Is the ‘Secret Gospel of Mark’ genuine?

The Text

The text (supposedly discovered in 1958), appears to be a letter from early Christian writer Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c.215), quoting a ‘secret gospel’ by Mark.1 2


Smith himself noted features of the text which could indicate it was an imitation of Mark’s style by another writer.3 4 5 6 Physical analysis has been impossible since the original letter disappeared after being photographed in 1972,7 8 but there is no evidence Smith prevented access to the text. 9 10

Photographs show it has the appearance of age,11 but this could be the product of forgery.12 13 14 Suspicion of forgery was raised immediately.15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 The provenance and style,23 content,24 date,25 and lack of scribal errors, have all been questioned.26 27

Scholarly Views

Few scholars believe ‘Secret Mark’ is historically useful to studies of Jesus, even if it is genuine,28 29 30 and most question its authenticity.31 32 33 34

  1. ‘According to Smith, the letter in question was found on the final blank pages of the works of Ignatius of Antioch, the latter of which was copied in 1646. The handwriting of the extract is written in a different hand from the works of Ignatius and has been dated to c. 1750, about a century later than the Ignatius works of which it is a part. In the letter published by Smith, Clement replies to a certain Theodore who has been troubled by the teachings of the gnostic Carpocratians, a sect that indulges in illicit sexual practices based upon a variant version of the Gospel of Mark. Clement refutes the Carpocratians by citing two passages from the suspect version of Mark, which Morton Smith calls the Secret Gospel of Mark.’, Edwards, ‘The Gospel According to Mark’, Pillar New Testament Commentary, p. 509 (2002). []
  2. It was not until 1973 that the text, along with Smith’s translation and notes, was finally published.’, Charlesworth & Evans, ‘Jesus in the Agrapha and Apocryphal Gospels’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 526 (1994). []
  3. ‘Smith recognized that Markan vocabulary and sentence construction could point either to Mark’s authorship or to imitation of Mark by another author. Smith noted three features that suggested imitation:’, Brown, ‘Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s controversial discovery’, p. 6 (2005); Brown is a supporter of the authenticity of the letter, which he defends comprehensively in this work. []
  4. ‘More generally, he noted that “The text was more like Mark than a section of Mark should be.”‘, Brown, ‘Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s controversial discovery’, p. 6 (2005). []
  5. ‘‘The style is certainly Mark’s, but it is too Marcan to be Mark’; such was already C.C. Richardson’s verdict in 1974, and E. Best in 1979 confirmed this judgment in detail. In Mark itself the Marcan peculiarities of style are nowhere so piled up as in the ‘secret Gospel’!’, Merkel, ‘Appendix: the ‘secret Gospel’ of Mark’, in Schneelmelcher & Wilson, ‘New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and related writings’, p. 107 (1991). []
  6. ‘Smith refers to three ‘semitisms’, which, however, often occur in the Synoptics; as Smith himself admits, such semitisms are easily imitated.’, ibid., p. 107. []
  7. ‘Suspicion surrounded the text in part because after being photographed by Smith in 1958 and then a team of scholars in 1972, the text mysteriously disappeared, making it impossible to subject the text to the testing necessary to authenticate it even as an eighteenth-century production. The text still has its advocates.’, Köstenberger, Kellum, & Quarles (eds.), ‘The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament’, p. 1343 (2009). []
  8. ‘M. Smith photographed this text, which breaks off in mid-sentence on the third page, but did nothing about safeguarding the original, which to this day has not been accessible to anyone else. Only in 1973 did he publish the text with an extensive commentary; at the same time he published a popular presentation of the story of the discovery and his work upon it.’, Merkel, ‘Appendix: the ‘secret Gospel’ of Mark’, in Schneelmelcher & Wilson, ‘New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and related writings’, p. 107 (1991). []
  9. The truth is that at least three other scholars and two members of the Greek Patriarchate handled the manuscript. The information obtained by various inquirers, moreover, corroborates Smith’s account that he left the book containing the manuscript among the seventy items that he catalogued in the library at Mar Saba.’, Brown, ‘Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s controversial discovery’, p. 26 (2005). []
  10. ‘It would appear, then, that the manuscript was found at Mar Saba in 1976 rather than 1977, or eighteen years after Smith photographed it, and it disappeared many years after the Archimandrite took it to Jerusalem and a librarian removed it from the book. These facts show how preposterous it is to suggest that Smith prevented other scholars from examining the manuscript.’, ibid., p. 26. []
  11. ‘In view of what is known about the fading and browning of inks and the browning of paper in contact with ink, we can conclude that the photos depict a manuscript that looks like it is a few hundred years old.’, ibid., p. 28. []
  12. ‘Brown’s research indicates that some formulas of iron gall inks result in writings that would turn brown quite rapidly through exposure to sunlight.’, ibid., p. 28; this would give the ink a false appearance of age. []
  13. There was a way of ageing paper artificially that was used in the 1960s by experienced researchers such as Barrow.’, ibid., p. 28; Brown questions whether Smith had the skill for such forgery. []
  14. ‘It is also possible to age paper and ink using chemicals that oxidize the ink and paper.’, ibid., p. 28. []
  15. Some of the scholars Smith consulted in the 1960s thought the letter was an ancient forgery, although they had difficulty explaining how an ancient author would benefit by creating it. Smith dealt with their arguments in his book.’, ibid., p. 12. []
  16. ‘However, the spectre of forgery came back with a vengeance in 1975, when two scholars offered influential arguments that the letter was a modern hoax.’, ibid, p. 12. []
