What is the Secret Gospel of Mark?

Some of you may have at some point, either on the internet or on television, heard of the so called “Secret Gospel of Mark”.   Although many more I suspect would likely ask: What is the Secret Gospel of Mark? Therefore, for todays’ post I will pose that very question: What is the Secret Gospel of Mark? The short answer: this is NOT a real gospel, but rather a fictitious one perpetuated through a widespread hoax. For those who may not be familiar, I will summarize the history of this alleged gospel, and the evidence that satisfies many scholars and experts that it is indeed a hoax.

The history of this alleged gospel, called “Secret Mark” for short, started in 1960 when Morton Smith, a professor of Ancient History at Columbia University, announced his “discovery” at the annual Society of Biblical Literature. Specifically, Smith announced that just two years prior (in 1958) while on sabbatical, he discovered a letter in a book at the Mar Saba Monastery (located about ten miles from Jerusalem). The text was written in Greek, and allegedly a copy of a letter written by Clement of Alexandria to someone named Theodore. In the letter, “Clement” makes both reference to, and quotes from, a “secret gospel” written by Mark — one that was reportedly reserved for the elite only. The homoerotic tones of this text cannot be missed to anyone that reads the reported quotes from “Secret Mark” contained in this alleged Clementine letter. Needless to say, this announcement by Smith made quite a splash in 1960. Once more, he later wrote two books on this “discovery” of his, including a 450 page work. Of course, there was immediate widespread doubts and skepticism expressed from both scholars and non-scholars alike. Their conclusion: Clement of Alexandria never produced such a letter, thus the document was a forgery. Moreover, the alleged “Secret Mark” referenced in the letter never existed either, but is part of the hoax.  Nevertheless, there are still people today, including a fringe group of scholars, who contend that this alleged discovery was genuine, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

So why do so many people doubt Smith’s discovery? First, the letter it seems has magically disappeared from Mar Saba. Luckily some pictures of the text were taken and are still available for analysis, but the actual letter he “discovered” is nowhere to be found at Mar Saba. Therefore, nobody (besides Smith) was actually able to study the physical document and subject it to proper testing. Second, there is not one mention from any ancient source or witness of “Secret Mark,” nor this alleged letter by Clement of Alexandria. Not even Clement himself mentions it in his own writings, which still survive to this day. Third, the story is hard to believe, and given Smith’s background as an openly gay man and the content of “Secret Mark” found in this letter, it becomes even more suspect. All of this taken together, many people concluded that the Clementine letter and the alleged existence of “Secret Mark” contained within it was nothing more than a modern hoax, and Smith was almost certainly the perpetrator.

But wait! There’s more! Recently published color photographs of the document were given to several experts in the scientific field for detecting forgeries. The experts, after analyzing the handwriting of the document and comparing it to known samples of handwriting from Morton Smith found the evidence both compelling and conclusive: Smith wrote the text. Some of the evidence they cite (this is not all inclusive) include the following: The magnification of the handwritten text reveals the presence of “forger’s tremor” according to handwriting experts. Meaning the text is not written, but drawn to imitate a style of writing that is not the authors own. This forger’s tremor is reportedly found throughout the Clementine letter. Moreover, comparisons of both the Greek handwritten text with Smith’s own style of writing Greek, show him to be the author of the Clementine letter. For instance, Smith had a unique way of writing certain Greek letters, which occasionally intrude into the imitation of older Greek handwriting found on the document. Once more, some of the distinctive themes of the Clementine letter are found elsewhere in Smith’s published works prior to 1958. Therefore, the experts in the relevant fields of detecting forgery that evaluated the photographs and related evidence conclude it is a forgery produced by Morton Smith.

And as if all of this evidence was not more than enough to satisfy the fact that the Clementine letter is a hoax, consider this: The entire story alleged here, i.e. finding a long lost document of potentially embarrassing material at the Mar Saba Monastery — is in fact also the plot of a novel by James Hunter, titled “The Mystery of Mar Saba” published in 1940. The parallels between Morton Smith’s alleged discovery and the plot of Hunter’s novel are just too similar to be mere coincidence. Moreover, “Secret Mark” did not become a major factor in Smith’s scholarship moving forward apart from the books he wrote disclosing his “discovery” to the world – even though it would have seemed fitting to do so. However, this makes perfect sense if you accept the fact this document is indeed a hoax, and Smith would not want to taint his later work by incorporating references to a text he knew to be fraudulent.

So as one can see, the evidence that the so called “Secret Gospel of Mark” is nothing more than a modern hoax is fairly conclusive. The evidence to this fact satisfies many scholars of early Christianity and virtually all experts in the field of forgery. Of course there are lots of other reasons to conclude the Clementine letter (and Secret Mark) is a hoax, but I think the summary made in this post will suffice for most open minded readers. Therefore, given everything we know today, the Secret Gospel of Mark never existed, or rather, it never existed for all intents and purposes, before 1960.

Thank you for reading! I hope some may have found this post insightful.

JDN

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