Doubting Morton Smith and Secret Mark

Although a number of scholars were willing to accept the find as authentic, or at least were willing to accept Smith’s account, a number of other scholars suspected the find was a hoax and that perhaps Smith himself was the hoaxer. The matter continues to be debated.

By Craig A. Evans
Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Acadia Divinity College and Acadia University
Wolfville, Nova Scotia B4P 2R6 Canada
August 2011

At the 1960 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Morton Smith (1915–91) announced that while examining a number of old books and papers in the Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean Desert in 1958 he discovered three pages of hand-written Greek in the back of a 1646 edition of the letters of Ignatius. These pages purport to be a lost letter of Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215), written to one Theodore, in which a longer, mystical (or “secret”) Gospel of Mark is discussed. Two passages of this work are quoted, one of which describes Jesus teaching a young man, wearing a linen sheet over his “naked” body, the “mystery of the kingdom of God.” In 1973, Smith published his find, now known as the “Secret Gospel of Mark,” in a lengthy, learned volume (Harvard University Press) and in a briefer, popular version (Harper). Although a number of scholars were willing to accept the find as authentic, or at least were willing to accept Smith’s account, a number of other scholars suspected the find was a hoax and that perhaps Smith himself was the hoaxer. The matter continues to be debated.

In April 2011, Tony Burke and Phil Harland of York University in Toronto hosted a one-day symposium devoted to Morton Smith’s controversial find. Participants included Scott Brown, Bruce Chilton, Charles Hedrick, Peter Jeffery, Marvin Meyer, Allan Pantuck, Pierluigi Piovanelli, Hershel Shanks, and me. All in all the conference was stimulating and enjoyable. The participants were cordial and the hosts accommodating. All of us owe Tony and Phil our thanks.

About half of the participants view Smith’s find with suspicion, if not as an outright hoax. These include Chilton, Jeffery, Piovanelli, and me. The other half of the participants, including the hosts, remain convinced that Smith told the truth. (The authenticity of the find itself, of course, is another matter.) On his blog, Tony has chronicled his thoughts, explaining why after hearing the papers and the discussion he still thinks Smith indeed made the discovery and that Smith was not involved in any way in a hoax.

At one time, I too accepted Smith’s account. I assumed that the letter of Clement, however it came to be copied into the back of Isaac Voss’s 1646 edition of the letters of Ignatius, was genuine. I viewed the “mystical Mark” edition, of which Clement speaks and two portions of which he quotes, as a second-century revision of the first-century Mark. It was in reading Smith’s 1951 dissertation (Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels), in the context of a study in the mid-1990s comparing the rabbinic-like sayings and parables of Jesus with the sayings of the Tannaitic Rabbis, that I began to have serious doubts.

In a paragraph found on pp. 155-56 of the dissertation, Smith discusses the possibility of “secret doctrine” in the early Church, as reflected in Mark 4:11 (“to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God”) and in 1 Cor 2:1–7 (“we speak the wisdom of God in a secret”). Smith finds a parallel to the idea of secret teaching in early rabbinic tradition and appeals to Hagigah 2.1. (Smith refers to the Tosefta, but his quotation appears to reflect the parallel in the Mishnah.) Smith paraphrases the Hagigah passage as follows: “The (passages of the Old Testament dealing with) forbidden sexual relationships are not to be expounded to three (at a time) . . . and (Ezekiel’s vision of) the chariot may not be expounded to a single hearer . . . .”

In itself, Smith’s point is not particularly strange. He suggests a parallel between early Christianity and early rabbinic Judaism because both seem to have made a distinction between public teaching and private teaching. How truly parallel the Christian materials and the Hagigah passage really are I am not sure. For now, all I wish to note is the appearance of Mark 4:11 in a paragraph discussing, however briefly, forbidden sexual relationships. If you look at the Hagigah passage, you will see that it refers to Leviticus 18, which forbids homosexual activity (cf. Lev 18:22).

