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The "Secret Gospel of Mark"

How Clement's letter was found and studied

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Disclaimer:

The following is based on the assumption that a letter which was apparently written by Clement of Alexandria (circa 150-213 CE), is valid and accurate. No consensus has been reached by theologians on the letter's legitimacy: religious conservatives tend to reject the letter as a forgery; religious liberals tend to accept it as real.

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Discovery of Clement's letter:

During the 1940s, academic Morton Smith had visited the Christian Orthodox Monastery of Mar Saba in the Judean wilderness. He stayed there for two months, participating with the monks in their daily schedule. It was built in the fifth century CE and is located about 12 miles southeast of Jerusalem. As a professor of ancient history at Columbia University, he revisited the monastery in 1958. He had decided to use his sabbatical time to catalog their library. While examining an 17th century book which documented the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, 1 he found that someone had copied a letter in Greek onto three pages at the end of the book that had been left blank. "It was a common practice for monks to hand copy manuscripts onto the unused pages of old books." 2

The text began: "From the letters of the most holy Clement, the author of the Stromateis, To Theodore." Clement was an early Christian theologian who wrote circa 200 CE. The identity of the recipient of the letter, Theodore, is unknown. Many of Clement's writings have survived to the present time. Smith carefully photographed the pages for future reference. 3

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Text of the letter:

Apparently, the letter was in response to a query from a Theodore about the Carpocratians -- one of the many faith groups that formed the early Christian movement. It was a strange group. Unlike most Christians of the time, they believed in reincarnation. They taught that a person must go through many lifetimes on earth until they had experienced every possible emotion and act. This included all possible sexual experiences. The group was infamous for integrating spouse swapping into their religious services.

Charles Hedrick, a professor at Southwest Missouri State University writes:

"Clement´┐Żs letter to Theodore appears to be something of a diatribe against the Carpocratians, a Gnostic-Christian group whose members (Clement says in the letter) 'wander ... into a boundless abyss of the carnal and bodily sins' and embrace 'blasphemous and carnal doctrine'." 10

Clement wrote that Mark had written a basic Gospel while he was with the apostle Peter in Rome. He intended it for the education of new converts to Christianity. After Peter's execution, he traveled to Alexandria and wrote a second "more spiritual Gospel" for Christians who were able to adsorb more advanced teachings. According to Clement, there were three Gospels of Mark circulating in Alexandria:

bulletThe original basic "Mark" which found its way in to the official canon of the present-day Bible;
bulletAn advanced version -- the Secret Mark -- for elite Christians who were able to handle more sophisticated material. "Clement says this text is kept by the Alexandrian church for use only in the initiation into 'the great mysteries'." 4
bulletA distorted, heretical version, modified by Carpocrates, the founder of the Carpocratian movement. He apparently created this version in order to give legitimacy to his unusual theological teachings and sexual practices.

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Analysis of the letter:

Morton photographed the Clement text "three times for good measure." 2 He also photographed two pages from the book in which the letter had been copied so that it could be positively identified and dated.

Smith committed much of his professional effort over the next fifteen years to analyzing this finding. He announced his discovery of the letter at the 1960 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.  In 1973, Smith published two books: "The Secret Gospel: The discovery and interpretation of the secret Gospel according to Mark" was intended for the general public. 5 He also produced a much larger book for academics titled :"Clement of Alexandria and the Secret Gospel of Mark". 6 New Testament scholar, Stephen Patterson, wrote in 1994:

"Early discussion of it was marred by accusations of forgery and fraud, no doubt owing in part to its controversial contents. Today, however, there is almost unanimous agreement among Clementine scholars that the letter is authentic." 7

Smith attempted to confirm the authenticity of the letter:

bulletWas the copy of Clement's letter handwritten in the book in the 18th century, or is it a modern forgery: The book was missing its covers and title page by the time that Smith found it. However, he was able to identify it as a book printed by Isaac Voss, a printer in Amsterdam, in 1646. 4 This established the earliest date when the letter was copied. Smith showed the photographs that he had taken of the letter to a number of palaeographers -- ancient handwriting experts. Most of them agreed that the writing style dated the copy at between 1700 and 1800 CE. The letter does not seem to be a modern forgery.
bulletWas the original letter really written by Clement in the late second century CE or by a forger at a later time? Smith showed the text of the letter to many scholars who had specialized in the writings of Clement. Most agreed that the letter resembled closely Clement's style. Smith then made "a point-by-point comparison of the vocabulary, writing style, modes of expression and ideas found in the letter with" other writings that are known to have been produced by Clement. 8 According to author Bart Ehrman, "it would be well nigh impossible to imagine someone other than Clement being able to write it." 9
bulletWere the fragments of Secret Mark consistent with the writings of the author of the Gospel of Mark?  A careful analysis of the letter's "vocabulary, writing style, modes of expression, and theology" showed that it matched those of the author of Mark. 9

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Which "Mark" is the original?

Clement claimed that the shorter version -- the one found in modern Bibles -- was the original, and that Mark added extra verses to create the Secret Mark for more sophisticated Christians. However, an analysis of the text indicates that the Secret Mark was probably the original, and that passages were deleted to produce that the shorter version:

bullet Mark 10:46 -- It makes no sense for the shorter version of this passage -- the one with the obvious discontinuity -- came first. It would appear that the Secret Mark was written, and then the center of this verse was removed when the shorter Mark was produced.
bullet Mark 14:52 The inclusion of the naked man in the Garden of Gethsemane makes no sense, if the shorter Mark was the first written. But if the shorter Mark is an edited version of the Secret Mark, then his presence could be explained by sloppy redacting.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Smith later identified the book as: Isaac Voss, "Epistulae genuinae S. Ignatii Martyris" (Amsterdam: J. Blaeu, 1646).
  2. Charles W. Hedrick with Nikolaos Olympiou, "Secret Mark," The Fourth R, Volume 13,5, 2000-SEP/OCT, at: http://www.westarinstitute.org/
  3. Bart Ehrman, "Lost Christianities: The battles for Scripture and the faiths we never knew," Oxford (2003), Pages 67 to 89. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  4. Shawn Eyer, "The Strange Case of the Secret Gospel According to Mark: How Morton Smith's Discovery of a Lost Letter by Clement of Alexandria Scandalized Biblical Scholarship," Alexandria: The Journal for the Western Cosmological Traditions, volume 3 (1995), Pages 103-129. Online at: http://www.gnosis.org/ 
  5. Morton Smith, "The Secret Gospel: The discovery and interpretation of the secret Gospel according to Mark", Harper and Row, (1973) This book is out of print, but can usually be purchased in used condition. See the Amazon.com online book store
  6. Morton Smith, "Clement of Alexandria and the Secret Gospel of Mark," Harvard University Press, (1973). This is an expensive, out of print book which may be difficult to obtain. See the Amazon.com online book store
  7. Stephen Patterson, "The Secret Gospel of Mark: Introduction," in R.J. Miller, Ed., "The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version", HarperSanFrancisco (1994), Page 408.
  8. Charles Turek, "Objectivity and new discoveries. Be cautious," Book review of Smith's book on the Amazon web site.
  9. Op cit, Bart Ehrman, Page 79.
  10. Charles W. Hedrick, "An Amazing Discovery," Biblical Archaeology Review, 2009-NOV/DEC issue, at: http://www.bib-arch.org/

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Copyright © 2002 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-NOV-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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