The Bible and Beyond Podcast Episode

The Strange Secret Gospel of Mark is Likely Real, Not a Forgery

Dr. Tony Burke

Dr. Tony Burke (photo by Meghan Chartrand-Burke)

An Interview with Dr. Tony Burke

If the Secret Gospel of Mark turns out to be authentic, it could provide important insights into early Christian thought and practices. Popular theory claims it is mere forgery, however, created and circulated due to pro-homosexual motives. Professor Tony Burke explains the origin of the text, its content, the basis for the doubt, and the reasons for his own support of the theory of authenticity. He sees a more mystical interpretation than an erotic one.

Dr. Tony Burke is a Professor in the Department of the Humanities at York University in Toronto, where he focuses on the study of Christian biographical literature of the second century, children and the family in Roman antiquity, and extracanonical Jewish and Christian writings. His special interest is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and hs book, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas in the Syriac Tradition won the 2018 Frank W. Beare Award for outstanding book in the area of Christian Origins.

Tony is the co-founder of the North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature (NASSCAL), and he is editor of Volumes 1, 2, and 3 of the series New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures. It is a collection of little-known and never-before-published texts in English translation.

Podcast summary:

Where did the Secret Gospel of Mark come from?

In 1973, Morton Smith, known as a manuscript hunter, published two books about this (one for the public and one for scholars). In his books, Smith presents a letter attributed to Clement of Alexandria that was written to (an unknown person named) Theodore. Clement, an important theologian, lived around 150 – 215 CE.

Theodore had asked Clement, the local authority, about a group known as the Carpocratians, because he (Theodore) was concerned about the Carpocratians’ interpretation of the Gospel of Mark.

Clement’s response includes a short history of the Gospel of Mark, saying that Mark had come to Alexandria with the notes he made from the teachings of Peter, and that Mark had written two versions of his gospel. One version was for regular people (the biblical Gospel of Mark), and one for the more spiritually adept.

The Secret Gospel of Mark was meant to be kept secret for initiates into the great mysteries. Carpocrates had obtained a copy of this Secret Gospel of Mark and altered it to fit his own theology. Clement offers two excerpts from the text for Theodore and says other portions are simply falsifications.

  1. A resurrection story, set in Bethany, where Lazarus is from. It is very similar to the story of raising Lazarus in the Gospel of John.
  2. A short sequel in which Jesus comes to Jericho where the young man and his family are, but Jesus didn’t receive them, and then he simply departs.
  3. Other portions of the text are falsifications. Most are unspecified, but one in particular that includes naked man with naked man, is a falsification.

What does the Secret Gospel of Mark tell us about early Christianity?

Morton Smith believed Clement’s letter is authentic and that the Secret Gospel cited in the letter was a revision of Mark that drew upon a lost source that was common to the story of Lazarus in the Gospel of John.

Bible readers have wondered why the story of Lazarus was not in the other canonical gospels.  Smith’s twentieth-century interpretation of Lazarus’s story itself is that it is an indication of secret mystical practices in the Jesus movement. That is, Jesus, like the ‘magicians’ in antiquity, initiated his followers into the kingdom of God. This initiation included a ritual that united the spirit of Jesus through baptism and spiritual ascension into the heavens.

In passing, he touched on the idea that the spiritual union with Jesus may have also included physical, or sexual, union.

Tony Burke’s interpretation is that early Christian literature came in multiple forms. It’s an example of a stratification of texts – as the Gospel of John, with new portions added on later. And the Gospel of Mark in the canon also. The ending portions were added later.

Clement’s letter also shows how the Gospel of Mark was composed. It adds weight to the theory that Mark’s source is Peter.

How was the Secret Gospel of Mark discovered? 

The gospel was found when Smith was researching in a fairly remote library. He found some printed books among the manuscripts. One of them was a 16th century Latin copy of the Epistles of Ignatius. In the back pages of the book was the handwritten Greek copy of Clement’s letter. 

Although this is strange, it is not impossible. There were two other books with writing in the back in this same library. 

Where does the theory of the Secret Gospel of Mark forgery come from? 

After Smith’s death, the question of forgery accelerated, in part because he couldn’t sue anyone for libel. There was a certain animosity toward Smith, who was a bit of a maverick. Also some didn’t like his interpretation of the text. He basically said it was an indication that same sex practices were part of early Christianity.

The evidence in favor of forgery was of varying quality. A Canadian scholar, Scott Brown, calls this the “folklore of forgery,” that is, bad ideas keep getting repeated even if not accurate.

  1. At first, the argument was “there is no actual manuscript.” But some others did see it before it was conveniently ‘lost’ from the library.
  2. More recently, Smith’s work was labeled a hoax, a bit more playful than an outright forgery. He left clues in the manuscript indicating that he created it.
  3. Around the same time, the claim was that the handwriting showed signs of a ‘forger’s tremor’—the pen slows down in an effort to make a perfect copy. But now disproved.
  4. The most recent claim for forgery is that the text presents a homosexual relationship between Jesus and the young man, but it sounds too contemporary with euphemistic phrases.

To argue in favor of forgery, Sabar’s article in The Atlantic (here, subscription required) focuses attention on the motive behind forgery, and therefore turns most of his attention to Smith’s personal life. He sees Smith’s homosexuality as the basis of the debate. Since the Secret Gospel of Mark presents a gay Jesus, and Smith was gay, Smith must have created it.

What is Burke’s response to Sabar’s article?

  • Sabar and previous arguments for forgery ignore all the evidence for the text’s authenticity.
  • He thinks Sabar wrong because the text doesn’t even portray a relationship between Jesus and this young man as ‘gay’ in the first place.
  • The article mentions in passing that authors Brent Landau and Geoffrey Smith (The Secret Book of Mark: The Controversial Scholar, Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, and the Fierce Debate Over its Authenticity) advance a new theory of its origin. They think it was not a forgery, but a fictional story written between the 5th and 7th centuries to promote same-sex relations among monks, with an older monk mentoring a younger monk.
  • But they also think the text was not written by Clement of Alexandria because the earliest evidence of the story of Mark bringing the teaching from Peter to Alexandria was from Eusebius of Caesarea (4th century). Whoever wrote this letter must have copied it from Eusebius (not 2nd century Clement).

Why does Burke think the Secret Gospel of Mark might be authentic? 

Some considerations for evaluating forgery include: the first one is always suspect, until more copies are found; without prior knowledge of its existence, the first discovery is always a surprise.

What further complicates modern assessments was the popularity of apocryphal texts created in the 19th century. People would publish them and claim they were found. An example is the “Life of Isa,” a story of Jesus spending time in India as a young adult. In these cases, we only have modern translations with no original manuscripts; the person who discovered them was a hobbyist, not a scholar.

But with Secret Mark, at least, we have a trained scholar, a photographed manuscript, and the text in its original language. This text has far more credence than these other modern forgeries.

Why the Secret Gospel of Mark is probably not a forgery :

  • Allan Pantuck’s research on Morton Smith’s own notes about his research revealed some of Smith’s work where he tries to figure out how to translate this text. Clearly, the person who created the text doesn’t need to figure out how to translate it.
  • Some document examiners said that whoever wrote it would have to have been a native Greek writer, which Smith certainly was not.

The difficult byproduct is that since it is not settled, scholars are hesitant to publish on the text. Burke encourages serious researchers to consider what the pro-authenticity people present which is far more sophisticated than the arguments for forgery.

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