Secret Mark Still Fools People

Over on the Nashua library blog I ran a trilogy on the historical Jesus. It’s a reader’s advisory blog (no, not in the parental warning sense) where contributors like myself recommend books for the public, and the genres I cover range from horror to fantasy to early Christianity. This month I piggy-backed off a recent cascade of scandalous-sounding books on Jesus, which deal with his marital status, his politics, and even the Secret Mark hoax once used to suggest he was gay. And now I’m getting queries from people who want to know more about this stuff, especially the last: the “Secret Gospel of Mark” and scholar Morton Smith who “discovered” it.

The Secret Gospel of Mark (or Secret Mark, as it’s commonly called) is quoted in a letter supposedly written by the famous second-century theologian, Clement of Alexandria. This letter was “discovered” in 1958 by a biblical scholar named Morton Smith at Mar Saba, a Greek Orthodox monastery in Palestine. The part of the “secret gospel” which Clement quotes tells a story similar to the raising of Lazarus in John 11. But instead of raising Lazarus, Jesus revives a young man who “looked at Jesus, loved him, and began to beg him to be with him”. Later in the evening, the young man comes to Jesus “wearing a linen cloth over his naked body; and he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God”.

I am sure that Morton Smith forged his “discovery” of Clement’s letter — as sure as I am of my own age. Even aside from the glaring content (which we’ll get to right away), there’s an immediate red flag which forgery experts call a “seal of authenticity”. The author conveniently goes out of his way to authenticate his own letter, by naming himself Clement, who in turn vouches for the authenticity of the secret gospel which he, again conveniently, quotes at remarkable length. This is all too good to be true, as discoveries go. The other red flag is that no one has ever seen this “discovery”, aside from Smith himself (who took photos of it); it mysteriously vanished from the Mar Saba library where he “found” it. Anyone with sense should be suspicious from the start, and indeed many scholars were.

Once you look at the actual content of Clement’s letter and Secret Mark, it becomes crystal clear that Smith wrote it. What remains unclear is his motive. Did he write it to support his theories, or to test his colleagues? Are we dealing with a forgery like the Hitler Diaries and William Ireland’s Shakespeare play? Or a hoax like the Ern Malley Poems and Alan Sokol’s postmodern essay? Was this fraud or an elaborate prank?


Here are the elements indicating the former — that Smith forged Clement’s letter to reinforce personal convictions and lend force to his academic claims.

(1) Gay Smith, Gay Jesus. Smith was passionate about the church’s view of homosexuality, and he wrote on the subject in a time (1949) when it was rarely discussed. And of course, it turned out that he was gay. His “discovery” in 1958 allowed him to conveniently claim that Jesus was gay. In The Secret Gospel (1973) he suggested that Jesus’ baptism ceremonies were used to enter a state of hallucination, and ascend into heaven; in the kingdom of God the disciples were liberated from the Jewish law; and their spiritual union with Jesus was accompanied by a physical union of sex. So Jesus not only had sex with the disciples — he invested homosexuality with religious significance.

(2) Sex and God’s kingdom. Right before his “discovery”, Smith published an academic paper connecting both Clement of Alexandria and “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1). This is exactly what Secret Mark is about.

(3) Holy lies. Smith was intrigued by the 19th-century debate over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church. His “discovery” answers that very question. In the supposed letter, Clement says that one should tell bald-faced lies — indeed, should lie under oath — to those who are easily misled by the truth. This contradicts Clement’s well-known writings, where he insists that one must not swear falsely. The salient point is not so much the contradiction (people do sometimes contradict themselves, depending on situation), but rather the issue speaking directly to Smith’s interests.

To be blunt, based on this evidence alone, anyone unable to see Morton Smith’s fingerprints in Clement’s letter is incompetent. Taken alone, these would seem to indicate that the letter is indeed a forgery in the traditional sense — a fraudulent attempt by Smith to legitimate his beliefs, theories, and sexual orientation.


