I am providing here a thread of posts on Morton Smith’s discovery, in 1958, of the “Secret Gospel of Mark,” a longer version of Mark’s Gospel in a letter allegedly written by Clement of Alexandria who attacks a group of nefarious Gnostics.  Smith argued this really was an authentic letter, that the Secret Gospel really did exist in antiquity, and, yet more intriguing, that IT was the older form of the Gospel of Mark.  Our Gospel of Mark *today* is an abbreviated version, edited to rid the Gospel of a couple of potentially scandalous passages.  Whoa.  Could that be right?  Here’s a summary of Smith’s argument:


There are some interesting features of the shorter version – the one found in the New Testament – that can be explained if the longer version were the original, and this is some of the evidence that Smith and others have adduced for their view.  To take the second quotation first.  Clement indicates that it appeared after the first part of Mark 10:46:  “And they came to Jericho; and as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples….”  The is a strange verse for several reasons.  Why does it say “they came to Jericho” but then not indicate what happened there?  In other words, why would Mark mention their arrival in town if they leave without doing anything?   And why does the text say that “they” came but that “he and his disciples” left?  Why not just say “they” came and “they” left?  These may seem like minor issues; but they are the kind of small details that should give one pause.


Notice what happens when the second passage cited by Clement is inserted into the account.  They come to Jericho.  Jesus encounters three women there but refuses to see them (this is not the first time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus might seem a bit rude; see Mark 3:31-35).  Then he and his disciples leave.  The passage seems to make better sense and the tiny problems with the details disappear.

Or consider the other of Clement’s two quotations of the Secret Gospel.  One passage that has always perplexed students of the canonical version of Mark’s Gospel occurs near the end, when Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.  When the soldiers seize him, all his disciples flee.  But there is someone else there, “a young man” who is “clothed with a linen cloth over his naked body.”  The soldiers grab this unnamed man, but he escapes, nude, leaving them with the linen cloth in their hands (Mark 14:51-52).  Who is this person, this follower of Jesus who has never been mentioned before?  What is he doing in Gethsemane?  And why is he wearing only a linen garment?   Interpreters have propounded a host of possible solutions to these questions over the centuries; but there has never been any consensus.[1]

Once the longer passage of the so-called “Secret Gospel” is inserted, however, suddenly it makes sense.  For in that story too there is a young man who comes to Jesus wearing nothing over his naked body but a linen cloth.  This is a person Jesus has raised from the dead.  He became Jesus’ follower.  He is the one grabbed in the garden.  Maybe this was

originally part of Mark’s Gospel.

Smith, however, went even further.  Not only was this passage originally in Mark.  It is a key to understanding the ministry of the historical Jesus.  Smith spins out an interpretation of the text, which, at the end of the day, left most scholars breathless and many incensed.   According to Smith, this passage reflects an actual practice of the historical Jesus.   We know from other ancient sources that Jesus was widely considered to be a “magician.”  In an ancient context, that did not mean someone who, like David Copperfield today, can perform illusionist tricks with mirrors and sophisticated contraptions.  A magician was someone who could, in reality, manipulate the workings of nature through mystical powers connecting him to the divine realm.


For Smith, Jesus really was a magician.  In fact, Smith wrote another book devoted to the subject, called, appropriately enough, Jesus the Magician.[2]   And this identification of Jesus has a lot to do with this text.  Smith is struck, quite understandably, by the fact that the young man comes to Jesus wearing nothing but a linen cloth over his nakedness.  That sounds like someone coming forward for baptism, since in the early church, people were baptized, as adults, in the nude (after taking off a simple robe worn to the ceremony).  Now the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not indicate that Jesus baptized people.  But the Gospel of John indicates that he may have done so (John 3:22; 4:1-2)[3].  Moreover, the apostle Paul talks about baptism, and indicates that at baptism a person is somehow “united” with Christ (Rom. 6:1-6).  Did Paul, after Jesus’ death, make up such a view himself?  No, argues Smith, it was a view known to Jesus’ followers before his death, because it was Jesus’ own view.  Jesus himself baptized people and in that baptism they came to be united with him.


This being united with Jesus is somehow connected with the Kingdom of God – since the text from the Secret Gospel indicates that this young man spent the entire night with Jesus being taught about the Kingdom.  Smith thinks this conveys a historical datum about Jesus: whomever Jesus baptized experienced a spiritual unity with him that involved a magical, visionary journey with him into the Kingdom of God.  Moreover, this was not simply some kind of spiritual ecstasy. No, this mystical experience of the kingdom allowed the person, says Smith, to be “set free from the laws ordained for and in the lower world.”  Indeed, “freedom from the law may have resulted in completion of the spiritual union by physical union.”  In other words, when Jesus baptized a man, their spiritual union culminated in a physical coupling.  Smith expresses some uncertainty concerning the ceremonies involved in this unification of Jesus and the man he was baptizing; but he does indicate in one of his footnotes that physical “manipulation, too, was probably involved; the stories of Jesus’ miracles give a very large place to the use of his hands.”[4]

The hands of a healer here take on a whole new meaning.  In this fragment from Clement, Smith discovered that Jesus was a magician who engaged in sex with the men that he baptized.


I do not want to go into a prolonged discussion of every aspect of Morton Smith’s interpretation of the Secret Gospel.  Most scholars found his explication unconvincing at best; some were predictably outraged.  Smith appeared to love it.

It has been pointed out, with some justice, that the text in fact says nothing about Jesus using magic, it does not mention baptism; there is no word about an ecstatic vision or a spiritual unity with Jesus, let alone about anyone having sex with the Son of God.  Some reviewers concluded that Smith found in the text what he brought to the text, and noted that he had been interested in ecstatic visions, heavenly journeys, law-free morality, and Jesus the magician years before he published his books on the Secret Gospel.[5]   And, predictably, other scholars have interpreted the text in other ways.  Some, for example, have seen it as a simple pastiche from other Gospel accounts – for example, borrowing phrases from the Gospels of Mark and John (rich young man; raising of Lazarus) – and interpreted it as a later story wrongly thought to belong to Mark’s Gospel, a story that simply gave another account of Jesus raising someone from the dead and then giving him instructions in the mysteries of the Kingdom (cf. Mark 4:10-12).[6]

And yet one does need to take into account some of the peculiar details.  Why would the text stress that this fellow was completely naked under his linen garment and that Jesus spent the night with him?


I’ll pick up on these rather unusual queries in my next post.



[1]Most people I’ve met are either totally confused by the passage or else have a solution they heard that makes so much sense to them they’re not interested in learning any of the others.

[2]San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978.

[3]John’s text says that Jesus did baptize, but then goes on to correct itself to say that Jesus himself did not actually do any baptizing.  It may be that the earlier statement is the (historically) correct one, and the later “correction” is in fact incorrect.

[4]Smith, Secret Gospel, p. 113, n.12.

[5]See the review of Quentin Quesnell cited in note 22.

[6]This view can be found in the sober analysis – somewhat unusual for this particular controversy – of Raymond E. Brown, “The Relation of ‘The Secret Gospel of Mark’ to the Fourth Gospel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 36 (1974) 466-85.

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2023-04-21T13:16:45-04:00April 20th, 2023|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

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