The secret gospel of Mark.
A literary forgery from century XX.
In 1960 Morton Smith claimed to have discovered, in the Mar Saba
monastery near Jerusalem in 1958, a copy of an epistle from Clement of Alexandria to
one Theodore. The epistle contained two passages that Clement claimed
came from a secret expansion of the canonical gospel of Mark. The
story of this Clementine letter, as well as of this secret gospel of
Mark, can be found in two books by Morton Smith himself,
Secret Gospel and Clement of Alexandria and the
Secret Gospel of Mark.
The Greek text is based on that which Smith provides in
the first book. The translations are my own.
The first passage belongs between Mark 10.34 and 35, according to Clement
of Alexandria, and comes from folio 1 verso, line 23, through folio 2
recto, line 11a:
And they come into Bethany, and there was one woman
there whose brother had died. And having come she worshiped Jesus and says to him:
Son of David, have mercy on me. But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus got
angry and went away with her into the village where the tomb was. And immediately
there was heard from the tomb a great voice, and Jesus went up to and rolled
away the stone from the door of the tomb. And he went inside immediately where
the young man was and stretched out the hand and raised him up, clutching his
hand. And the young man looked at him and loved him and began to call him
alongside to be with him. And he went out of the tomb and went into the house
of the young man, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus commanded him.
And when it was late the young man goes to him, dressed with a shroud upon
his naked body, and remained with him that night. For Jesus taught him the
mystery of the kingdom of God. And from there he turned to the other side of
The second passage belongs between Mark 10.46a and 46b, right after
the words και
Ιεριχω (and they come into
Jericho), again according to Clement, and comes from folio 2 recto,
And there were the sister of the young man whom Jesus loved,
and his mother and Salome, and Jesus did not receive them.
The epistle from Clement to
Theodore and the two passages of the secret gospel of Mark
together encompass several concentric circles of controversy.
The pressing issues range along the following spectrum of
- What is the relationship of this secret version of Mark to the
canonical version? Which came first? Is the secret version a genuine
recension of Mark, written by the same author? Or is it a forged
- What is the relationship of the Clementine epistle to the rest
of the Clementine corpus? Is the epistle a genuine letter of the
Alexandrian church father? Or is it a forged epistle?
- What is the relationship of the manuscript discovered by Morton
Smith to the rest of the manuscripts at Mar Saba? Is the manuscript,
which is said to be written in an eighteenth-century hand, a
genuine document of that century? Or is it a modern forged
The answers to these three (sets of) questions produce four basic
possibilities for the secret gospel and the letter describing it:
- The secret gospel is genuine, written by Mark (or by
whoever wrote the canonical gospel), whether before or after he
wrote the canonical version.
- The secret gospel is an ancient forgery, written by an ancient
author imitating Mark.
- The entire Clementine epistle is an ancient, medieval, or early
- The manuscript itself is a late modern forgery, probably engineered
by Morton Smith himself.
Technically, the secret gospel could itself be genuine while the
Clementine letter describing it is not, but that possibility seems so
remote as to deserve little reflection. And it is hardly possible
after nearly two millennia for the manuscript itself to be inauthentic,
yet its contents authentic. So these four degrees are a basic working
quartet of possibilities.
For general information on the secret gospel, including
images, refer to the helpful homepage put together by Wieland Willker.
For arguments that the secret gospel is authentic, read the
interesting essays by Yuri Kuchinsky, to which I have
I myself have always tended to gravitate to the second option on
that list, softly rejecting hypotheses of an academic hoax or of
a pious or impious Clementine forgery, though I freely admit that I
am no expert in either Clementine studies or in eighteenth-century
handwriting. On the other side, I find it difficult to believe that
the author of the secret version is also the author of the canonical
version. The second option, therefore, has been my default position
for some time.
Until recently, anyway.
Stephen Carlson, best known online for his Synoptic Problem
Website, is now destined to become even better known as the author
Gospel Hoax, a book that attempts to pin the composition of both
the secret Marcan gospel and the Clementine epistle, not on Mark,
nor on an ancient imitator, nor on a medieval forger, but squarely
on Morton Smith himself.
This book has generated a fair number of online
references and reviews, both positive and negative. I have
assembled links to many of them in a list
at the bottom of this page, and also wish to add my own review
to the mix, in four parts.
In the interests of full disclosure, I think it proper to briefly
outline what is at stake for me personally in the case for or against
the authenticity of the Clementine epistle to Theodore.
On the one hand, I am a lover of intertextuality, and the secret
gospel of Mark offers intertextuality galore. While I have never
been persuaded that the author of the secret gospel and the author
of the canonical gospel are one and the same, I am not naturally
averse to the suggestion of a common source between the gospel of
John (in the Lazarus story) and the secret gospel of Mark. I love
a good intertextual mystery such as the conjunction of the
Johannine Lazarus with the Marcan youth might offer. For if the
secret gospel in any way reflects a genuinely ancient tradition
then the student of the text is presented with a fivefold spectrum
of potential character identifications:
- The rich man in Mark 10.17-22.
