Mark’s Other Gospel
Interview with Scott G. Brown
What is the “secret gospel” of Mark?
It’s a much longer version of the Gospel of Mark that was reserved for theologically advanced Christians in Alexandria. It probably disappeared by the third century. All that remains of it are two excerpts quoted in a letter by Clement of Alexandria, a copy of which was discovered forty-six years ago by the late Professor Morton Smith. “Secret gospel” is Smith’s mistranslation of a phrase contained in the letter. Clement actually referred to this longer Gospel of Mark as a “mystic” gospel, meaning a gospel that is supposed to be interpreted figuratively or parabolically. The interpretation of this text was the only thing kept secret.
How is your book different from previous studies?
Most scholars still begin with Smith’s characterizations of the facts and issues instead of with the primary evidence-the manuscript, the letter, the gospels of Mark and John, and Clement’s other writings. The majority probably spend less time researching this subject than their students spend writing term papers, so their conclusions naturally comport perfectly with their preconceptions. Conservative scholars look at the gospel excerpts and see a heretical, second-century imitation of Mark derived entirely from fragments of phrases found in all four canonical gospels. Liberal scholars see an early, yet pre-canonical revision of Mark that exposes the diversity of earliest Christianity. Scholars who love intrigue-or just hate Smith-prefer to believe that Smith fabricated the letter himself. After ten years of studying the primary evidence and picking apart the academic literature, I’ve come to the minority position: Mark really did write a second, expanded version of his gospel.
Is it really possible to distinguish between the work of the evangelist Mark and an imitation of his writing?
There are many aspects of an author’s style. The superficial features, such as favourite words, phrases, and sentence constructions, are readily apparent and therefore easier to imitate. The “subsurface” features, such as subtle literary techniques, are less likely to be noticed by an imitator and therefore less likely to appear in a forgery. Finding Mark’s literary techniques in a narrative that sounds like Mark is like finding the hidden security features in a five-dollar bill. There’s no reason to suspect forgery. I strongly doubt that someone other than Mark wrote this text because it accords with Markan theology (imitators have their own agendas), elucidates some long-standing enigmas in the canonical gospel, and uses literary techniques that are distinctively Markan yet were not noted by scholars of Mark prior to Smith’s discovery of the letter.
What is controversial about your book?
For those who think of the canonical gospels as qualitatively different from the apocryphal gospels, the premise that a canonical evangelist also wrote a non-canonical gospel is disconcerting; it blurs the line between canonical and apocryphal, between divine scripture and human opinion. Certainly it is harder to maintain that the New Testament preserves a full and accurate portrait of Jesus if one concedes that two very different versions of Mark existed prior to the writing of Matthew, Luke, and John, and the longer version contained a much less dramatic account of the raising of Lazarus.