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Book review: The Secret Gospel of Mark: A controversial scholar, a scandalous Gospel of Jesus, and the fierce debate over its authenticity by Geoffrey S. Smith and Brent C. Landau

22 December 2023

Henry Wansbrough wonders whether this theory holds water

IN LATE 1960, a serious but slightly maverick scholar, Morton Smith, startled the world of biblical scholarship by claiming that he had discovered in the library of the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Saba, on the outskirts of the Judaean desert, a couple of manuscript pages, claiming to contain a quotation from the Secret Gospel of Mark. Surprising enough!

The quotation, however, contains a report that Jesus raised a young man from the dead, loved him, and summoned him to spend the night with him, during which Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. The young man came to him “wearing only a linen cloth over his naked body”. The homoerotic overtones either amused or scandalised the biblical world and duly sparked a prolonged investigation, to which these two reputable scholars suggest their own solution.

Their exhaustive but pleasantly light-hearted presentation discusses nearly all the questions. The chase is complicated by the fact that the pages were eventually taken to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem, where they cannot now be found.

Was it a spoof/hoax by the gay Morton Smith? What was the date of the ink of the manuscript? (In Jerusalem, only the Israeli police have the kit to decide this, and the manuscript is not going to be presented to them.) The handwriting? (Late-18th-century and not a professional scribe) The text claims to be part of a letter written by Clement of Alexandria: is it in his style and vocabulary? (Quite possibly) What is the relationship of the passage quoted to the canonical Gospel of Mark? (A tissue of Gospel phrases, especially Mark 14.51-52 about the young man, naked but for a linen sheet). Oddly, one vital question is not asked: how does it compare with the composition of other second-century non-canonical Gospels?

What then was the purpose of the document? The authors put it in the fifth to seventh century “to provide a powerful argument in favour of same-sex monastic partnerships”, since at that time “brother-making became an official ritual within the church,” and scores of blessings survive for the formalisation of such relationships. Oddly, not one of these is quoted. No doubt, some of these partnerships were affectionate, but no evidence is given to suggest that they were homoerotic in the sense suggested by the Secret Gospel.

The authors have done a great service in dispelling myth after myth. The chase is fascinating, respectful, but rigorous. Nevertheless, I think that the mystery remains unsolved. I myself would hope that some light might be shone by investigation of the non-canonical Gospels of early Christianity.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a former member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

The Secret Gospel of Mark: A controversial scholar, a scandalous gospel of Jesus, and the fierce debate over its authenticity
Geoffrey S. Smith and Brent C. Landau
Yale £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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