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The "Secret Gospel of Mark

Beliefs by conservative Protestants
about passages in Clement's letter

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Background:

Morton Smith discovered a copy of an ancient letter allegedly written by Clement of Alexandria (circa 150-213 CE). It discussed a second version -- a "Secret Gospel" -- of the Gospel of Mark. This longer version contains additional information that does not appear in the shorter version of the Gospel of Mark which was accepted into the biblical canon. Although Smith found the letter in an ancient monastery in 1958, his two books describing his analysis of the letter were not published until 1973. For the general public, he wrote, "The Secret Gospel: The discovery and interpretation of the secret Gospel according to Mark". 1 For theologians and historians, he wrote "Clement of Alexandria and the Secret Gospel of Mark." 2 He drew parallels between Pagan magical practices in ancient Palestine and some of Jesus' teachings and deeds.

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Beliefs about the Bible held by most conservative Protestants:

Conservative Christians generally hold certain key beliefs about the Bible: that its authors were inspired by God to write inerrant, error-free text. The often refer to the Bible as "God's word."

A logical extension of these beliefs is that God preserved the Christian church leaders from committing any errors when they were decided which books to include in the official canon of the Bible. They were faced with about 40 gospels which were in wide circulation among the various faith groups that made up the early Christian movement. They rejected almost all of them as heretical. They chose only the three Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke to be incorporated into the Bible; they accepted the Gospel of John but only after much debate.

Most conservative Protestants would probably agree that if two or three versions of the Gospel of Mark had been circulating in the early Christian movement, that God would have influenced the decision of various church councils to include only the correct, inerrant, version in the canon. The would conclude that the Secret Mark is worthless.

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Initial response by conservative Protestants:

Author Shawn Eyer reported that conservative Protestants were:

"... particularly displeased with the new Secret Gospel of Mark. Even without the magical interpretation of earliest Christianity Smith promulgated in his two books, the discovery of another apocryphal gospel only spells trouble for conservative theologians and apologists. What information about Secret Mark made it past the blockade into the evangelical press? There was Ronald J. Sider's quick review in Christianity Today:"3

"Unfounded . . . wildly speculative...pockmarked with irresponsible inferences . . . highly speculative . . .operates with the presupposition that Jesus could not have been the incarnate Son of God filled with the Holy Spirit . . . simply absurd! . . . unacceptable . . . highly speculative . . . numerous other fundamental weaknesses . . . highly speculative . . . irresponsible . . . will not fool the careful reader." 4

Eyer continues:

"Evangelical scholarship has since treated Secret Mark as it traditionally has any other non-canonical text: as a peculiar but ultimately unimportant document which would be spiritually dangerous to take seriously." 3

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Subsequent rejections of the letter's authenticity:

Stephen Carlson published an expose of the Secret Mark, claiming to have found clues "in places scholars do not normally look." He also claims to have found letterforms in the letter about Mark ithat resemble Smith's handwriting. 12

All of the additional conservative Protestant websites that we have studied reject the authenticity of the fragments of Secret Mark. [We have added skeptical comments.] Some of their concerns are:

bulletNo independent reference to the Clement letter or to Secret Mark exists. 5
bullet[It would be most unusual for a personal letter -- from the late second century or early third century CE that was intended only for the recipient -- to be discussed in other writings.]

bulletThe book in which the letter was copied was not listed in any previous catalog of the Mar Saba monastery. 5
bullet[It is important to realize that no previous catalog exists of the library contents. Smith made the first list.]

bulletSmith made no effort to conserve the manuscript. He merely photographed the copy of the letter and returned the book to the shelf. 5
bullet[One might consider Smith's options; should he have stolen the book?]

bullet"...there are several reasons not to believe it. the first is that its secret. where is it? the Lord doesn't work in the dark, he works in the light. The only reason things like this are brought up is to cast doubt on the already existing Bible and that's the work of the devil and whatever academics want to tag along. The secret Mark is like the invisible Q document." 6
bullet [Actually, the Gospel of Q and secret mark are very different. Long passages from Q are preserved in Matthew and Luke; they are the passages that are common to Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark. The fact that the wording in the two Gospels are often precisely identical indicates that both authors were copying material from a written Gospel, now called "Q." Secret Mark is different. In this case, there were allegedly two different versions of the same Gospel, one for use by the general public and one for those spiritually advanced.]

bullet"Many Gnostic writings appear in fragments from the first few centuries. Most of the 'lost' books of the Bible are much later additions. I would give zero credence to any such. BTW, we still have folks looking for some new special knowledge or revelation. They are not content with the Word we have, but add other writings, church traditions, et al. Sad." 7
bullet[Many theologians believe that early Christianity was a very diverse movement. The more we can learn about the beliefs of early Christians, the more we can understand about Jesus' teachings.]