On the other hand, Smith slow-played his hand. He was too smart to become a victim of his crime. After publishing The Secret Gospel in 1973, he failed to capitalize on his scandalous theory. His book Jesus the Magician (1978) certainly gave him every opportunity — its thesis being that Jesus was more like a pagan magician than a Jewish prophet — and yet he cited Secret Mark in only one place, almost as an afterthought. (When explaining that the “mystery of the kingdom of God” was a magical rite by which young men became entranced, possessed, and then granted the keys to paradise; pp 134-135).

Indeed, instead of running wild with his “discovery”, Smith seemed more interested in his colleagues’ reactions to it — what they might do with the secret gospel, or what bum-steered theories they might come up with. And to see if they could pass his test by spotting the jokes he planted.

Here are those gags, confirming that Smith was less engaged in fraud and more enjoying an elaborate prank.

(1) Morton Salt. Jesus’ famous saying about “salt losing its savor” (Mk 9:50/Mt 5:13/Lk 14:34) is reworded in Clement’s letter to imply free-flowing salt. Iodized salt is not only a 20th-century invention; the inventor was a man named Joy Morton, who founded the Morton Salt Company. This joke was spotted by Stephen Carlson in 2005.

(2) Oscar Wilde. The gospel figure of Salome the disciple (Mk 15:40) is used to invoke a 19th-century play. Salome is among the women in Secret Mark who are rejected by Jesus, implying that Jesus had no interest in women. And in Clement’s letter, there is a puzzling allusion to “seven veils”. It comes from the modern play, Salome, where the lead character does a “dance of the seven veils”. Oscar Wilde was the playwright, and he was a gay martyr. This gag was spotted by Peter Jeffery in 2006.

(3) James Hunter. Smith’s “discovery” in 1958 copied the drama of a novel published in 1940. The novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba, is about a forgery at the exact same library where Smith “found” Clement’s letter. Just like the fake document in Hunter’s novel, Secret Mark reinterprets a resurrection account from the gospels in naturalistic terms. Philip Jenkins made this connection in 2001. (This one is so glaring it’s embarrassing; had it been spotted sooner, a lot less people would have been fooled.)

(4) Gay men, public parks. The most creative joke involves associating the young man who spent the night with Jesus (in Secret Mark) with the young man from Gethsemane (Mk 14:51-52) where Jesus was arrested. In other words, this naked youth who “spent the night with Jesus” also followed Jesus around in a garden. This evokes America in the ’50s — the time of Smith’s “discovery”, and a particularly oppressive time for gay men, when police were arresting them in public parks. This joke was explained by Carlson in 2005.

Smith had the sense of humor required to craft these kind of jokes. Once pointed out, the allusions are obvious (and hilarious). At this point, only fools and the willfully obtuse insist that Clement’s letter/Secret Mark is a genuine document.

So what’s the relationship between the two? Peter Jeffery notes that forgery and hoaxing motives undermine each other, and that a man as conflicted and in as much pain as Smith probably wasn’t too clear on what he was trying to do (The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, p 242). Stephen Carlson, who insists on a hoax more than a forgery, nonetheless recognizes that “motives are rarely simple or pure”, and that motives which can be stronger at one point can take a back seat at others (Gospel Hoax, p 80). We’ll never get a handle on Smith’s precise intentions, because we can’t dissect his psyche. But it’s clear that his passion, anger, intellectual arrogance, cleverness, and humor all came together in one of the most brilliant academic fakes of all time. It took a long time to fully expose it.

I said that only fools and the willfully obtuse maintain Smith’s innocence. Some of these die-hards contributed to the collection of essays released this year, Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery? They’re at a point of enough desperation that they shut out the forest for the trees and make mountains of anthills. For instance, in response to Francis Watson’s suggestion that the character of Lord Moreton (from James Hunter’s novel) could be yet another one of “Morton” Smith’s implied jokes, Scott Brown and Allan Pantuck point out that it’s not Lord Moreton who discovers the truth about the fake manuscript in the novel; he simply learns about it (pp 104-105). Or, responding to Stephen Carlson’s point about the connection between “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1), Brown and Pantuck say that T. Hagigah 2:1 isn’t only concerned with regulations about forbidden sex, but with all scriptures that the Tannaim thought should be discussed in secret (p 107). And so on.

