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The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Conversation with Geoffrey S. Smith and Brent C. Landau

Geoffrey S. Smith

In March of 2019 I received a text from my colleague Brent Landau, asking whether I’d be interested in sitting in on his graduate seminar down the hall. They’d been discussing ancient Christian apocryphal writings all semester; today’s session was on the Secret Gospel of Mark.

As a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School I’d learned the basics about the Secret Gospel of Mark in seminars. In 1958 Columbia professor Morton Smith discovered a manuscript in an ancient monastery in the Judean desert that purported to include a scene from a secret version of Mark’s Gospel, and the manuscript has since disappeared. Yet in hallway conversations with professors and fellow students, I gathered that there was much more to the story. Some speculated that Morton Smith forged the manuscript and placed Jesus in a suggestive scene with a young man as a joke. Others suspected that Smith, a lifelong bachelor, was gay and forged the manuscript as a defense of his own, undisclosed sexual orientation—it was less a Secret Gospel of Mark, than a Gospel of Morton’s Secret. The gossip surrounding the whole affair seemed so adolescent to me, that even as a young graduate student I decided not to pursue any research on the Secret Gospel of Mark.

Still, I accepted Brent’s invitation to attend the seminar—I was curious what the students thought of the Secret Gospel of Mark controversy—so I locked my office and headed to the seminar room. On the table was a copy of Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery?: The Secret Gospel of Mark in Debate, a collection of essays, some of which the students had read for class. To my surprise, on the cover of the book was an image of a page from the Secret Gospel of Mark. Somehow, in all of my conversations about the manuscript, I’d missed the fact that images of the lost manuscript survive.

Immediately any suspicions I had about Smith forging the manuscript evaporated. The handwriting style was nothing like the clumsy capitals of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, or other crude forgeries I’d seen in the past. What I saw on the cover of Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery? was an effortlessly executed late Greek hand, filled with ligatures, abbreviations, and complex letterforms. There was no way Morton Smith, an American who learned Greek as an adult and never had any formal training in late calligraphic Greek hands, could have composed this text and copied it out so expertly. Modern Forgery? No way. But the alternative—Ancient Gospel—seemed equally unlikely.

By the time the seminar had ended, Brent and I decided to move forward with a book on the Secret Gospel of Mark. We weren’t exactly sure what the Secret Gospel was, but we had strong suspicions of what it wasn’t.

Brent C. Landau—

Now that Geoff has shared his telling of how this book project started, I’d like to say something about what sorts of impact we hope this book will have. First and foremost, we believe that the story of Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark is gripping enough that even readers who know little about early Christian writings will find themselves captivated by the tale that unfolds. But we have also written this book for our fellow scholars who study the beginnings of Christianity in the ancient Mediterranean world, with a specific hope that our book will re-ignite a debate about this enigmatic text. It is our conviction that many scholars who would otherwise be quite interested in a writing like the Secret Gospel of Mark have been reluctant to enter the debate because of the arguments that it is a modern forgery. Not that most scholars have closely analyzed the merits of the case for forgery, we suspect. Rather, thanks to the sheer number of potential signs of forgery that previous authors claim to have detected, something like a radioactive glow now emanates (at least metaphorically) from the text, warning would-be investigators that taking this text too seriously is dangerous—for their respectability, if nothing else.

And yet, if the array of allegedly suspicious features of Secret Mark is as unimpressive as we have argued, then it is probable that this text came into being long before Morton Smith ever laid eyes on it. Its existence still requires explanation. With all respect to Smith, however, the explanation that he proposed—that it is a very ancient pre-canonical fragment of the Gospel of Mark that relays quite shocking information about what sort of teacher the historical Jesus was—has serious flaws as well.

We have found what we believe to be a plausible occasion for the composition of Secret Mark in ancient Christianity, and we look forward to the reactions to our thesis when the book is published later this month. But other plausible points of origin may exist, either in late antiquity, or in subsequent centuries, leading all the way up to the copying of the letter of Clement and its excerpt from the Secret Gospel of Mark at some point in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. If other readers find a later moment of creation to be plausible, we are excited to hear their arguments. Even if our explanation of this fascinating text is superseded by other, better interpretations, it is long past time to give the Secret Gospel of Mark the serious study it deserves.

Geoffrey S. Smith is associate professor, fellow of the Louise Farmer Boyer Chair in Biblical Studies, and director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins in the religious studies department at the University of Texas at Austin. Brent C. Landau is associate professor of instruction in religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Both authors live in Austin.

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