bullet"Secret Mark, then, is a non-existent work cited in a now non-existent text by a late second century author who is known for his gullibility. And thus, the reasonableness of giving this hypothetical work more credibility than the canonical Gospels, whose reliability can be demonstrated, is dubious to say the least." 8
bullet[Two excerpts from Secret Mark exist and have been photographically recorded multiple times.]

bullet"The fact that the expansion is such a pastiche (as it seems to me), with its internal contradiction and confusion, indicates that it is a thoroughly artificial composition, quite out of keeping with Mark's quality as a story-teller." 9
bullet [The extra text in Secret Mark does dovetail neatly with the rest of the Gospel of Mark.]
bullet"So, as it stands, we have
bulletA manuscript that many doubt even existed; [Multiple sets of photographs exist.]

bulletIf it does/did exist, many doubt that it was written by Clement; [There is general agreement by scholars that Clement was the author of the letter.]

bulletIf it does/did exist and it was written by Clement, most don't take Clement as a reliable source about the data; [Certainly most Protestant theologians don't.]

bulletIf it does/did exist and it was written by Clement, the passage dealing with Jesus seems to be constructed from the original gospels (like the Gnostic documents of the 2nd century) [Actually, the passages from Secret Mark dovetail neatly into Mark and provide new information.]

bulletThe conclusions reached by M. Smith about the implications of the passage are rejected almost uniformly by scholars." [True. There are so many conflicting concepts of the teachings of Jesus that any new idea will be rejected by most scholars.] 10,11

Charles W. Hedrick concludes:

"The stalemate with regard to Secret Mark continues. Although some scholars have made use of the text in their analysis of Christian origins, the focus of the discussion has remained on the man who discovered -- or forged -- the text." 13

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Did Morton Smitch forge the document?

The 2009-NOV/DEC issue of the journal "Biblical Archaeology Review" (BAR) included an article titled "Secret Mark: A Modern Forgery?" They noted that:

"Oddly enough, despite the scores of articles and books that have been written on the subject, no one has bothered to consult a handwriting expert in the language in which the alleged forged letter is written: Greek. To Smith’s detractors, that was apparently unnecessary. According to critic Bart Ehrman, 'With any skill at all, and a little practice,' it would be easy for Smith to learn to fake the 18th-century handwriting in which the Clement letter is written. Yet no one ever followed through by consulting a Greek handwriting expert."

"BAR has now done so."

"Venetia Anastasopoulou is a prominent handwriting expert living in Athens who has frequently testified in Greek courts. BAR retained her to compare the handwriting in which the Clement letter was written with Greek handwriting known to be Smith’s. She is a member of the National Association of Document Examiners (U.S.A.) and the International Graphology Association (U.K.). She holds a Certificate in Forensic Sciences from the University of Lancashire (U.K.) and a diploma in Handwriting Analysis from the International Graphology Association (U.K.)."

"Anastasopoulou compares numerous letters, parts of letters and words in the Clement letter with Smith’s Greek handwriting in her 36-page report." 14,15

She concluded:

"It is my professional opinion that the writers of the questioned document of 'Secret Mark' ... and Morton Smith's handwriting ... are most probably not the same. Therefore it is highly probable that Morton Smith could not have simulated the document of 'Secret Mark'." 15

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References used:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.globaltown.com/
  4. R.J. Sider, "Unfounded 'Secret'," Christianity Today 1973-NOV-9, Page 160.
  5. Joe Baxter, "A few thoughts about the Secret Mark discussion, " 1998-DEC-4, at: http://groups.yahoo.com/
  6. "Bryan 1276," Posting to Baptist Theology & Bible Study board, 2003-NOV-17, at: http://www.baptistboard.com/
  7. Dr. Bob Griffin, Posting to Baptist Theology & Bible Study board, 2003-NOV-17, at: http://www.baptistboard.com/
  8. "5. Finding an Alternative Jesus," http://jesus.com.au/
  9. F. F. Bruce, "The Canon of Scripture," InterVarsityPress, (1988), Page 308.
  10. Glenn Miller, "Question...Does Secret Mark prove the church suppressed the truth at will?," Christian-ThinkTank.com, 199-OCT-18, at: http://www.freenet.de/
  11. Spelling, grammar and punctuation were corrected in some of these quotes.
  12. Stephen Carlson, "The Gospel Hoax," Baylor University Press, (2005).
  13. Charles W. Hedrick, "An Amazing Discovery," Biblical Archaeology Review, 2009-NOV/DEC issue, at: http://www.bib-arch.org/
  14. "Did Morton Smitch forge 'Secret Mark? A handwriting expert weighs in," Biblical Archaeology Review, 36:06, 2009-NOV/DEC, at: http://www.bib-arch.org/
  15. Venetia Anastasopoulou, "Experts report: Handwriting examination," Biblical Archaeology Review, at: http://www.bib-arch.org/

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Copyright © 2002 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2010-MAY-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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