In 1973, Morton Smith, professor of ancient history at Columbia University, shook the world–or at least the world of scholars who work on early Christianity. Fifteen years before, Smith had found an unknown document in the Mar Saba Greek Orthodox monastery, fifteen kilometers southeast of Jerusalem–an ancient Christian text that no one before him had ever mentioned. A letter in Greek, originally composed in the second century by a church father, Clement of Alexandria, and addressed to one Theodore, it was handwritten in ink, in an eighteenth-century hand, on the blank end pages of a seventeenth-century printed book. Less than a thousand words long but rich in detail, the text attacked one of the wonderfully named sects that made the early centuries of Christianity so complex–the followers of Carpocrates, or Carpocratians. These heretics, as Clement and Theodore saw them, claimed that they possessed a secret version of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus, they believed, had taught his followers that they were freed from the law and could do whatever they wanted without sinning. According to one of their Christian critics, Irenaeus, they actually thought they earned salvation by “doing all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of, nay, which we must not even conceive in our thoughts.”
Clement assured Theodore that he had been right to silence these “unspeakable teachings.” But he also admitted that there was a secret version of Mark’s Gospel–a version that the Church of Alexandria made available only to initiates. In a passage that Clement quoted, Jesus raised a rich young man from the dead in Bethany. “And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan”–a passage that suggests a libertine interpretation of its own, at least to the twenty-first-century reader. At the same time, Clement denied that an inflammatory phrase, “naked man with naked man,” which the Carpocratians had cited, came from the true secret Gospel. The evil Carpocrates had obtained a copy of the text and “polluted” it with lies.
It was an astonishing discovery. A scholar can catalog thousands of manuscripts without ever striking this kind of gold. But Smith was perfectly equipped to assess the new text. Though American by birth and most of his education, he was a great philologist in the old European style. Long before he made the Mar Saba discovery, he had mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and examined and photographed Greek manuscripts in monastic libraries on Mount Athos, the island of Patmos and elsewhere. As a student, he had savored the long, hypnotic services at Mar Saba. Now he spent his time going through the collection, book by book and page by page. When his philological dreams came true, he knew exactly how to make the best of his discovery. Before he left the monastery, he photographed the letter. Back in the United States, he spent years establishing and interpreting the text and consulting many other scholars.