In an article that appeared in 1958 (BJRL 40 [1958]: 473–521), the year Smith visited Mar Saba, though written before the visit, Smith discusses, among other things, secrecy, initiation, union between believers and a deity, and Clement of Alexandria, who was fond of secrecy. Along the way, Smith remarks: “If a Jew [i.e., Jesus] could be supposed to invoke Beelzebub, he could be supposed to invoke Eros [the god of love]” (p. 485 n. 1).

In a lengthy and severely critical review (HTR 48 [1955]: 21–64) of Vincent Taylor’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark (1952), Smith speaks of a Markan “source with other Johannine traits” (p. 26) and of material that the evangelist Mark “would leave out . . . even if he did not deliberately censor it” (p. 35). Smith also returns to Mark 4:11, commenting that “the early Church had a wide variety of motives for attributing secret doctrine to Jesus, and among them may well have been the recollection that Jesus (also for a wide variety of motives) practiced secrecy” (p. 29).

I draw attention to these two curious proposals (i.e., the linking of the secrecy of Mark 4:11 to prohibited sexual practices and the idea that Mark’s sources may have included materials with Johannine traits) because they are the notable features of Smith’s Mar Saba find. First, Smith’s Clementine letter quotes a passage omitted from public Mark, in which a young man wearing a cloth over his “naked” body comes to Jesus at night and is taught “the secret of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11). Clement goes on in his letter to complain of those who interpret the passage in a “carnal” and “blasphemous” sense and asserts that the words “naked man with naked man” do not occur in the text. The discussion in the letter makes it clear that the passage quoted from Secret Mark could be understood and in fact was understood by some as hinting at homosexual activity. Secondly, the story of the raising of the young man parallels the story of raising Lazarus in John 11 (which Smith acknowledges and discusses). The long quotation of mystical Mark is an example of material at the evangelist’s disposal that contains “Johannine traits.”

In short, Smith claims to have found in 1958 a lost letter of Clement that contains two unusual elements that Smith himself discussed in pre-find publications, that is, works that Smith published in 1951, 1955, and 1958. What are the odds? Please understand what I am saying here. I am not saying that Smith interpreted his 1958 find in the light of his pre-find publications and interests. What I am saying is that his 1958 find (the Clementine letter and its quotations of a “mystical Mark”) contains the themes that Smith himself talked about in previous publications. This is what makes me so suspicious. This is why I no longer use Secret Mark in my research.

The amazing and unlikely parallels that I have pointed out do not constitute proof, in some sort of legal sense. What they do is raise troubling questions and arouse suspicion.

There are other parallels. In places, Smith seems to echo James Hunter’s novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba (1940). In the novel, the British archaeologist “Sir William” explains his reasons for visiting the old monastery in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War: “This monastery . . . is one of the oldest religious institutions of its kind in the world, and at one time housed many manuscripts. Most of these were removed, but I have always had the feeling that some might have been overlooked and hidden away. My supposition proved correct” (p. 279; emphasis added). Smith’s reasons and expectations were remarkably similar. Smith explains: “I had not expected much from the Mar Saba manuscripts since I knew that almost all of them had been carried off to Jerusalem in the past century and were listed in the catalogue of the Patriarchal library. But there was always the chance that something had been missed, or that other manuscripts had been brought in by monks coming from other monasteries” (Secret Gospel [1973], 11; emphasis added). It seems neither the fictional British archaeologist nor the non-fictional American scholar expected to find anything at Mar Saba.

However, both did make surprising discoveries. The novel’s “Sir William” explains: “I was prepared to leave Mar Saba, reconciled to the negative results of my research, when a monk told me he had certain manuscripts in his cell that had evidently been overlooked . . . ” (p. 293; emphasis added). Likewise reports Smith: “I was gradually reconciling myself to my worst expectations and repeating every day that I should discover nothing of importance. Then, one afternoon near the end of my stay, I found myself in my cell, staring incredulously at a text written in tiny scrawl . . .” (Secret Gospel, 12; emphasis added).

