The Secret Gospel of Mark Revisited

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.

Ben at M* did a post on the Secret Gospel in 2005, and Dave at DMI followed up with another one about a week later, each exploring Mormon interests in the text.

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.


  1. When I read the “Smith’s own translation of the letter” I was mainly surprised at how short the text/translation is … there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of material to work with.

  2. It always struck me that there was quite a lot of hypothesizing from quite a paucity of data.

    It’s interesting you see parallels between Smith and Quinn. I’ve long thought that Smith’s Jesus the Magician and Quinn’s Magic World View have a lot in common. (Strengths and more importantly horrendous weaknesses)

  3. Thanks for bringing this issue up. I’m very glad to see Koester weigh in on this in print. I’ve heard him talk about it in other contexts and I beleive him. Unfortunately, the full text of the BAR articles are only available to subscribers.

    In a way, I’ve always found Smith’s terrible interpretation of SM as good evidence that he didn’t forge it.

  4. Julie M. Smith says:

    “In a way, I’ve always found Smith’s terrible interpretation of SM as good evidence that he didn’t forge it.”

    Can you explain this a little?

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    My apologies; I didn’t scroll down at all of these links, so I thought all but the Shanks one were complete. It looks like the only complete one is the translation.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I sent a letter to the editor of BAR (I sent a letter once in the past, which was published). The book that claims SM is a forgery makes a big deal out of a supposed anachronism involving salt that has lost its savor. Shanks spends several paragraphs citing rabbinic sources that salt could be adulterated with impure substances. But I couldn’t believe that everyone was missing a more obvious parallel. Here is the letter I wrote (we’ll see whether they publish it):

    Adulterated Salt

    One of the arguments for the Secret Gospel of Mark being a forgery made by Stephen Carlson is the line to the effect that when good and bad are mixed, it is like salt that has lost its savor. Carlson argues that this is anachronistic, as only granulated salt can be adulterated with impurities, and granulated salt had not yet been invented. Shanks then spends several paragraphs (p. 60) demonstrating that ancient sources do indeed contemplate the existence of adulterated salt.

    In reading this, I was surprised that no one took notice of the saying from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:13 (cf. Luke 14:34), which in the AV reads “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”

    Since pure chemical sodium chloride does not lose its flavor over time, commentaries often posit that the text must be referring to salt that has been adulterated by impurities.

    Therefore, the saying about salt losing its savour from Secret Mark is already attested in a saying from Q, and therefore is clearly not anachronistic to the time of Clement.

    Kevin L. Barney
    Hoffman Estates, Illinois

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    OK, since my links only work for subscribers, let me try to do some summarizing. First Hedrick. Some of the lead-in summary in the OP is basically taken from Hedrick already.

    The letter of Clement in which the quotations of SM are embedded appears to be a diatribe agains the Carpocratians, a Gnostic-Christian group (so-named since they were followers of a man named Carpocrates). Elsewhere Clement does write negative things about the Carpocratians. He accuses them of engaging in orgies. They “overturn the lamps and so remove the light that would uncover the shame of their dissolute ‘righteousness’ and unite with whom they will” (Stromata III.2) Another second-century writer, Irenaeus, accused them of “practicing magic arts and incantations, love potions and love feasts” and living dissolute lives (Against Heresies I.25.3). They believed one must experience everything ungodly and impious in order to free one’s soul from the world.

    In the letter, Clement says that Mark wrote the gospel we know for beginners in the faith, but he later added other material for those aspiring to reach a higher level of knowledge and faith. This additional material is the Secret Gospel of Mark (SM). According to the Clement letter, Carpocrates illicitly obtained a copy of SM by duping a presbyter in Alexandria, and then doctored it by adding his own impious words to it. (Shades of the concerns over the lost 116 pages.) One such addition is “naked man on naked man,” which Clement insists was not in the authentic SM.

    Smith believed that both the Clement letter and SM were authentic. Smith interpreted the text as teaching that Jesus baptized each of his disciples into the mystery of the kingdom of God, singly and at night. In this baptism the disciple was united with Jesus–and the union may have been physical–but the essential thing was that the disciple was then possessed by Jesus’ spirit.

    Julie, you can see how Smith’s interpretation of SM antagonized scholars!

    Smith also had the reputation of being a difficult man–austere, intense, even haughty, a man who did not suffer fools gladly. These personal reactions to Smith added to the hostility against him.

