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The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery

The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery

by Peter Jeffery

In 1958, Bible scholar Morton Smith announced the discovery of a sensational manuscript–a second-century letter written by St. Clement of Alexandria, who quotes an unknown, longer version of the Gospel of Mark. When Smith published the letter in 1973, he set off a firestorm of controversy that has raged ever since. Is the text authentic, or a hoax? Is


In 1958, Bible scholar Morton Smith announced the discovery of a sensational manuscript–a second-century letter written by St. Clement of Alexandria, who quotes an unknown, longer version of the Gospel of Mark. When Smith published the letter in 1973, he set off a firestorm of controversy that has raged ever since. Is the text authentic, or a hoax? Is Smith’s interpretation correct? Did Jesus really practice magic, or homosexuality? And if the letter is a forgery . . . why?
Through close examination of the “discovered” manuscript’s text, Peter Jeffery unravels the answers to the mystery and tells the tragic tale of an estranged Episcopalian priest who forged an ancient gospel and fooled many of the best biblical scholars of his time. Jeffery shows convincingly that Smith’s Secret Gospel is steeped in anachronisms and that its construction was influenced by Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, twentieth-century misunderstandings of early Christian liturgy, and Smith’s personal struggles with Christian sexual morality.

Editorial Reviews

Harold W. Attridge
"The discussion of the ‘Secret Gospel’ has involved a generation of scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity. Jeffery's book—argued with enormous erudition, careful judgment, sensitivity, and balance—sets the discussion on an entirely new footing."—Harold W. Attridge, Yale Divinity School

Adela Yarbro Collins
"Peter Jeffery's book proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Morton Smith forged the discovered text. It demonstrates that he had the scholarly expertise, the wit, the sense of humor, and above all the motivation to do so."—Adela Yarbro Collins, Yale Divinity School

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Yale University Press
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The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2007 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11760-8

Chapter One

"A Discovery of Extraordinary Importance"

The whole story spans more than thirty years, from 1941 to the present. I am shocked to find how much of it I have already forgotten. No doubt if the past, like a motion picture, could be replayed, I should also be shocked to find how much of the story I have already invented. Memory is perhaps more fallacious than forgetfulness. -Morton Smith

An Ancient Monastery

East of Bethlehem in the Judean desert, on a cliffside overlooking the Kidron Valley, halfway between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, stands one of the most ancient monasteries in the Christian world, the Great Laura of Mar Saba. It is named in Aramaic for its founder, St. Sabbas, a Greek from Caesarea, in Asia Minor, who began building the first structure in the year 483. Sabbas lived a long life (439-532), which was well documented by Cyril of Scythopolis, who was able to interview many people who had known him personally. Cyril's life of Sabbas forms the largest section of Cyril's Lives of the Monks of Palestine, oneof the core texts of monastic historiography.

The Great Laura has been a major center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity ever since. Some of its monks were important authors and theologians, and many became bishops, martyrs, and saints. Most eminent of them all was St. John of Damascus (eighth century), the great systematic theologian of Eastern Christianity, who formulated the Orthodox theology of the icons and perhaps the first Christian theological response to Islam. His prolific writings counter-balance the reticence of another St. John, called "the Silent," who had fled an Armenian bishopric to become one of St. Sabbas's original disciples, then chose to live in deliberate isolation, not speaking for many years.

As the area was conquered by the Persians in 614 and the Muslims in 638, Mar Saba began to experience violent attacks, which continued for centuries. Many monks are remembered as martyrs, their bones still venerated at the monastery. But as Greek culture began to recede from the area, Mar Saba became a major center for the translation of Christian texts and ideas: many writings were rendered from Greek into Georgian and Arabic, a smaller number from Syriac into Greek. In the ninth century, Theodurus Abu Qurra was the first author to write original Christian works in Arabic, while St. Theodore of Edessa reputedly converted a Caliph of Baghdad.

Over the centuries, as Mar Saba evolved from a laura (a cluster of individual hermitages around a common church) to a coenobium (an organized monastic community with an abbot), its way of life was codified in the Sabaite monastic typikon (customary), which exerted far-reaching influence in Palestine, throughout Greek-speaking Christianity, in the Slavic world, and even in Rome. Still more influential was its liturgical typikon, one of the central sources of the tradition we now call the Byzantine rite. Mar Saba was also a leading center for hymnody, beginning in the early eighth century with a remarkable generation of hymnographers. The Oktoechos, or book of the eight musical modes, may have originated there, and is traditionally ascribed to St. John of Damascus. Numerous hymns of the kanon genre, based on the nine biblical odes, are ascribed to St. John, and to his reputed adoptive brother St. Kosmas, who later became bishop of Maiuma in Gaza. The genre is said to have been invented by St. Andrew, who later became bishop of Crete. Later in the eighth century, the kanonarchos or song-leader at Mar Saba was St. Stephen the Sabaite, known as the Thaumaturge or miracle-worker. Other hymnographers followed in succeeding centuries down to the present.