- The young man in the tomb in Mark 16.5-7.
- The young man in Mark 14.51-52.
- Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha in John 11.1-46;
12.1-2, 9-11, 17-19.
- The beloved disciple in John 13.23-26; 19.26-27; 20.2-10;
This tapestry of connections can be wrapped around a great variety
of hypotheses of gospel relationships, such as that which Miles
Fowler explores in Identification of the Bethany
Youth in the Secret Gospel of Mark with other Figures Found in
Mark and John. A lover of intertextuality such as myself does
not have to agree with every identification in such a reconstruction,
but cannot fail to appreciate the rich complexity of the case, and
can scarcely resist to attempt his or her own reconstruction.
In other words, to lose the secret gospel of Mark is to waste a
magnificently fertile field for the sowing and growing of theories
on gospel origins. This is my personal stake in the Clementine letter.
I frankly do not tremble at the more controversial implications of
either the letter or the gospel discussed within; what I would miss
most is the interplay of the Marcan and Johannine gospels at this
raw textual level.
On the other hand, however, I am a student of the patristic statements on gospel origins,
and what Clement says about the composition of Mark in his epistle
to Theodore is not easy to square with a certain hypothesis of mine
which I have spent much time developing as to the origins of our
extant text of Mark. This is neither the time nor the place to go
into the details of my reconstruction, but suffice it to say that to
have Mark taking his finished gospel to Alexandria after the death of
Peter, along with his own notes of the Petrine preaching, is rather
inconvenient to my hypothesis, at least as it presently stands.
In other words, to lose the Clementine epistle to Theodore is
to help clear the path for a pet notion of mine that depends on the
essential reliability of most of the patristic testimonia to
the second canonical gospel before the fourth or fifth century. I
cannot yet tell whether I am on the right track in my thoughts on
this topic, but what is certain is that I would not at all miss
having to fit this new Clementine testimonium to the
origins of Mark into the picture.
I am honestly not aware of any other significant personal
benefits or detriments to either retaining or casting away the Mar
Levels of argumentation.
There are several things about the secret gospel of Mark
and the Clementine epistle to Theodore that have bothered
me with respect to their genuineness over the years, but
I never considered them powerful enough to impeach either
the text or its discoverer. They have always amounted only
to intuitions or suspicions, nothing more. Furthermore,
most of my inclinations to at least provisionally accept
the epistle to Theodore as ancient have amounted to little
more than hunches or the vague notion that a scholar such
as Morton Smith would never stoop to forgery. Informed
intuition, then, I regard as one level of argumentation,
albeit a rather low level, a kind best relegated to
footnotes or passing comments in a scholarly work.
Higher up the scale is the kind of argumentation that
ought to form and inform the basic content of a scholarly work.
This level is that of careful logic based on the extant
evidence. It relies on the sifting, weighing, and evaluation
of multiple soft data, or on the application of new methods
to old evidence.
The highest level of argumentation is also fit for the
basic content of a scholarly work, but is no longer so
closely attached to the logical manipulation of available
evidence. Rather, its purpose is to make further evidence
available. The driving force behind this kind of argumentation
is the discovery of a manuscript, artifact, or other hard
datum hitherto unknown.
It seems clear to me that The Gospel
Hoax is aiming for that middle category. It neither
relies on intuition nor heralds the discovery of new
hard evidence, such as some long lost deathbed confession
by Morton Smith. Yet one
online reviewer of the book writes:
I must say that I am disappointed with the book.
Perhaps this was my fault, because I expected, based on the
early advertisements, some groundbreaking discovery by
If the reviewer, Wieland Willker, cracked the cover for
the first time expecting to find argumentation of that highest
level detailed above, then I can sympathize with his
disappointment. However, I am not certain whence Willker
got that impression of the book. The early advertisements and
reviews that I read, all online, were often enthusiastic,
to be sure, but I never got the sense that Carlson had
uncovered a lost document or the like.
So if Willker was let down in his expectations of the
highest kind of argument, what kind of argument did he
find? In his own words:
What I found in the book, though, is an
accumulation of mini-arguments against the genuineness
of the Clement letter.
If by mini-arguments Willker means the kind of
logical rationales that characterize my middle level of
argumentation, then I agree. If he means the kind of
suspicions and intuitions that characterize my lowest level
of argumentation, then I disagree. Perhaps he intends
the former and prefixes the mini in frustration at
not having found my highest level of argumentation, a fresh
discovery, which could presumably have been prefixed by
To come at last to my point, what I find in the
book is fairly close to what I expected, namely an
accumulation, as Willker aptly puts it, of arguments
(most of which fall into my middle category above) of various
degrees of potency. For Carlson attacks the problem from three
different angles, adducing an array of individual arguments
- The Mar Saba manuscript is modern (its handwriting,
not its paper material).
