Secret Mark: Hoax or Paradigm Shifting Discovery?


Photograph of Clement’s letter to Theodore, as allegedly found by Morton Smith, the source of the gospel “Secret Mark”


Mar Saba Monastery, where the manuscript containing “Secret Mark” was discovered

After spending the past few months in anxious idleness, I’ve decide to get back on the research wagon and revisit an idea that I’ve been playing with over the past few years.

While considering the authorship of the books of the Bible, I encountered a controversy regarding the Gospel of John*. There is no agreement regarding the author, but I was intrigued by a hypothesis linking the Gospel of John to John Mark, travel companion of St. Paul-and also the supposed author of the Gospel of Mark according to an old tradition.

While I was examining the case for this hypothesis, I came across an enigmatic document called “Secret Mark”(the author is unknown). Now that I’m getting back into examining the hypothesis, I again find myself confounded by “Secret Mark.”

What is “Secret Mark”? “Secret Mark” is a name used for a hypothetical alternate version of the Gospel of Mark that is alleged to have been mentioned in an 18th century AD copy of an earlier original text by the 2nd century AD theologian, Clement of Alexandria. Handwritten onto a blank back page of a 17th century AD edition of the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch –another early theologian, and stored in an ancient monastery in the Judean Desert.

Now this isn’t even the really confusing part! The conundrum comes from the fact that the discoverer of the document, Morton Smith, was unable to secure the original and the book it that it was found in has been lost. All that remains are photos Smith took of the book and the pages containing “Secret Mark”. Without the original writing to inspect, determining authenticity is possibly impossible, and there has been a lot of suspicion regarding the authenticity of “Secret Mark”. There have been other supposed early writings that have been turned out to be fakes. Recently a fragment called The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife made headlines but was later determined to be a fake.

Now, if “Secret Mark” had been like some of the other recently discovered or forged additional gospels, like “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” or The Gospel of Judas, the question of authenticity would not be a big concern to me. But “Secret Mark”, if genuine, could have huge consequences for how the development of the first gospels is understood.

The letter that Smith found is supposedly a reply from Clement of Alexandria to a man named Theodore. He asked about the claim of a heretical sect, the Carpocrates, that they had an alternate version of the Gospel of Mark, that Mark wrote in Alexandria with additional material for more spiritually advanced Christians. Clement replies that it is true-that there is another version of Mark, and it is kept in secret by members of the Alexandrian church. The Carpocrates, Clement explains, managed to get a copy of the gospel, but they changed some passages to support their practice of sexual rituals as part of their worship. What we know of the contents of this supposed book are quoted by Clement,

“And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus thought him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.”

These verses are said to be located between Mark 10:35 and 36. Additionally at Mark 15:51, after the words “And he comes into Jericho,” “Secret Mark” adds “And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them.”

Now if genuine, this might be a later attempt to add the story of Jesus raising Lazarus to the Gospel of Mark, as a sort of harmonized version of the two. But some scholars have argued instead that this version of Mark is the original and later editions cut out these verses, perhaps because of the awkwardness of Jesus spending the night with a naked youth. It is even further embarrassing with a phrase that Clement called an addition by the Carpocrates; that “he (Jesus) remained with him that night, naked man with naked man.” Another scholar has argued that “Secret Mark” is essentially as Clement explains- an expansion of Mark by its author that includes material intended to provoke deeper spiritual insights into the Gospel of Jesus.

Scholars are divided on the question of “Secret Mark’s” authenticity, and for a while I decided to split the difference by assuming that “Secret Mark” is a genuine book from antiquity but a later harmonization of Mark and John. That being the case, I could disregard “Secret Mark” from my research about the possible links between the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John. But after reading Scott Brown’s book, Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton’s Smith Controversial Discovery, I have been forced to revisit this simple solution and now embark on an investigation to determine one way or another, the authenticity of “Secret Mark”.

Brown argues that the author of Mark** did in fact write an expanded version of his Gospel. It’s hard to ignore the possibilities Brown’s theory presents for my own research. I have thought that the source the author of John used to create his gospel may have been a version of Mark. If the author of Mark wrote a second more spiritual edition perhaps it was this version “John” used as a source. If this is the case, then the resurrection in “Secret Mark” is not a retelling of the story in John, but the opposite. And if John used the story in “Secret Mark” is it possible that the advanced theology of the Gospel of John is based on material in “Secret Mark” that is unknown to us. If so, then the supposed primitive Christology of Mark may have been intended for new Christians while those of sounder understanding and dedication were introduced to a higher Christology in “Secret Mark”. As I get into my research I’ll share what I discover and what conclusions I come to regarding this mystery.

For further reading on the controversy surrounding this work, please visit Michael J. Kok’s  blog discussing this issue!

*A common but inaccurate name of the book. It isn’t Mark’s gospel, but Jesus’, the book we call “Mark” is merely his/(her?) account of it, so more properly it is the “Gospel According to Mark”, …John”, etc.

**He does not affirm the traditional view that Mark wrote the gospel, which is anonymous. Only later tradition attributes its authorship to Mark.