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The "Secret Gospel of Mark"

Morton Smith's interpretations of "Secret Mark"

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Morton Smith's speculation about Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ):

There is a well known phenomenon that theologians who study the Gospels often impose their own expectations onto Jesus. Their understanding of Jesus often turn out to be self-portraits. Various theologians and historians have described Jesus as:

bullet A rabbi who followed the teachings of a famous Jewish philosopher Hillel the Elder (circa 110 BCE to 10 CE), except for Hillel's teachings on divorce.
bullet A native healer;
bullet A magician;
bulletAn apocalyptic prophet prophesizing the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, and the end of the world as they knew it;
bulletOne more of the many failed revolutionaries in 1st century CE Palestine who believed themselves to be the long-awaited Messiah; or as
bulletAn itinerant Greek cynic philosopher, etc.

Smith believes that Jesus viewed himself in a number of roles: as a magician, a itinerant rabbi and political revolutionary. In his book "Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God?" 1 he attempted to show that references to ancient Pagan magic practices appear throughout the Gospels. This may not be as weird a speculation as it first appears. According to Bart Ehrman: "We know from other ancient sources that Jesus was widely considered to be a 'magician'." 2 The earliest images of Jesus, which date from the late third and early fourth century, show him performing miracles ("multiplying loaves, changing water to wine, raising the dead") 3 with a magic wand in his hand.

A magician during the first century CE was different from a present-day illusionists. Magicians were individuals who could "manipulate the workings of nature through mystical powers connecting him to the divine realm." 2 Practicing magic was a capital offense in the Roman Empire at that time. Smith speculates that Jesus' activity as a magician might have been the primary cause of his crucifixion.

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Smith's interpretations about initiation rituals:

Smith suggests that Jesus personally baptized some of his converts, and that the individual "experienced a spiritual unity with him that involved a magical, visionary journey with him into the Kingdom of God." 2 We see a similar journey of Paul's described in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4. He writes that he was caught up as far as "the third heaven," where he "heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter."

The text about the young man's clothing in the first fragment reads literally: "a linen cloth having been draped over the naked body." The young man in both fragments, and the man who escaped naked in the Garden of Gethsemane appear to refer to the same individual. He may also have been the young man encountered by the two Marys and Salome when they visited Jesus' tomb in Mark 16:5.

Some scholars suspect that naked young man covered only in a linen cloth might have been prepared for an initiation ritual. In the early Christian church, a person to be baptized wore only a single garment which was removed just before the ritual. Both the presbyter and the person to be baptized stood in the water together, naked. 4 Ritual nudity is no longer a common practice in the world with the exception of followers of Wicca, some other Neopagan religions, and a few Hindu sects in India. But it was very common in the early Christian movement. This is a piece of history which few if any Christian denominations discuss today.

Morton Smith (1915-1991) wrote two books about the secret gospel of Mark. 5 In his 1973 book, "The Secret Gospel" which was intended for the general public, he wrote:

"From the scattered indications in the canonical Gospels and the secret Gospel of Mark, we can put together a picture of Jesus' baptism, 'the mystery of the kingdom of God.' It was a water baptism administered by Jesus to chosen disciples, singly and by night. The costume, for the disciple, was a linen cloth worn over the naked body. This cloth was probably removed for the baptism proper, the immersion in water, which was now reduced to a preparatory purification. After that, by unknown ceremonies, the disciple was possessed by Jesus' spirit and so united with Jesus. One with him, he participated by hallucination in Jesus' ascent into the heavens, he entered the kingdom of God, and was thereby set free from the laws ordained for and in the lower world. Freedom from the law may have resulted in completion of the spiritual union by physical union. This certainly occurred in many forms of Gnostic Christianity; how early it began there is no telling." 1

Charles W. Hedrick commented:

"Smith's conclusion was that Clement's letter was a genuine second-century text and that Secret Mark was also genuine�from the late first century. The Secret Gospel of Mark demonstrated that the Jesus movement had begun with a mystery-religion baptismal initiation: Jesus baptized each of his closest disciples into the mystery of the kingdom of God, 'singly and at night.' In his larger study Smith wrote: 'In this baptism the disciple was united with Jesus. The union may have been physical ... (there is no telling how far symbolism went in Jesus' rite), but the essential thing was that the disciple was possessed by Jesus' spirit.' This is how Smith put it in his more popular book: The disciple ecstatically 'entered the kingdom of God, and was thereby set free from the laws ordained for and in the lower world. Freedom from the law may have resulted in completion of the spiritual union by physical union'."

Smith speculated further that this spiritual union may have involved a physical union -- a homoerotic experience. If this were true, then the account of the near-naked man who loved Jesus takes on a new meaning.

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Opposition to Morton Smith's suggestions:

As one would expect, Smith's books 5,6,1 raised a firestorm of attacks from some theologians who were disturbed at some of the possible interpretations of his work. Author Shawn Eyer commented:

"The possibility that the initiation could have included elements of eroticism was unthinkable to many scholars, whose reaction was to project onto Smith's entire interpretive work an imaginary emphasis on Jesus being a homosexual." 7

 Eyer compiled a list of brief quotes from theologians' negative reviews:

bulletPatrick Skehan: "...a morbid concatenation of fancies..."
bulletJoseph Fitzmyer: "...venal popularization..." "...replete with innuendos and eisegesis..."
bulletPaul J. Achtemeier: "Characteristically, his arguments are awash in speculation." "...an a priori principle of selective credulity..."
bulletWilliam Beardslee: "...ill-founded..."
bulletPierson Parker: "...the alleged parallels are far-fetched..."
bulletHans Conzelmann: "...science fiction..." "...does not belong to scholarly, nor even...discussable, literature..."
bulletRaymond Brown: "...debunking attitude towards Christianity..."
bulletFrederick Danker: "...in the same niche with Allegro's mushroom fantasies and Eisler's salmagundi."
bulletHelmut Merkel: "Once again total warfare has been declared on New Testament scholarship." 7
bulletA more radical interpretation of these fragments was available online. The author suggested that Jesus and the unnamed young man engaged in sexual behavior on the night mentioned in the first fragment. The implication was that Jesus was had either a homosexual or bisexual orientation. 8

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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. Morton Smith, "Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God?," Ulysses Press, (1998) Read reviews or order this book
  2. Op cit, Bart Ehrman, Page 80.
  3. Charles Turek, "Objectivity and new discoveries. Be cautious," Book review of Smith's book on the Amazon web site.
  4. Hippolytus, "Apostolic Tradition, 21.11
  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 a used copy can usually be purchased. 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. 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/
  8. Anon, "Was Jesus Gay? Missing Fragments from St. Mark's Gospel," described the missing verses from Mark at: http://www.darcol.ukns.com/ Unfortunately, the original essay is no longer online. However, references to it still exist elsewhere on the Internet. See: Hank Hyena, "Was Jesus Gay? A search for the Messiah's true sexuality," at: http://www.salon.com/
  9. 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 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2010-MAY-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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