OSC’s The curious case of Morton Smith

Professor Craig A. Evans and Dr William Lane Craig are both in the business of truth finding with regards to historic Jesus studies, meaning whenever there’s an assertion or hypothesis concerning who the Christ was or how we come to believe what we do about Him, they’re the sceptical eye of orthodoxy. And although the task of dismantling and wading through wave after wave of false theory concerning Jesus is enough to cause most to give the subject over to mystery, no such pessimism would dare overtake the Craigs, rather they crush the conspiracy hypothesis, annihilate apparent death theory and generally scupper the plans of any would be historic revisionist. So what good does the revisionist’s weighty tome or undone theory serve after having been dissected and exposed as an incomplete (if not entirely false) reimagining of history?

If the material or hypothesis in question fails then there’s an obvious use in knowing why it failed, for which an unbelieving person’s lengthy articles, supposed controversies and even any forgeries of theirs are of use in that they teach the reader by what standards they ought not to judge. Some such theories include the swoon, twin and misplaced body hypothesis, all of which are born not out of an interest in the evidence but by the antagonist’s prior commitment to atheistic naturalism, Islam or any number of competing world-views. Regardless these objections are ordinarily considered far-fetched and wacky even by those who promote them, they’re simply more attractive to the person objecting than the classic Resurrection hypothesis. There are others however, theories concerned with Jesus of Nazareth that are at the same time unconcerned with His resurrection, the son of a Roman soldier myth which attempts in vein to undermine the virgin birth, alongside that which follows:

‘At the 1960 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Morton Smith (1915–91) announced that while examining a number of old books and papers in the Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean Desert in 1958 he discovered three pages of hand-written Greek in the back of a 1646 edition of the letters of Ignatius. These pages purport to be a lost letter of Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215), written to one Theodore, in which a longer, mystical (or “secret”) Gospel of Mark is discussed. Two passages of this work are quoted, one of which describes Jesus teaching a young man, wearing a linen sheet over his “naked” body, the “mystery of the kingdom of God.”’

Similarly to Craig Evans Dr William Lane Craig in the eighth lesson of his Defenders class on the doctrine of the Trinity outlines a similar situation with regards to the discovery, hereafter we glean: ‘He (Smith) said it was in the back of an ancient book that he found there. This fragment from this Secret Gospel of Mark had some rather off-color suggested things to say about Jesus. It suggested, for example, that the figure in Mark’s Gospel – the young man who flees from the garden at the arrest of Jesus and that he was clothed only in a linen cloth and he runs off naked. In the Secret Gospel of Mark it says that this young man came to Jesus by night wearing only this linen sheet to be instructed in the secrets of the Kingdom of God by Jesus. Then it has some other things about the women who followed Jesus.’

So the women who are invaluable in establishing the authenticity of the burial account of Jesus were on this hypothesis a leftover or vestige of this so-called secret gospel, although the burial account having involved Joseph of Arimathea would yet belong to the history surrounding the burial and crucifixion events. Still what was this radical alternative which Morton Smith proposed, Robert M. Price explains just how untoward Smith’s intentions were in an article titled Second Thoughts on the Secret Gospel:

‘Smith ventured that Jesus was a kind of antinomian Gnostic who led his disciples into a trance ecstasy, experiencing the Kingdom of God on earth, much as Irenaeus tells us that Markos the Magician used to teach wealthy New-Age matrons how to speak in tongues and prophesy. Smith said that, yes, this initiation included homosexuality as a rite of liminality, betokening the transcendence of this world by the holy-minded transgression of its categories and its laws. Such notions are common to Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism, though for Smith to claim Jesus and the first Christians indulged in such adventurous pieties is rather like John Allegro’s theory that the early Christians were a mushroom cult like the Brahmin priests with their sacred Soma (“The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross”, Garden City: Doubleday, 1970). Both theories are possible, however offensive they may strike us. But what good is a Christianity that does not offend? The relevant question is whether there is sufficient evidence for one’s proposals.’

So “evidence for one’s proposal” is really key to whether or not we move forward with any proposition no matter how distasteful, with that in mind Craig Evans examines how fierce the scholarly world were once divided by the discovery: ‘In 1973, Smith published his find, now known as the “Secret Gospel of Mark,” in a lengthy, learned volume (Harvard University Press) and in a briefer, popular version (Harper). Although a number of scholars were willing to accept the find as authentic, or at least were willing to accept Smith’s account, a number of other scholars suspected the find was a hoax and that perhaps Smith himself was the hoaxer. The matter continues to be debated.

