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Gospel Secrets: The Biblical Controversies of Morton Smith | The Nation

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Gospel Secrets: The Biblical Controversies of Morton Smith

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Adrian BellesguardMorton Smith

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Anthony Grafton
Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University, is the author, most recently...

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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.

Though Smith announced his find as early as 1960, at a meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature, and completed his analysis of the text by the late '60s, he did not release the new document until thirteen years had passed. Then he did so in two forms at once: a scholarly monograph published by Harvard University Press, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, and a popular book published by Harper & Row, The Secret Gospel, in which Smith pardonably dramatized the religious and personal adventures he had experienced on the way to his discovery. He argued that Clement had written the letter, that the secret Gospel really went back to the early church and that Jesus, as it suggested, had offered his disciples initiation into secret libertine practices. Later in his career, Smith would develop the larger thesis that Jesus had been a practicing magician, and that his revelations were steeped in widely attested magical techniques and beliefs.

But Smith's original arguments proved provocative enough. By July 1974 he had amassed, as he told a friend, "a dossier of newspaper clippings and reviews two or three inches thick, and an even thicker pile of private letters, some of them screamingly funny." The professional scholars chewed more slowly, of course, than the newspaper critics and religious polemicists, but within a few years they too had digested the new material and begun to respond to it--or, in some cases, to spew it out again. For more than thirty years, the document and Smith's interpretations of it have served as the grit around which layer on layer of scholarly pearl has grown. Debate is normal, of course, in scholarship--without it, we could not go on producing doctoral dissertations and scholarly articles. But most debates eventually come to an end, as one side clearly wins or all participants reach a consensus. By contrast, the secret Gospel of Mark continues to spawn commentary of radically opposed kinds.

Most experts went at least part of the way with Smith. The new letter soon found its way into critical editions of Clement's works. Few agreed that Smith's discovery offered privileged new evidence for the actual teachings of Jesus--a very ticklish subject, since the four Gospels were themselves written quite some time after Jesus' death. But a number of prominent New Testament scholars accepted the letter's internal quotations from Mark as genuinely ancient. Helmut Koester, a New Testament authority who has taught for many years at Harvard, argued that the standard text of Mark's Gospel actually derives from the secret one quoted by Clement. The long passage quoted by Clement removes an awkward transition in the text. And the fact that the young man is told to wear a single garment when he comes to Jesus for instruction could explain a curious passage in Chapter 14. According to Mark, a young man wearing a single garment was with Christ in Gethsemane when he was arrested. Though the police attempted to take him too, he fled, naked, leaving his cloak in their hands.

But it is just as possible to argue the opposite case: to dismiss the secret Gospel quotations as a pastiche assembled from pieces of the existing text--an equally satisfactory way, after all, to explain the young man's single garment--or even to reject Clement's letter as a fake, like many other texts attributed to early Christian writers. The archive of recognized fakes includes the letters that St. Paul supposedly exchanged with the Roman philosopher Seneca, and as many as 900 spurious sermons ascribed to the church father John Chrysostom. Some scholars have always thought that the new Clement letter belonged there.

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