Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

The Secret Gospel of Mark

There is probably no more enduring controversy surrounding a biblical "discovery" than the long and convoluted tale of the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark.

Supposedly uncovered in 1958, first reported in 1960, first published in 1973, these few lines embedded in a Greek letter of a couple of pages continue to generate articles, conferences, books, and furor more than 60 years later. In many ways, this controversy as it unfolded over the decades has set a pattern for future disputes and controversies; it played out then, and continues to play out, like the plot of a Gospel Thriller (although it only appears in one Gospel Thriller, linked below). (You can find numerous resources on the text, including links to images of it, documentaries about it, and all manner of books and studies, here.)

At issue is a possibly first-century set of gospel variants included in a purportedly partial second-century letter copied into the flyleaf of a seventeenth century book, ostensibly in the early eighteenth century. The book was among the uncatalogued books of the monastery of Mar Saba; Morton Smith, an ancient historian with two doctorates (one in Hebrew from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and one in English from Harvard Divinity School), found it there while cataloguing the monastery's library during a sabbatical in 1958.

Smith first shared news of the "Secret Gospel of Mark" at the 1960 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in New York City. Smith believed the letter was an authentic piece of correspondence by Clement of Alexandria and that it bore witness to a secret (or, perhaps better, "mystical") version of Mark that was circulating in second-century Alexandria. In this version of Mark, Jesus was a ritual practitioner who personally initiated his disciples into communion with God in private ceremonies. These ceremonies might have involved physical as well as spiritual union.

Smith's lecture drew some national press attention, even making it to the front page of the New York Times the next day (as it turns out, he had invited several press outlets).

(The same author ran a companion article the next day reporting on the reaction to Smith's paper by Pierson Parker, the respondent.)

While Smith raised eyebrows with this talk, it took him more than a decade to print his findings. In 1973 he released two books. The first, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, was a sober, almost obsessively detailed philological, historical, and religious argument about the authenticity of the letter and the gospel fragments it contained. The publisher, Harvard University Press, included poorly cropped and low quality versions of the photographs Smith had taken of the Greek text (he left the original in place in the monastery). The second, The Secret Gospel of Mark, was aimed squarely at a popular audience: in bright and vivid prose Smith recounted his trips to the monastery and his fortuitous discovery (painting himself in some ways as a latter-day Constantin Tischendorf).

The sensationalist account in the popular version put Smith on the map. Both books drew immediate criticism from scholars, many of whom complained that they had no access to the original text or to accurate photographs: only Smith had ever seen this book or the Greek text copied into it. One early review suggested the text might be a forgery; although the author, Smith College professor Quentin Quesnell, did not suggest Smith forged the text, Smith took the accusation personally. Most other criticisms of the time centered on Smith's interpretation of the text, particularly the notion of Jesus as a ritual practitioner akin to a magician (an argument Smith would later expand into another book, Jesus the Magician). Other scholars, however, incorporated Smith's findings into their own ongoing creative reinterpretations of Christian origins.

Smith died in 1991. Two years later, his former student, Jacob Neusner (who provided a blurb for the trade book: see the ad above), publicly accused Smith of having forged the letter and its gospel fragments in order to embarrass his colleagues in biblical studies. Neusner was frank about his break with Smith and their professional and personal feud. He was nevertheless insistent (here and in other publications) that Smith had forged his evidence for Jesus as a "homosexual magician" (Neusner's phrasing).

Within a decade Neusner's accusation had gained traction. Although by the early 2000s other scholars came forward to say they had also seen the book and the Greek text after Smith, the consensus seemed to be growing that Smith had forged this blockbuster text. One of the more fascinating pieces of "evidence" leveled against Smith since the early 2000s is the existence of the evangelical Gospel Thriller The Mystery of Mar Saba which (some claim) must have inspired Smith's own forgery.
A former lawyer training for a doctorate in biblical studies, Stephen Carlson, published a forensic analysis of the case arguing for the likelihood of Smith's forgery. A Princeton musicologist and medievalist named Peter Jeffery wrote a lurid study of the text and of Smith, positing that Smith suffered from a psychological break that led him to perpetrate a forgery on the academy.

This renewal of interest in the question of Secret Mark led a headline in the New York Times and a raucous panel at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting on the 50th anniversary of Smith's 1958 find (you can read an account of that session here).

Other scholars have continued to defend the authenticity of the text:

either as a genuine ancient witness to a variant version of the Gospel of Mark (even if Smith's own possibly idiosyncratic interpretation is not to be maintained) or as a late ancient or medieval concoction that Smith innocently or perhaps willfully took as authentically ancient.

The most recent book on this controversy appeared in 2023, 65 years after Smith's "discovery" at the Monastery of Mar Saba and the headlines, articles, and conference papers do not seem to be slowing down.

When the furor of a Gospel Thriller breaks through into headlines, it has the potential to unmask the supposedly scholarly practices of biblical studies as driven by the same conspiratorial fears and desires surrounding the vulnerability of the Bible that persist in more imaginative corners of U.S. culture.


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