What does a contested text say about Jesus, gay sex and baptism?
MARK’S SECRET GOSPEL
What does a contested text say about Jesus, gay sex and baptism?
RISING OUT of the rock walls of the Kedron Valley 20 km southeast of Jerusalem, the Greek Orthodox monastery Mar Saba is one of the most dramatic sights in the Holy Land. Founded 1,500 years ago, it’s one of the oldest still-inhabited monasteries in the world, although its current population of 10 monks is a far cry from the 4,000 who crowded it before the Arab conquest of 640 CE. It’s easy to imagine Mar Saba in an Indiana Jones film, as the site where the Holy Grail lies hidden. A 1940 thriller by Canadian evangelical writer James Hogg Hunter unfolds there: Nazis fake an ancient parchment disproving Christ’s resurrection and lead an unwitting British scholar to it; news of his find threatens to destroy the morale of the Christian world. All in all, the perfect place for an American academic named Morton Smith to discover—or forge—a fragment of a secret version of the Gospel of Mark, a startling addition to one of the foundational documents ofWestern civilization.
That was in 1958. The squabble—debate is too mild a word—over its authenticity and the gay Christ some see in it has scarcely abated since. Five years ago, Queen’s University historian Donald Akenson forcefully expressed the rejectionist view, declaring Secret Mark so obvious a fake that it was a litmus test for Biblical scholars, determining whether “they have at least as much common sense as God gives to a goose.” Anyone who could not spot the forgery “from a height of3,000 feet,” Akenson wrote, “should not be allowed to make authoritative pronouncements” about Biblical texts. And now, in Mark’s Other Gospel (Wil-
frid Laurier University Press), University of Toronto instructor Scott G. Brown makes a convincing case that it’s a genuine work by the evangelist. Brown exhaustively wades through a dispute far more marked by vitriol, sectarian politics, sexual innuendo and the outsized egos of the scholars involved than anything resembling the disinterested pursuit of truth. “The scholarship on this has
with him that night; for Jesus was teaching him the mystery of the kingdom of God’
been so nasty and so shoddy because of twisted personal relationships and theological issues,” he said in an interview.
What Smith claimed to have found while cataloguing books in the Mar Saba library 47 years ago was a copy of a letter by Clement of Alexandria, an important second-century Christian thinker. In it, Clement responds to a fellow cleric named Theodore, who had written Clement in confusion over the claims of a group of heretical Christians known as Carpocratians who used sex in their worship. Their justification for this was their unusual version of Mark’s Gospel, which they evidently told Theodore originated in
Alexandria. Clement freely admits that his church has such a text—one more “mystical” than the familiar Biblical gospel that St. Mark had earlier compiled for ordinary Christians. Although the Alexandrians guarded the advanced gospel securely, allowing it to be read “only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries,” the Carpocratians’ founder had managed to get a copy from a corrupt church elder.
And yes, Theodore is told, there is a section in Secret Mark, meant to be read after the Biblical verse Mark 10:34, that tells of Jesus’s arrival in Bethany. He encounters a woman whose brother has died. Going to the tomb he restores the youth to life. The young man entreats Jesus to let him become a disciple. Jesus stays in the youth’s house for seven days. “And when it was evening, the young man comes to him donning a linen cloth upon his naked body, and he remained with him that night; for Jesus was teaching him the mystery of the kingdom of God.” Any modern reader, hyper-alert to sexual subtexts, would raise an eyebrow here. For Akenson the whole thing is obviously “a nice ironic gay joke,” a modern hoax at the expense of self-important scholars. But Smith, the fragment’s chief defender until his death in 1991, saw the possibility of a real sexual ritual. Secret Mark, he concluded in 1973, records a special baptism given by Jesus to chosen disciples, “singly and by night,” that “may have resulted in completion of the spiritual union by physical union.” That certainly prejudiced scholars against Smith’s find. Theological speculation claiming a gay Christ takes its starting point from the fact that the Bible doesn’t say unequivocally that Jesus was straight. He could have been gay. Such reasoning is far from persuasive for most Christians, of course, so Secret Mark has become a mainstay of so-called queer theology. What is actually happening between Jesus and the resurrected youth, in a “spiritual” gospel, is not readily apparent. But Clement’s letter does offer evidence that at least some self-styled Christians— however much reviled by the orthodoxaccepted homosexual acts.
