face value and contrive so many ridiculous theories to explain it away? Because it points to something much more disturbing to contemporary New Testament scholars than mere homosexuality, which in any event they understand. It is evidence of an early initiatic Christianity that has been almost completely lost to memory, and which scholars do not understand.

Indeed the fact that the young man comes “wearing a linen cloth over his naked body” is evidence for this initiatic element, because that was the garment worn for initiation into the mysteries, as we see, for example, in Apuleius’s Golden Ass. Linen, being a vegetable rather than an animal product, was believed to be purer than wool.

The possibility of an authentic secret Gospel disturbs contemporary scholarship, because it would mean that everything they know of early Christianity is preliminary material only, “milk, and not . . . strong meat” (Hebrews 5:12). All memory of this initiatic Christianity would have been lost or more likely suppressed, although a few vague hints were permitted to survive in the New Testament, such as “we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7).

But “the mystery of the kingdom of God” did not survive in any apparent way, as will be obvious to anyone who reads the clownish attempts of New Testament scholars to explain what the “kingdom of God” actually is. This hidden wisdom was probably not identical with Gnosticism as known in the second century, although arguably it was close enough that it was swept away when the proto-catholic church in the second and third centuries purged itself of Gnostic elements.

Clement, then, living around the turn of the third century, would be a transitional figure: more than almost anyone else (even the Gnostics themselves), in his authenticated works he speaks of the “Gnostic” (gnostikos) and claims that the true Christian is also a true Gnostic. But as the Letter to Theodore indicates, he was committed to keeping this wisdom hidden: “One must never . . . concede that the Secret Gospel is from Mark, but even deny it with an oath. For not all true things are said to all people.”

We can speculate about this hidden wisdom, which Clement in this letter says “is veiled seven times.” But in the absence of better evidence, these will remain as speculations only. At any rate, Smith’s scholarly instincts—superior to those of his critics—were receptive to the possibility of this frustratingly lost Christianity.

This book will not shake your religious faith, if that is a concern to you. But it will do a rough job on your trust in New Testament scholarship.

Richard Smoley