    In 2005 Scott Brown published a revised version of his dissertation in which he disagreed with Smith’s reading of hte text and argued that it should be understood in light of canonical Mark. Almost immediately thereafter a volume appeared from Stephen Carlson, then a lawyer and now a Ph.D. candidate at Duke, arguing that SM is a forgery. In 2007 Peter Jeffery of Princeton published a monograph similarly arguing for forgery. Smith’s interpretation reflects a “tale of sexual preference that could only have been told by a 20th-century Western author.” [But note the tendency to conflate Smith’s interpretation with the text itself, which are two different things.]

    The stalemate WRT SM continues to this very day.

  8. Thanks for the nice review, K-man.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Hershel Shanks, the editor of BAR, tried to get someone to write a summary of the argument for forgery. Three turned him down; they were willing to be quoted, but Bart Ehrman had too much else on his plate, and another scholar didn’t want to publicly disagree with his mentor, who accepts SM. So Shanks undertook to summarize the evidence for forgery himself.

    He first lists various scholars on both sides of this question. One cannot settle it by any sort of an appeal to authority, since there is ample authority either way.

    The arguments in favor of forgery are essentially two:

    1. Smith had the scholarly expertise necessary to create the forgery.

    2. The document itself contains flaws and errors that affirmatively show it to be a forgery.

    A subsidiary issue is whether Smith had a motive to forge the document, but motives are complicated and no argument as to motive is ultimately persuasive. Some argue the motive is anger at being denied tenure at Brown (but he was tenured at Columbia when his publications appeared); others point to his suspected homosexuality and see this as an attempt at creating a scriptural warrant for homosexual practices. Jeffery described the letter as “arguably the most grandiose and reticulated ‘F-ck You’ ever perpetrated in the long and vitguperative history of scholarship.” [BTW, cf. the recent acronym embedded by Gov. Schwarzenegger in a recent veto message as reported in the news media.]

    Smith would need to know enough to forge the two extracts from SM, which would require not only expertise in ancient Greek but in NT textual criticism. He would also have to have expertise in Clement, the Carpocratians and other subjects mentioned in the letter, and enough Latin to forge the Latin portions of the letter. Finally, he would have to reproduce the 18-the century hand of the Greek text as copied into the end sheets of the book. People have disagreed over whether Smith had all these capacities, but a reasonable argument can be made that he did.

    Ehrman argues that it is very suspicious that Smith didn’t try to go back to Mar Saba to look at the letter again.

    Much of the rest of the article is a summary of Pearson’s presentation from 2008 SBL held in Boston.

    One argument is the adulterated salt anachronism raised by Stephen Carlson and others. As I express above, I don’t buy that as an anachronism at all, but it is the most commonly identified anachronism. I must be missing something.

    The second most identified anachronism has to do with homosexuality, as described above. But this seems to conflate Smith’s interpretation with the letter itself, which as TT rightly notes are two very different things.

    The identification of Clement’s writings by the title Stromata is anachronistic, but this identification seems to have been made by a later scribe, so the point is not definitive.

    Stephen Carlson makes a big deal out of what he calls “forger’s tremor” in the letters, but I’ll confess that I don’t see it in the images published in the print edition.

    The other claimed problems were too complex and esoteric for a general interest magazine like BAR.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Koester raises detailed issues of textual criticism, which in his view suggest that SM is authentic. In a real nutshell, he argues that there are places where Mt. and Lk. borrowed from Mk., and they agree with each other, but Mk. as we have it has a more elaborate text. In his view, what happened is that the Mt. and Lk. borrowings were from an early stage in the textual transmission of Mk., which was later redacted. The redactions are not reflected in Mt. and Lk. because they were added after the borrowings. Koester believes that the author of SM was the same person who redacted canonical Mark. He gives a number of very interesting illustrations of his argument.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Shanks then concludes with an article describing his own opinion, which favors authenticity. After digging through all this, he concluded that he thought Smith was being very badly treated.

    The plethora of flaws articulated proves too much. Smith must have realized that forging a document like this without detection would be well-nigh impossible. He would have known that a single flaw would unmask him, and that if he were caught, the consequences would be horrendous. It is inconceivalbe to Shanks that he would take this chance, especially given the variety of disciplines necessary to pull it off.

    Even worse, Smith’s detractors claim he actually planted flaws–as jokes! One was that the modern technique for granulating salt was developed by the Morton Salt Company–cf. his first name. So Smith intentionally planted the evidence of his own forgery. Shanks says it is impossible for him to believe this. [Shanks then goes into almost a page on the salt anachronism, which I describe briefly above.]

    On the homosexuality argument, Shanks argues that scholars are in as vivid disagreement over the nature of ancient homosexuality as they are modern, so this does not seem a conclusive point.

