Exploring “Secret” Mark

This is the second in an occasional series on non-canonical writings. Part one is here.

By Deirdre Good

The Secret Gospel of Mark has elicited fascination and concern ever since it was discovered in 1958 by Morton Smith (once an Episcopal priest) in the library of the Mar Saba monastery south of Jerusalem. In the back of a collection of letters of Ignatius of Antioch, published in 1646, handwritten pages from a letter of Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) to Theodore identify three versions of Mark known in antiquity: a gospel written in Rome; an expansion of the gospel written in Alexandria by Mark for those “being perfected in the faith;” a further expansion of Secret Mark by Carpocrates that Clement rejected as false.

In the following citation from Clement’s letter, the first longer quotation of material is inserted between Mark 10:34 and 35, while the second shorter quotation fits after the first part of Mark 10:46, “And they went into Jericho…”

To you, therefore, I shall not hesitate to answer the questions you have asked, refuting the falsifications by the very words of the Gospel. For example, after ,”And they were in the road going up to Jerusalem,” and what follows, until “After three days he shall arise,” the secret Gospel brings the following material word for word:

“And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me.’ But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.”

After these words follows the text, “And James and John come to him,” and all that section. But “naked man with naked man,” and the other things about which you wrote, are not found.

And after the words, “And he comes into Jericho,” the secret Gospel adds only, “And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them.”

But the many other things about which you wrote both seem to be and are falsifications.

Now the true explanation and that which accords with the true philosophy…

[the text breaks off]

What are we to make of this? We can, with scholars who reacted to the initial publication of the text in two books, The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel according to Mark, (Harper and Row, 1973); Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, (Cambridge University Press, 1973), reject Morton Smith’s interpretation of the texts as a baptism Jesus gave secretly to followers (and, in passing, the suggestion of a physical union between Jesus and the young man). Some scholars to this day suggest that the text is an ancient forgery or even that Morton Smith himself forged eighteenth century handwriting for unknown reasons. Or, we can, with Prof Cyril Richardson, not necessarily follow Morton Smith’s reconstruction of Christian origins, but “face the challenge of explaining the text.” It is unfortunate that the text has disappeared after it was taken from Mar Saba to the library of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem in 1976 but it was then seen by four people two of whom are alive today, Professor Guy G. Stroumsa of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Archimandrite Meliton.

We already know that the text of Mark’s gospel in antiquity is unstable. For example, several different endings have been added to the oldest ending of the gospel at 16:8 most of which can be seen in the footnotes of modern translations after 16:8 under headings such as “The Longer Ending” and “The Shorter Ending of Mark’s Gospel.” These alternative endings show that Mark was transmitted in antiquity either with or without a resurrection account and if the former, with more or less detail.

Then there’s the question of the stability of the text of Mark 10. The text of Mark 10:46 is odd since in its present form it fails to explain what happened in Jericho: “And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a large crowd, Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, a blind beggar was sitting by the way.” Secret Mark gives us an explanation of the present enigmatic text of Mark 10:46. Thus, it compels us to ask how old and how well-known our canonical version of Mark is. Perhaps it is a more public, less secret version of Secret Mark. Secret Mark also invites us to reexamine traditions about Jesus’ performing baptisms, as in John 3:22. It encourages us to re examine the relationship between synoptic gospels like Mark and John’s gospel where the account of the raising of Lazarus bears some resemblance to the Secret Mark’s account of a young man’s baptism by Jesus.

Secret Mark reminds us that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. We can’t simply destroy texts or vilify scholars with whom we may disagree. Let’s take up the opportunities Secret Mark offers for all our reconstructions of Christian origins.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

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