- The epistle of Clement to Theodore is modern.
- The secret gospel of Mark is modern.
(I was pleased to notice that these three prongs, each
given its own chapter in the book, line up elegantly, though
in inverse order, with my three relational questions about the
controversy surrounding the text.)
The potential power of such an approach is obvious.
If one aspect of the case should seem relatively weak to a
given reader, there may well be another that seems relatively
strong. Moreover, each prong is technically independent of
the others. Carlson certainly wants the reader to see the
same mind at work behind all three aspects, but his case
does not depend on that perception. If even one of his
thesis statements is true, his case is proven true. He is
not betting the entire fortune on one hand.
But I can also see how a reader might peg this kind
of approach as apologetic, as merely hurling objections
at the target en masse, hoping that at least one
of them sticks. Avoiding this image depends entirely on
the quality, not the quantity, of the arguments bolstering
each of the three thesis statements.
So how many, if any, of his three statements are
supported by potent arguments?
After a foreword by Larry W. Hurtado and a preface and introduction
by the author himself, Carlson reruns the discovery of the Mar
Saba text in chapter 1. This chapter, written in the most neutral
terms, closes with a reference to Quentin Quesnell, the scholar who
in 1975 began to openly question the authenticity of the document.
This reference in turn leads right into chapter 2, about exposing
literary fakes. It is this chapter that lays the foundation for
the rest of the argumentation in the book.
For those who have not yet purchased the book,
the entire first chapter and all but two pages of the second are
available for download as a
file from the publisher, Baylor University Press.
The basic insight of the second chapter is that a literary fake
will inevitably bear the imprint of the generation to which it
belongs. This imprint may be all but invisible to the contemporaries
for whom the fake was intended, but the passage of time ought to
set the character of the fake in bold relief as the burning issues
of that generation fade into memory. As Roger
Pearse cleverly words it, that which convinced the Victorians
now looks evidently Victorian to us. Any fake that fails to
address one of the burning issues of the day runs the risk of going
unnoticed in its own generation. And there is no reward to be had
for a forger whose forgery goes unnoticed in its own generation.
The Mar Saba manuscript, with its Clementine letter and Marcan
gospel, certainly did not go unnoticed. Is that fact enough to convict
it as a fake? Not at all, according to Carlson. It merely paves the
way for the more detailed inquiry that will fill the next three
chapters. Carlson seems well aware of the level of argumentation
that he is presenting in each case. Toward the end of the second
chapter, for example, on pages 19-20, he (A) notes the similarity of
the Mar Saba find to the 1940 novel The
Mystery of Mar Saba and (B) echoes Bart Ehrman in finding
irony in the fact that the Clementine letter was found at the
end of a 1646 edition of the genuine epistles of Ignatius by Isaac
Voss, a text intended to weed out forged members of the Ignatian
corpus. But Carlson then writes of these evidences on page 20:
These parallels between Secret Mark and known
fakes may be grounds for suspicion but are not proof. Rather, as
Smith himself argued, "the supposition of forgery must be justified
by demonstration either that the style or content of the the work
contains elements not likely to have come from the alleged author,
or that some known historical circumstances would have furnished
a likely occasion for the forgery"
In other words, according to that quotation of Smith himself, one
must show either that the alleged fake could not have come
from its purported author or that it more likely came from a
It is at this point that Carlson ambitiously proposes to demonstrate
not just either of these contingencies but both, and not
only with respect to one aspect of the disputed text but indeed with
respect to all three aspects (the Mar Saba document, the Clementine
epistle, and the Marcan gospel). He intends to show that each of these
three elements (A) does not belong to its purported timeframe
and (B) does belong to the middle of the twentieth century.
The next three chapters then tackle each of the three aspects
of the text in turn.
How potent, then, is each of the three main lines
The case against the Mar Saba manuscript.
Carlson spends chapter 3 attacking the Mar Saba manuscript, purportedly
a document from the quill of a monastic scribe from the eighteenth
century, by studying its handwriting and then adding auxiliary
supports. He approaches this issue from the following angles:
- Carlson compares the handwriting of this Mar Saba manuscript with
that of other manuscripts from Mar Saba by offering several useful
photographic images of each. Figure 1 paves the way with two genuine
and two forged modern signatures that highlight three telltale signs of
forgery, to wit, blunt ends (instead of flying ends) on the cursive
letters, tremors, and midstroke pen lifts. In his text Carlson also
adds retouching as a fourth sign. Figures 2A-C show lines from three
different Mar Saba documents dated to the eighteenth century. Figures
3A-F then show lines from the Mar Saba document that Smith discovered,
with figures 4A-C providing close-ups of some of the letters.
