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Morton Smith’s Discovery of The Secret Gospel

In The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Controversial Scholar, a Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, and the Fierce Debate over Its Authenticity, Geoffrey S. Smith and Brent C. Landau present a radical new understanding of one of the most controversial manuscript discoveries of the last 70 years: a fragment of an alternative form of Mark’s Gospel that depicts Jesus in a homoerotic relationship. In the excerpt below, the iconoclastic scholar Morton Smith announces his discovery of the Secret Gospel to the world.

We celebrate Pride Month 2023 with a selection of excerpts, featuring titles about gay icons and artists, legal debates and triumphs, cultural and literary criticism, works by LGBTQ+ authors, and more.

Geoffrey S. Smith and Brent C. Landau—

Then, onto the main event: a newly discovered letter written by one of the most fascinating but enigmatic early Christian writers, Clement of Alexandria. Smith set up the premise of the letter: A certain Theodore has written to Clement with questions about a secret version of the Gospel of Mark circulating among the heretics. Theodore wonders whether Clement knows about this text and whether it should be regarded as divinely inspired. Then Smith turned to Clement’s reply: the Letter to Theodore. But Smith read aloud the letter only after issuing a stern warning to those gathered in the auditorium: “Before reading [Clement’s reply], however, I must inform you that this text is copyrighted and is not to be quoted. It may be summarized and occasional phrases from it may be used in the summary, but any substantial direct quotation is strictly forbidden. The answer, then, reads as follows.” Then Smith set down his transcript, pulled out a separate sheet, and from it read aloud the Letter to Theodore and the Secret Gospel of Mark.6

There is much to take in from this new document—a secret gospel hidden in Alexandria, heretics moved to action by demons, a previously unknown miracle performed by Jesus! In ordinary circumstances, this torrent of new historical information by itself would be enough to excite biblical scholars, who work with a limited set of well-studied ancient documents. But one detail from the letter overshadowed the rest: the Secret Gospel of Mark implies that Jesus had an intimate—perhaps even sexual—relationship with a young man.

While Smith did not spell this out in so many words, he certainly hinted at it in his presentation, even if only in jest. Robert Kraft, then a doctoral student at Harvard University, recalls Smith insinuating that Jesus instructed the young man under the bedsheets.7 Helmut Koester, who would become a leading figure in biblical studies but was at the time attending only his second annual meeting of the SBL, recalled that during the presentation Smith quipped that any priest caught alone with a nearly nude young man “would certainly be in trouble with his bishop,” an off-color joke that left Koester and others in attendance “shocked.”8 Members of the society were a hodgepodge of academics and devout preachers, with many finding themselves somewhere in between, so for most in attendance the implications were offensive, if not unthinkable. Even Kraft, one of the nonclerical members in the audience, recalls that Smith’s unveiling of a “homosexual Jesus” was startling, nothing short of an “oh wow” moment.9 Remember that this was 1960, long before the emergence of the counterculture later that decade, the sexual revolution, and the Stonewall uprising in 1969 that marked the beginning of the gay rights movement. When Morton Smith presented an ancient text that seemed to depict Jesus as a gay man, homosexuality was rarely mentioned in American public discourse.

Smith was quite capable of such rigorous and technical work, as became clear when he turned to the heart of his presentation, the question of the manuscript’s authenticity. It’s one thing to discover a text with Clement’s name on it, but finding a genuine letter of Clement is another entirely. To make his case, Smith launched into a detailed analysis of the linguistic similarities between the Letter to Theodore and Clement’s known writings—a semantic slog that would make even the most wonkish scholar squirm in his or her seat. The depth of Smith’s research and breadth of his learning were on full display. Smith then concluded that Clement of Alexandria did in fact compose the Letter to Theodore, leaving open the possibility that the Secret Gospel is a previously unknown version of the Gospel of Mark composed by the evangelist himself.

His findings stunned many in the audience. Had Smith really chanced upon a new letter of Clement of Alexandria? Did Mark the Evangelist compose an alternative, secret gospel? And since Mark’s Gospel is generally regarded as the earliest of the four in the New Testament, what implications would this discovery of a seemingly gay Jesus have for our understanding of Jesus’s life and ministry? Smith’s respondent, Pierson Parker from General Theological Seminary, was the first to raise objections, which he expressed not only in the auditorium that evening but also in a New York Times article that showcased his own perspective and appeared two days later: “Expert Disputes ‘Secret Gospel.’”10

At the close of the symposium controversy over the Secret Gospel of Mark erupted. Despite the presence of media in the room, only a lone photograph from the session survives, and it captures well the mood: Labeled “pro- and antagonist,” the photo depicts Smith and an interlocutor standing face-to-face, the opponent armed with an arsenal of objections and questions about Smith’s provocative new discovery, and Smith, mid-sentence, firing volleys in return.11 All the while several scholars eagerly look on, as if deciding which side of the battle to join.

The controversy surrounding the significance of the Secret Gospel of Mark that emerged in the Horace Mann Auditorium and spilled out into the streets in late December 1960 continues today, more than sixty years later. One might assume that steady progress had been made over the years, and that fundamental questions about the discovery would now have decisive answers: Did Clement compose the Letter to Theodore, and did Mark write a secret version of his canonical gospel? If not, then who composed the Letter to Theodore and the Secret Gospel, when, and for what purpose? Yet after decades of work on the Letter and the Secret Gospel, it seems our understanding of precisely what Smith discovered all those years ago has become more uncertain. While Smith and Parker agreed that Clement likely composed the Letter, but disagreed over whether Mark the Evangelist or some other early Christian authored the Secret Gospel, some now suspect that Smith himself forged both the Letter and the Secret Gospel. Still others doggedly maintain that both the Letter and the Secret Gospel are ancient, and that the Secret Gospel could hail from the first or second century CE.

It is not often that experts disagree sharply about whether a text was composed within a generation or two of Jesus’s death or in the twentieth century, but this is the bewildering state of affairs with the Letter and the Secret Gospel. This book is an attempt to move beyond the stalemate, to review the available evidence afresh and reinterpret it in light of recent advances in the field, especially methodological developments that have taken place largely within the past twenty years. We aim to bring clarity to the debate, to rule out unlikely if not implausible claims that have been made over the years about the Letter, the Secret Gospel, and even Morton Smith himself, and to make progress toward locating the Letter and the Secret Gospel in place and time.

6. On page 5 of the transcript of his SBLE talk, Smith writes, “The answer, then, reads as follows,” before leaving a blank space so he can read Clement’s Letter to Theodore and the Secret Gospel from a separate sheet.

 7. Robert Kraft, email correspondence, February 29, 2020.

 8. Helmut Koester’s teaching notes, generously shared with us by Cavan Concannon.

 9. Robert Kraft, email correspondence, February 26, 2020.

10. Sanka Knox, “Expert Disputes ‘Secret Gospel,’” New York Times, December 31, 1960.

11. Bruce Buckley, “Wrangle over ‘Secret Gospel’ Begins,” Morningsider, January 6, 1961

From The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Controversial Scholar, a Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, and the Fierce Debate over Its Authenticity by Geoffrey S. Smith and Brent C. Landau. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

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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