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Peter Jeffery, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery. Yale University Press, 2007.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


Stephen C. Carlson’s Gospel Hoax, lately reviewed in these pages, adequately demonstrated the spurious character of Morton Smith’s pet pseudepigraphon the Secret Gospel of Mark. Carlson’s forensic approach requires no supplementation. But then again it is nice to have two or three witnesses to establish a testimony. And musicologist/liturgiologist Peter Jeffery has “sung” like Joe Valachi. Jeffery shows that both the Secret Gospel/Epistle of Clement text and Smith’s scholarly discussion of it are riddled with cultural anachronisms, which however do more than show us the fallacy of the historical connection the text claims: it opens the way for situating the project in the era from which it actually stemmed. In this Jeffery fires the same double-barreled shot as the Shroud debunkers. Joe Nickell’s researches show not only that the Turin Shroud is not a relic of the first century CE, but that it is rather a product of the 14th—precisely matching the date of the Shroud’s unheeded forger! Even so, Jeffery shows that the liturgical background which the Clement letter presupposes for the church of Alexandria does not square with what we know about early Church liturgy there or anywhere else. Instead, it seems to reflect Episcopalian reconstructions of early baptism popular among Prayer Book reformists in the 1950—just the time Episcopalian Smith was working on the Secret Gospel. Likewise, the hints of homosexual practice in the Secret Gospel (the implied relationship between Jesus and the young man, or Quazarus, as I like to call him) does not fit the options available for homosexual tutelage familiar for the ancient world, but appears to reflect that of the age and culture when Smith was writing. (Among the ancients, as far as we know, the older partner initiated the affair, whereas the Secret Gospel seems to have the young man cry out to Jesus.) In addition, Smith’s earlier and later accounts of his two stays at the Mar Saba monastery seem to have been confused. When he first visited, he was, to hear him tell it, an enthusiastic seminarian eager to participate in the liturgy. By his second sojourn there he had lost his faith. Yet he slips and remarks how his attendance at the services the first time around was merely aesthetic, since he did not share the monks’ faith. The confusion matters because it is only in the later memoir that he claims to have experienced the mind-altering character of the holy service, and that it inspired his reconstruction of the Sitz-im-Leben of Secret Mark as part of a mystery rite of ecstatic ascension. But he was ostensibly no longer open to such experiences on the visit in which the liturgy would have abetted his interpretation of the Secret Gospel. It looks like he was faking his later recollection of pious transport.

Jeffery examines a number of Smith’s writings that would not at first seem to bear on the Secret Mark controversy. He shows how Smith seems to have embraced an extreme version of the Anglo-Catholic “Branch theory” whereby Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism, by token of the apostolic succession of bishops, were all really Catholic. This allowed him to embrace extreme versions of Catholic moralism out of step with contemporary Catholic pastoral/penitential theory, especially with regard to homosexual practice. Smith, it seems, was constructing a straw-man of a merciless Christian/Catholic Church, virtually synonymous with Christianity per se, which exacted such ascetical discipleship that it forced an alternative between eternal bliss in heaven and relentless cross-bearing on earth. Setting up the alternatives in such a manner made it easy to decide between them. All this was a running start for him to abandon Christian faith and to seek revenge upon it in oblique, scholarly ways. And though Jeffery is discreet, it is plainly implied that it was the discovery of homosexuality and its overwhelming ecstasies that made Smith turn the corner and, in the end, to try to “correct” the wrong turn Christian moral theology had long ago made. What if the authentic teaching of Jesus had been preserved best by libertine Gnostics? What if the very essence of Christian initiation were actually homosexual encounter with one’s Lord? “Oh, he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own, And the joy we share as we tarry there no other has ever known.” (Indeed one wonders why Smith never thought of capitalizing on the implicit homoeroticism of “real men” who “love Jesus” in the teariest, gushiest, most sentimental manner imaginable.)

As Jeffery wisely notes, it was this concern to claim the historical Jesus for homosexuality that forced Smith to ignore more promising, more modest scholarly approaches, e.g., arguing merely for a Gnostic provenance for his text. No, that wouldn’t have been good enough. It had to be Jesus himself. And this desire necessitated Smith’s grand hypothesis of early Christianity’s origin as a libertine Gnostic-hekhaloth cult. Instead of documenting these claims, Smith merely proof-texted them. All he was finally able to do was to show that a number of the required dots had once existed (visionary ascents, libertinisms, baptismal rites, etc.), but he could find nothing to support the particular way in which he connected them. Why embark upon such a project, a whole new etiology for the Christian religion, based on one small fragment? Clearly it was to serve a larger polemical agenda. You don’t need Smith’s reconstruction in order to understand the text; you only need it if you are trying to bulldoze a path amid the scattered evidence to a desired conclusion: this was the historical Jesus.

Jeffery shows how detail after detail of the Clement letter and the Secret Gospel make the best, natural sense when viewed in light of a particular English University homosexual culture (“Uranianism,” overlapping the Cambridge Apostles) that read its own sexuality back into Plato and the Classics, and of other nineteenth-twentieth century ecclesiastical conflicts interesting to Smith. For instance, Smith refers to a long debate over a passage in Cardinal Newman where some took him to mean it was permissible to tell untruths for the benefit of the unenlightened, appealing in the process to Clement of Alexandria. It is no surprise, then, that Smith “discovers” a letter from Clement, of all people, in which he offers precisely such advice: one must deny under oath any knowledge of Secret Mark and its authorship.

Uranianism despised women, and so Smith’s Jesus rebuffs the women who approach him. One of these is Salome, whom we are at first to identify with the Gospel character, one of Jesus’ followers. But Smith was really hinting of Salome, the daughter of Herodias, whose female arts led to the decapitation of the Baptist. Oscar Wilde had her dance the dance of the seven veils, and what do you know? Clement says the Markan Secret is to be hidden behind seven veils. Uranian culture despised Christian moralists as stinking hypocrites for condemning a higher, purer sexuality between men. And this is how the Clement letter depicts Clement and his lying church, which not only prevaricates about possessing the Secret Gospel but harrumphs about the sexual liberation it preaches. Jeffery shows how we are to understand Smith’s Clement as an “unreliable narrator.” We are to see him as the villain, his Carpocratian targets as the heroes. Indeed, I would take a step farther in Jeffery’s direction: I think Smith, having established his Clement as a priestcraftian liar, intends us to discount Clement’s protests that the juiciest portions of Secret Mark are Carpocratian interpolations. The implication (used as a distancing device) is that Theodore is himself not yet ready for the fullest version of the truth, including homosexual initiation, and so Clement lies to him about the true extent of Secret Mark’s arcana. Smith intends that Clement shared the same gay text with the Carpocratians, but for the moment he must hide the fact behind the veneer of churchly faith, which is all Theodore has yet attained to.

When we learn from Jeffery that Wilde and others of the English Uranians often composed scripture pastiches to satirize the New Testament, the case is closed. Smith is now seen to have followed the same practice. Some had even argued that Jesus was the gay lover of the Beloved Disciple and that the naked man fleeing Gethsemane was his rival for Jesus’ affections. This is the secret of the Secret Gospel.

Well, one must congratulate Morton Smith on attaining his goal, at least in large measure. He did manage to become one of the New Testament writers, albeit like one born out of season. For from now on, his Secret Mark will ever hold a place on the margin of the canon, a tenuous member of Eusebius’ fourth scripture category: heretical forgeries wrongly accepted as apostolic by some.    



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