“Sir William” of Hunter’s novel found a leaf of Greek text that tells a story of the removal of Jesus’ body from the tomb, which is why Jesus’ followers subsequently find it empty and mistakenly come to believe that their master had been raised up. Sir William’s discovery stuns and demoralizes the British Empire, reducing the will to resist Adolf Hitler. Fortunately, it turns out the leaf of Greek is a forgery and the hero who exposed the nefarious Nazi plot is one Scotland Yard Inspector “Lord Moreton.”

The parallels between Smith’s discovery and Hunter’s novel are quite amazing. Could it be that the novel inspired Smith? Francis Watson thinks so. In a recent study (“Beyond Suspicion: On the Authorship of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark,” JTS 61 [2010]: 128–70), Watson explores a number of troubling parallels between Smith’s pre-Mar Saba find publications and the Mar Saba find. He looks at the parallels between Smith’s account of his find and Hunter’s novel. He also observes that Smith’s find in places appears to be dependent on the language of Papias, in a way that would be hard to explain of Clement of Alexandria but not hard to explain of a modern scholar who may well have need of the assistance of a second-century church father. As the title of his study indicates, Watson believes Smith’s involvement in the production of the Mar Saba text is “beyond suspicion.”

The reason that Watson, I, and others regard Smith’s discovery with suspicion is because Smith had articulated some of the unusual aspects of the Mar Saba text before he found it. With this point in mind, allow me to refer to another example. I have suggested that Paul Coleman-Norton’s spurious “amusing agraphon,” published in 1950 and said to have been found in North Africa in 1943 (CBQ 12 [1950]: 439–49), may also have been inspired by Hunter’s novel. Coleman-Norton, former Associate Professor of Latin at Princeton University, says he found the leaf of Greek inside an old book in a mosque. What he says he found is an unknown saying of Jesus, followed by a page of patristic commentary. The saying is occasioned when a disciple asks Jesus how the toothless wicked will be able to weep and gnash their teeth when cast into outer darkness, where people “will weep and gnash their teeth.” Jesus replies, “Teeth will be provided!” What gives Coleman-Norton away, besides the modernity of the humorous quip, is that he had regaled his Princeton students with this witticism many years before making his “discovery.” Bruce Metzger recounts the episode in his 1971 SBL presidential address (cf. JBL 91 [1972]: 3-24; idem, Reminiscences of an Octogenerian [1997], 136–39).

Because the end pages of Voss’s book, on which the Clementine letter and quotations of Secret Mark appear, have gone missing, there has been no scientific testing that might clarify when the ink had been applied to the paper. Handwriting analysis of the photographs of Smith’s find appears to be deadlocked, with experts weighing in on both sides, concluding either that Smith himself wrote the text or that Smith did not write the text. Some of this analysis has been posted on the Biblical Archaeology Society web page, for which we may thank Hershel Shanks.

I do not know if Smith “held the pen” or if Smith had a confederate (who may or may not have known what Smith was up to). Nor do I think I have “proven” that Smith has perpetrated a hoax on the academy (as many think he has). What I think I have are grounds for suspicion (and in correspondence Hershel Shanks has conceded as much). Smith had great interest in what he found before he found it (and here Piovanelli’s paper will shed significant light) and the question of provenance is murky (and here Chilton’s paper is apropos). Moreover, what Smith found seems to reflect modern issues more than ancient ones (and here Jeffery’s work is telling). In any event, the parallels that Watson and I have adduced are very troubling. How could Smith have “anticipated” the discovery of a text that links, as Smith had, the “secret of the kingdom of God” with restricted teaching, such as prohibited sex? A discovery, moreover, that confirms that the evangelist Mark had omitted materials that contained Johannine traits? No gospel scholar prior to Smith had entertained such strange ideas. Yet within a few years of publishing these ideas Smith finds an ancient text that contains them!

