Is the Secret Gospel of Mark a Modern Forgery Based on a Cheesy Christian Novel?
The so-called Secret Gospel of Mark (SGM) was discovered by Morton Smith, then a graduate student at Columbia University, in 1958. The SGM was reportedly found by Smith while he was cataloging the manuscripts held by the Mar Saba Monastery. Notably, Smith’s cataloging trip was not his first visit to Mar Saba. He resided there while stranded in Palestine during the Second World War.
Mar Saba is a Greek Orthodox monastery located in a particularly desolate part of the Judean wilderness 9 miles east of Bethlehem and 12 miles south of Jerusalem. It was founded at the end of the 5th Century by St. Sabas and is reputed to be the oldest inhabited monastery in the Holy Land. Though it once had a few thousand monks in residence, today only 13 reside at Mar Saba.
While cataloging the monastery’s manuscripts, Smith reportedly found “a three-page handwritten addition penned into the endpapers of a printed book, Isaac Voss' 1646 edition of the Epistolae genuinae S. Ignatii Martyris.” The handwritten addition to the book about Ignatius’ letters purported to be a letter written from Clement of Alexandria (a second century Christian writer) recounting passages from a “secret” version of the Gospel of Mark that was used for Christian initiates. If authentic, and assuming Clement knew what he was talking about, the existence of such a secret version of Mark would call into question much of our knowledge of early Christian literature. However, the content of the find was potentially more startling. The SGM contains a story about Jesus raising a man from the dead, that supposedly fits between Mark 10:34 and 35. According to Smith, the SGM portrays Jesus as a homosexual who takes the young man raised from the dead as a lover. It also has clear mystery religion overtones.
Although Smith has produced pictures of the 18th Century manuscript, he did not produce the manuscript itself. Somewhere along the way it was lost, never to be found again. Thus, the only scholar who has ever reviewed the original manuscript is Smith himself. The rest of the scholarly community has had to do with the pictures. In any event, whatever their views on the authenticity of the find, few if any scholars accept that this really is a secret gospel of Mark or really portrays true events from the life of Jesus.
But doubts abound about whether the find even goes back to the quill of Clement of Alexandria. Some scholars accept that Smith found what he claimed to have found, but suspect that the 18th Century manuscript itself was a forgery. Thus, Smith himself has been duped. Others, including some who knew Smith well, have accused Smith himself of engaging in a forgery.
In addition to the suspicious loss of the original manuscript (which foreclosed the kind of forensic examination that might have exposed a fraud) other scholars have noticed that the find fits all too neatly into Morton’s controversial views on the historical Jesus as well as his own lifestyle. It is also odd that neither the SGM nor the letter from Clement of Alexandria have left any other trace in the manuscript traditions or by reference from other early Christian writers. Other suspicions cast further doubt on the find.
In 2001, Philip Jenkins, a history professor at Penn State, added yet another argument supporting the forgery theory in his book Hidden Gospels. As far as I have been able to determine, Jenkins was the first to notice the similarities between a Christian novel first published in 1940 and Smith’s discovery of Secret Mark. The novel is The Mystery of Mar Saba, by J.H. Hunter. Its similarities to Smith’s discovery is found in the broad strokes and in the details.
Warning: What follows gives away the plot and ending of the book (which, in my opinion, is not very gripping).
In the Mystery of Mar Saba, the hero is the American George Medhurst. A suave adventurer, Medhurst becomes involved in uncovering a Nazi plot to win the upcoming war with Britain by fabricating evidence that would discredit Christianity – assumed by all to be the source of British moral courage. The plot takes us through all the venerated sites throughout Palestine with Medhurst and some British friends finally tracking down the Nazis at the Mar Saba Monestary. The Nazis have blackmailed a top scholar to fabricate an account by Nicodemas and Josephus of Arimathea – called the Shred of Nicodemus – recounting how they moved the body of Christ to another location after his death, leaving the burial linens behind. By proving Christianity wrong, the Germans – lead by a German scholar of Higher Criticism – hope that Britain will lose her will to fight.
So, the broad strokes are about a plot by a New Testament scholar to forge an ancient writing that proves very damaging to traditional Christianity. Similarly, Smith claims to have uncovered a previously unknown manuscript that is damaging to traditional Christianity. But, perhaps most important, is that both manuscripts are found at the same place: the Mar Saba Monestary.
