Excerpt from Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s Controversial Discovery by Scott G. BrownFrom Chapter 1: A Longer, Esoteric Version of Mark’s Gospel
High up in the tower of the ancient desert monastery of Mar Saba, about twenty kilometres southeast of Jerusalem, is a small, dilapidated library where books and manuscripts centuries-old lie in various configurations under ever-deepening layers of dust. More like an attic than a library, it houses reading materials that long ago ceased to be of interest to the monks. Yet as we all know, one monk’s junk is an historian’s treasure, so it happened that in the summer of 1958, the late Professor Morton Smith of Columbia University arrived at the monastery with permission to catalogue the manuscripts. What he found in that little room changed the course of his career and opened one of the most opprobrious chapters in the history of New Testament scholarship.
Near the end of his three-week visit, Smith came across a copy of the 1646 edition of Isaac Voss’s Ignatius of Antioch: Genuine Letters of Saint Ignatius the Martyr. On the blank end pages, scrawled in an eighteenth-century hand, was a Greek manuscript sporting the title “From the letters of the most holy Clement, the author of the Stromateis. To Theodore.”1 This previously unknown letter by a late-second-century church father relates a tradition about the apostle Mark’s production of a second, expanded version of his gospel for the church in Alexandria. According to Clement, Mark wrote his first gospel in Rome for catechumens. But when he ventured to Alexandria following Peter’s death, Mark brought with him his own and Peter’s notes and from these transferred into his former writing “things suitable to those studies which make for progress toward knowledge” (Letter to Theodore I.15-21).2 The additional passages consisted of mystic materials (I.17, 25-26) as well as other, ordinary stories like those in the first version (I.24). He thus created a more spiritual gospel for the use of those who were being perfected (I.21-22). Upon his death, this gospel became the possession of the church in Alexandria, where even in Clement’s day it was still “very securely kept” and was “being read only to those persons who were being initiated into the great mysteries” (II.1-2).
Clement of Alexandria’s descriptions of the nature of the longer Gospel of Mark and of the manner of its composition are quite detailed. Since Clement was replying to a letter that has not been preserved (III.13, 17), his reasons for disclosing this information must be educed from his Letter to Theodore. The sequence of events leading up to Clement’s reply is not easy to trace, but it appears that Theodore was involved in theological debates with followers of Carpocrates, a heterodox teacher of the early second century, and that these opponents supported their positions by quoting passages from this longer gospel. The fact that Theodore had already censured their teachings (I.2) suggests that he had some authority within his own church and that his theological opponents had either joined this congregation or were evangelizing there. Since Theodore was not acquainted with the longer text of Mark yet knew where to ask about it, we can suppose that they directed him to inquire in Alexandria for proof of this text’s legitimacy or at least mentioned that it originated there. Thus Theodore wrote to Clement, reporting what he had heard about this gospel’s contents and asking if there was any truth to what the Carpocratians were saying about the Gospel of Mark.
Clement opened his response by assuring Theodore that he was right to censure the Carpocratians, explaining that the things they had told him were at best half truths (I.2-15). Mark really did produce a longer version of his gospel, but it contained nothing that should not be set out in writing and certainly none of the unsavoury things that the Carpocratians had told him about (I.15-27). What happened was that Carpocrates used magic to coerce an elder of the Alexandrian church into making him a copy of this text, “which he both interpreted according to his blasphemous and carnal doctrine and, moreover, polluted, mixing with the spotless and holy words utterly shameless lies.” Carpocrates based his teachings on this adulterated version of the expanded text (II.2-9). Because the Carpocratian gospel is a distortion of the truth, Theodore should respond to them in kind and assure them with an oath (presumably an oath declaring that this is what he learned from the church in Alexandria) that they do not possess “Mark’s mystic gospel” (II.10-16).
In order to prove that none of the troubling phrases about which Theodore was concerned are found in the true mystic Gospel of Mark, Clement quoted “word for word” two of the passages that Theodore had asked him about, stating where they appear relative to the common text of Mark. Following these citations, Clement ventured to offer “the true explanation and that which accords with the true philosophy...” (III.18). Here the manuscript ends, and we do not learn Clement’s understanding of the theological truths conveyed by these passages.
The first passage Clement cited (II.23-III.11) is another version of the raising of Lazarus, which is inserted immediately before the request for positions of honour by James and John (II.21-22; III.11-13), which is to say, after Mark 10:34. This thirteen-verse story, which I call LGM 1 (longer Gospel of Mark 1), is written in Mark’s style and contains none of the theological discourse found in the Johannine story, in fact, no direct speech by Jesus at all. The storyline is also different from the Johannine version in many obvious respects: In John, Jesus interacts with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha—three siblings whom Jesus knows and loves. In longer Mark, the dead man is not named; he is simply described as a young man, which likely means a man in his early twenties.3 Neither he nor his sister are known to Jesus, and only one sister appears in the story—again, unnamed. Both accounts begin in a location called Bethany (John 10:40; 1:28; LGM 1:1). But whereas in John’s gospel Jesus hears about the illness from messengers, tarries for two days in Peraea waiting for Lazarus to die, and then journeys for four more days to another place called Bethany in order to perform the miracle, in longer Mark Jesus encounters the sister in Bethany and the miracle occurs immediately, without any trip to another location. The miracle is very different, too. In John, Jesus orders others to remove the stone and then shouts from a distance “Lazarus, come out!”; in longer Mark, the loud cry comes from the dead man while Jesus is still walking to the garden, and Jesus removes the stone himself, raising the man by the hand. Where John has the dead man walk out wrapped in grave clothes, longer Mark has the dead man look at Jesus, love him, and plead to be with him.” Finally, the story in longer Mark has an addendum not found in John. We are told that Jesus and the young man left the tomb and went into the mans house; after six days Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. Surprisingly, this instruction occurs at night, and the young man wears nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body. Stranger still, this is apparently the same young man who appears in canonical Mark at the moment of Jesus’ arrest, again wearing only the linen sheet (14:5152).4
The second quotation (III.14-16), which I call LGM 2, consists of two sentences inserted between the two clauses of Mark 10:46. In context, the passage reads, And he comes into Jericho. And there were there the sister of the young man whom Jesus loved him [sic] and his mother and Salome, and Jesus did not receive them. “And as he was leaving Jericho...” The reader is left to wonder what did not transpire between Jesus and these women in Jericho.
1. Isaak Vossius, Ignatius v. Antiochien, Epistolae genuinae S. Ignatii Martyris. For Smith’s account of the discovery, see Morton Smith, The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark (New York: Harper and Row, 1973) (hereafter cited as SG).
2. Subsequent references to the letter will omit the title. See the preface for an explanation of the conventions Scott G. Brown uses when referring to Clement’s works.
3. The Greek term here translated “young man” (neaniskos) normally refers to a male in his twenties. Since this character’s youth is treated as his defining feature, we can presume that he is noticeably younger than Jesus and his disciples, hence probably in his early-to-mid-twenties. See Marvin W. Meyer, “The Youth in the Secret Gospel of Mark,” Semeia 49 (1990): 139-40.
4. The linen clothing is of an unspecified form. The phrase “having put a linen (something) upon his naked body” would be a very unnatural way to describe someone dressed in a regular garment; however, the same word for linen (sind§n) is used to describe the simple sheet in which Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus’ corpse, so translators tend to refer to the young man’s wrapping as a linen sheet or linen cloth (e.g., the RSV, NRSV, NEB, and JB) at Mark 14:51-52).