In April 2011, Tony Burke and Phil Harland of York University in Toronto hosted a one-day symposium devoted to Morton Smith’s controversial find. Participants included Scott Brown, Bruce Chilton, Charles Hedrick, Peter Jeffery, Marvin Meyer, Allan Pantuck, Pierluigi Piovanelli, Hershel Shanks, and me. All in all the conference was stimulating and enjoyable. The participants were cordial and the hosts accommodating. All of us owe Tony and Phil our thanks.

About half of the participants view Smith’s find with suspicion, if not as an outright hoax. These include Chilton, Jeffery, Piovanelli, and me. The other half of the participants, including the hosts, remain convinced that Smith told the truth. (The “authenticity” of the find itself, of course, is another matter.) On his blog, Tony has chronicled his thoughts, explaining why after hearing the papers and the discussion he still thinks Smith indeed made the discovery and that Smith was not involved in any way in a hoax.

At one time, I too accepted Smith’s account. I assumed that the letter of Clement, however it came to be copied into the back of Isaac Voss’s 1646 edition of the letters of Ignatius, was genuine. I viewed the “mystical Mark” edition, of which Clement speaks and two portions of which he quotes, as a second-century revision of the first-century Mark. It was in reading Smith’s 1951 dissertation (“Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels”), in the context of a study in the mid-1990s comparing the rabbinic-like sayings and parables of Jesus with the sayings of the Tannaitic Rabbis, that I began to have serious doubts.

In a paragraph found on pp. 155-56 of the dissertation, Smith discusses the possibility of “secret doctrine” in the early Church, as reflected in Mark 4:11 (“to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God”) and in 1 Cor 2:1–7 (“we speak the wisdom of God in a secret”). Smith finds a parallel to the idea of secret teaching in early rabbinic tradition and appeals to “Hagigah” 2.1. (Smith refers to the Tosefta, but his quotation appears to reflect the parallel in the Mishnah.) Smith paraphrases the “Hagigah” passage as follows: “The (passages of the Old Testament dealing with) forbidden sexual relationships are not to be expounded to three (at a time) . . . and (Ezekiel’s vision of) the chariot may not be expounded to a single hearer . . . .”

In itself, Smith’s point is not particularly strange. He suggests a parallel between early Christianity and early rabbinic Judaism because both seem to have made a distinction between public teaching and private teaching. How truly parallel the Christian materials and the “Hagigah” passage really are I am not sure. For now, all I wish to note is the appearance of Mark 4:11 in a paragraph discussing, however briefly, forbidden sexual relationships. If you look at the “Hagigah” passage, you will see that it refers to Leviticus 18, which forbids homosexual activity (cf. Lev 18:22).

In an article that appeared in 1958 (“BJRL” 40 [1958]: 473–521), the year Smith visited Mar Saba, though written before the visit, Smith discusses, among other things, secrecy, initiation, union between believers and a deity, and Clement of Alexandria, who was fond of secrecy. Along the way, Smith remarks: “If a Jew [i.e., Jesus] could be supposed to invoke Beelzebub, he could be supposed to invoke Eros [the god of love]” (p. 485 n. 1).

In a lengthy and severely critical review (“HTR” 48 [1955]: 21–64) of Vincent Taylor’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark (1952), Smith speaks of a Markan “source with other Johannine traits” (p. 26) and of material that the evangelist Mark “would leave out . . . even if he did not deliberately censor it” (p. 35). Smith also returns to Mark 4:11, commenting that “the early Church had a wide variety of motives for attributing secret doctrine to Jesus, and among them may well have been the recollection that Jesus (also for a wide variety of motives) practiced secrecy” (p. 29).

I draw attention to these two curious proposals (i.e., the linking of the secrecy of Mark 4:11 to prohibited sexual practices and the idea that Mark’s sources may have included materials with Johannine traits) because they are the notable features of Smith’s Mar Saba find. First, Smith’s Clementine letter quotes a passage omitted from public Mark, in which a young man wearing a cloth over his “naked” body comes to Jesus at night and is taught “the secret of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11). Clement goes on in his letter to complain of those who interpret the passage in a “carnal” and “blasphemous” sense and asserts that the words “naked man with naked man” do not occur in the text. The discussion in the letter makes it clear that the passage quoted from Secret Mark could be understood and in fact was understood by some as hinting at homosexual activity. Secondly, the story of the raising of the young man parallels the story of raising Lazarus in John 11 (which Smith acknowledges and discusses). The long quotation of mystical Mark is an example of material at the evangelist’s disposal that contains “Johannine traits.”

