The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark

  • Stephen C. Carlson
  • Jan 1, 2006
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Stephen C. Carlson, The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith�s Invention of Secret Mark. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005. $19.95. xix + 151 pp. Pap. ISBN 1-932792-48-1

In 1958 Columbia University professor of biblical studies, Morton Smith, returned from a trip to the Mar Saba Orthodox monastery near Jerusalem, with photographs he had taken of three pages of what purported to be a letter from Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) to one Theodore, copied in what appeared to be eighteenth-century Greek handwriting on the back of a seventeenth-century copy of the genuine letters of Ignatius. The contents of these pages contain Clement�s praise to Theodore for standing firmly against the Gnostic sect known as the Carpocratians, and reassuring him that a version of the Gospel of Mark preserved in Alexandria and read only to mature initiates into the faith there did not contain the phrase �naked man with naked man,� as Theodore had been told by the Carpocratians. In the process Clement cites excerpts of this Gospel, including an incident resembling the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11), in which the young man raised �loved Jesus� and wished to be with him. So Jesus commanded to come to him by night to learn the mysteries of the kingdom of God and he did so, clad only in a linen cloth. Although the photographs and the story circulated among various members of the academy, Smith did not publish his findings until 1973, when he produced both a detailed, technical account (Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark [Harvard]) and a shorter, popular version (The Secret Gospel [Harper & Row]).

In the last thirty-plus years, scholars have varied widely in their assessments of �Secret Mark.� Most note that we have no actual copy of the �Gospel� itself, we know only a tiny portion of its contents from this letter of Clement. Nothing suggests that it is anything other than a corruption of original Mark, and we don�t even know for sure if Clement�s letter is authentic. On the other hand, the �radical fringe,� disproportionately represented in the Jesus Seminar of the 1990s, has at times made brash statements, concluding not only that such a document existed but that it predated original Mark and represents one of the earliest sources for the historical Jesus. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a handful of scholars accused Smith, who died in 1991, of outright forgery. Now it would appear that this last category of scholars has been vindicated. If not a forgery, the letter Morton Smith (and others later) photographed (which subsequently disappeared altogether) is at least a hoax, perhaps meant more as a giant practical joke to outwit the academy than a work intended forever to deceive. Or so claims Stephen Carlson, a legal expert whose fascination with Secret Mark has now spanned three decades.

Carlson�s case, which has already convinced Larry Hurtado (Edinburgh) and Mark Goodacre (Duke) of its persuasiveness proceeds in several steps. The handwriting was never analyzed in detail by any of the people Smith �consulted.� Complete with the photographs in the middle of this book, Carlson shows how the parallels to typical eighteenth-century handwriting are not quite as close as Smith claimed, how there are numerous signs that the characters were not written smoothly without interruption but slowly, with resulting inkblotting, and with the occasional retracing or touchup. Carlson compares several key Greek letters in the document with samples of Smith�s handwritten Greek from other memoirs of his, showing the remarkable similarities at precisely those points where they deviate from the older form. He notes that none of the other volumes Smith catalogued in the Mar Saba library were in Latin, as was the book of Ignatius� writings in which Smith �found� this appended letter. He observes that security at the monastery was loose enough that Smith could have easily brought the entire volume in undetected.

Another fragmentary manuscript from Mar Saba that Smith photographed and published employs identical handwriting and is said to have been copied in the twentieth-century by one M. Madiotes. This is not an otherwise attested Greek surname, but employs the common Greek suffix �otes that creates nouns out of verbs (and other parts of speech), meaning a person characterized by a certain trait. The Greek verb madao means literally to lose hair and, idiomatically, to swindle. Morton Smith�s first initial was, of course, M. He was bald and, if his work was a hoax, he was a twentieth-century trickster or swindler! And, like many pranksters, he seems to have been leaving clues to help the very clever identify his chicanery.

A third line of argument has to do with style and vocabulary. Detectives trying to sift forged from authentic documents look not only at whether the wording and syntax of a document are too different from a given author to prove likely original but also if an author�s patterns have been followed too slavishly. Almost every word, phrase or sentence of Secret Mark can be paralleled, reasonably closely, somewhere else in the existing corpus of Clement�s writings, while there are too few hapax legomena for a document of this length. Applying standard formulae, the hypothesis that this letter came from Clement can be rejected with twice the standard level of confidence normally needed to overturn a �null hypothesis.�

Perhaps the most ingenious discovery of Carlson�s sleuthing involves this letter�s allusion to Jesus� teaching on salt losing its savor �premised on an image of mixing table salt with an adulterant that changes its flavor� (p. 59). But this did not and could not happen in the ancient world, when salt congealed and was purchased and used in chunks, not in granules, as Clement�s writings elsewhere in fact attest. Not until 1910 did the Morton Salt company invent an anti-caking agent that would make this �Clement��s imagery intelligible, and enable the company �to monopolize the American market for table salt throughout most of the twentieth century." Moreover, Smith goes on to claim that behind such a proverb of salt needing to be cast out lies not only Gospel texts but Jer. 28:17 (LXX), which speaks of people made dull of knowledge because they have cast false things. But the play on the word cast works only in English, not in Greek and otherwise the text has nothing to do with the New Testament proverb, except that a portion of it, omitted by Smith, declares that �every goldsmith is confounded because of his graven images.� Is this Morton Smith�s two-part signature, again?

Finally, Smith would later become well known for his book Jesus the Magician, which among other things hinted at the possible homosexuality of Jesus. How convenient that the Secret Gospel of Mark should contain similar hints. Smith was known to have been very upset with the notoriously anti-gay attitudes in America in the 1950s.

Additional, more minor points reinforce the ones listed here. But one must also ask the question of motive. Why would Smith do such a thing? He had just been refused tenure at Harvard and perhaps wanted to get back at them, even in fun (he would later publish with Harvard�s press). He was known for his cleverness, humor, and wit. Perhaps he began the project before getting the job at Columbia, and then delayed with his publications long enough to make sure that his academic post was secure. Perhaps he had hoped to live longer and eventually disclose his secret. We may never know. What is fair to assume is that if Carlson has not conclusively disproved the authenticity and antiquity of Secret Mark, then the cluster of coincidences he has identified that appear to disprove it rank fairly close to the famous analogy of atheistic evolution standing about as much chance of being true as if a roomful of chimpanzees on typewriters had produced the Encyclopedia Brittanica!

Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
January 2006



Jonathan Parker

thank you for this write-up. I am currently reading Frank Kermode's Genesis of Secrecy where he seems to take Smith's findings as clearly legitimate but I was skeptical.

A quick question: Regarding Carlson's third point about salt, would sea salt not be naturally 'non-caking,' and also more likely to an Alexandrian context? Just curious.

Thanks, again.