{Empty title} | The Nation

Anthony Grafton is right: Morton Smith's notion that the Carpocratians "taught that sin was a means of salvation" has more to do with Gershom Scholem's view of the Frankists than with Clement of Alexandria's view of the actual Carpocratians. But Grafton overlooks the fact that this distortion is found even in the "letter of Clement" that Smith allegedly discovered at Mar Saba, not only in Smith's interpretation of the letter. The vice that the real Clement of Alexandria ascribed to the Carpocratians was not secretive "naked man with naked man" nocturnal rituals (though Clement accused other groups of such things) but heterosexual wife-swapping inspired by Plato's Republic.

Smith's letters to Scholem that Guy Stroumsa has now published provide significant new evidence that the "letter" is indeed a forgery: it conforms too closely to Smith's personal interests to have been a chance discovery. Smith wrote to Scholem in 1948 that he was reading "especially Clement of Alexandria," and in 1954-56 that he had "finished...a book on Mark." Smith's 1958 "discovery" of a letter by Clement about Mark is too good a coincidence, then, given the pervasive pattern of deceptiveness and convenient memory lapses that I detailed in my book, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled. Even earlier, in 1945, Smith enthusiastically recommended to Scholem the writings of Aleister Crowley. This shows that, even while he was working as a Christian clergyman, Smith subscribed to well-outside-the-mainstream views about liturgical ritual as (homo)sexual magic--a central theme in Smith's publications throughout his career. Smith's own synthesis of Crowley and Scholem is the true source of the Mar Saba document's depiction of "Clement" (representing orthodox Christianity) persecuting the Carpocratians for teaching (correctly, according to Smith) that Jesus practiced magical sexual rites with his male disciples.