In short, Smith claims to have found in 1958 a lost letter of Clement that contains two unusual elements that Smith himself discussed in pre-find publications, that is, works that Smith published in 1951, 1955, and 1958. What are the odds? Please understand what I am saying here. I am not saying that Smith “interpreted” his 1958 find in the light of his pre-find publications and interests. What I am saying is that his 1958 find (the Clementine letter and its quotations of a “mystical Mark”) “contains the themes” that Smith himself talked about in previous publications. This is what makes me so suspicious. This is why I no longer use Secret Mark in my research.

The amazing and unlikely parallels that I have pointed out do not constitute proof, in some sort of legal sense. What they do is raise troubling questions and arouse suspicion. There are other parallels. In places, Smith seems to echo James Hunter’s novel, “The Mystery of Mar Saba” (1940). In the novel, the British archaeologist “Sir William” explains his reasons for visiting the old monastery in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War: “This monastery . . . is one of the oldest religious institutions of its kind in the world, and at one time housed many manuscripts. Most of these were removed, but I have always had the feeling that some might have been overlooked and hidden away. My supposition proved correct” (p. 279; emphasis added). Smith’s reasons and expectations were remarkably similar. Smith explains: “I had not expected much from the Mar Saba manuscripts since I knew that almost all of them had been carried off to Jerusalem in the past century and were listed in the catalogue of the Patriarchal library. But there was always the chance that something had been missed, or that other manuscripts had been brought in by monks coming from other monasteries” (“Secret Gospel” [1973], 11; emphasis added). It seems neither the fictional British archaeologist nor the non-fictional American scholar expected to find anything at Mar Saba.’

Dr Craig in near disbelief continues, even go so far as to compare the “discovery” to Hollywood blockbuster the DiVinci Code: ‘What Craig Evans shared at this conference was that it has just been discovered that in 1940 there was published a book, a sort of detective novel, called The Mystery of Mar Saba. In this detective novel, it is just like The DaVinci Code. It is about how a man goes to the monastery at Mar Saba – the same place where Morton Smith claimed to discover The Secrete Gospel of Mark – and he finds a fragment of a hitherto unknown secret gospel and that this fragment overturns the biblical narratives and undermines Christianity. The name of the biblical scholar in the novel who does this is Lord Moreton.’ Evans hereafter continues: ‘However, both did make surprising discoveries. The novel’s “Sir William” explains: “I was prepared to leave Mar Saba, “reconciled” to the negative results of my research, when a monk told me he had certain manuscripts in his “cell” that had evidently been overlooked . . . ” (p. 293; emphasis added). Likewise reports Smith: “I was gradually “reconciling” myself to my worst expectations and repeating every day that I should discover nothing of importance. Then, one afternoon near the end of my stay, I found myself in my “cell”, staring incredulously at a text written in tiny scrawl . . .” (“Secret Gospel”, 12; emphasis added).

“Sir William” of Hunter’s novel found a leaf of Greek text that tells a story of the removal of Jesus’ body from the tomb, which is why Jesus’ followers subsequently find it empty and mistakenly come to believe that their master had been raised up. Sir William’s discovery stuns and demoralizes the British Empire, reducing the will to resist Adolf Hitler. Fortunately, it turns out the leaf of Greek is a forgery and the hero who exposed the nefarious Nazi plot is one Scotland Yard Inspector “Lord Moreton.”

The parallels between Smith’s discovery and Hunter’s novel are quite amazing. Could it be that the novel inspired Smith? Francis Watson thinks so. In a recent study (“Beyond Suspicion: On the Authorship of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark,” “JTS” 61 [2010]: 128–70), Watson explores a number of troubling parallels between Smith’s pre-Mar Saba find publications and the Mar Saba find. He looks at the parallels between Smith’s account of his find and Hunter’s novel. He also observes that Smith’s find in places appears to be dependent on the language of Papias, in a way that would be hard to explain of Clement of Alexandria but not hard to explain of a modern scholar who may well have need of the assistance of a second-century church father. As the title of his study indicates, Watson believes Smith’s involvement in the production of the Mar Saba text is “beyond suspicion.”