These objections put us in the theater of the absurd. The character of Lord Moreton is obviously irrelevant (though I’ve no doubt Smith saw it as icing on the cake). The general events of Hunter’s novel speak for themselves. There’s no way their replication in Smith’s real-life “discovery” are coincidences. The full implications of T. Hagigah 2:1 are also a red herring. The connection of the passage with Mk 4:11 — in a paper Smith published literally only a year before his “discovery” — is all you need to see the obvious.

Smith’s defenders are even trying to elevate the burden of proof. Charles Hedrick, for example, says that “the standard of proof for convicting a distinguished colleague of forgery should be higher than what has been offered by the modern forgery theorists” (p 37). First of all, the issue isn’t whether there is enough forensic evidence required to “convict” Smith on any implied criminal level. I’m the first to insist that no matter how obvious someone’s guilt is, he or she should be acquitted in the absence of the required legal evidence. (Casey Anthony being a recent example: it’s obvious she killed her daughter, but the jury was correct to acquit her.) The point is that when confronted with an avalanche of unlikelihoods, coincidences, and modern gags, anyone should be able to confess what is plain as day.

But it gets even worse. Scott Brown’s book, Mark’s Other Gospel, was published only months before Stephen Carlson’s debunking, and he continues to defend his thesis in the wake of the obvious. But his thesis is empty, because it argues that Secret Mark is really about nothing at all. The only way Brown can tame the hoax is by erasing it at every turn. Thus he claims that Clement’s letter doesn’t even speak of a secret gospel — only a mystic one. Nor was this gospel “carefully guarded”, as properly translated — only “securely or safely kept”. In fact, all of the truths conveyed in this “longer” (not secret) version of Mark’s gospel are still available to readers of Mark’s standard version. So why Clement should be telling people to lie (and under oath) about the existence of this gospel, why other Christian sects are getting so sexually charged over it, why the fuss over so much danger, makes no sense.

In his own essay, Peter Jeffery criticizes Brown on the same point:

“Clement’s harsh language of unspeakable teachings, carnal sins, falsifications, foul demons, deceitful arts, magical enslavement, utterly shameless lies, and so on, softens [in Brown’s thesis] into a suburban sit-com in which somebody advises someone else to fudge the truth a bit, so that those pesky neighbors will lack authorization to read a book that is being safely kept nowhere in particular, and which basically says nothing anyway.” (pp 216-217)

Years ago I reviewed Brown’s book and tried to play as fair ball as I could, but in hindsight I was too kind. His work on Secret Mark stands as the worst to date, arguing for a complete non-event.

I know it’s hard for scholars to eat crow. They stake their reputations on what they publish. But there’s more going on here than scholarly pride. Smith’s theories about his “discovery” called forth ridicule from conservative scholars, and it’s a fair bet that many were homophobes. Liberal scholars, naturally, were the ones inclined to give Clement’s letter a fair shake — for the very good reason that we should rejoice in discoveries of alternative gospels. They make things more interesting, and paint early Christianity as it likely was: diverse and (to us) unorthodox, whether sexually or not. But that lure is precisely what forgers rely on to fool us. The real tragedy, as Carlson pointed out, is that Smith’s hoax did the most damage to his friends and sympathizers — broad-minded scholars, in other words, like Scott Brown.

9 thoughts on “Secret Mark Still Fools People

  1. Excellent post, Loren. I haven't been too involved in the historical Jesus business lately. And the Secret Gospel of Mark hoax reminded me about why I got a bit tired of the search for the historical Jesus. To many fools walking around pretending to be historians -:)

  2. Yes, things are quite OK here in Göteborg. But no white Christmas this year. I am looking forward to the huge, huge, Christmas smargasbord we are having on Christmas Eve. All kind of pickled herrings, smoked salmon, Christmas ham, swedish meatballs…mmm, I am starting to get hungry.

  3. My take on the purported similarities between the Clement letter and James Hunter’s novel “The Mystery of Mar Saba”. PART 1

    The similarities between Smith’s discovery and James Hogg Hunter’s novel from 1940 are purely imaginary similarities. The purported similarity between The Clement letter and Hunter’s novel is based on mathematically flawed statistics. You need to take into account every other novel that has been written before 1958, because if you start by looking for a novel with a content that resembles the Clement letter and its discovery, the chance of finding one that shares some similarities rapidly increases with the number of books you put into the calculation. If you’re allowed to use the whole world literature with its vast number of novels counted in hundreds of thousand or perhaps millions, the chance of finding a novel which at least superficially resembles the discovery of Clement’s letter to Theodoros seems to be fairly high.