Carlson argues that, while the other Mar Saba manuscripts feature
handwriting that is both fluent and natural, the Smith manuscript
instead features evidence that the purportedly cursive strokes and
letters were drawn, not written. Overall, I can see exactly what
he is talking about in the examples that he provides. It does indeed
appear that many, though not all, of the letters were carefully drawn
instead of quickly written, belying the usual purpose of cursive
writing, namely speed. My only concern is that this evidence is not
a clean break; not all of the letters in the disputed manuscript appear
drawn, and (more importantly) not all of the letters in the other
Mar Saba manuscripts appear free of the telltale signs. For example,
what are we to make of the blob of ink on the stroke joining the second
alpha with the pi of the word αναπαυσον
in figure 2B? Is that a midstroke pen lift? Despite some overlap,
however, it is clear that, in the samples provided, the Smith
manuscript is rather more heavily riddled with such indications.
The best, indeed perhaps the only, way to counter Carlson at this
juncture would be to display a pool of handwriting samples broader
than the few lines pictured in the book (a limitation of the print
medium, to be sure) to see whether what Carlson shows us is merely
a fluke. But, if the samples from the book are indeed representative
of the available evidence not shown, we have a winner. The Smith
manuscript was drawn, not written.
Peter Head disputes the significance of the
telltale signs of forgery in a review
posted on the Textual Criticism List when he observes that nobody
doubts that Theodore is a copied text, so everybody would expect to
find indications of hesitation in it. But Carlson is correct to point
out that the samples from the other Mar Saba manuscripts also
come from copied texts, so any differences still stand out. Moreover,
there is to my mind a huge difference between hesitating between
words or phrases, which we might expect from the ordinary copying of
a text as the scribe periodically turns to his exemplar, and hesitating
between letters or strokes, which would be quite unnecessary in
ordinary copying unless for some reason the very shape of each
letter is important, which leads squarely back into the point that
Carlson is making.
- Carlson also points out inconsistencies between the disputed Mar
Saba manuscript and the other manuscripts at Mar Saba with regard
to the scribal symbol with which the disputed text begins, the choice
of quill used to copy it, the execution of the nomina sacra,
and the kind of ink used.
No one ought to mistake these observations for showcase
arguments. Each is adduced as reinforcement for the handwriting
discrepancies already detailed. I myself do not find any of
this evidence very persuasive on its own; it belongs in the class
of suspicion and intuition.
- Carlson points out similar anomalies with regard to the Isaac
Voss book itself, one of the few printed books in the Mar Saba
collection. He identifies several very clear differences between
this book and the other printed books at Mar Saba, including place
of publication, subject matter, and titular language, as well as
the unusual fact that the Voss book was written for the papal
controversy between Catholics and Protestants, surely not much of
an issue for an Orthodox monastery.
I find these differences fascinating. They certainly make it look
like the Voss book came to the monastery by a route different than
that or those by which the other printed Mar Saba books came to
be collected there. This does not prove, of course, that it came to
the monastery in the hands of Morton Smith, and I do not think that
Carlson means this part of the argument to bear that weight, but
I for one find it highly suggestive, and quite supportive of the more
concrete evidence laid out so far.
- Carlson follows these observations up with a search for how
Morton Smith himself describes his finding of the Voss book at Mar
Saba. Surprisingly, Carlson finds that Smith nowhere asserts or even
really implies that the manuscript was present in the monastery
library before he himself got there. His statements on the issue,
while not exactly evasive, are not exactly as forthright as his
statements about other manuscripts in the library.
This evidence again is only support for the main thrust of the
argument, but again I find it rather suggestive. The best way to
counter Carlson on this point would be to dig up a paragraph in
which Smith unambiguously describes his actual finding of the
manuscript at Mar Saba (as opposed to, for example, his finding
of himself reading the manuscript at Mar Saba).
- Carlson moves on to consider the handwriting once again, this
time from the vantage point of another manuscript that Morton Smith
catalogued from Mar Saba, number 22. Figure 5A is a photograph of this
manuscript; figure 5B is a closeup of it. Carlson argues that one of
the scribes who worked on this manuscript was Morton Smith himself,
but under a modern Greek pseudonym the meaning of which could be
taken as bald and swindler. Smith was bald, or very
nearly so, and if Carlson is correct also a hoaxer, not a very long
stretch as a synonym for swindler. This part of the argument points up
the distinction that Carlson makes between an ordinary forgery and a
hoax. The difference is motive. A forgery is usually done for profit or
for fame, or to further an ideological position. The purpose of a hoax,
however, is to test the experts; accordingly, a hoaxer will often plant
clues in the fake that will at some point expose it for what it is and
thus make the experts look foolish. According to Carlson, the
modern Greek pseudonym of one of the scribes of manuscript 22
is just such an intentional clue; it is, in fact, an embedded
confession on the part of the hoaxer.