The reason that Watson, I, and others regard Smith’s discovery with suspicion is because Smith had articulated some of the unusual aspects of the Mar Saba text before he found it. With this point in mind, allow me to refer to another example. I have suggested that Paul Coleman-Norton’s spurious “amusing agraphon,” published in 1950 and said to have been found in North Africa in 1943 (“CBQ” 12 [1950]: 439–49), may also have been inspired by Hunter’s novel. Coleman-Norton, former Associate Professor of Latin at Princeton University, says he found the leaf of Greek inside an old book in a mosque. What he says he found is an unknown saying of Jesus, followed by a page of patristic commentary. The saying is occasioned when a disciple asks Jesus how the toothless wicked will be able to weep and gnash their teeth when cast into outer darkness, where people “will weep and gnash their teeth.” Jesus replies, “Teeth will be provided!” What gives Coleman-Norton away, besides the modernity of the humorous quip, is that he had regaled his Princeton students with this witticism many years before making his “discovery.” Bruce Metzger recounts the episode in his 1971 SBL presidential address (cf. “JBL” 91 [1972]: 3-24; idem, “Reminiscences of an Octogenerian” [1997], 136–39).

Because the end pages of Voss’s book, on which the Clementine letter and quotations of Secret Mark appear, have gone missing, there has been no scientific testing that might clarify when the ink had been applied to the paper. Handwriting analysis of the photographs of Smith’s find appears to be deadlocked, with experts weighing in on both sides, concluding either that Smith himself wrote the text or that Smith did not write the text. Some of this analysis has been posted on the Biblical Archaeology Society web page, for which we may thank Hershel Shanks.” Dr Craig continues: ‘So Morton [Smith] claims that he discovered this fragment in 1941 – that was the year after this book appeared telling this sort of story. Morton [Smith]’s story exactly fits the book. What is interesting is that Morton [Smith] took a picture of this fragment from this Secret Gospel of Mark and he signed his name at the bottom of the fragment. He actually signed the alleged manuscript. Then he showed this photograph to everybody. But when people went back to the monastery, the page had disappeared. It was gone. So nobody has this supposed fragment anymore. All they have is the picture that Morton [Smith] took. Morton [Smith] is dead now. Craig Evans said, My suspicion is that this whole thing was a hoax by Morton [Smith] and that the reason he destroyed the page was because if it were discovered that the signature was in the same ink as the inscription then everybody would know it was a forgery. So he took a picture then ripped out the page and destroyed it so that it couldn’t be checked. Think of it. What biblical scholar finding a hitherto undetected manuscript from the New Testament would sign his name on an ancient manuscript! You would be crazy to do this.’

In the section subtitled “The Little Manuscript That Wasn’t There” Robert M. Price in addition to both Craig Evans and Dr Craig explains: “The Mystery of Mar “”Saba” by J.H. Hunter was issued in 1940 by Evangelical Publishers in New York and Canada and reprinted each of the next six years. Guess what happens in it? A delver in none other than the monastery of Mar Saba announces the discovery of an ancient document, the Shred of Nicodemus. It reads: “I, Nicodemus, in company with Joseph of Arimathea in the early morn of the first day of the week removed the body of Jesus. Coming forth we found the tomb opened and the stone rolled away after the earthquake. We left the linen clothes in the tomb, and carried Him forth lest profane hands desecrate His body. We buried Him in the sepulchre near the garden over the Kedron where standeth the pillar Absalom reared for himself in the King’s Dale.” As might be imagined, the announcement shocks the world, undermining faith in the resurrection. But it turns out that the Shred of Nicodemus is a hoax engineered by its “discoverer,” a hater of the Christian religion. Does any of this sound familiar?

No, the doubts stem from the elusive character of the original manuscript which Smith claimed he discovered written onto the end pages of a bound book in the library of the Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem in 1958. Edgar J. Goodspeed had long ago warned that in the absence of supposed originals, one must always suspect any new gospel discovery claim (of which there have been very many) to be imposture. For instance, Nicolas Notovitch’s “Unknown Life of Jesus Christ”, allegedly based on an old Tibetan codex, foundered on such an embarrassment (Goodspeed, “Famous Biblical Hoaxes: Or, Modern Apocrypha”, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1956, p. 11). Quentin Quesnell charged that Smith’s “discovery” failed this test, too.

