Exposing the "Secret Mark" Forgery


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In 1960, Columbia University Professor Morton Smith announced that in 1958 he had discovered a supposed "Letter" by the Second Century Bishop Saint Clement of Alexandria to an unknown "Theodore." You can read an English translation here: http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~browns/LGM.html

The "Letter to Theodore" claimed that Carpocratian Gnostics were using a fake "secret" copy of Mark's gospel that had a story about Jesus raising a dead youth and giving him secret instruction, and that this story included a part about "naked man with naked man." The supposed "Letter to Theodore" claimed that the Carpocratians' part about "nakedness" was false, but that there was a real, authentic, secret "Mark" Gospel with this kind of story. A long list of unlikelihoods related to Morton Smith's "discovery" of the "Letter to Theodore" and to the supposed "Secret Mark" Gospel show that the "Letter" and both the Gnostic and "real" "Secret Mark" gospels that it mentions are forgeries.

According to Anthony Grafton in Grafton's article "Gospel Secrets: The Biblical Controversies of Morton Smith," Smith was an Episcopalian priest who came to "despise" Christianity. He switched his career to academics in the 1940's-1950's but never formally gave up his status as a priest. (Grafton, "Gospel Secrets," https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/gospel-secrets-biblical-controversies-morton-smith ; Peter Jeffreys, "The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled," https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.12987/9780300135084-009/pdf)

Smith's professor and close mentor was the Judaic scholar Gershom Scholem, who published studies on occult practices in Judaism that included sexually-themed teachings in secret instruction rituals. M. Smith theorized in the 1950's that early Christianity also had similar occult sex-themed secret rituals, but Scholem and others rejected Smith's theory. Then, after publishing his theories about secret Christian rituals in the 1950's, he happened to find the supposed letter by Clement to an unknown "Theodore" in 1958. And that Letter by Clement would happen to strongly support Smith's theory if the Letter were authentic. These are two of many happenstances whose total unlikelihood shows that the Letter is probably a forgery.

Once one evaluates the document as a modern forgery, a few odd possible modern allusions stand out. One might be a Masonic reference. The basic early Christian order of instruction was that a convert became a "catechumen," received instruction (catechesis), received water baptism, which symbolized death and rebirth, and then became a Church member. In contrast, "Secret Mark's" motif has the opposite order: First, the young man in its story is raised from the dead out of a tomb and then he learns secret "mysteries." In Freemasonry's order, an initiate is "raised a mason" out of a coffin. (Death, Burial and Resurrection in the Masonic Lodge, http://www.emfj.org/dbr.htm) Is it after this "raising" that the initiate receives instruction?

A second allusion could be to Oscar Wilde's "Dance of the Seven Veils." In the supposed "Letter," Clement claims that the apostle Mark
"did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic teaching of the Lord, but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain [traditions/saying] of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of the truth hidden by seven veils."
As I recall, the Talmud has a reference to seven veils protecting the Holy of Holies, but references to "seven veils" are extremely rare until late medieval or modern times, where it seems to tend to refer to female dancers.

Peter Jeffery, in his book The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery, sees the seven veils in the "Letter" as alluding to writer Oscar Wilde's "seven veils" and the gay culture in upper class 19th century England. The stage instructions for Wilde's 1891 play "Salome" say that "Salome dances the dance of the seven veils". Jeffery writes about Wilde's play in his book:
It was translated into English by Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, who was simultaneously the dedicatee, Wilde's sexual partner, and the son of a powerful English aristocrat.

Wikipedia's article on the "Dance of the Seven Veils" notes:
In one of Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations to the play, he depicts what he calls a "stomach dance" (i.e., a belly dance), in which Salome is depicted [obscenely]. Wilde wrote a note in appreciation of Beardsley's design, saying: "For Aubrey: for the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance."
This suggests that Wilde saw some kind of cryptic meaning behind the Dance of the Seven Veils. Wikipedia's article on Aubrey Beardsley notes that "Although Beardsley was associated with the homosexual clique that included Oscar Wilde and other aesthetes, the details of his sexuality remain in question."

Jeffery thinks that another allusion to Wilde's story of Salome making the Dance of the Seven Veils shows up in the forged "Letter's" instructions that people should not reveal the "truth" of the "Secret Mark" gospel. The forged Letter uses the justification "For this reason the Wisdom of God, through Solomon, advises, 'Answer the fool from his folly,' teaching that the light of the truth should be hidden from those who are mentally blind." In his book, Jeffery sees this as alluding to Salome because Morton Smith claimed that
"in the Manichaean Psalm Book... Salome appears as the equivalent of the O[ld] T{estament] 'Wisdom' who builds her house..." [However, Smith's] identification is something of an overinterpretation: .... the psalm does not use the word Sophia or wisdom...

Going deeper, the Wisdom that Clement invokes is the wisdom that came "through Solomon." But the name Solomon, of course, is the masculine equivalent of Salome. The pun is even more delightful in Hebrew, naturally since Shlomo and Shulamit [Salome in Hebrew] are the paradigmatically heterosexual couple in the Somng of Songs - the same Song of Songs that Wilde's Salome redirected toward John the Baptist.

M. Smith was educated in Biblical Greek and had already studied and published on Clement of Alexandria. He also had a 1936 compendium of Clement of A.'s phrases and terminology. Smith had written notes into his copy of the compendium. This suggests that he may have been capable of producing a forgery of Clement of A's writing that was so close to Clement of A.'s actual terminology that critical scholars might not realize that they were dealing with a forgery. Scholars who read the supposed "Letter to Theodore" don't find it to conflict with Clement of A.'s terminology.

On the other hand, although I don't know Greek well enough to judge, someone suggested that in one place however, the Greek words of "Secret Mark" follow an English word choice and order instead of what could be the typical Biblical Greek one. Secret Mark says literally "And he remained with him [that night]." (...εμεινε συν αυτω...) The underlined part has the only order allowed in English grammar. However, when we look for corresponding statements in the Bible in Greek, the word choice and word order might tend to be different, as in literally: "And with/beside him remained that [day] / Kai παρ’ αὐτῷ ἔμειναν [that day.]" - John 1:39.

However, not only does the terminology generally match Clement's, the handwriting also matches an older, traditional Greek style. It's unknown if M. Smith was able to write in this older, pretty, Greek style. The skill with which the handwriting was performed suggests that if M. Smith forged the text's contents but didn't handwrite the document, then at least a second person was involved in the forgery by performing the handwriting. Conceivably, whoever invented the text's contents could ask the second person to handwrite them in an old Greek style without the second person realizing that those contents were intended as a forgery, depending on what the handwriter was told.