In 1941, Morton Smith spent two months of meditative seclusion at the monastery of Mar Saba, about a dozen miles southeast of Jerusalem. Three years later he would be ordained an Episcopalian deacon, but eventually he informally left the clerical life for that of the scholar, quipping that he was giving out cigars because he was no longer a Father. 17 years after his first visit, in 1958 (the year of my birth), he returned to the monastery as a 43-year old professor of history at Columbia University. This time he did not observe the monastic life, but was come as part of his research into old books in monasteries in Greece, Turkey and the Holy Land.
One of the books he examined was a 1646 edition of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch edited by Isaac Voss. The end pages of the book, originally blank, contained a handwritten Greek text in an 18th century hand, purporting to be a copy of a letter from Clement of Alexandria, the second century Church Father, to an otherwise unknown Theodore. The letter itself is focused on the Carpocratians, but in the course of the letter Clement gives two quotations (one long, one short) from an otherwise unattested text, the Secret Gospel of Mark. Smith photographed the text three times and went on with his research. Over time the original end papers were lost.
15 years later, Smith published his discovery, in both a scholarly tome and a popular book. This publication was, and has remained, hugely controversial. Scholarly responses were immediate and overwhelmingly negative. The focus initially was more on Smith’s interpretation of the text rather than the text itself. A lot of this had to do with Smith’s interpretation that the Secret Mark may have alluded to homosexual unions between Jesus and his disciples. Smith never married, and although his own homosexuality was never proven, it was and is widely assumed, and many felt that Smith was reading homosexuality into a text where it didn’t exist. In 1975, the possibility that the text had been forged–with Smith himself as the forger–was first floated, and since that time the authenticity of the text has been hotly contested. Smith died in 1991, but his death has not put an end to the controversy.
I’ve known a little bit about Secret Mark, but I never really tried to wrap my arms around the whole debate. Well, my issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (November/December 2009) just arrived and features a four-article set offering a convenient overview of this whole subject. The articles are as follows:
- Charles Hedrick first gives an historical overview in “An Amazing Discovery.”
- Then Hershel Shanks summarizes the evidence for forgery in “Morton Smith–Forger.”
- Helmet Kuester then makes a specific set of textual arguments for authenticity in “Was Morton Smith a Great Thespian and I a Complete Fool?”
- Hershel Shanks then weighs in with his own opinion, which favors authenticity, in “Restoring a Dead Scholar’s Reputation.” (It looks like you have to subscribe to read the entire article.)
- Here is Smith’s own translation of the letter.
There is a lot of stuff in these pages that resonates with Mormonism. Some of it is already described in the blog posts linked above. A Mormon reading this cannot help but compare and contrast what happened with the whole Mark Hofmann set of forgeries. The complaints about homosexual presentism in reading an ancient text read very similarly to complaints Mormon historians had about D. Michael Quinn’s work.
Anyway, if you’re interested in this subject, the above links should be plenty to give you a decent overview of the issues and the different positions staked out by various scholars.