No, I have not proven that Smith fabricated the letter of Clement, along with its quotations of Secret Mark, but I do not see how critical scholars can make use of such a text and still call their work critical and scholarly. Scholars interested in the early history of the Gospel of Mark, the historical Jesus and his understanding of the kingdom of God, and critical issues debated by Clement and other Christians in the late second and early third centuries are well advised to make no use of the Mar Saba Clementine.


The full text of my York paper will be published under the editorship of Tony Burke and Phil Harland.

Comments (10)

What I find telling here is that some of those believing in Smith's find as authentic are today the same scholars who believe in the authenticity of the James ossuary, which has been deemed by many, if not all scholars to be a modern day forgery. One of the pro-Smith scholars authenticated a copy of the 10 commandments found in the American south west which they date to pre-Columbus times, Lost tribes. So much for some of the pro-Morton Smith scholars creditability.

#1 - Joe Zias - 08/17/2011 - 17:48

It is especially curious that Secret Mark would confirm some of Smith's own agenda. I don't hear much about this document. Is there a substantial portion of scholars that still entertain the possibility that it may be legit or do most discount it?

#2 - Brian LePort - 08/17/2011 - 21:47

Peter Jeffrey, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)

Jeffrey argues that Morton Smith’s Secret Gospel of Mark is a modern forgery that Smith foisted on the scholarly community and the world at large (Stephen Carlson’s work came out in print, The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark, 2005), and Jeffrey's work comes to the same conclusion. Jeffery notes numerous anachronisms, not the least of which is the homeoeroticism portrayed in Secret Mark. He demonstrates how the initiation rite in the text is derived from an earlier form of the Anglican Easter liturgy. Furthermore, he demonstrates how Clement’s letter has extensive allusions to Oscar Wilde’s play, ‘Salome’, which may have been used because of Wilde’s own homosexuality. This work, as well as Evans new connections of James Hunter’s novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba (1940) make an extremely damaging case against Smith and his Secret Mark. Is anyone really still defending smith?

#3 - Jesse Richards - 08/18/2011 - 17:48

As far as I'm concerned this is a dead issue. Secret Mark isn't much of a secret anymore. Bart Ehrman is right to say that this document is FORGED!

#4 - Greg Monette - 08/18/2011 - 17:53

James McGrath has written a post in response for those interested:

He seems to agree with Prof. Evans that it is likely a forgery, but he is not convinced Smith did it. He is leaving many options open writing, "It is possible to regard it as extremely unlikely that Morton Smith forged the work, but to consider it an ancient forgery, or an authentic letter of Clement about an ancient forgery (or, or, or...)."

His post may be worth engaging as well.

#5 - Brian LePort - 08/18/2011 - 18:49

Brian LePort raises a good question. My impression (and I have taken no poll) is that most North American biblical scholars view Secret Mark with suspicion; perhaps most view it as a hoax. In any case, I know of no serious commentary on Mark or study of the historical Jesus (think of Geza Vermes, E. P. Sanders, John Meier, or Jimmy Dunn) that regards Secret Mark as a text that must be taken into account. So also European scholars. My impression is that very few think the Clementine letter and Secret Mark are authentic. Maybe someone will take a poll and we will have a better idea.

#6 - Craig Evans - 08/19/2011 - 21:09

Is Saint Augustine's exegesis correct? Do a search: First Scandal.

#7 - Robert Hagedorn - 08/20/2011 - 22:22

Prof. Evans has written a response at for those interested:

#8 - Brian LePort - 08/21/2011 - 15:07

It is interesting and instructive that many of the scholars who disparage "Secret Mark" are faculty members of conservative Christian colleges. Their motives should be highly suspect

#9 - george schoellkopf - 07/02/2016 - 21:50

Secret Mark in light of Gospel of John and the disciple that Jesus loved seems to ring true. See book: the man Jesus loved, by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. I wonder if a scholar at the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) would have anything about the disciple that Jesus loved. Or are they going to give the old saw- only friends.

#10 - Tim Earhart - 10/31/2017 - 15:14

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