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.