Unsurprisingly, Smith’s interpretation has tainted the fragment itself. And dislike of the gospel fragment, and what some people were making of it, turned out to meld easily with dislike of Smith, a professor of ancient history at Columbia University. “He had a great sense of humour,” Brown notes, but “some people hated him, and with good reason—he could be very mean, verbally abusive, to those he thought fools.” But that doesn’t mean he’d stoop to fraud, Brown insists. “To study Secret Mark I had to study Smith for 10 years. I’ve never found anything dishonest in him, and I think I would have after that long.”
That’s not Jacob Neusner’s opinion. The world’s most published scholar in the humanities, with more than 900 books to his name, the 72-year-old specialist in ancient Judaism teaches at Bard College in New York State. The subject of a recent admiring profile in the New York Times, Neusner is a vigorous—not to say violent—polemicist who has been known to conclude letters to opponents with “Drop Dead.” When objecting to another scholar’s work, Neusner has several times written an entire volume in refutation, with the offender’s name in the title—in 1995 he published Are the Talmuds Interchangeable? Christine Hayes’s Blunder.
Neusner used to be a Smith acolyte, and contributed a sycophantic blurb to Smith’s book on Secret Mark. But the two men, so alike in temperament, later parted ways—in 1984, Smith publically denounced his former student for incompetence at an academic gathering held to honour Neusner’s work. Smith may not have been alone in his evaluation; as Brown notes, Neusner’s publication pace—a book every 16.7 days over the course of his career—’’does not suggest only good things about his scholarship.” But it was Smith who gave the public insult, and
After his original gospel, the letter claims, Mark wrote a spiritual version
after his death, Neusner began to write about his old teacher’s “forgery of the century.” All this matters to the tangled history of Secret Mark because of Neusner’s enormous influence. Akenson and others derive their opinions about Smith’s character from Neusner’s account. “I know of six scholars at least who appeal to his personal knowledge of Smith,” Brown comments. And so, in Brown’s opinion, a kind of folklore grew up, full of demonstrably wrong beliefs about Smith and his discovery: that he never let anyone else examine the manuscript; that he was an expert in forgery; that he forged Secret Mark to discredit Christianity by “proving” Jesus was a homosexual.
For Brown, the controversy that has mar-
ginalized Secret Mark has much to do with the fact that conservative Biblical scholars want to discredit it. “They want the locus of truth about Christianity to be found only in the 27 books the early Church canonized and put in the New Testament—anything outside the canon is to be ignored.” Once the vicious personal quarrel—and the gay interpretation, which Brown considers misinformed—are stripped away, he is left with something that looks like Mark, sounds like Mark, feels like Mark. Why shouldn’t it be Mark? “Three thousand feet?” Brown echoes Akenson. “Even close up, on the ground, I couldn’t see the forgery. The gospel incident quoted in Clement’s letter reflects a profound comprehension of Mark’s literary techniques—subtle matters of composition that experts had not yet realized when the letter was discovered.”
One of these techniques is known as intercalation: the evangelist frames one story within another, leading readers to understand the first in light of the second. The fragment inserts the story from Biblical Mark 10:35— the Apostles James and John ask Christ for positions of high honour once he, as they expect, becomes an earthly ruler—within the tale of the young man. Jesus responds, “Ye know not what ye ask. Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? And be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” That baptism, of course, is Jesus’s death. The self-absorbed disciples don’t see it, but readers perceive the true price of entry to the kingdom of God—suffering and death—and thus the true meaning of the baptism for which the young man donned his linen sheet.
One of Biblical Mark’s most important themes is that the way to eternal life is through death. Secret Mark’s use of baptism as a metaphor for martyrdom thus develops the original gospel and neatly explains a figure from it who has puzzled scholars for centuries. At Mark 14:51, a young man, clad only in a linen sheet, followed Jesus after his arrest; when the mob tried to seize him, he left the linen sheet and “fled from them naked.” Brown sees the same young man as in Secret Mark, this time dressed to take part in the true baptism, Christ’s Passion, the actual “mystery of the kingdom of God” that he had learned in Bethany. It’s a somewhat esoteric reading, but one to be expected from a gospel Clement calls “more spiritual” than the original. Even so, it’s a much more straightforward tale than the saga of Morton Smith’s discovery. lil
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