I frankly do not yet know what to make of this part of the argument.
On one level I can see why a hoaxer would embed clues to the hoax, but
on another this kind of clue just seems so quirky. The acrostic
that Dionysius the Renegade embedded in his forged Sophocles play,
which Dionysius himself eventually pointed out to his rival in order
to shame him, would seem a sure sign that a hoax has been perpetrated.
But, in the case of the disputed Mar Saba manuscript and number 22,
what guarantee did Smith either have or put into place that the hoax
would ever be exposed? Did he overestimate the critical acumen
of his colleagues? And, if it turns out that he never really intended
for it to be exposed, then why embed a clue at all? I am simply
not convinced that this is the confession of a hoaxer.
Peter Head questions the identification of which
scribe of manuscript 22 actually bore the Greek name from which
Carlson derives so much meaning in another
post to the Textual Criticism List. Which scribe is which matters
because Carlson concludes that it was Smith by comparing the
handwriting of manuscript 22 with that of the disputed Mar Saba
manuscript. I myself am quite unqualified to evaluate the arguments
for or against the identification that Carlson has made, but it appears
to be a debate well worth keeping abreast of; so far Carlson
appears to have the edge.
- Carlson wraps up a very full chapter 3 with yet another handwriting
comparison, this time between the Smith manuscript from Mar Saba
and the scholia, or marginal notes, of Morton Smith himself
in his personal copy of the critical edition of Clement of Alexandria
by Otto Stählin (this volume is part of the Morton Smith Collection
at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York). Figures 6A-B present
samples of his own handwriting in Greek. Carlson then uses these
samples to fill out figure 7, a table coordinating three different
Greek letters (theta, lambda, and tau) from
(A) seven undisputed Mar Saba manuscripts, (B) the scholia
of Morton Smith, and (C) the disputed Mar Saba manuscript. The point,
of course, is that the letters from Smith and from his discovered
manuscript share distinguishing features that the letters from the
other Mar Saba manuscripts do not. For the theta the former
two often share a medial horizontal leadstroke lacking in the latter.
For the lambda the former two share a very low intersection
of strokes, an intersection that sits much higher in the latter.
For the tau the former two share a peculiar formation from
one stroke that comes out as two strokes in the latter.
There appears to be a small clerical error on page
47, where Carlson refers the reader to instances of the letter
tau in figure 5A; the accompanying endnote, number 65, lists
words containing that letter that clearly derive from figure
This evidence seems on a par with that with which Carlson began
the chapter; the best, or even the only, way to counter him would
be to poll a broader sample and attempt to demonstrate that what
Carlson shows us is a fluke. If his observations hold out across
the board, then I think Carlson has made a powerful
If we sift out the supportive, suggestive arguments and focus
only on the handwriting comparisons between the scholia, the
disputed Mar Saba manuscript, and the other Mar Saba manuscripts, I
think that Carlson has, barring a plethora of counterexamples from a
widened pool of samples, made a very good case that the hand that
scribed the document was, in fact, a modern hand and was, in fact,
the hand of Morton Smith. I am much less convinced, however, that
the scribing of manuscript 22 was an intentional clue on his part.
And I am also very glad that Carlson did not end his book at this
point; it is, as he points out on several occasions, the compilation
of independent arguments that will point the finger directly at
The case against the Clementine epistle to Theodore.
Carlson now uses chapter 4 to date the epistle to Theodore, purportedly
a document from the quill of Clement, almost eighteen centuries later
than the time of the great Alexandrian father. He approaches this
issue from the following angles:
- Carlson accepts the analysis of Andrew Criddle (one of the scholars
I most dearly wish had a weblog) in On the
Mar Saba Manuscript Attributed to Clement of Alexandria,
Journal of Early Christian Studies
3, pages 215-220 (1995), regarding the Clementine nature of the
epistle to Theodore. Criddle argues from the hapax legomena
(words singly attested) of the text that Clement did not author
it. Perhaps surprisingly, he arrives at this conclusion by noting not
how many new Clementine vocabulary entries appear in the
epistle but rather how few there are, much fewer than would
be expected from a typical piece of written work. In other words,
the epistle is too Clementine to be of Clement. (Such a finding echoes
the not infrequently expressed sentiment that the secret gospel text
is too Marcan to be of Mark.) He concludes, then, that somebody
other than Clement himself deliberately tried to imitate the
Clementine writing style, concentrating on keeping the number of
hapax legomena down. Carlson adds that such a concern betrays
a date later than the alleged penning of the text in the eighteenth
century, since hapax legomena were not appreciated as a
potential test for authorship until the nineteenth century. He
further argues that it betrays a date later than 1936, when Stählin
published his critical text of Clement with an accompanying
concordance, thus making the imitation of Clement feasible.