    Further, you have to take into account that both The Shred of Nicodemus (the text found in the novel) and Clement’s letter to Theodoros with extracts from the Secret Gospel of Mark are, and are relying upon, Gospel material, and therefore are bound to show similarities. Further the purported similarity that both are forgeries made at Mar Saba is not to be dealt with in a statistical analysis, since the suggestion that Clement’s letter to Theodoros actually is a forgery cannot be part of any parallels when in fact this very issue is the thing that is proposed and therefore the object of the investigation. If that is put into the calculation, it will be part of a circular reasoning. The question we should ask ourselves is if we were to take any event in modern history and tried to find a novel written before that event with a content that resembles it, would we likely come up with a parallel?

    Let’s look at Francis Watson’s take on this in his article, “Beyond Suspicion: on the Authorship of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark” (JTS 61, 2010, 128-170), where he further elaborates on these purported similarities. After Francis Watson has summarized the plot of Hunter’s novel, he says: “Thus far, the parallel with Smith’s Mar Saba discovery is intriguing but inexact.” Yes, because the only real similarity he presents is the place of Mar Saba, where of course you could make a discovery of this magnitude and also a place you easily would chose in a novel for the same reason. And there is no similarity that both documents are forged (as he suggests), since we do not know that Clement’s letter to Theodoros is forged and as I said, one cannot simply assume that and use this as evidence when the actual issue is whether or not it is forged. If so, it is a circular reasoning.

    Then of course it was no secret that most manuscripts had been carried off to Jerusalem and that Morton Smith therefore would not have had any great expectations to make a major discovery. Watson writes that the “Nicodemus fragment and the letter to Theodore are discovered in similar circumstances narrated in similar language.” But what kinds of parallels are there really when Watson in Hunter’s novel finds that Sir William Bracebridge at a meeting back in London uses the word reconciled, while Smith wrote that he was reconciling himself; both to something negative, yet expressed differently? Really far-fetched! If you search for these kinds of similarities, you are bound to find some. Besides, there really are no “similar circumstances”.

    Watson also claims that the “two Mar Saba discoveries are … similar in content.” To show this he says that in both cases a “short but sensational excerpt of an early text is discovered”. Now seriously, this is really generally expressed. What else could they find? In Smith’s case he made many non-sensational finds and this one was the sensational one. Are we then to suppose that he forged it because of this? Or shall we believe that he was inspired by Hunter to produce a sensational text?

  4. My take on the purported similarities between the Clement letter and James Hunter’s novel “The Mystery of Mar Saba”. PART 2

    Further Watson claims that the discovery was made “together with a text or texts dating from the second century (manuscripts of Hermas and Barnabas, and of the letter to Theodore, respectively).” This is not entirely correct. It is (as far as I can see) never said in the novel that The Shepherd of Hermas and The Epistle of Barnabas are from the second century and they might, as I guess you all know, be from the first century. In the novel there are three separate documents, one for each book; and the third, The Shred of Nicodemus, is dated to the first century. This Shred of Nicodemus is never said to be “short” and is for sure no excerpt from a letter of Clement. So The Shred of Nicodemus is not short, not necessarily found together with a text or texts dating from the second century and there are separate documents found. The Mar Saba letter on the other hand is only one letter, with two short excerpts from Secret Mark and the letter could well have been written by Clement in the third century.

    But the real problem lies in the causality. We are supposed to believe that Smith read a poor apologetic spy novel, got inspired to make a forgery in a similar fashion, which includes having a similar name as the Chief of the London police, Lord Moreton, a minor character being introduced late in the story, then started to study different fields in order to acquire the competence needed for the task. He then managed to get permission to visit Mar Saba, in spite of their restrictions, in order to plant his forgery. As I understand it, 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 as a side note, even where I live in Sweden, more than a thousand kilometers north of Göteborg and not that far from the Arctic Circle, there is no snow this Christmas, which is quite unusual.

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