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The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled

The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled
    Book Description:

    In 1958, Bible scholar Morton Smith announced the discovery of a sensational manuscript-a second-century letter written by St. Clement of Alexandria, who quotes an unknown, longer version of the Gospel of Mark. When Smith published the letter in 1973, he set off a firestorm of controversy that has raged ever since. Is the text authentic, or a hoax? Is Smith's interpretation correct? Did Jesus really practice magic, or homosexuality? And if the letter is a forgery . . . why?Through close examination of the "discovered" manuscript's text, Peter Jeffery unravels the answers to the mystery and tells the tragic tale of an estranged Episcopalian priest who forged an ancient gospel and fooled many of the best biblical scholars of his time. Jeffery shows convincingly that Smith's Secret Gospel is steeped in anachronisms and that its construction was influenced by Oscar Wilde'sSalomé, twentieth-century misunderstandings of early Christian liturgy, and Smith's personal struggles with Christian sexual morality.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13508-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. A Note on Psalm Numbering
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. 1 “A Discovery of Extraordinary Importance”
    (pp. 1-18)

    East of Bethlehem in the Judean desert, on a cliffside overlooking the Kidron Valley, halfway between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, stands one of the most ancient monasteries in the Christian world, the Great Laura of Mar Saba. It is named in Aramaic for its founder, St. Sabbas,¹ a Greek from Caesarea, in Asia Minor, who began building the first structure in the year 483.² Sabbas lived a long life (439–532), which was well documented by Cyril of Scythopolis, who was able to interview many people who had known him personally. Cyril’s life of Sabbas forms the largest section...

  6. 2 Questions
    (pp. 19-54)

    The authentication of any document must begin with its physical characteristics, and the manuscript Smith discovered is certainly unusual. Not all the writings of Clement of Alexandria have survived, but those that have are preserved in parchment codices of the tenth and eleventh centuries (and later).¹ The Mar Saba letter, on the other hand, was written on the rear flyleaves of a book printed in 1646, containing the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a church father who died in the early second century, about three generations before Clement. Smith, with more or less agreement from the paleographers he consulted,...

  7. 3 The Secret Gospel and the Origins of Christian Liturgy
    (pp. 55-70)

    Reconstructing religious ceremonies from long ago is no simple task; scholarly literature is rife with self-satisfied but unrecognized failures. The basic problem is that rituals subsist in three dimensions, while many academics—particularly if they have little personal experience with worship themselves—work mainly in one. Those who are trained as historians (or text critics), to work primarily with texts, tend to assume that a liturgy is essentially a specific kind of text, and this perception seems all the more obvious in situations where texts are all that survive. But a rite is not a text. It is primarily...

  8. 4 The Secret Gospel and the Alexandrian Lectionaries
    (pp. 71-90)

    The Secret Gospel cannot be made to fit into the history of nocturnal worship or Christian initiation at Alexandria. But a case has been made that it is an important witness to the history of the Alexandrian liturgical lectionary, the annual cycle of readings from the Bible. Since the Mar Saba letter states that Mark was read to those who were being instructed, and Secret Mark to those who were being perfected, it appears to be the earliest Christian writing to mention the organized reading of a specific New Testament book in coordination with any kind of liturgical calendar. That...

  9. 5 A Gospel in Fragments
    (pp. 91-122)

    The more enmeshed we get in the complexities of early liturgical history, the harder it is to believe that we will eventually find traces of the Secret Gospel. Fortunately, we do not need to—close examination of the Mar Saba text reveals a simpler explanation of its strange features: it is in fact a cento of words and phrases from the canonical gospels and other ancient writings, carefully structured to create the impression that Jesus practiced homosexuality. For the moment we will postpone the question of when this was done and concentrate instead on exploring how it was done.


  10. 6 Hypnotic Hymns
    (pp. 123-148)

    In the last chapter I showed that Smith’s construction of Jesus’ baptismal rite—“the mystery of the kingdom of God” involving nocturnal union, possession by Jesus’ spirit, ascent to heaven, and freedom from law—was presupposed, not deduced from the evidence. Indeed the “evidence” Smith presented consisted of numerous “scattered indications” wrenched from their original contexts (and therefore from their true meaning) and reassembled into a daunting but actually specious pretense at substantiation. Smith could have made a stronger case had he set himself the more limited goal of trying to fit the Secret Gospel into only one of the...

  11. 7 The Happiness of the Dead: Morton Smith on Christian Morality
    (pp. 149-184)

    Morton Smith briefly served as a priest of the Protestant Episcopal Church (the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion), but never resigned. Thus for some forty years, even after his death on July 11, 1991, he was listed in the two serial directories of Episcopalian clergy,¹ as if he were a priest in good standing—even though (as his writings show) he no longer subscribed to Christian faith. This was no mere oversight, for he took the trouble to keep his listing current, updating it as he changed jobs, issued new publications, and received new fellowships. As a result, it...

  12. 8 Hellenistic Homosexualities
    (pp. 185-212)

    The study of ancient Greek (male) homosexuality, like the study of early Christian liturgy, has developed considerably since the Mar Saba text came to light. The landmark book of K. J. Dover, with its thorough synthesis of textual and pictorial evidence, did much to clarify ancient Greek behaviors and attitudes associated with sex between males, and it has provoked much further research.¹ I believe it can be shown that, just as the Mar Saba document reflects a mid-twentieth-century Anglican conception of early Christian liturgy, so it also assumes a conception of ancient homosexuality that was common in academic circles before...

  13. 9 Uranian Venus: A Homoerotic Subculture in English Universities
    (pp. 213-225)

    It is not uncommon for culturally censured behavior to be defined as foreign or alien, typical of people less civilized than ourselves. Thus the Latin vocabulary for homosexuality presents it as a Greek phenomenon, while Philo of Alexandria, a Greek, considered it Italian.¹ The Holiness Code regards homosexuality as something only non-Israelites do. In the 1980s, as the AIDS virus began to spread, some national governments blithely assumed that “the Gay Plague” could never become a problem in their country.² In the English-speaking world, from at least the eighteenth century, there has been a long history of identifying homosexuality as...

  14. 10 The Wisdom of Salome
    (pp. 226-239)

    Morton Smith warned us that “there must have been other early traditions about Salome,” and indeed there were, in a way. The Secret Evangelist has intentionally conflated the Salome of canonical Mark with another New Testament character, whom later tradition has identified as an archetypal temptress and named Salome. If we recognize this character in the Salome of the Secret Gospel, we can locate a stream of twentieth-century thought in which the text fits perfectly. All its perplexing details that have given us so much trouble cohere into an intelligible message, all its characters have meaningful roles to play, every...

  15. 11 The One Who Knows
    (pp. 240-252)

    I had great difficulty organizing this book; in some ways it was the most difficult thing I have ever tried to write. Almost every section of the book as it now stands was somewhere else in an earlier draft. Eventually I came to the conclusion that, since my subject was an act of deception, it was bound to keep collapsing in on itself. A “real” subject, I think, would have a certain inherent structure, so that one could write a coherent narrative simply by describing that structure.

    Looking back now, however, I can see other ways that one might organize...

  16. Appendix: Morton Smith’s Translation of the Mar Saba Letter of Clement
    (pp. 253-256)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 257-326)
  18. Index of Ancient and Medieval Writings
    (pp. 327-333)
  19. General Index
    (pp. 334-340)