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The "Secret Gospel of Mark"

What happened to the copy of Clement's letter?

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Morton Smith discovered a copy of an ancient letter allegedly written by Clement of Alexandria (circa 150-213 CE). It discussed a second version -- a "Secret Gospel" -- of the Gospel of Mark. This longer version contains additional information that does not appear in the shorter version of the Gospel of Mark which was accepted into the biblical canon. Although Smith found the letter in an ancient monastery (Hagios Sabbas) in 1958, his two books describing his analysis of the letter were not published until 1973. For the general public, he wrote, "The Secret Gospel: The discovery and interpretation of the secret Gospel according to Mark". 1 For theologians and historians, he wrote "Clement of Alexandria and the Secret Gospel of Mark." 2 He drew parallels between Pagan magical practices in ancient Palestine and some of Jesus' teachings and deeds.

Many conflicting stories have circulated about whether this copy of Clement's letter actually exists, and where it is at the present time.

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What happened to the letter?

According to Charles W. Hedrick:

"The publication of Clement's letter with the excerpts from Secret Mark immediately drew charges of forgery and fraud from the scholarly community. These accusations were encouraged by subsequent failed attempts by other Western scholars to see and study the fragment, which had apparently disappeared in the meantime. Privately, scholars wondered if the manuscript even existed and, if it did, why was no one able to see it. 3

In 1975, Quentin Quesnell wrote a book 4 that is critical of Smith's conclusions. 1,2 Quesnell stressed the importance of ancient manuscripts being freely available for analysis by scholars. He quoted an excerpt from E.J. Goodspeed's book "Strange New Gospels" in which Goodspeed argued that direct visual examination is critical. 5 However, Quesnell left out an important point in Goodspeed's claim: that in the absence of the original document, "...a photograph of it will usually answer the purposes of his investigation." 5 Both black and white photos are now available for each page in Clement's letter.

Quesnell suggests that Clement's letter might have been forged. Some of his reasons were:

bullet The original manuscript is not available for examination.
bullet The photographs are in black and white and don't include margins and edges of the pages.
bullet Since 1936, detained knowledge of Clement's writing style has been available. A convincing forgery could have been created any time after that date.
bullet There was poor supervision of documents in the library of the monastery between 1936 and 1958 when Smith found the manuscript.

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Location of the letter: circa 1980 to now:

In 1980, Thomas Talley, a Professor from the General Theological Seminary in New York City visited the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate Library in Jerusalem. While there, a priest, Archimandrite Melito, stated that he had taken Clement's letter (or perhaps the Voss 1646 book with the letter intact) from Hagios Sabbas to the Jerusalem library.

The librarian, Archimandrite Kallistos Dourvas, confirmed this, but said that it was being repaired and was not available for inspection.

During the 1990s, Kallistos told Professor Nikolaos Olympiou, a Professor of Old Testament at the University of Athens, that he, Kallistos, had removed the letter of Clement from the book shortly after he received the book into the Patriarchate library. Kallistos later gave color photographs of the letter to Olympiou.

Professor Olympiou speculated that the missing Clement letter was concealed by someone at the library for religious reasons.

There is visual evidence that the photographs of Clement's letter were once in the Voss edition. A small circular discoloration appears on the last page of the book. A matching discoloration is found on the first page of the letter.

Charles Hedrick concludes:

"The letter of Clement does exist, and the consensus (with some dissenting opinions) is that it is genuine. Thus at the end of the second century multiple different versions of the Gospel of Mark were known to exist. Scholars have been reluctant to accept Clement's testimony and assign the fragments of the Secret Gospel to the hand of the author of original Mark. But in spite of their reluctance, clearly Clement's letter confirms that a second Gospel of Mark thought to be by the author of the original Gospel of Mark was used in the Alexandrian Church, and it is to be dated before the end of the second century. As Smith noted, 'the real issue seems to be whether they [the excerpts from Secret Mark] should be classed with the pseudepigraphic gospels of the mid- and later second century, or with the canonical gospels and others of that type (P. Egerton 2, G. Hebrews, etc.).' ... Whether or not this 'spiritual gospel' of Mark might, in principle, contain information about the historical Jesus depends on how early the fragments are dated (are they early enough to preserve original oral memory about Jesus), as well as on other usual criteria for determining the originality of traditions." 3

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References used:

  1. Morton Smith, "The Secret Gospel: The discovery and interpretation of the secret Gospel according to Mark", Harper and Row, (1973) This book is out of print, but can usually be purchased in used condition. See the online book store
  2. Morton Smith, "Clement of Alexandria and the Secret Gospel of Mark," Harvard University Press, (1973). This is an expensive, out of print book which may be difficult to obtain. See the online book store
  3. Charles W. Hedrick with Nikolaos Olympiou, "Secret Mark," The Fourth R, Volume 13,5, 2000-SEP/OCT, at:
  4. Quentin Quesnell, "The Mar Saba Clementine," Pages 53 to 58.
  5. E.J. Goodspeed, "Strange New Gospels," Pages 3 to 4.

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Copyright 2002 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-NOV-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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