  17. Quesnell suggested that an erudite scholar who had access to Otto Stahlin’s 1936 index of Clement’s vocabulary and other modern studies of Clement’s style could have produced the document, especially if he had the help of someone skilled in imitating handwriting. Quesnell added that any scholarly apparatus Smith used to “authenticate” the document could have assisted a forger in imitating Clement. And he pointed out that Smith’s ability to gain access to the tower library at Mar Saba shows that a forger could have planted it there.’, ibid, p. 12. []
  18. ‘According to Quesnell, Smith’s approach of not producing the original for scientific study and restricting his analysis to the content is congruent with the pattern of known forgers; that fact raises the possibility of recent forgery.’, ibid., p. 35. []
  19. ‘many agreed with Quesnell that the manuscript should be subjected to forensic testing before it is deemed authentic.’, ibid, p. 12. []
  20. ‘Their suspicions only increased when Charles Murgia offered arguments for modern forger based on the content of the letter. Murgia suggested that the letter consisted mostly of information that was suspiciously self-authenticating, and noted that the manuscript lacks the major errors that result from a long period of transmission.’, ibid, p. 12. []
  21. Murgia noted parallels between the letter and “Classical fakes,” which raised the possibility that this manuscript was written much later than it appears to be.’, ibid, pp. 28-29. []
  22. every sentence of the letter, other than the actual quotation of secret Mark, is admirably designed to provide A SEAL OF AUTHENTICITY for the passage of secret Mark. Great care is taken to convince the modern reader of why he has never heard of this gospel before.’, Murgia quoted in ibid., p. 29; Brown notes ‘Smith himself commented in 1976 that Murgia’s “theory of a ‘seal of authenticity’ is the strongest case I have seen yet for the supposition that the letter is a forgery”‘, but criticizes Murgia’s case, ibid., p. 29. []
  23. ‘The only manuscript (actually, a photograph of a manuscript) seems to derive from a different provenance than the monastery where it was supposedly found, and evidence seems to suggest that it appeared at the monastery only in recent times. Its attribution to Clement is stylistically open to quesiton;117 it also clearly presupposes modern idiom and perhaps modern custom.’, Keener, ‘The Historical Jesus of the Gospels’, p. 60 (2009). []
  24. ‘Attempts to argue that the Secret Gospel of Mark is older than canonical Mark3 are clearly mistaken, and have been judged so by a majority of scholars.4 The most important reason for this judgment is that the material alleged by Smith appears in no other church father and in none of the thousands of ancient manuscript witnesses to the Gospel of Mark. Furthermore, that Secret Mark is a later addition to canonical Mark is virtually proven by the fact that “they came to Bethany” is a glaring anachronism in the text of Mark since Jesus and the disciples have not yet come to Jericho (Mark 10:46), and Bethany lay beyond Jericho. Finally, the Carpocratians mentioned by Theodore to Clement did not arise until the mid-second century, that is, a full century after the composition of Mark.’, Edwards, ‘The Gospel According to Mark’, Pillar New Testament Commentary, p. 512 (2002). []
  25. ‘Even if we accept the authenticity of the letter of Clement and grant that he knew a ‘Secret Gospel’, it suffices to posit a mid-second-century date for its composition.’, Klauck, ‘Apocryphal Gospels: An introduction’, p. 35 (2003). []
  26. ‘Over against the linguistic indications which speak for authenticity, differences of substance as compared with the rest of Clement’s writing have been noted. Finally, it is striking that the text contains none of the errors typical in manuscript traditions.’, Merkel, ‘Appendix: the ‘secret Gospel’ of Mark’, in Schneelmelcher & Wilson, ‘New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and related writings’, p. 107 (1991). []
  27. ‘the lack of serious errors indicative of transmission weighs in Murgia’s favour’, ibid., p. 33., Brown, ‘Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s controversial discovery’, p. 8 (2005). []
  28. Very few scholars believed that LGM 1 or 2 [the two texts of ‘Secret Mark’] can tell us anything about the historical Jesus or ventured to use this story to reconstruct the tradition that lay behind John 11.’, ibid., p. 11. []
  29. ‘Accordingly, everything points to the view that the ‘secret Gospel’ is an apocryphon resting on the foundation of the canonical Gospels. On this ground alone any conclusions relating to the historical Jesus are not possible. The time of origin of the ‘secret Gospel’ probably lies not before the middle of the 2nd century.’, Merkel, ‘Appendix: the ‘secret Gospel’ of Mark’, in Schneelmelcher & Wilson, ‘New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and related writings’, p. 107 (1991). []
  30. ‘Even if the letter is authentic, however, we can deduce no more than that an expanded version of Mark was in existence in Alexandria about A.D. 170. When Smith seeks to go back to the last years of the 1st century for the composition of the expanded Mark, that rests on pure speculation.’, ibid., p. 107. []
  31. ‘By the end of the 1970s, New Testament scholars still mentioned “secret” Mark in an incidental manner, but were generally reluctant to take the gospel too seriously and risk looking foolish should it prove to be a fake.’, Brown, ‘Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s controversial discovery’, p. 14 (2005). []
  32. ‘The novelty value of this text and of the reporting of its find justifies the mention of it in this collection, but its antiquity and genuineness are questioned by many scholars.’, Elliott, ‘The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation based on M.R. James’, p. 148 (1993). []
  33. ‘There can be little question that the extract produced by Smith considerably postdates Mark. On the whole, so-called Secret Mark appears to be a forgery, although whether modern or ancient is difficult to say.’, Edwards, ‘The Gospel According to Mark’, Pillar New Testament Commentary, p. 512 (2002). []
  34. ‘If the jury is still out, it is seeming more and more likely that their verdict will be that the work is a modern forgery or hoax.’, Collins, & Attridge, ‘Mark: A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark’, Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, p. 493 (2007). []

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