Secret Mark (not to be confused with “Archaic Mark”) is an alleged ancient text that a number of modern scholars consider a forged hoax. (See the description of the document below). Recently a group of scholars with expertise in the pertinent matters met to discuss and debate the text and its controversy. The papers from that event have been published under the title: Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery?: The Secret Gospel of Mark in Debate: Proceedings from the 2011 York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium (Burke, Tony, editor)
Here’s a description of the volume:
In 1958, American historian of religion Morton Smith made an astounding discovery in the Mar Saba monastery in Jerusalem. Copied into the back of a seventeenth-century book was a lost letter attributed to Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215 CE) that contained excerpts from a longer version of the Gospel of Mark written by Mark himself and circulating in Alexandria, Egypt. More than fifty years after its discovery, the origins of this Secret Gospel of Mark remain contentious. Some consider it an authentic witness to an early form of Mark, perhaps even predating canonical Mark. Some claim it is a medieval or premodern forgery created by a monastic scribe. And others argue it is a forgery created by Morton Smith himself. All these positions are addressed in the papers contained in this volume. Nine North American scholars, internationally recognized for their contributions to the study of Secret Mark, met at York University in Toronto, Canada, in April 2011 to examine recent developments in scholarship on the gospel and the letter in which it is found. Their results represent a substantial step forward in determining the origins of this mysterious and controversial text.
James McGrath’s excellent review of this volume can be read here. The book is a must-have for anyone interested in this debate and, more broadly, analysis of ancient texts for forgery.
Reading James McGrath’s review, one writer tried to appeal to the well known high-standing character of Morton Smith in order to deny that he might have been a forger of this document. I would just say that anyone is capable of anything, even those of supposed “good character”.
I am a physician and I cannot tell you how many times I have felt that a patient of mine was upstanding and honest, only to find out that they were running around to other doctors getting things like hydrocodone and Adderall behind my back. I have been absolutely shocked at times.
Anyone is capable of anything. The guy probably forged it.
very interesting – thanks!
A general question inspired by the matter of Secret Mark is, how common was it, in early Christianity, for people to maintain variant (& sometimes secret) copies of books than the prevailing forms that in some cases became canon? I understand Marcion had his own version of Luke, IIRC, but how frequent was this practice? Just curious.
This depends on what you mean by “copies” and of what? For instance, copies of material that the community believed came from an apostolic hand (a major criterion for canonicity) were of course highly valued. But the task of copying that copy was obvious, especially under persecution, when canonical books used in Christian meetings were targeted for destruction. Copies could be hidden, but not for some esoteric purpose — the issue was its survival. Christian communities off the mainline (e.g., Gnostic sects) of course had their own texts and treated them with reverence. All that said, papyrus material didn’t last long, and copies of ancient books (especially under heavy use) were destroyed all the time just through usage. It’s very doubtful there would be texts hidden away that weren’t known within certain communities, only to come out later. Even Secret Mark is (allegedly) traced to Clement. It’s importance is alternative readings of Mark. The canonical Mark, though, was so well known across the Mediterranean among Christian communities that, had an aberrant one surfaced (or some gospel that was not accepted as truly apostolic), that it would by definition have been an outlier.
Pseudonymity was also fairly common, but works that surfaced (attributed to any name) that didn’t have a history of transmission between churches would not have been difficult to spot and would have been identified for what they were (and pseudonymity didn’t carry the offense it does today – such books were read and popular, but early Christians *could* ably classify most such cases).
Re: “This depends on what you mean by ‘copies’ and of what?”
I’m referring to anything similar to the example I mentioned of the Marcionites taking a copy of the gospel of Luke, revising it to suit themselves, then continuing to transmit it, so that it’s perpetuated, but in a form distinct from the document it had originally been based on. “Secrecy,” if there was any, is a secondary issue.
Re: “All that said, papyrus material didn’t last long, and copies of ancient books (especially under heavy use) were destroyed all the time just through usage.”
I’m aware of the fragility of the medium, which meant that documents survived only if they were actively perpetuated. I have no doubt that someone could have written a variant of a document, but if no one valued it, then it would have “died” (as it were) and we’d never know it existed.
Re: “It’s very doubtful there would be texts hidden away that weren’t known within certain communities, only to come out later.”
That is one scenario I’d been inquiring about. If it was a rare phenomenon, then that helps answer my question.
Re: “The canonical Mark, though, was so well known across the Mediterranean among Christian communities that, had an aberrant one surfaced (or some gospel that was not accepted as truly apostolic), that it would by definition have been an outlier.”
I would have thought so. But there were variations among Christian groups and it’s possible that one could have tried to keep its writings away from others. (Isn’t that what the Nag Hammadi collection had been … Gnostic or semi-Gnostic texts hidden away in order to protect them from the prying eyes of others?)
But, as I said, if this was rare, then that was really what I’d been asking about. And if that’s the case, you answered my question already. So thanks!
I think the core question to ask here would be – “which came first?” – i.e., the Gnostic/Secret teachings/texts or the canonical texts? Were hidden/secret texts all part of the same original Christianity or were they reactive to it (like that of Marcion)?
In my opinion the Christian texts as modified by Marcion are a classic example of the general Gnostic/pre-Gnostic (“secret” gospel) phenomenon of taking what was originally written (the canon of Scripture as we essentially have it today) and butchering it to fit a heretic agenda.
As such, whatever came first wins the day (as represented in the NT canon) and everything else becomes a cheap knock-off – i.e., everything “secret” or “hidden”, i.e., “agenda-driven”.
The burden of proof lies with the one who wants to see either the reverse be true (secret texts coming first, then what is in the canon coming next) or a simultaneous hodge-podge of Christianity from the very beginning where the orthodox eventually won the day and the secret texts faded into obscurity.