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“Secret Mark”: Heat and (Insufficient) Light

May 12, 2011

From Ryan Wettlaufer’s reports on the recent mini-conference on “Secret Mark” held at York University (Toronto), I get the impression that there remains more heat than light in the debates among scholars over the putative letter of Clement to Theodorus and the puzzling excerpts of a supposed “secret” version of the Gospel of Mark (copied on end-leaves of a 17th-century printed edition of the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, which Morton Smith claimed he found in the Mar Saba Monastery in 1958).   For part 1 of Wittlauer’s report:

Especially since Stephen Carlson’s book arguing that the letter was a hoax and likely by Smith himself, the “fat has been in the fire”:   Stephen C. Carlson, The Gospel Hoax:  Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark (Waco:  Baylor University Press, 2005).  There were previous published suspicions that the Clement letter was not authentic (and further suspicions published subsequently), but Carlson’s book focused attention particularly on the question of whether Smith was the author of the alleged hoax (and it’s important to note that Carlson alleged a “hoax”, not a “forgery” or “fraud”).

The York event seems to have focused on this hoax question, and the reports suggest a resulting stand-off, with nobody changing his/her mind as a result.  But this isn’t the only question, and it certainly isn’t the case that everything else depends on it.  I reiterate a few points from my own discussion of “Secret Mark” in my book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), 433-37 (to which readers are referred for details and references to other publications).

  • It remains curious that this is the only putative letter of Clement of Alexandria to survive, when he is reported to have written many.
  • It is also curious how this putative letter would have survived somehow from ca. 200 CE down at least to the date of the printed book into which it was written, with no other reference to it (even though it purports to refer to an otherwise unknown version of Mark).
  • It is further curious that some scholars (e.g., Helmut Koester) take the purported excerpts of a “Secret Mark” as stemming from a version of Mark supposedly earlier than the familiar text.  Analysis of the excepts has convinced a number of scholars that it is a pastiche of phrases from Mark and John in particular.  Also, the excerpts seem to depend upon and expand passages in Mark, especially the reference to the unidentified “young man” in Mark 14:51-52 where Jesus is arrested.  The ancient copying/transmission of texts tended more to resolve difficulties rather than to create them, and to explain/expand narrative scenes, not so much to make them puzzling.  So, on these bases, the purported excepts of “Secret Mark” are (whether ancient or modern in origin) more likely secondary, not indicative of a version of Mark earlier than the familiar text.
  • It is finally curious that some people seem to stake so much on an unprovenanced and unverified text, for which we now have available only purported photos.  This hardly seems a promising basis on which to build any theories about Mark or early Christianity.

So, let us hope that some further light can be shed on matters.  Heaven knows there’s been enough heat!

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  1. Fabrizio Palestini permalink

    Dear Prof. Hurtado,
    an interesting comment to the points raised in this post has been given by Roger Viklund here:

    In my humble opinion he shows that the points are very weak indeed.
    What do you think about it?

    • Mr. Viklund is a well-known advocate of the “Secret Mark” text. But his enthusiasm for his task in this case has led him a bit astray. I’ll post some thoughts by way of response. My previous posting was obviously not a “case” against the authenticity of the purported text, merely a set of observations about certain curiosities that ought to make us just hesitate before building too much on the putative Clement letter. But Viklund’s zeal for Secret Mark led him to take them as arguments requiring refutation. His refutation, however, misses my points in some cases and in other cases are expressions of charming enthusiasm for this text.

  2. “It’s important to note that Carlson alleged a ‘hoax’, not a ‘forgery’ or ‘fraud'”

    What are the implications of this?

    • In legal terms, a “forgery” is a crime, usually something faked for financial gain. Similarly, a “fraud” in legal terms typically is done for gain. A “hoax” is something faked simply to fool others, the object being to succeed in doing so. Carlson proposed that Smith produced the letter of Clement (with its intriguing putative excerpts of a “secret Mark”) basically to see if he could fool others into taking it seriously. There have been other such efforts by clever scholars who enjoyed putting something over on other scholars in particular. So, it’s not without precedent, and it doesn’t ascribe any criminal motive.

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