The forgery in the novel is discovered at Mar Saba by another scholar – Sir William Bracebridge – while he is cataloguing the manuscripts there, just as Smith was doing when he reportedly discovered the SGM. Moreover, like Smith, Bracebridge had found a few manuscripts of some interest, but nothing of significance until stumbling upon the dramatic discovery of the tradition-challenging manuscript. Another striking parallel is that one of the significant secondary characters of The Mystery of Mar Saba is “Lord Moreton.” Lord Moreton is the Chief of the London police and plays a role in uncovering the Nazi plot. Though the spelling is one letter off, the pronunciation is the same for Morton.
Finally, though I had learned about some of the similarities before reading the book, one unexpected fact that struck me upon examining it was the dust jacket. In bold letters it reads, “It is prophetic” and in italics, “Isn’t It True? Fiction Yesterday—Fact Today!” Obviously, all this would be quite suggestive to someone open to the idea of committing fraud (motive), having the opportunity to do so (opportunity), and the academic ability to pull it off (means).
Is there any reason to believe that Morton Smith even read the book? Yes. Smith’s purported discovery was made in 1958. He had been stuck in Palestine, at Mar Saba no less, in the early 40s. The Mystery of Mar Saba was quite popular in the English speaking world. First published in 1940, it went through at least nine printings through 1947. Given the book’s focus on Higher Criticism, Palestine, archeology, manuscript finds, and most obviously, Mar Saba, it seems likely that Smith would have been exposed to it.
Does this prove that Smith committed a forgery? Although not enough to prove a forgery, it sure raises suspicions. As Jenkins notes:
The location of the find is fascinating since this was the scene of the forgery described only a few years before in the then-popular novel The Mystery of Mar Saba. To appreciate the degree of coincidence involved, we might imagine the response if someone today announced an epoch-making paleontological find from the English site of Piltdown, which became notorious for the forgery of the Piltdown skull. The fact that Secret Mark came from Mar Saba is either strong proof of the text’s authenticity, in that nobody would have dared invent such a thin in the 1950s, or else it is a tribute to the unabashed chutzpah of a forger.
Jenkins, Hidden Gospels, page 102.
Given the other indicia of inauthenicity, it seems that skepticism is the most appropriate response. Hopefully, resolution will be brought to the issue with the publication of Stephen C. Carlson’s not so subtly titled book, Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark. As described by the publisher:
Secret Mark first became known to modern scholarship in 1958 when a newly hired assistant professor at Columbia University in New York by the name of Morton Smith visited the monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem and photographed its fragments. Secret Mark was announced on the heels of many spectacular discoveries of ancient manuscripts in the Near East, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi gnostic corpus in the late 1940s, and promised to be just as revolutionary. Secret Mark presents what appears to be a valuable, albeit fragmentary, witness to early Christian traditions, traditions that might shed light on Jesus's most intimate behavior. In this book, Stephen C. Carlson uses state of the art science to demonstrate that Secret Mark was an elaborate hoax created by Morton Smith. Carlson's discussion places Smith's trick alongside many other hoaxes before probing the reasons why so many scholars have been taken in by it.
In case you were wondering, halfway through the book Medhurst accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. At the end of the book, Medhurst uncovers the Nazi plot, saves Western Civilization, and gets the girl.
Update: The son of the author of The Mystery of Mar Saba recently wrote an article that is available here. He provides some additional facts that I had not uncovered:
* Smith was invited to catalogue manuscripts at Mar Saba due to some charitable work he had performed on behalf of the Orthodox Church.
* The original letter was sent to the Patriarchate Library in Jerusalem from whence it "mysteriously" disappeared.
* Scott Brown, a Canadian professor, has recently published a book arguing that forgery has not been established regarding The Secret Gospel of Mark. Brown is aware of and mentions The Mystery of Mar Saba.
* Robert Price, perhaps the most skeptical New Testament scholar around (see my exchange with Dr. Price concerning an alleged interpolation in 1 Corinthians), has read The Mystery of Mar Saba and wrote: "Morton Smith might easily have become familiar with this popular novel, and I cannot help wondering if it gave him the idea for a hoax of his own."
* The Mystery of Mar Saba was even more popular than I thought. It was a bestseller that went through 12, not 9, reprints. It remained in print for 3 decades.