I find the statistical approach to answering questions of authorship
very promising and useful, but I adamantly insist that it not
stand in isolation (an insistence with which Criddle
himself appears to agree). Fortunately, Carlson has not left it
on its own; it is but one log in the growing woodpile.
- Carlson now turns to several instances in the epistle of
information that the ancient readership would not need but modern
scholars would be glad to get. He follows up on an argument by
Charles E. Murgia that the epistle contains a literary sphragis,
or seal of authorship, that would be unnecessary for Theodore.
Carlson also notes that in the letter Clement states that the
secret version of Mark is closely guarded in Alexandria.
To spell out the name of the location implies that Clement is not
currently in Alexandria himself, else an adverb like here
would be more natural, but then Clement apparently quotes from
the secret version verbatim, implying that he has a copy
of the text that he has just said is carefully guarded in
Alexandria. Did the Alexandrian church let Clement smuggle a copy
out with him? According to the letter, the Carpocratians themselves
had to corrupt one of the Alexandrian elders to even get hold
of the text. Carlson also wonders why, if Clement was no longer
in Alexandria, Theodore would not rather write to someone who was
still there, such as Origen. Finally, Carlson notes that quoting the
text verbatim to Theodore was not actually necessary anyway,
since his only concern appears to have been whether a line about naked
men was extant in the text or not, and he would be unable to check
the passages that Clement quotes for him on his own at any rate
if the secret version were kept under guard in Alexandria.
This section is a mixed bag, in my opinion. I do not really see the
point about the sphragis very clearly, since the text does not
actually say that Clement had opposed the Carpocratians in another
of his works; it at most implies it, which seems to be what we would
expect in a personal letter. As for writing to Clement away from
Alexandria instead of to Origen in Alexandria, there are just too
many unknowns to make a judgment call. Perhaps Theodore knew Clement,
but not Origen, personally in some way. The paradox of the reference
to Alexandria, however, is intriguing. I can think of no easy
solution to the problem that does not sound like an outright
apologetic for the text. The reference does indeed make it sound
like Clement was away from Alexandria at the time of writing, yet
somehow he had his own copy of this secret text, and for some
reason decided to quote from it to an individual who apparently
had no way to check on the text anyway, despite the fact that the
original inquiry could have been answered with a simple denial. None
of this information seems either relevant or even cogent in the
late second or early third century, but all of it is fascinating
for a modern scholar. Perhaps, then, it was in fact written for
the modern scholar.
- Carlson just touches on the testimonium to the origins
of the gospel of Mark present in the epistle. He observes that
this testimony is more about Mark taking notes of the Petrine
preaching than about Mark remembering it, in contrast to the
usual way of testifying to Mark in the second century. He also
recites in a footnote the suspicions of Attila Jakab regarding
the story of Mark coming to Alexandria, since in this epistle
it seems to imply that a Christian community was already in
existence there upon his arrival, against what Eusebius says
about Mark founding the Alexandrian church.
But it is surely too much to ask that the patristic traditions
march in lockstep on such matters. One has only to think of the divide
between Clement and Irenaeus as to the status of Peter when Mark
wrote his gospel: Was he alive or dead? And shall we regard either
of these patristic testimonies as forged because of the difference?
As for the focus on notes instead of memory, Clement himself claims
elsewhere that Mark drew up a note (υπομνημα,
apud Eusebius, History of the
Church 2.15.1) of what Peter had taught. I do not find
these kinds of evidences persuasive, and am glad that Carlson
touched upon them only briefly and in footnotes.
- Now we come to what may be the most important observation of
the chapter, perhaps even the book. In his epistle to Theodore
Clement speaks of the adulteration of truth with falsehoods
in terms of salt losing its savor. But this image of salt losing
its savor due to adulteration with additives is thoroughly modern,
according to Carlson, since free-flowing salt was not invented until
1910; moreover, the adulteration of salt became a topic of
interest a couple of decades before Morton Smith discovered the
epistle to Theodore when potassium iodide was added to free-flowing
table salt. The ancient norm was apparently lumps of salt which had
to be broken apart on the spot with a mallet. Adulterating a lump
seems as incongruous as adulterating a free-flowing medium is
This kind of anachronism is exactly what the reader needs in order
to eliminate subjectivity in deciding the issue of forgery. When I ask
myself how an ancient reader would have conceived of adulterating salt,
I draw a blank. Countering Carlson on this point would mean finding
a reference to ancient adulterated salt. References to salt becoming
tasteless (or insipid) are not uncommon, but that is not at all the
same thing. In an admittedly incomplete and amateurish search on Perseus for ancient
references to salt I could not come up with any that presupposed
the ability to mix salt with additives of any kind. Furthermore,
Carlson claims that Pliny lacks any discussion of the adulteration
of salt amongst his many
references to adulterated foods in the Natural History, a telling omission given that
Pliny mentions salt so
frequently in that work. It looks to me like a reference to
adulterating salt would be intended for a modern readership much more
appropriately than for an ancient one.
