Review of Smith by Paul J. Achtemeier

Originally appeared as book review in Journal of Biblical Literature 93 (1974): 625-628.
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Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, by Morton Smith. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1973. Pp. xi + 454. $30.
The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark, by Morton Smith. New York/London: Harper & Row, 1973. Pp. xi+148. $5.95.

These two books, the former scholarly, the latter popular, deal with a manuscript, found by Professor Morton Smith (Columbia University in New York City) in 1958 in the Monastery of Mar Saba, which identifies itself as a letter from Clement of Alexandria to an otherwise unknown Theodore. Written in an 18th-century hand in the back of a 17th-century printed book, the fragmentary letter discusses a hitherto unknown "secret" version of the Gospel of Mark which has fallen into the hands of Carpocrates and quoted two short passages from it. It is to the development of the consequences of this letter that the two books are dedicated. The latter, a chatty account of the discovery, the process of collecting material, and the development of the argument, is based on the research reported in the former volume and shares the strengths and weaknesses of that research. This review will be limited to the more scholarly volume.

In the first chapter, Professor Smith describes the fragment and the process by which he established its date of copying. In the second chapter, he submits the fragment itself to extensive analyses of style and content and concludes that it did indeed originate with Clement of Alexandria. In the third chapter, he examines the fragments from the secret version of Mark, and, after considering questions of style, content, and structural relations to the four canonical gospels, Smith concludes that they derive from an Aramaic source common to Mark and John and that they belonged to an earlier version of Mark than the one now contained in the canon. In a fourth chapter, Smith investigates the extent to which the content of the fragments fits the time from which it purports to come, and in a final chapter he speculates on the history of the Clementine letter and its contents from its origin until its inclusion in the 17th-century book. The final third of the volume is taken up with a variety of appendixes and indexes. Smith's erudition is evident throughout the volume, and he scrupulously acknowledges the comments of the large number of scholars from all over the world to whom he submitted, for their comments and reactions, various materials included within the book. The fact that many comments disagree with his own views and present alternative explanations has not dissuaded Smith from including them.

The content of this "letter of Clement" is not startling, and to those familiar with non-canonical materials about Jesus neither are the fragments from an unknown version of Mark. The conclusions reached by Smith on the basis of this letter, however, are indeed, as he claims, revolutionary for the way Christian origins are understood. This "longer text" of Mark, as he calls it (hereafter cited as LT), reveals to Smith that Jesus practiced an initiatory rite of magical dimensions, a conclusion that then allows him to unlock the relationship of Jesus and Paul (both had ecstatic baptism-initiation rites which they practiced on their followers), the relation of Gnostics to later primitive Christianity (the former preserved more primitive practices), the composition of the gospels (an Aramaic Vorlage for Mark and John), the strange Johannine rhetoric (the mystical ascent of Jesus into the "kingdom of heaven" is reflected in some Johannine accounts), the widespread problem with libertine Christianity (it followed Jesus' baptismal and other practices), the persecution of early Christians (for their magical practices), and the exegetical solution to a number of NT passages that have long been a source of disagreement among scholars. So sweeping a proposal needs prolonged and derailed investigation, something the scope of the present review will not permit. Let us focus our attention on a key area where some important problems arise.

That key area concerns not so much what Smith's conclusions are as it does how he has reached them. Characteristically, his arguments are awash in speculation. As an example, we may consider his account of Jesus' act of baptizing, itself nowhere mentioned in the Synoptics and denied in John (4:2). On the assumption, itself based on speculative emendation of the LT (edidasken to edoken, III, 9), that the secret gospel refers to Jesus' "baptismal ritual" (again not mentioned in LT), Smith is able to arrive "at a definition of 'the mystery of the kingdom of God': It was a baptism administered by Jesus to chosen disciples, singly, and by night. In this baptism the disciple was united with Jesus. The union may have been physical . . ." (p. 251). This result is reached despite the fact that the LT does not mention any baptism, let alone any ritual connected with it, let alone any theological justification for such an imagined ritual. Having reached this "conclusion," Smith then uses it to supplement and correct the (in his view) distorted NT presentation of early Christianity, in order to arrive at an historically more accurate picture. Example: his treatment of the scene in Gethsemane. Here, we learn that "it was while performing such a baptism that Jesus was arrested" (p. 237, built on Mark 14:51-52 and the necessary "correctives"). To replace this unmentionable and secret fact, Jesus' agony in the garden was invented and substituted (p. 243). That there is no place in the present text of Mark for such a secret ceremony gives Smith no pause at all. His creative imagination is equal to the task. Of course, such solutions can be created, but with such creativity all things are for the scholar, as for God, possible.