"Monasteries are never without guests," as the great St. Benedict wrote in the sixth century. So it was in 1941 that Morton Smith first visited Mar Saba. A twenty-six-year-old graduate student on a traveling fellowship from Harvard Divinity School, he had been stranded in the Holy Land (of all places!) when the Second World War made it impossible for American ships to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Smith used his time well, though, pursuing a second doctorate at Hebrew University. A chance acquaintance with a high official in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate brought him the rare opportunity to stay at Mar Saba as an honored guest. By his own account, published decades later in 1973, Smith "spent almost two months there," from "after the Christmas season" to "early in Lent," and during that time he was shown many cells and caves, containing artworks and artifacts that outsiders rarely see: "Here were many of the most beautiful icons, and here, I was told, had occurred the great fire, sometime in the eighteenth century, when many of the finest icons, manuscripts, and vestments ... were destroyed. Most of the remaining manuscripts had been carried off to Jerusalem in the late nineteenth century, at the order of the Patriarch, but there were still a few stored in the great tower, and there was a good library of old editions of the Church fathers in a room over the porch of the new church."

But in 1941 Smith had little interest in the libraries he saw-or so he claimed in his 1973 memoir: "I was shown the two libraries, as I was the other sights of the monastery, but at the time I paid them little attention. My main interest was in the services, which gave me a new understanding of worship." What this "new understanding" was, and what he did with it, will be a major theme in this book. But for now we must stay with the libraries and the manuscripts.

"Supposed Scholarly Labors"


After the war, Smith returned to Harvard to complete his doctorate in theology. It was only then, he reported in 1973, that "I became interested in Greek manuscripts and manuscript hunting." After teaching posts at Brown and Drew universities, Smith arrived in 1957 at the history department of Columbia University in New York, where he would spend the rest of his career. The itinerant life of a young professor can be draining, and Smith felt that "by the spring of 1958 I was ready for a rest and remembered the tranquillity of Mar Saba." A sabbatical, and the permission of the new Greek Patriarch in Jerusalem, enabled him to spend three weeks there, searching out and cataloguing whatever manuscript material the monastery still possessed. As Smith recalled in 1973, he focused his work on the tower library but was permitted to take books back to his room overnight. His published catalogue, however, describes a few manuscripts that were not kept in the tower, but elsewhere in the monastery.

Every morning except Sunday, after the services, a monk would climb with me the long stairways that led to the old tower-they must have amounted to a dozen or fifteen stories-and sit by patiently while I went through volume after volume of the books and manuscripts piled every which way on the floor and in the bookcases that lined the side walls of the topmost room. I first cleared one shelf of a bookcase and then began lining up there the printed books I had inspected. When a volume turned out to contain manuscript material, I set it aside. When I had found three or four manuscripts we called it a day. The room was locked and I took the manuscripts down to my cell for study. Next morning I returned them, worked through another pile or two of volumes, found another few manuscripts, and so continued. Little by little the chaos of old books was reduced to order, and, as the line of printed texts grew along one side of the room, a much smaller line of catalogued manuscripts began to grow along the other.

If we compare this with Smith's description of the daily schedule at Mar Saba, the implications are that he and the monk would climb the stairs shortly after 6 a.m., when the six-hour night vigil service ended. Seemingly they worked until noon, when Smith says the only full meal of the day was served. However, Smith seems to have misremembered the timing of the daily meal, for other sources say that in those days it was served about 10:00 or 10:30 in the morning. If the library was only open four hours a day (roughly 6 to 10 a.m.), that would not be atypical for an old-world monastery.

The timing of the religious services interests us because it structured Smith's workday. But it seems to have been a factor only because it determined the availability of the monk librarian. By 1958, Smith claimed, he had lost interest in the liturgical celebrations that so fascinated him in 1941, and so he had stopped attending them.

Never revisit a place that fascinated you when you were young-you discover not only its changes, but your own.... Electricity had been introduced, and not even the Byzantine liturgy can survive direct illumination. Perhaps that was just as well; it enabled me to blame the lighting for my own failure to respond at forty-three as I had at twenty-six. Six hours of a service to which one is not responding are a bit too much, but as a guest of the Patriarch I was under no obligation to attend. I soon made my supposed scholarly labors an excuse for spending most of my time in my cell, enjoying the solitude and the silence for which the monastery had been founded.

It would appear, then, that Smith and the monk worked in the tower from about 6 to 10 o'clock in the morning, six days a week. Smith would then retire to his own room with the day's manuscript finds, and presumably work there until he retired in the evening. The monk, on the other hand, would have gone to the afternoon service from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.-actually a sequence of services comprising Nones, Vespers, and the Office of the Dead or a Paraklesis honoring the saint of the day. Compline (Apodeipnon) followed at about 4:00 p.m. The monk would have retired to bed not long after, for at midnight or 1:00 a.m. he would have to be up again for the marathon night vigil, encompassing the rest of the daily round or cursus: Mesonyktikon, Orthros, Prime, Terce, Sext, the Typika, and the eucharistic Divine Liturgy (or Mass) of the day. When all that was over, about 6:00 or 6:30 a.m., he and Smith would climb the stairs to the tower again. Smith would presumably return the previous day's manuscripts and begin searching for more. Three or four manuscripts per day for three six-day weeks would be fifty-four to seventy-two volumes; indeed, Smith's published catalogue describes seventy-one manuscripts in Greek.