The reference in Pliny, Natural History 31.39, to the salt called
hammoniacum being adulterated with Sicilian salt is only
apparently an exception, since Pliny makes it clear that it is
called a salt only because it is found under the sand
(quia sub harenis inveniatur).
- Carlson does not linger long to savor this anachronism; he
goes on to argue that Morton Smith was deliberately toying with the
reader when he wrote the bit about adulterated salt into the text.
It was, after all, a chemist from the Morton Salt Company
who discovered the secret to free-flowing salt. And Carlson points
out a comment that Smith drops on this part of the epistle in which
he writes of an unutterable mystery, and then mysteriously neglects
to utter the part of a quotation from Jeremiah 28.17 that speaks of
a confounded smith. This, says Carlson, is the second confession
to his hoax that Morton Smith planted in the text.
But again I am not convinced that this is a confession. The
anachronistic reference to adulterated salt looks more like a simple
mistake to me. The snipped passage from Jeremiah 28.17 comes not
from the epistle to Theodore but from his later Clement of Alexandria; so it
was certainly not a part of the original hoax. And again the entire
thing just looks quirky. Why embed so slight a clue, with no guarantee
that it would ever be discovered? (Only Carlson, to my knowledge, has
ever suggested these details as clues.) I am not convinced that they
comprise the confession of a hoaxer.
With the exception of the confessions that he finds embedded in
the text, Carlson appears to mark out his stronger arguments from
his weaker arguments by briefly skipping through the latter and
methodically expounding the former. In this chapter the arguments
that sway me are the hapax legomena, the Alexandrian
paradox, and the salt anachronism.
The case against the secret gospel of Mark.
Chapter 5 is the shortest of the three chapters carrying
the bulk of the argumentation. In it Carlson argues that
the two excerpts that Clement provides of the secret
version of Mark are modern and appear to fit best in
the middle of the twentieth century. His case rests
principally upon the following two observations:
- The first excerpt from the secret gospel actually
contains two separated but related incidents. The first is
the resurrection of a young man that closely resembles
the Lazarus miracle of John 11; the second is the nocturnal
initiation of the youth into the mystery of the kingdom
with Jesus. In this latter incident the youth is said to
be naked under his linen garment, or shroud, and is also
said to have spent the night with Jesus. Both of these
details resound with homosexual connotations for the modern
reader. Then, in the very brief second excerpt from the
secret gospel, Jesus is said to have rejected three
women; with the homosexual overtones of the previous
passage still echoing in the ears this rejection of the women
sounds to the modern reader like a deliberate choice of
individual sexual orientation. But, Carlson argues, none of those
details would have triggered such connotations for the ancient
reader. How odd that three independent details in an
ancient text should so powerfully converge for the modern
reader into a portrait of a gay Jesus. Carlson points out
that the Greek phrase translated as spending the night
is apparently unique to the present text. Furthermore,
the weight of the homosexual imagery called to the mind of
the modern reader of the secret version necessarily turns the
clearly related Gethsemane episode in our canonical Mark
14.51-52 into a homosexual encounter in a public park area,
one of the burning issues of the decade in which this text
was brought to light.
What can I say? This is Carlson at his best. He has identified
another anachronism in the text. These details come together more
cogently and cohesively for the modern reader than for the
ancient reader for whom they were purportedly intended. I might
add that the Carpocratian interpretation of these details,
naked man with naked man, sounds more to me like the
modern egalitarian approach to homosexual relations than
the ranked pedastery of ancient times; but I may be
- Carlson follows up this triumph with another gem; he
finds a paragraph in Morton Smith himself, Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels,
pages 155-156, connecting the mystery of the kingdom in
Mark 4.11 with secret teachings on forbidden sexual
relationships. Smith wrote this book, his dissertation,
about a decade before finding himself staring at the
secret gospel of Mark at Mar Saba. In other words, just
as Bruce Metzger knew the amusing agraphon discovered
by Coleman-Norton to be a fake because he had heard him
deliver the punchline before finding the lost text, Carlson
knows (and now his readers also know) the shocking connection of
kingdom mystery and sexual encounter to be a fake because
Morton Smith had already discussed the link in his
Carlson interprets this material parallel as Smith writing
his own sphragis referring the reader to his previous
work. I do not think I would press it that far. The parallel
is palpable, but I do not see at present any reason to suppose
that Smith left it as a deliberate clue. Perhaps, rather, the
connection had been on his mind for years and was simply
one of his reasons for forging an ancient document.
This chapter, though the briefest of the three basic
prongs of the argument, packs a punch. The argument is
cumulative, and it culminates admirably in the solid
dating of the secret gospel of Mark to the middle of
In chapter 6 Carlson runs through the forgery again with
an eye to the classic legal triad of means, motive, and
opportunity, finding that Smith had all three. I would like
to call attention to one item in particular in this chapter:
Carlson calls the abrupt midsentence stop of the Smith
text a cliffhanger ending (page 79). I think I know what
Carlson means, but would probably express it differently.
