The secret gospel of Mark.

A literary forgery from century XX.


The text.

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, The 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. (David Hindley has provided translations by Robert Conner and by Morton Smith himself in PDF format.)

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:

Και ερχονται εις Βηθανιαν, και ην εκει μια γυνη ης ο αδελφος αυτης απεθανεν· και ελθουσα προσεκυνησε τον Ιησουν και λεγει αυτω· Υιε Δαβιδ, ελεησον με. οι δε μαθηται επετιμησαν αυτη· και οργισθεις ο Ιησους απηλθεν μετ αυτης εις τον κηπον οπου ην το μνημειον· και ευθυς ηκουσθη εκ του μνημειου φωνη μεγαλη, και προσελθων ο Ιησους απεκυλισε τον λιθον απο της θυρας του μνημειου· και εισελθων ευθυς οπου ην ο νεανισκος εξετεινεν την χειρα και ηγειρεν αυτον, κρατησαστης χειρος· ο δε νεανισκος εμβλεψας αυτω ηγαπησεν αυτον και ηρξατο παρακαλειν αυτον ινα μετ αυτου η· και εξελθοντες εκ του μνημειου ηλθον εις την οικιαν του νεανισκου· ην γαρ πλουσιος· και μεθ ημερας εξ επεταξεν αυτω ο Ιησους· και οψιας γενομενης ερχεται ο νεανισκος προς αυτον, περιβεβλημενος σινδονα επι γυμνου, και εμεινε συν αυτω την νυκτα εκεινην· εδιδασκε γαρ αυτον ο Ιησους το μυστηριον της βασιλειας του θεου· εκειθεν δε αναστασεπεστρεψεν εις το περαν του Ιορδανου.

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 Jordan.

The second passage belongs between Mark 10.46a and 46b, right after the words και ερχεται εις Ιεριχω (and they come into Jericho), again according to Clement, and comes from folio 2 recto, lines 14b-16:

Και ησαν εκει η αδελφη του νεανισκου ον ηγαπα αυτον ο Ιησους, και η μητηρ αυτου και Σαλωμη, και ουκ απεδεξατο αυτας ο Ιησους.

And there were the sister of the young man whom Jesus loved, and his mother and Salome, and Jesus did not receive them.

The controversy.

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 interrelationships:

  • 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 gospel?
  • 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 manuscript?

The answers to these three (sets of) questions produce four basic possibilities for the secret gospel and the letter describing it:

  1. The secret gospel is genuine, written by Mark (or by whoever wrote the canonical gospel), whether before or after he wrote the canonical version.
  2. The secret gospel is an ancient forgery, written by an ancient author imitating Mark.
  3. The entire Clementine epistle is an ancient, medieval, or early modern forgery.
  4. 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 also responded.

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.

The forgery.

Stephen Carlson, best known online for his Synoptic Problem Website, is now destined to become even better known as the author of The 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.

This review is quite lengthy. If you are pressed for time you may wish to skip to the heart of the review.

Introductory considerations.
Levels of argumentation.
Dovetailing evidence.
Concluding remarks.

Introductory considerations.

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; 21.20-24.

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 Saba discovery.

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 Carlson.

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 maxi.

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 for each:

  • 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?

Dovetailing evidence.

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 .pdf 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" (Clement 89, n. 1).

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 different timeframe.

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 of argumentation?

The Mar Saba manuscript belongs to century XX, not to century XVIII.
The Clementine epistle belongs to century XX, not to century II.
The Marcan gospel recension belongs to century XX, not to century I or II.

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 6A.

    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 point.

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 Morton Smith.

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 natural.

    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 mistaken.

  • 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 dissertation.

    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 century XX.

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:

Η μεν ουν αληθης και κατα την αληθη φιλοσοφιαν εξηγησις....

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 circumstance.

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, always appreciated.

Concluding remarks.

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 Morton Smith.


Online references to and reviews of the book.

Baylor University Press: Gospel hoax (press release, cover reviews).
Amazon: Gospel hoax (with reviews).

Stephen Carlson: Comments on my book.
Stephen Carlson: Initial reviews, second opinion.
Stephen Carlson: Keeping the Faith interview (as either streaming RealAudio or .mp3 download; scroll to November 27, 2005).

Rick Brannan: Wow.
Bruce Chilton: Not necessarily Smith, but a fraud nonetheless.
Robert Conner: On the controversy and arguments for its authenticity.
Mark Goodacre: An utterly convincing case.
Stephen Goranson: I recommend the book.
Stephen Goranson: A vanishingly small chance at vindicating the secret gospel of Mark.
James Hannam: Secret Mark is now forged Mark.
Phil Harland: Not yet a smoking gun.
Peter Head: Handwriting arguments not persuasive.
Jake Jones IV: The ball is in the other court.
Yuri Kuchinsky: No smoking guns.
Yuri Kuchinsky: Completely silly.
Luigi Walt: The work of a forger (in Italian).
Glenn Miller: A fun, fun book (comments on Carlson in an update toward the end of the page).
Michael Pahl: A book I wish I had written.
Roger Pearse: New avenues of investigation.
Philosophy 4 Christians comment: A heap of weak arguments (posted by godlovesfaithfulness).
Chris Price: The secret gospel of Mark and a cheesy Christian novel.
Loren Rosson: Nearly irrefutable.
Loren Rosson: A sobering lesson.
Loren Rosson: Top twenty literary hoaxes (including the secret gospel of Mark).
Loren Rosson: It took a legal expert.
Michael Turton: Blown away.
Michael Turton: The arc of forgery (referenced on page xvi of the book).
Michael Turton: A primer in how to understand hoaxes and fakes.
Brandon Wason: A great achievement.
Chris Weimer: Cuts straight to the chase.
Jim West: Must reading.
Wieland Willker: Disappointed with the book (repeated on his website).
Wikipedia: The secret gospel of Mark (comments on Carlson in the authenticity section).
Danny Zacharias and Craig Evans: All lingering doubts removed.

Carlson has also responded to an essay by Scott Brown (in devastating fashion, I daresay) in a series of weblog posts; part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9. 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.