Beyond Suspicion, Beyond Doubt: Secret Mark Put to Rest

Francis Watson’s “Beyond Suspicion: on the Authorship of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark” can be taken as the final part of a remarkable sleuthing trilogy that began with Stephen Carlson’s bombshell, The Gospel Hoax, and Peter Jeffery’s psychoanalytic tour-de-force, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled. The trilogy convicts Morton Smith beyond doubt as the forger of Clement’s letter, just in case you were too blind to accept the obvious after reading Carlson.

Many of Watson’s arguments complement those developed by Carlson and Jeffery, but extend to new developments. Here are the five high points of the article.

A. The Inappropriate Response to Theodore

Clement’s letter supposedly answers Theodore’s questions about the Carpocratian version of Mark’s gospel, but as Watson explains, the reply is inappropriate on every level (see pp 146-147). Theodore wants reassurance that the Carpocratian gospel is a perversion of the canonical Mark, but Clement’s emphasis is on the fact that it’s mostly true aside from the remark about Jesus and the young man being naked. “The authentic Secret Mark is only slightly less prurient than the falsified one” (147). Theodore is then instructed not to correct the Carpocratians on this point. “He must resist the temptation to parade his new text-critical knowledge” (ibid), and must continue to deny, even on oath, that Mark ever wrote a secret gospel. On top of that (and as Charles Murgia outlined decades ago), Clement goes to considerable lengths to inform Theodore what he already knows. These red flags show that

“The real intention of the letter is evidently to disclose the existence and content of the Secret Gospel, not to respond appropriately to Theodore. If that is the case, however, then Clement’s role as revealer of the Secret Gospel is parallel to Morton Smith’s as its discover. Clement’s text aims not to assist the embattled Theodore but to divulge the shocking fact that the Carpocratian claim about the two versions of the Gospel of Mark is largely true. There is indeed a Secret Gospel, and the addressee must come to terms with it. That is also the message of Smith’s two books on the Secret Gospel. Clement is concerned to establish the authenticity of the Secret Gospel, and that is also Morton Smith’s concern as he labors to establish the authenticity of Clement. What Smith argues about the letter is what Clement argues within it.” (p 148)

In other words, Smith was projecting onto Clement his own project.

B. Dependence on Papias

Watson demonstrates that Clement is dependent on Papias with the same ease and persuasive power that Andrew Criddle wielded in proving that Clement sounds too much like himself to be true. “It is all too easy to imagine a modern author gratefully availing himself of Papias’ assistance as he laboriously crafts his pseudo-Clementine fictions” (p 151), in contrast to (the real) Clement’s account of Markan origins as preserved in Eusebius — where echoes of Papias are discernible, but not abundant.

C. Morton Salt Revisited

By far the most amusing aspect of Clement’s letter is the hoaxer’s signature which puns the tradition of Mt 5:13/Lk 14:34-35: “For the true things being mixed with inventions are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt loses its savor.” Stephen Carlson exposed this confession, pointing out that adulterated salt was unknown in the ancient world, free flowing salt being a modern invention — of Morton Salt. Watson suggests an even looser connection between the “falsification of truth” and the corruption of salt, since the word “falsification” itself implies “forgery”. And since, originally, a “forger” was simply one who worked at a forge, “another word must now be employed to differentiate the sinister figure of the ‘forger’ from the innocent and useful worker at the forge” (p 153), namely, the smith. The full confessional signature of “Morton Smith” has now been exposed.

D. Clement’s Letter Validating Smith’s Views

What has most astounded me in the Secret Mark controversy is that, prior to Stephen Carlson, no one picked up on the fact that Smith published ideas connecting Clement and “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1), and that he published them before his alleged discovery in 1958. Watson takes this further, showing how Smith had already believed (by 1955) that Mark censored offensive material out of his gospel, some of which he thought common to Mark and John, and that there was a secrecy tradition (of esoteric mysteries and sexual immorality) extending from Mark back to Paul and Jesus, to which he finally (in early 1958) connected Clement as a witness:

“Before Smith left for his visit to Mar Saba in the summer of 1958, many of the elements that comprise the letter to Theodore were already present in his published work. These elements do not simply recur in Smith’s interpretation of the letter, as one would expect; rather, they are embedded within the letter itself.” (p 160)