One of the things that has always bothered me about this
text is precisely that, even though it comes to a halt
midsentence, it is not a cliffhanger, at least not
for the modern scholar. The text ends as follows:
The true exegesis, therefore, and that
which is according to the true philosophy....
One of the most frustrating things about ancient
fragmented manuscript finds is the painful awareness that,
had the sands of time only preserved more of the text,
we should have more of our questions answered. When such
a fragment breaks off there is always a scholarly sense
of loss, the knowledge that more of the text would have
followed if the document were intact.
Not so with Clement to Theodore. The extant ending is
a sign to the modern critic that we have either all that
there was or all that the author cared to share of
the text in question. The author is finished with the
direct quotes, and has now moved on to interpretation.
But modern scholars routinely ignore patristic
interpretations of their source texts, preferring to
reconstruct each source for themselves and study it
without patristic interference. And that is just what
the Mar Saba text allows us to do. We have had the
doubly good fortune of (A) having Clement quote the Marcan
excerpts so exactly as to preserve both their Marcan character
and their exact Marcan position and (B) having only the
Clementine interpretations, not the Clementine efforts at
text preservation, cut off by the ravages of time and
And, if Carlson is correct that the Mar Saba
manuscript is a hoax, then the joke might be that Morton
Smith himself gets to supply in his related books what
is lacking in the text, namely the true interpretation
(and that which accords with the true philosophy)
of his perfectly preserved gospel fragments.
But I suspect that this last point is reading too
much into text and context. I still do not find myself
agreeing with Carlson that Morton Smith perpetrated
a hoax. The first two confessions seem stretched
to me, and the third appears to admit of a more
straightforward explanation: Smith was using his textual fake
for the third purpose that Carlson identifies for a
forgery, to further his own ideology (as expressed,
for example, in his dissertation), and never intended for a
Stephen Carlson to come along and catch him out.
Carlson makes the invaluable point on page 80 that the
best place to look for what Smith might have gained
ideologically is not in those works that postdate 1958
but rather in those that predate that fateful year. And
of course he follows up this insight with relevant
and compelling examples.
Finally, chapter 7 steps back out of the close
argumentation to take another look at fakes in general.
The single appendix offers excerpts from the 1960 catalog
that Smith assembled of Mar Saba manuscripts. The endnotes
follow, then the bibliography, and then a very useful index,
This book certainly makes the most of its 151 pages;
it has singlehandedly changed my position on the
secret gospel of Mark from probably authentically ancient
to almost certainly not. I have revised my site references
to this text accordingly.
The multifaceted approach that Carlson applies to the disputed
text pays off. One could embrace far fewer of his points than I
do and still come away with the realization that the text
is a modern forgery or hoax. I myself am not (yet) persuaded of the
hidden confessions from which Carlson argues for a hoax, but even
my demurral on those points does not spare me from the force
of his other arguments.
Other hoaxes and forgeries throughout history have been exposed
on much less evidence than Carlson marshals. The Mar Saba manuscript
is, in my newfound best judgment, a modern forgery perpetrated by
Online references to and reviews of the book.
Carlson has also responded to an essay by Scott Brown (in
devastating fashion, I daresay) in a series of weblog posts;
Recommended reading! His summary (in part 8) of his triple argument for Smith having
previous knowledge of the contents of secret Mark is especially succinct:
- In 1951, Smith linked Mark 4:11 ("the mystery of the kingdom of
God") and T. Hag. 2.1 on what Smith characterized as
"forbidden sexual relationships" (Tannaitic Parallels, 155-156).
Seven years later, Smith would return from Mar Saba with photographs
of a new text that describes, in terms that are sexually charged for
the 20th century reader, a young man with a linen cloth over his
naked body spending the night with Jesus and being taught the
mystery of the kingdom of God.
- In the spring of 1958, Smith, who rarely wrote about Clement of
Alexandria before, published a piece linking Clement’s notion of
secrecy to T. Hag. 2.1 ("Image of God," BJRL 40 (1958):
507). Just a few months later, Smith would come back with a new letter
ascribed to Clement that denounces the sexual practices of the
Carpocratians and enjoins its recipient to secrecy.
- In his lengthy 1955 review of Vincent Taylor’s commentary on
Mark, Smith suggested the existence of a common source behind Mark
and John. Three years later, Smith would possess a new text with a
form critically primitive version of the raising of Lazarus that
lends support to Smith’s prior suggestion. Smith’s new text would
also support other of Smith’s beliefs and opinions expressed in the
review (see Gospel Hoax, 80-84).
Well said. Also, Philip Esler and Ronald Piper have now favorably
mentioned the book in print.