Robert Conner, The Secret Gospel of Mark: Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and Four Decades of Academic Burlesque, Mandrake of Oxford

Robert Conner seems to be specialising in books about controversies stirred up by New Testament scholar Morton Smith. Earlier this year I reviewed his Magic in Christianity, which largely examined Smith’s idea that Jesus was, essentially, a sorcerer. In this book he turns to Smith’s other claim to fame/notoriety, his discovery of the one-time existence of a ‘secret’ version of Mark’s Gospel.

The discovery held some very unwelcome implications for Christians and scholars alike, and since Smith’s death in 1991 allegations of fraud, only whispered in his lifetime, have become ever louder. In this slim volume of just under 150 pages, Conner gives his assessment of the controversy. As he sums up: ‘The “Secret” Mark saga is complex, encumbered nearly from the start by specious claims, misinformation, silly arguments, and gay bashing.’

Mar Saba
In 1958, in the library of the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem, Smith came across a copy of a letter written by the first-century Bishop of Alexandria, Clement. (Although the copy was made in the seventeenth century, this was the usual practice when old documents began to deteriorate.) The letter concerned a ‘more spiritual’ version of the Gospel of Mark containing secret teachings of Jesus, which was withheld from rank-and-file worshippers, some passages from which were quoted by Clement. Smith took photographs of the document back to America and, over 15 years of study concluded, first, that it really was a copy of a genuine letter by Clement and, more sensationally, that the quotes were indeed from an alternative version of Mark.

The document itself has disappeared, after being moved from the monastery to the library of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem. This has, inevitably, led to accusations that it never existed, even Smith’s photographs being part of his hoax. However, as Conner shows, the blame lies with the Patriarchate – or an individual librarian – which has either hidden or destroyed the original because of the threat it poses to established thinking.

Smith’s discovery raised several challenges to the conventional understanding of the origins of Christianity and its sacred texts. First, because of the suggestion that Jesus had secret teachings that were reserved for an elite. Secondly, as evidence that the gospels were subjected to editing and censorship. And finally because of the dynamite content of the excised passages quoted by Clement.

The major one tells what is clearly another version of the raising of Lazarus, although the resurrectee is only described as a ‘young man’ who ‘was rich’. One of New Testament scholarship’s great mysteries is why this pivotal miracle is only found in John’s Gospel. Smith’s discovery supplied an answer: it was in one other – in fact, the first to be written – but was removed because it was for initiates’ eyes only.

Worse for traditionalists, in ‘Secret Mark’ the young man later comes to Jesus ‘wearing a linen cloth over his naked body’ and spends the night with him receiving some kind of special teaching. Smith concluded that this was a ritual reserved for the closest disciples - and even suggested that there was a homosexual element to it. Small wonder Smith’s books on the subject (one academic, one popular, both published in 1973) raised the hackles of Christians everywhere, particularly those of a fundamentalist persuasion.

For those uncomfortable with any or all of these notions, the secret gospel has to be a forgery. And the forger can only be Smith; for various reasons it couldn’t have been a hoax foisted on him by others.

From his study of the evidence, Conner is firmly on Smith’s side. Assessing the authenticity of the ‘Clement letter’ is a highly specialised exercise that requires very detailed knowledge of, among other things, the Greek of the era - expertise that Conner has but which is conspicuously lacking in Smith’s most strident critics. His verdict is that the letter is almost certainly genuine – and, more importantly, that the extracts really are from an alternative gospel written by the same hand as canonical Mark.

Clement of Alexandria
Beginning with background on the Mar Saba monastery and Clement of Alexandria, Conner takes the reader through the controversy, from Smith’s conclusions about the letter to the academic response and the ‘firestorm of invective and denial from Catholic and evangelical quarters.’

Connor demonstrates that attempts to shoot the letter down on the grounds of vocabulary and style are ‘in the very best case shoddy procedure, in a slightly worse case mere incompetence, and in the worst case, academic fraud pure and simple.’

Conner makes the important point that Smith’s opponents never start with the letter itself, but with his interpretation of it, on the backward logic that if the conclusions he drew from it can be shown to be wrong then that proves it’s a fake.

A particularly compelling aspect of Conner’s argument is that, when it comes to the interpretation, he doesn’t slavishly follow Smith, persuasively arguing that he made some major mistakes. In particular Conner disagrees with the most controversial of Smith’s conclusions, that the nocturnal ‘sequel’ to the raising of the young man represented a secret ritual – a special kind of baptism reserved for a favoured few – and his speculation that it may have included a homosexual element. If Smith himself misinterpreted the letter then the forgery hypothesis is fatally undermined.

Conner shreds ‘ill-considered, pseudo-academic responses’ such as The Gospel Hoax by Stephen Carlson (a lawyer) and The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled by Peter Jeffery (a Benedictine oblate and, errr, musicologist), which set out to prove Smith a fraud. Conner declares the latter ‘simply the most bizarre thing in any category of literature that I have ever read.’

He highlights the part that homophobia played in the Christian responses: they assume Smith to be gay – and therefore conspiring to ‘gay’ Jesus – although, in fact, nobody knows his sexual orientation. As Conner pointedly observes, ‘Jeffery speculates endlessly about the sexuality of confirmed bachelor Morton Smith, but makes no comment at all about the confirmed bachelor Jesus of Nazareth.’

Having demolished the case for a hoax, Conner gives some of his own thoughts about the significance of ‘Secret Mark,’ in particular the identity of the resurrected young man. He is clearly the Lazarus of John’s Gospel; Conner provides evidence that both accounts are drawn from the same, Aramaic source. However, from a penetrating analysis, Conner also identifies him as the mysterious ‘beloved disciple’ in John’s Gospel, canonical Mark’s equally enigmatic ‘certain young man,’ dressed only in a linen cloth, who flees naked from the garden when Jesus is arrested, and the rich man who prompts Jesus’s ‘camel through the eye of a needle’ saying. Clearly this individual, whoever he was, was extremely important in the last days of Jesus’ mission, but for some reason was such an embarrassment to the early Church that it edited him out of the gospels as much as it could. Fascinating, thought-provoking stuff.

Conner’s final chapter is a lament on the revival of fundamentalism in the USA and its influence on ‘Jesus studies’, and on the increasingly poor quality of New Testament scholarship.

The Secret Gospel of Mark is an important book. However it has the same problem as Magic in Christianity: is it aimed at a popular or scholarly audience? There is a mismatch between the chapters dealing with the ‘hoax’ controversy, which are sharply written with a pungent wit (I particularly liked ‘the whine list of believers’), and the more scholarly ‘analytical’ chapters, in which Conner brings in specialist terms without any explanation. Phrases such as ‘the use of chiasmus to create epexegetical frames’ aren’t going to carry the general reader along. On the other hand, the fact that Conner, while possessing all the necessary expertise, doesn’t hold an academic position - and takes it upon himself to pronounce on the current state of the profession, often witheringly – won’t, unfortunately, give the book a warm welcome there either.

It’s a great shame, as ‘Secret Mark’ is of vital importance to anybody with an interest in the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity – if it’s genuine it changes the game fundamentally – and Conner’s book is by far the best assessment of the debate about it and the issues it raises, by somebody with the skills to do the job, and therefore should be read by scholars and laypersons alike. -- Clive Prince. 

1 comment:

  1. I can't do better than quote Wikipedia:

    "Even if the letter is genuine it tells us nothing more than that an expanded version of Mark was in existence in Alexandria in AD 170."

    And it's surely worth mentioning that the (ostensible) purpose of the Mar Saba letter was to denounce most of the additions as fraudulent.