And as if this weren’t enough to close the case against Smith…

E. The Two Mysteries of Mar Saba

Saving the best for last, Watson compares the circumstances surrounding Smith’s expedition to Mar Saba with the fictionalized adventure related in James Hunters’ obscure 1940 novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba. The novel, as we know, is about a forgery at the Mar Saba library — quelle surprise — exactly where Smith “discovered” Clement’s letter, and the parallels are so transparent they’re embarrassing. Both documents are preoccupied with death, burial, and removing stones from tombs. Both associate, in good Johannine fashion, Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb with a garden, and extend the idea to another tomb in another garden. Both flirt with the figure of Nicodemus, who “came to Jesus by night” just as the young man did in the Secret Gospel, and who is supposedly the author of the Mar Saba text in Hunter’s novel. Watson is perhaps putting it too kindly when he writes:

“Had The Mystery of Mar Saba been first published in c. 1975, the analysis presented here would show it to be heavily dependent on The Secret Gospel (1973), both in its account of the immediate circumstances of the discovery and in the rationale, content, and construction of the controversial Greek fragment. But The Mystery of Mar Saba was first published in 1940, eighteen years before the second Mar Saba ‘discovery’. There is no alternative but to conclude that Smith is dependent on the novel, and that he himself is the author of the fragments of the Secret Gospel of Mark together with the pseudo-Clementine letter in which they are embedded.” (p 170)

As I’ve said before, it’s really this that puts the issue beyond doubt. If Hunter’s novel had been spotted by biblical specialists long before 2001, a lot less people would have been duped, and Secret Mark would have been put to rest before scholars like Koester ran wild with it and made a monster that, incredibly, can’t be let go. You can throw out everything else as far as I’m concerned — the Morton Salt signature, the homoerotic overtones aligning with Smith’s orientation, the Anglican Paschal liturgy invoked by the resurrection symbolism and white cloth, the hyper-Clementine and hyper-Papias language, the way Clement speaks to modern concerns instead of answering Theodore appropriately, and even the fact that Secret Mark vindicates Smith’s published views — all of that is damning enough. But you can argue around The Mystery of Mar Saba novel only by becoming the willful fool.

And so it ends. For good. We bid Secret Mark a final farewell, even if in admiration for Morton Smith’s genius — and admiration that, for my part, can only increase the more scholars like Scott Brown persist in denial. Their rejoinders at this point should simply be ignored.


11 thoughts on “Beyond Suspicion, Beyond Doubt: Secret Mark Put to Rest

  1. Hi Loren–

    I've dealt in general with the supposed links between Hunter's novel and Smith's discovery here and here. The long and the short of it is, there are almost no real parallels between Hunter's novel and Smith's work, and if there are any parallels, so what? Sometimes art prefigures life.

    Watson does introduce an intriguing new twist, and I'll be posting on that shortly.

    Also, when you say “all of that is damning enough”, surely you can't mean that, since you were just saying how all of that evidence can be thrown out 🙂

    I'm finishing up a much longer reply to Watson that I'll link to when it's finished. I'll try and incorporate your highlighted arguments into that critique.

  2. Having read Hunter’s novel, which I think was really boring and extremely apologetic, I find myself in complete agreement with Scott Brown as he writes:

    “I know that facts rarely get in the way of an incredible theory, but I would have thought that anyone who can imagine Smith producing the perfect forgery would at least have difficulty picturing him reading an anti-intellectual evangelical Christian spy novel.” (Brown, Scott G. Mark's Other Gospel pp. 58-59)

    Besides, Smith was given a special permission as a personal gesture to catalogue books at Mar Saba. What are the odds that someone being inspired by a novel to make a forgery at Mar Saba, also would get permission to examine manuscripts at Mar Saba? Because, one needs to assume that this was the causality in this context.

    I would say that the only reasonable influence by the book on Smith, would be if he saw the title and came up with the idea to make a forgery and plant it at Mar Saba, as he was planning on going there anyway. But then he just as easily could have come up with that idea for a number of other reasons.

    And then Venetia Anastasopoulou’s comparison between the handwriting in the Mar Saba letter and Smith’s handwriting is really telling. Having studied the manuscript intensively for several months I recognized almost all of her examples and it just confirmed what I saw myself, but never said, having no qualifications.

    “This calligraphy writing, with so many abbreviations and ligatures looks like an artistic design of good quality. Although it is a difficult style of writing and needs a lot of practice in order to be able to write in this way; the text is written spontaneously with an excellent rhythm. The letters and their combinations are curved fluently while at the same time the grammatical rules are followed. The movement of the writing indicates a hand used to writing in this manner. The letters are written unconsciously.”

