Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery

The Secret Gospel of Mark in Debate

Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery: The Secret Gospel of Mark in Debate

Edited by Tony Burke
(Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2013); xxviii + 357 pp., $42

Reviewed by James D.G. Dunn

Few manuscript discoveries have created anything like the furor focused on The Secret Gospel of Mark (SGM)—a furor well caught in the title of this book. The center of attention is a letter of Clement (of Alexandria) to Theodore, containing reference to and extracts from a secret Gospel of Mark, which Morton Smith discovered in the end papers of a 17th-century edition of the letters of Ignatius which he found in the monastery of Mar Saba in 1958. For 40 years now the debate has raged: Did Morton Smith discover an ancient gospel or is the letter with its reference to secret teaching that Mark added in a second edition of his gospel, a forgery crafted by Smith himself? The debate has a peculiarly frustrating character, since the key material, the letter of Clement to Theodore, which had been seen by others, has gone missing from the Patriarchate library in Jerusalem, so that vital tests which could have been applied to the paper and ink are no longer possible.

How better to detoxify the potentially damaging intensity of the disagreement than to bring the antagonists together in a debate. Hence, this volume that brings together the papers of a scholarly colloquium on the SGM held at York University, Toronto, in April 2011.

The volume has something of the character of a tug-of-war. After an introduction by the editor, helpfully reviewing the debate, the essays come mostly in a sequence of “for” and “against”—usually the case for forgery followed by a rebuttal, in effect, in defense of Smith. Thus Craig Evans, who had initially accepted that the SGM was authentic, but has become a doubter, not least because the SGM seems to support Smith’s own ideas and theories about Jesus and Christianity’s beginnings, is answered by Scott Brown and Allan Pantuck, with a fierce note added by Hershel Shanks asking incredulously whether Morton Smith was really the Bernie Madoff of the Academy. Pierluigi Piovanelli echoes Evans’s suspicions (Secret Mark was exactly the evidence needed to promote Smith’s new, unconventional ideas), but Allan Pantuck answers the crucial question as to whether Smith had the ability to forge such a document with a firm negative. And the issue of whether the letter to Theodore, and/or Smith’s interpretation of it, really meshed in with Clement’s thought is likewise debated between Peter Jeffery (negatively) and Scott Brown (positively). A brief essay by Stephen Carlson, whose dismissal of Secret Mark as a “hoax” (2005) had raised the temperature all round, but who could not attend the colloquium, is added as an appendix.

What to make of it all? There seem to be basically four options.

1. A Smith forgery. The essays of Evans, Piovanelli and Jeffery certainly raise suspicions; but those of Brown and Pantuck raise more than reasonable doubt about the Smith forgery claim. To impugn the credibility and honesty of a very substantial scholar, now deceased, on the basis of the evidence (the letter to Theodore being now no longer accessible—a point rightly stressed by Bruce Chilton) would be unfair, despite lingering suspicions.

2. An early (third-century?) forgery. Charles Hedrick’s exposition of ancient higher education, including training to imitate as closely as possible the style of the master, makes this second option more plausible than would seem likely at first, though the rationale for the early forgery is less than clear.

3. A genuine letter, reflecting Clement’s well-known attraction to mystery initiations and high evaluation of gnosis. The implication is of a version of Mark, revised to attribute the sort of secret teaching of Jesus that proved so attractive to many seekers in the second and third centuries, which Carpocrates had further revised with more overt homosexual overtones. Clement was attracted to the fuller version of Mark, “Secret Mark,” “a more spiritual gospel for the use of those who were being perfected,” but denies that the secret gospel contained the Carpocratian additions. On balance, this seems to make best sense of all the evidence.

4. The “secret gospel” is a version of Mark earlier than New Testament Mark, best regarded as the original Mark, of which the New Testament Mark is a revision. This is probably the least likely of all, despite the backing of well-known scholars Helmut Koester and John Dominic Crossan (in the debate followed by Marvin Meyer). It is much more likely that Secret Mark was composed drawing phrases and material from elsewhere in New Testament Mark, than that an editor produced New Testament Mark by scattering phrases from Secret Mark through his revision. The total absence of any manuscript support for an original Mark incorporating Secret Mark makes it very doubtful if such an original ever existed.

This volume will not end the debate, but the debate seems to have been carried through with a fair degree of collegial amicability, and the record of the debate should help ensure that the debate itself moves on from the too stark “either-or” of its title.



James D.G. Dunn is Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity in the department of theology and religion at Durham University in England.

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  • Ken says

    The way Dunn lays out the case is seriously problematic. First, he gives the possibility that Morton Smith forged Secret Mark as the only option in which the document is a modern production. Then he claims that it would be unfair to impugn Smith’s credibility and honesty based on a document we do not have to examine. In effect, Dunn eliminates the possibility that Secret Mark is a modern production based on the fact that it is not accessible to be examined by experts. He confuses the standards we use in ethical treatment of people with the standards we use in examining documents of unknown provenance. The idea that a document should be accepted as ancient, and therefore part of the corpus of literature to be used in historical research on antiquity, on the grounds that it has become unavailable for examination is extraordinarily dangerous and should not be accepted.

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