Sunday, May 23, 2004


Since reading Albert Schweitzer's The Quest for the Historical Jesus many years ago, I've been interested in, well, the quest for the historical Jesus. One of the most fascinating books I've read in pursuit of this interest is Morton Smith's The Secret Gospel. In this book, Smith--a highly distinguished New Testament scholar--announced his discovery, in a monastery in the West Bank in Palestine, of an eighteenth-century copy of a fragment of a letter by the third-century Church father Clement of Alexandria. According to this letter, the church at Alexandria used not one, but two, versions of the Gospel according to Mark: the version we have, and a second, "secret" version available only to the elite. Furthermore, there was a third version, which Clement regarded as spurious, held by a "heretical" sect called the Carpocratians. The letter contained two quotations from the secret Gospel. One is very short; but in the other, Jesus raises a man from the dead. A few nights later, the man comes to Jesus naked under his cloak, and Jesus spends the night with him "teaching him the mystery of the Kingdom of God." (If you're an alt comix fan, you may recall that Chester Brown's adaptation of the Gospel according to Mark, which ran in Yummy Fur, incorporated both passages from the secret Gospel.)

As one might expect, this story caused quite a stir. In fact, the existence of a secret Gospel of Mark had itself not been suspected beforehand. Smith drew conclusions from the letter which were controversial, to say the least, and have not been widely accepted. But most scholars accepted that the letter itself was a copy of a genuine letter by Clement. A definitive judgment couldn't be made, though, because while Smith had taken photographs of the letter, he was unable to display the letter itself, which remained in the monastery. (While a few other scholars have seen the letter, none of them were able to have chemical tests performed upon it, which could determine when the copy had actually been made; and currently it seems to be lost.)

I just finished reading Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, written by Bart D. Ehrman, a respected New Testament scholar. In it, he makes several arguments that the letter is a forgery. Among them are:

1) No other ancient source mentions the letter.

2) None of Clement's other writings mention the letter, the secret Gospel, or the Carpocratian's falsification of it, even though he spends a good deal of time attacking the Carpocratians.

3) In Clement's other writings, he claims that the spiritual elite interpret Scripture differently than do ordinary believers, but not that they have different versions of the texts, as he does here.

4) In Clement's other writings, he states that one must not swear falsely. But in the letter, he says that when arguing with Carpocratians, you should deny the existence of the secret Gospel "on oath"--that is, swear falsely.

5) One of the grounds upon which Smith argued that the original letter had been written by Clement was that its vocabulary was typical of of Clement's known writings. But in fact, words which are particularly characteristic of Clement occur more frequently in the letter than they would be expected to, based on Clement's other writings. In effect, the letter is more "Clementesque" than Clement himself.

Ehrman doesn't say that the letter is definitely a forgery, nor does he accuse Smith outright of forging it. But from what he writes it seems clear that he thinks it's likely to be a forgery, and that Smith is the most likely suspect.

Obviously, I lack the qualifications to judge Ehrman's arguments. Ehrman himself says that the majority of scholars believe that the letter is genuine. But, for what it's worth, it doesn't seem to me that Ehrman would be predisposed a priori to reject the secret Gospel. He himself has written a book (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) on how orthodox scribes had altered the text of the New Testament to make it better reflect their own theological views.

If you want to explore further, in addition to the books I've mentioned, Wieland Willker's webpage has a lot of resources, including Smith's translation of the letter, the original Greek text, and articles arguing for and against the letter's authenticity.

An essay on the trajectory of the controversy, up to and including the recent exchange in BAR, is available at magicinthenewtestament.com.
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