Not everything was catalogued, however. By his own account, Smith omitted about twenty-five non-Greek manuscripts (in Turkish, Romanian, and Slavic languages), twenty Greek liturgical manuscripts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a paper folder containing fragments of relatively recent liturgical manuscripts, and a leather folder containing older fragments of more varied content. And Smith acknowledged in his catalogue that there could well be other, undiscovered manuscripts hidden away in parts of the monastery. In an article Smith published in 1960, he wrote that out of some "four or five hundred volumes in the tower library alone ... the examination yielded some ninety items which could be catalogued as manuscripts, and two folders full of loose manuscript material." This enumeration evidently included the seventy-one Greek manuscripts he catalogued and the twenty liturgical manuscripts he did not, but omitted the manuscripts in other languages. To examine four or five hundred volumes in eighteen workdays, Smith would have had to look at about twenty-five books each four-hour day-about ten minutes per volume. But for the three or four manuscripts he took back to his room each day, he could have had from about noon (or whenever the meal ended) until he retired to bed, perhaps a total of about ten hours.


So the numbers add up, pretty much, though they show Smith was working on a tight schedule. Other aspects of Smith's account do not add up, however. Given the limited amount of time for onsite work, some of the choices Smith made are hard to explain. His decision not to catalogue the twenty recent liturgical manuscripts is consistent with the fact that he was no longer the young seminarian whose "main interest was in the services." Yet most of the other material didn't interest Smith either. His 1973 memoir expresses surprising ambivalence about the entire cataloguing project, even though it had been his own idea.

I had not expected much from the Mar Saba manuscripts, since I knew that almost all of them had been carried off to Jerusalem in the past century and were listed in the catalogue of the Patriarchal library. But there was always the chance that something had been missed, or that other manuscripts had been brought in by monks coming from other monasteries. In any event it would be helpful to know what was in the library. So I patiently listed manuscript copies of prayer books and hymns and sermons and lives of saints and anthologies from the Church fathers and so on-the proper and predictable reading of a monastic community.

If Smith "had not expected much," why had he chosen to devote valuable sabbatical time to this effort? Was it worth traveling all the way from North America on the mere "chance that something had been missed"? The claim that "it would be helpful to know what was in the library" seems a weak justification, considering that the "predictable reading"-the liturgical, hagiographical, and patristic literature-was of so little interest that it tried his patience to catalogue it.

Indeed, Smith seems to have had a somewhat distant relationship with his own catalogue, which he slightingly called "my notes on the collection." He never published the original English text; it appeared only in a modern Greek translation made by a Mar Saba monk, in a journal of the Jerusalem Patriarchate not widely available in Western libraries. This implies that only Greek Orthodox monks and clergy were expected to have much interest in the material. But why would Smith have wanted to write for that audience, given his lack of enthusiasm for their worship and their "predictable reading"?

Scholars who write catalogues are usually interested in the manuscripts they spend so much time working on. More than that, they also tend to be interested in the history of the libraries that house these manuscripts. The library of a 1,450-year-old monastery like Mar Saba holds obvious appeal for a person with such interests. But whatever motivated Smith, it was certainly not the history of the Mar Saba library. He referred to it only in sketchy and incomplete ways and did not ask the kinds of questions that a library historian usually would have asked. For example, Smith rarely speculated on how long any particular item had been at Mar Saba. He reveals no curiosity about how or when there came to be two distinct collections: one in the tower, the other "over the porch of the new church." He mentioned the eighteenth-century fire in the caves, but not the 1834 earthquake that provoked widespread looting and forced extensive rebuilding-the reason why there is a new church at Mar Saba. The last manuscript listed in Smith's article is a 1910 catalogue of Mar Saba's books, but "this catalogue was discovered on the last day of my stay at the monastery and I did not have time to examine it." That could well be true, but Smith did not even photograph it, and he never returned to Mar Saba to read it. Nor, apparently, did he ever visit the library of the Greek Patriarchate, though he surely realized that some of the handwritings and fragments he found at the monastery were likely to have counterparts among the 706 Mar Saba manuscripts that were relocated to Jerusalem in 1887. Smith never even speculated about the many former Mar Saba manuscripts that have migrated to other libraries throughout the world; today at least 55 are known.


Excerpted from The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled by PETER JEFFERY Copyright © 2007 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Harold W. Attridge
The discussion of the ‘Secret Gospel’ has involved a generation of scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity. Jeffery's book—argued with enormous erudition, careful judgment, sensitivity, and balance—sets the discussion on an entirely new footing.—Harold W. Attridge, Yale Divinity School
Adela Yarbro Collins
Peter Jeffery's book proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Morton Smith forged the discovered text. It demonstrates that he had the scholarly expertise, the wit, the sense of humor, and above all the motivation to do so.—Adela Yarbro Collins, Yale Divinity School

Meet the Author

Peter Jeffery is Scheide Professor of Music History, Princeton University, and a Benedictine Oblate of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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