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Stephen C. Carlson, The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark. Baylor University Press, 2005.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


Stephen Carlson first happened upon a reference to the Secret Gospel of Mark when he was a teenager. It was in the mid-eighties, and he was perusing one of the Lincoln-Baigent-Leigh Holy Blood-Holy Mackerel books, and Morton Smith’s “discovery” was appealed to as one of the buckets of sand upon which the authors erected their unstable house. Little did he know he would grow up to reveal that Smith was in the same camp as the Holy Blood trio: a purveyor of spurious ancient lore concerning Christian origins. This reviewer was a college sophomore in 1973 when Smith’s books Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark and The Secret Gospel appeared. I saw and read only the latter at the time, but I immediately smelled a rat. I thought at once of the ancient Pauline pastiche, the Epistle to the Laodiceans. Secret Mark read as precisely the same sort of cento of phrases lifted from canonical scripture, mainly, of course, from Mark. In the intervening years, I became more than half persuaded that the Secret Gospel was real, at least a genuinely ancient Apocryphon. Recent years shook my tentative confidence, however, and now I may say that the able Mr. Carlson has marked the case closed. It no longer belongs in the X-Files of New Testament scholarship.

Carlson is not by trade a biblical scholar, though one would not guess it from this book except for the fact that he brings to bear on his task considerable skills from another field: law and forensics. He has learned much, more apparently than most biblical specialists, for all our would-be critical acumen, about the motives and methods of hoaxers and forgers, as well as how to spot them. And he applies them comprehensively, concisely, and convincingly to the case of the Gospel according to Mort.

Close inspection of the handwriting shows that the letters are carefully drawn, not spontaneously written. The ink seems to have penetrated the paper, blotting to a degree impossible had the text of the ostensible Clementine letter to Theodore been written close to the time of the publication of the 16th century book in which it appears. The shapes of some of the letters do not match other eighteenth century handwriting in the Mar Saba manuscripts (i.e., annotations or hand copies of texts made by monkish scribes at the library where Smith claimed to have made his discovery). But they do match perfectly the shapes of the same letters in a twentieth-century scribal hand reproduced by Smith in another publication, writing that appears to be his own, hidden behind a clever pseudonym, MadiothV, not a modern Greek name at all, but rather pun denoting both “baldy” and “bald-faced liar,” both of which would have applied to Smith if he were dropping hints of his identity as a hoaxer.

The Theodore letter refers to the interpolation of the Secret Mark text by Carpocratian heretics using the metaphor of the salt losing its savor by adulteration. Trouble is: this image presupposes poured salt that does not clump together, an innovation made only in 1910 by the good folks at, ahem, Morton Salt! Plus, it does not appear that salt was ever adulterated in the ancient world; it was already so cheap nobody bothered, as they did other food substances. “Clement” cites Jeremiah 28:17, tantalizingly omitting a phrase containing the word “goldsmith.” So we have Morton Salt and goldsmith. This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the Beast, for it is the number of a man.  

“Clement” also makes a punning catchword linkage between (the rest of) Jeremiah 28:17 (LXX) and Matthew 5:13, a pun, however, that only works in English, as both verses, in English translation, use the word “cast,” albeit in different senses, rendering two very different Greek words.

As Quentin Quesnell pointed out thirty years ago, the Clementine vocabulary of the letter fragment is not remarkable for a forger working with a copy of the recently available concordance to Clement’s writings. But the forger did his work too well: the language is too Clementine, going to such trouble to use authentic vocabulary that he shortchanged “Clement” on hapax legomena, more of which must have appeared, even in so short a writing sample, if it were genuine.

Why does “Clement” quote a nice chunk of the Secret Markan text to Theodore, who ostensibly had his own copy in front of him and only wanted to know if Clement’s copy contained a particular offensive passage (“naked man with naked man”) urged upon him by the local Carpocratian carpers. Why doesn’t he just say, “No, it’s not there”? He does eventually say it, so why quote the rest? Simply because the letter is a vehicle to smuggle the hoax text before the eyes of the reader.

In his analysis of the text, Smith had claimed to find the depiction of Jesus’ homosexual practice. But the portions of the text, chiefly the phrase, “and he stayed the night with him,” is only employed as a euphemism for a sexual tryst in modern times. And in light of his scene of the naked youth wearing only a sheet approaching Jesus for nocturnal initiation, Smith seemed to want us to read the similarly half-clad youth at Gethsemane as another nubile nudist seeking out Jesus for a sexual experience, only to be rounded up by the Gay-bashing cops, led by Judas (whose catty homosexual jealousy I suppose we might infer from his kiss and his betrayal!). But homosexuality was not persecuted in this manner in the ancient world. Rather, it represents the treatment of Gays in 1950s America, at the very time Smith claimed to have discovered the text. Carlson avoids mentioning Smith’s own homosexuality and the hatred he reportedly bore the church for opposing it (of course, in today’s Episcopal Church, Smith would have been made a bishop!).

Smith has Clement and Secret Mark combine references to Mark 4:11’s “mystery of the kingdom of God,” to male homosexuality, and to secret tradition, precisely the same unlikely combination Smith had made in another article, in an entirely different context, about a year earlier. Coincidence? Not likely.

Defenders of Morton Smith have sometimes contended that Smith could not have carried off the forgery in the brief time available to him in the Mar Saba monastery, but Carlson shows that it is more likely that Smith brought the book containing the already-forged Clement/Mark text with him and then “planted” it in the Library. Some say Smith lacked the skills in Greek and the patristic erudition to carry off such a hoax, but Carlson shows that Smith’s previous publications easily belie such a claim, itself reminiscent of claims for illiteracy on the part of Muhammad and Joseph Smith, and for the same reason: to deny them authorship of a piece of scripture.

Carlson is certainly no self-righteous crusader seeking to attack Smith and those who have taken his invention seriously in their own scholarly reconstructions. Unlike crooked parapsychologists who fake lab data to “prove” their theories since no real evidence is available, Smith never framed a theory based on the Secret Mark text. Even the nonsense he cooked up in The Secret Gospel about Jesus being a Gnostic libertine was just window dressing for the hoax. In his own serious work, like Jesus the Magician, he never made much of Secret Mark. In the last analysis Carlson paints a sympathetic portrait of a mischievous Loki who composed a test to see if his scholarly colleagues were worth their salt. Could they follow his trail of crumbs? Were they up to the Higher-Critical task of spotting and proving a spurious text? If not, they deserved to be taken in. If they wind up as embarrassed as Hugh Trevor-Roper who prematurely authenticated the bogus Hitler Diaries, they asked for it! Carlson seems to deem it a fair challenge, and any who fell for it ought to be ready to eat crow.

We owe a great debt to Stephen C. Carlson for settling a debate that has simmered for over thirty years now. Let me put it this way: if anyone, after reading this devastating book, is still inclined to accept Smith’s gospel as a genuine ancient text, then he is only signaling, whether he means to or not, that there are and can be no “assured results of criticism.” If this isn’t one of them, then there is no such thing.


Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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