The Secret Gospel of Mark (Coming Soon)
While cataloging material in the library of the monastery of Mar Saba in 1958, Morton Smith discovered a quotation from a letter of Clement of Alexandria copied in the end pages of a 17th century collection of the letters of Ignatius. After more than a decade of collaborative analysis of the find, Smith published his conclusions in 1973, setting off a firestorm of controversy in the New Testament studies guild.
In 1975, a Jesuit scholar, Quentin Quesnell, claimed the letter had been forged and implied that Smith was the forger, moving the focus of debate off the text itself and onto Smith. Since then the pages containing the letter have been removed from the book and possibly destroyed, while Catholic and evangelical writers, none of whom have ever seen the pages in question, continue to claim that Smith forged the letter.
Following his death in 1991, accusations against Smith took on a considerably more personal tone, highlighting his alleged homosexuality and by implication his dishonesty and moral perversity. Although the question of authenticity remains unresolved, the controversy has opened a window on the intellectually corrupt nature of apologetic New Testament studies, a subject of greater importance than the authenticity of early Christian texts.
For anyone not familiar with The “Secret” Gospel of Mark, this essay by Robert Conner is a great place to start. The Secret Gospel of Mark is a pre-Canonical longer version of Mark survived only in a letter some attribute to Clement of Alexandria—a second and third century writer who was very familiar with gnosticism and pre-Christian Judaism. This secret Gospel of Mark has notably gnostic elements, some of which are homoerotic. In fact, this is one of the reasons people rejected the authenticity of the letter and accused Morton Smith of fabricating it. Regardless of attacks on Smith’s character, the Mar Saba letter might be authentic. From the essay:
Ehrman conceded, “At the outset, however, I should emphasize that the majority of scholars Smith consulted while doing his research were convinced that the letter was authentic, and probably a somewhat smaller majority agreed that the quotations of Secret Mark actually derived from a version of Mark. Even today, these are the majority opinions.” Ten years after the publication of the Mar Saba letter, Smith noted that twenty-five experts attributed it to Clement, four did not, and six had no opinion.
Regardless of the apologists within New Testament Studies, the Mar Saba letter deserves more attention than it gets, specifically because it features gnostic elements—which, if one is familiar with the history of Christianity, should be seen as one of the earliest, if not the earliest, form of Christianity. That Secret Mark was only survived by that letter and that further, Clement’s knowledge of gnostic and pre-Christian Judaic influence survives only in fragmentary quotes should give anyone pause. Perhaps this reveals the extent to which proto-Othodoxy suppressed alternative and probably more authentic versions of Christianity. That is to say that Christianity wasn’t what has passed down to the modern day and thus, more authentic versions were closer to the mystery religion that first took shape. Ultimately, Secret Mark is important to the history of Christianity and even if it isn’t an authentic Clementine letter but rather a letter forged by a later writer in his name, the case can be made that the writer sought to preserve an earlier Markian Gospel which preserved early Christian practices.