    Apart from her conclusion that “it is highly probable that Morton Smith could not have simulated the document of ‘Secret Mark’”, also her judgement of Smith's ability to write Greek is telling:

    “His writing is like that of a school student. It is obvious that his hand is not familiarised in Greek writing so as to be able to use it freely and with ease and be able to express thoughts and beliefs.”
    “His Greek writing is as learned in school, copybook, letter-letter, unconnected, carefully drawn.”

  3. @”the_cave”: On your user profile you describe yourself as a “man of no consequence”. I can see why. But seriously, I mean everything I say. All the evidence against Smith is damning, but you can still throw most of it out and be left with a compelling case and obvious conclusion.

    @Roger: You can't be serious about Brown's objection here. As a librarian I tell you that you'd be surprised what people will read despite themselves. But Smith could have simply had the plot of the novel described to him by someone else, and gotten the idea that way.

  4. Hi again Loren–

    I'm not sure I understand you–how can you see why I am a man of no consequence?

    As for your evaluation of Watson's work, I guess I see what you're trying to say. What I found confusing was your claim that one could throw out the other arguments “as far as you were concerned”. I was also surprised that this included Criddle's vocabulary analysis–I think it's been the only real evidence of forgery of any kind so far! Certainly far stronger than the very weak links with Hunter's novel. It also has the advantage of being statistically demonstrable, which is helpful.

    It's also worth noting, in regards to your response to Roger, that if you accept Watson's argument about Hunter's novel, it won't do to assume that someone simply described the plot to Smith. Watson relies on very careful, precise textual parallels between Hunter and Smith. If you accept Watson's argument, you must accept that Smith had read Hunter, and either had it before him as he wrote, or had internalized certain passages to such an extent that he inadvertently repeated specific constructions and vocabulary in his own work.

    Let me explain my perspective on Hunter's novel in a subsequent comment.

  5. Regarding the thematic links you find between SGM1 and Hunter's novel, this can all be quite adequately explained if GJn used SGM as a source. Hunter then used GJn as a source; so the middle term is not Hunter, but GJn.

    If there is anything remarkable about the fact that both concern themselves with resurrection from a tomb in a garden, simply take GPet as a counter-example. The authenticity of GPet is unquestioned. Yet GPet is likewise “preoccupied with death, burial, and removing stones from tombs” and likewise “associate[s], in good Johannine fashion, Joseph of Arimathea's tomb with a garden”. Would you therefore deduce that GPet is inauthentic?

    You might as well declare canonical GMk a forgery, too, for “extending the idea” of a young man in a garden, from the resurrection, to Gethsemane. In “good Johannine fashion”, no less! 🙂

    As for the links you see with the figure of Nicodemus, again, the middle term is GJn: it's John who, rewriting SGM, made Nicodemus a night visitor to Jesus, and who placed him at the Deposition. Hunter (unbeknownst to himself) is just continuing John's revisions onward, this time as satire.

    It even turns out that Hunter's Nicodemus is totally superfluous to any theory of forgery: Smith could already find Nicodemus in GJn. He didn't need Hunter to make any thematic connections between Nicodemus' two appearances in GJn! So Hunter's satirical apocrypha actually adds nothing to the case for forgery.

  6. Brown's argument against Smith's having the read the book depends on a caricature of an older Smith. The younger Smith, then a conservative Christian, visited Mar Saba during World War II. It is easy to imagine that a popular anti-Nazi thriller, set in the Holy Land where Smith spent the war, would have been irresistible to the curiosity of this voracious reader, regardless of how much he would enjoy the potboiler.

  7. I don't see how the new article justifies your strong conclusion, Loren. Some of the arguments are just laughably bad. Carlson's flight of fancy regarding Morton Salt always seemed the desperate claim of someone willing to grasp at any straw. And now we're supposed to think Smith was a “forger” because his last name is a synonym? I suppose he was predestined from birth to become one….

    The case for forgery was always, and remains, vague and inconclusive.

  8. I'm not sure how the Mar Saba novel's anti-intellectual Evangelical bent doesn't actually make it more likely to have been the sort of thing Smith would have used. After all, it makes things significantly more ironic, especially considering the older Smith's views about “anti-intellectual Evangelicals,” who he seemed to want to play with through his forgery.

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