Craig Evans insists likewise: I do not know if Smith “held the pen” or if Smith had a confederate (who may or may not have known what Smith was up to). Nor do I think I have “proven” that Smith has perpetrated a hoax on the academy (as many think he has). What I think I have are grounds for suspicion (and in correspondence Hershel Shanks has conceded as much). Smith had great interest in what he found before he found it (and here Piovanelli’s paper will shed significant light) and the question of provenance is murky (and here Chilton’s paper is apropos). Moreover, what Smith found seems to reflect modern issues more than ancient ones (and here Jeffery’s work is telling). In any event, the parallels that Watson and I have adduced are very troubling. How could Smith have “anticipated” the discovery of a text that links, as Smith had, the “secret of the kingdom of God” with restricted teaching, such as prohibited sex? A discovery, moreover, that confirms that the evangelist Mark had omitted materials that contained Johannine traits? No gospel scholar prior to Smith had entertained such strange ideas. Yet within a few years of publishing these ideas Smith finds an ancient text that contains them!

No, I have not proven that Smith fabricated the letter of Clement, along with its quotations of Secret Mark, but I do not see how critical scholars can make use of such a text and still call their work critical and scholarly. Scholars interested in the early history of the Gospel of Mark, the historical Jesus and his understanding of the kingdom of God, and critical issues debated by Clement and other Christians in the late second and early third centuries are well advised to make no use of the Mar Saba Clementine.

Robert M. Price adds concerning the character of Morton Smith: ‘from the beginning, a number of Smith’s colleagues and critics suspected, even charged him with forging the document as a hoax, which is exactly what happens in Wallace’s immensely enjoyable novel. Some said Smith, once an Episcopal priest, had a poisonous hatred for the Christian religion, especially for its historic homophobia, and that “The Secret Gospel” was an attempt toward evening the score.’

So for a closet homosexual like Smith he had all the justification he needed in that the church and history of Christ were an obstacle to him living out his gay fantasies, much like how people who are wrestling with same sex attraction today often turn their hatred towards who they see as an impediment to an unbridled pursuit of their desires. To the charge of forgery however certain readers may be inclined to object, saying “Doesn’t Smith deserve a rebuttal, some chance to make his case?”

For which let’s read just how Smith in life reasoned when confronted: ‘In 1985 I (Robert Price) asked Morton Smith how he responded to charges of forgery, recently renewed in Per Beskow’s excellent book “Strange Tales About Jesus: a Survey of Unfamiliar Gospels” (Fortress, 1983). He told me the now-familiar story of the custodians of the manuscript secreting it away out of embarrassment at the notoriety Smith’s book “The Secret Gospel” had brought them, henceforth wanting to suppress the evidence. He asked, furthermore, what business Beskow had in condemning all the more recent New Age gospels as spurious: if they embodied someone’s faith, weren’t they authentic gospels, no matter who wrote them or when? Later I wondered if his words did not apply equally, even especially, to his own Secret Mark!’

Book-ending our collective study Dr Craig by his defenders class once again lays out Smith’s motivations: ‘I said to Craig (Evans), “But why would a biblical scholar do such a thing? Why would he perpetrate such a hoax?” He said, What has been discovered is – you’ve got to understand, Morton [Smith] was vehemently anti-orthodox Christian. What has been found out is that he was also a closet homosexual and that at that time in the 50s he couldn’t come out and be open about his homosexuality. So he lived this secret life of guilt and resentment and hatred of orthodox Christianity for this condemnation that he felt and the secret life he had to live as a homosexual. In the Secret Gospel of Mark, of course, it portrays Jesus in this way as having these homosexual liaisons with the young man in the garden. So it just fits with the kind of secret life that Morton [Smith] was living. Basically I think this whole thing is a fraud that has been perpetrated by Morton Smith.’

The curious case of Morton Smith appears to have been ended therefore, and just as modern scholars so often see Christ made in their own image Smith did likewise, similarly Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Muhammad and an untold number of other cult leaders imagined a Messiah they were comfortable with, meaning they traded the truth of who Jesus is and claimed to be for a lie of their making. Ultimately they professing themselves wise, became fools (Romans 1:22.)

― T. C. M

[1] http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/eva358016.shtml

[2] http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-1-podcast/transcript/s11-08

[3] http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/secret.htm

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