Along with such speculations, there is an arbitrariness in dealing with texts. Smith disbelieves John 10:41 (p. 205) and believes Mark 1:5; Matt. 3:5 // Luke 3:3 (p. 206), and displays a credulity bordering on gullibility with reference to "characteristics of (John) the Baptist's rite" (p. 207)—in no case are reasons given. The suspicion will not down that there is an a priori principle of selective credulity at work in relation to biblican texts. Smith knows, for example, that Acts is a "partizan [sic] document often shown to be incomplete" (p. 251), yet accepts Acts 6, 21 as clearly historical when he wants to show why Jesus' followers were persecuted: because of their libertinism (pp. 255-58; Smith identifies, on the basis of references in Clement, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus, Nicolaus of Acts 6:5 with the Nicolaitans of Rev 2:6, 15, and both with libertinism, p. 262).

Rather apparently, such selectivity is achieved at the expense of any careful use of modern methods of research in dealing with gospel texts. Redaction-critical work is absent from Smith's deliberations. Example: his discussion of Jesus' attitude to the law (pp. 248-51). With no distinction between traditional and redactional material, he heaps together passages indiscriminately from all three synoptic gospels and then refers to "this large and clear body of evidence" (p. 249). The absence of such distinctions gives to many of his conclusions a curiously facile, almost unreal, quality, and he regularly draws historical conclusions from traditional and redactional material. Nor is there any careful form-critical work done on the evidence Smith draws into his discussion (he prefers Dodd's thesis on the originality of the Marcan outline to form-critical conclusions about its lack of historical basis—cf. p. 94). He also omits any mention of H.-W. Kuhn's important form-critical insights into Mark 10:13-45 (Ältere Sammlungen im Markus-evangelium [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1971], ad loc.; cf. JBL 93 [1974] 306-8), thus seriously compromising the results he achieves in his own analysis of this key passage for his argument.

Rather, Smith's basic methodological assumption seems to be that the NT writings are composed of historical fact with a theological overlay. Strip off the latter and you have as residue the former. Example: his treatment of Jesus' baptism. That baptism was characterized, he says, by the fact that it gave to the recipient "a spirit" (p. 220). This the Christian theological overlay made into the "holy" Spirit. Stripping such apologetic theologizing away, Smith reaches his historical conclusion: the recipient received an ecstatic "spirit" that led to the illusion of entering (the kingdom of) heaven. Such a methodological assumption allows Smith, as it allowed those who used the method in the 19th century, to reconstruct Jesus' emotional state and psychological processes; the orgistheis in LT II, 25 "is easily explicable: Jesus could have been angered either by the use of his secret title or by the disciples' rebuke of the suppliant (cf. Mk 10:13f)" (p. 104). It also allows the recovery of remarkable historical detail. On LT III, 6-7, Smith notes: "The story suggests a large house, perhaps a villa. The young man was rich. Jesus and his followers may have been given a wing for themselves" (p. 115). All that despite his disclaimer that "it would be naïve to ask whether or not the events reported in the longer text 'really happened'" (p. 196). That disclaimer is, throughout the book, honored in the breach.

The trouble with such speculation as method is the fact that it does not always yield consistent results. Early Christianity, we are told, particularly the libertine parties, derived from Jesus himself (p. 254; for that reason, the Carpocratians are more reliable witnesses, even when their views must be speculatively reconstructed, to "true" early Christianity than is the NT, p. 276). Paul also got his views directly from Jesus, a position Smith accepts from J. G. Machen's The Origin of Paul's Religion, "perhaps the most brilliant presentation of the problem" (p. 248). Well and good. What then are we to make of it when we are assured later on that "what early Christianity was like in areas from which no material has been preserved can be inferred from the things Paul opposed in his letters" (italics mine, p. 264)? How such a statement is to be reconciled with the venerable Machen's views is hard to fathom.

There are yet other problems with the book. For example, Smith compares the order of Mark 6:32-16:8, including the LT, with John 6-20 and finds "continued parallelisms of the geographic framework" and a "coincidence of order of so many events" that they can "hardly be accidental" (p. 161, cf. pp. 158-60). Then, Smith compares the transfiguration and passion stories he finds in Mark 8:29-9:2ff.; 10:20-LT; and 14:27-16:5, and finds a recurring pattern. After all this, he then quietly disclaims the whole endeavor: "On rereading this section . . . I suspect the parallelism may be due to my invention" (p. 167)—an eminently sensible judgment. What then is our surprise when later on (p. 192) we find those very parallels cited as elements in an evidentiary chain!

In sum, we have in this monograph an admittedly vast amount of erudition, pressed into the service of a highly speculative "field theory" of Christian origins. Smith apparently belongs to the "one master stroke" school of the solution of historical problems; the greater the number of problems a theory seems to solve, the more likely it is to be correct. Else why would Smith think his question in defense of his enterprise an important one: "Will the reader please offer another explanation [sic!] for all these problems?" (p. 266). Would that historical reality yielded itself so readily to one master thesis! The manuscript Smith discovered adds a bit to our knowledge of second-century Christianity, should it prove to be genuine; his speculations on its significance are, in the end, interesting for their sweep, but unconvincing as historical explanation.


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