    On the forger’s tremor argument, Shanks points out that Carlson is not a handwriting expert, so BAR has hired two experts in Greek handwriting to analyze the evidence. Their reports will be published when they become available.

    Shanks was impressed that Smith spent 15 years studying the letter before publishing it. Koester recalls spending a week with Smith when he was agonizing over aspects of the letter, and opined that if it were a forgery Smith deserved an academy award. He interacted with numrous close and trusted colleagues during those years over the letter.

    Guy Stroumsa had examined 40 years of correspondence between Smtih and Gershom Scholem, one of his closest mentors and a leading authority on Jewish mysticism. Smith had studied under him at Hebrew University and maintained a close relationship until Scholem’s death in 1982. Stroumsa cannot believe he would have prevaricated like this over all those years to a man he clearly loved.

    Shanks makes the same point TT makes above, that much of the criticism is directed towards Smith’s interpretation and not the text itself. Disagreeing with his commentary is not tantamount to establishing forgery of the text.

    Shanks concludes: “Morton Smith deserves to have his reputation restored.”

  12. I’m still reading my copy of BAR, but so far I think SM is authentic.

    This discussion is also going on at April DeCondick’s blog (she’s a prof at Rice Univ, scholar of Gnosticism). One comment from Roger Viklund deals with the claims of forgery – Carlson did not have a quality copy of the photos, and would have seemed to be shaky handwriting. Viklund studied his high quality photos and does not see the shake in them.

  13. It’s been a long time since I last really read the issue much. Can someone clarify why the original source Smith consulted can’t be found?

  14. The document was transcribed in the last few pages of a book dating to the 1600s. Later, others found the pages and took them to be analyzed. They were not allowed to do a C14 or other test on the text. While the book is still extant, the two pages containing Clement’s letter were lost by others, not Smith.

  15. I recently read Bart Ehrman’s book, “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.” It’s a great resource for those interested in early Christian faiths and the development of the New Testament canon. Chapter 4 is devoted to the Secret Gospel of Mark. He tells the fascinating story of SM and explains why there is so much disagreement about its authenticity. In the end, he concludes the most likely explanaition is that SM is a brilliant forgery by Smith. Next time you’re in a Barnes and Noble, flip to chapter 4 — you’ll end up buying the book.

  16. Interesting stuff, thanks for mentioning it Kevin.

  17. It appears that the letter is not forged and that the mystery rite was Jesus transferring his soul to the youth, not a homosexual act. It is said that the person crucified was not Jesus but another. If their spirits had been transferred then it all makes sense.

  18. belledame2 says:

    Thanks for the posts. I love reading stuff like this.

  19. For a review of literature to date on Secret Mark and a criticism of the arguments of skeptics, particularly Carlson and Jeffery, see “A Letter to Theodore” at

  20. Roger Viklund says:

    Regarding the issue of “shaky handwriting” which Rameumptom commented upon, I have recently published a study: “Tremors, or Just an optical Illusion?” . The “shaky handwriting” lies in the poor b/w images and not in the handwriting.

  21. Hi I just read your review and I wanted to alert you that a scholar has PROVEN that Carlson’s methodology was fundamentally flawed to ‘prove’ the forgery hypothesis.

    As David Trobisch, the eminent expert on Biblical manuscripts notes, Hi Professor Hedrick

    I am sorry to bother you. I sent Viklund’s proof to our mutual friend David Trobisch notes “I read it right away but somehow forgot to let you know what I think. His arguments are absolutely clear and convincing. The “forgery” accusations only works with the low resolution photos. An excellent article.”

    Please go to the attached link and see how no one actually checked Carlson’s methodology.

  22. Robert Conner says:

    In the first place, as I point out in my review, Carlson’s a lawyer, not a qualified document examiner. He has claimed to prove a document is a forgery WITHOUT EVER HAVING SEEN THE DOCUMENT in question (am I talking loud enough?). Let me repeat: Carlson HAS NEVER SEEN NOR TOUCHED the document he claims is a forgery. Does anyone besides me, Charlie Hedrick and Roger Viklund see a problem here? Apparently not the scholars who are on Carlson’s cheering squad (Mark Goodacre, Larry Hurtado, etc).

    The other issue the evangelical/Catholic side never ceases to comment on is Smith’s rumored homosexuality. According to the people who KNEW him –neither Carlson or Jeffery ever met Morton Smith– Smith was reticent about his personal life, understandable if he knew his peers were whispering behind his back. In other words, Smith was not figure skating down the halls of Columbia U with a sparkler in one hand and a penis popscicle in the other. So how did the academic community know anything substantive about his sexual orientation, and why would it have mattered anyway?