The controversial text that Smith discovered was a Greek manuscript written on the endpages of a 17th-century book. The apparently 18th-century handwriting recorded a copy of a previously unknown letter from Clement of Alexandria to someone named Theodore.
The Mar Saba text has been regarded with suspicion ever since its discovery. The reason is not the handwriting, but the content, which seems more consonant with Morton Smith’s opinions than with the early Christian period. Thus when Stephen C. Carlson first brought up the handwriting issue in his book The Gospel Hoax, he was trying to resolve a controversy that was already decades old. Everyone recognizes that handwriting study, by itself, cannot answer the really important question: what is the text actually saying? So far, the only interpretation that fully makes sense of every character, statement, and feature of the text—the interpretation I laid out in my book, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled—is that the purported letter of Clement is dependent on Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, and embodies a critique of Christian heterosexual morality that was widely appreciated by early twentieth-century literary homosexuals, who saw themselves as practicing “Greek love” in the spirit of Wilde and Plato. On the other hand, the most extended attempt to interpret the document as an early Christian text—Scott G. Brown’s book Mark’s Other Gospel—contends that all the difficulties can be wished away by means of enervating retranslation and bald-faced denial: Mark’s other gospel was mystical, not secret; it was not controversial despite Clement’s fulminations against heretics; it does not hint that Jesus practiced homosexual rites; it says nothing, in fact, that can’t already be found in canonical Mark. Not surprisingly, this reductio ad nihilum approach has had the perverse effect of confirming the opposite view: for what Brown really demonstrated is that the only way to shoehorn this text into the second century is to argue that it doesn’t mean anything. Thus proponents of an early Christian origin need to start explaining why a second-century date that leaves the text uninterpretable should be preferred to a twentieth-century date that renders it perfectly clear. Or else they need to find a compelling interpretation that makes sense in the context of early Christian literature and thought.
What Venetia Anastasopoulou has concluded is that the manuscript was penned by someone who was comfortable with Greek cursive handwriting. This could not have been Morton Smith, she believes, on the basis of apples-to-oranges comparison with Smith’s typically western use of block letters modeled on printed Greek (see my response to her original report). Now she adds that the writing also lacks the telltale signs of hesitation, uncertainty, or mechanical copying that she would expect to see in the work of a forger. In short, it is the hand of someone who wrote with the fluency of a native Greek; she does not know who or when. Nor does she know if this Greek was the text’s author, or was perhaps copying it from another source, such as an earlier manuscript or a draft by Morton Smith. The earliest this person could have lived would have been the seventeenth century, when the paper was manufactured. If Anastasopoulou is right, therefore, we are left with a text that was transcribed by a Greek at some unknown time in the last 350 years, which presents itself as a work of the second century, but is easiest to interpret as a work of the twentieth. If those who think the text was composed in the twentieth century have not explained how the manuscript was created, those who think the text was composed in the second century have not explained what it says. That state of affairs will satisfy no one, which is why neither side is ready to capitulate.
Peter Jeffery is the Scheide Professor of Music History Emeritus, Princeton University.
Michael P. Grace II is the Professor of Medieval Studies, University of Notre Dame.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Dig into the world of the Bible with a BAS All-Access membership. Combine a one-year tablet and print subscription to BAR with membership in the BAS Library to start your journey into the ancient past today!