Review of Smith by Norman R. Petersen

Originally appeared as book review in Southern Humanities Review 8 (1974): 525-531.
This is copyrighted material that cannot be included elsewhere without permission.

Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark. By Morton Smith. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973. x + 454 pp. $30.

The Secret Gospel. The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark. By Morton Smith. New York: Harper and Row, 1973. ix + 148 pp. $5.95.

Historical evidence is somewhat like mosaic stones which one selects and arranges according to a plan to form a picture. The addition of new evidence, like new stones, changes the picture and affects the plan. Students of the New Testament and the early church have been the beneficiaries of enormous amounts of new evidence since the end of the second World War, first in the form of the Dead Sea Scrolls and then in the form of a large collection of heretical Christian ("gnostic") writings discovered in Egypt. As a result, some scholars have called for a dismantling and reassembling of the fundamental categories with which we work. New evidence has revealed inadequacies in our plans and flaws in our pictures. It is in the context of this disciplinary change of "paradigms" that Morton Smith's two volumes have appeared.

In 1958 Smith, now Professor of Ancient History at Columbia University, discovered in a monastery library at Mar Saba, some twelve miles southeast of Jerusalem, three pages of Greek manuscript which appear to be an eighteenth-century copy of a letter from the church father, Clement of Alexandria (ca. A. D. 150-215). Although the manuscript contains but a fragment of the original letter, it presents extensive comments about a previously known gnostic group, the Carpocratians, and their use of a previously unknown secret Gospel According to Mark, from which two passages are quoted. Smith's two volumes, one heavy with intimidatingly brilliant scholarship (Harvard) and one autobiographical and semi-popular (Harper & Row), deal with the discovery, with the authenticity of the fragment and its quotations, and with a radically new picture of Jesus and early Christianity allegedly suggested by this evidence.

First, the text. The assumption of the letter is that while its recipient, a man named Theodore, had played a role in silencing the teachings of the Carpocratians, he remained disturbed by some things they said about "the divinely inspired Gospel According to Mark." Theodore therefore wrote to Clement for help and our fragment constitutes the first part of Clement's response. The last line preserved in the fragment suggests that what is missing contained a further and more "philosophical" explanation of the historical and textual matters contained in the first part.

After congratulating Theodore for his efforts against the heretics, Clement says that the Carpocratians mixed truth with falsehood in their unspeakable teachings. In developing this point, he first describes the history of at least two, and probably three, editions of Mark's Gospel. According to Clement, during Peter's stay in Rome Mark wrote an account of "the Lord's" doings, selecting those things which he thought would be "most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed," i.e., the catechumens. This edition is apparently our canonical Mark, and it appears to be the only edition to which Theodore had access. Then after Peter's martyrdom Mark went to Alexandria, where he wrote "a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected." He did so by adding to his previous book things from his own and Peter's notes which were "suitable to whatever makes for progress towards knowledge (gnosis)." This edition is the secret Gospel, a Gospel "read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries." However, Clement says that even this edition lacked certain unspecified things which were not to be uttered; among them were the "hierophantic teachings of the Lord."

After distinguishing between these two editions of Mark, one for catechumens and one for initiates, Clement returns to the Carpocratians. We now find that after Mark's death (dates unknown, but the Gospel under his name is usually dated ca. A. D. 70) Carpocrates (active ca. A. D. 125) obtained a copy of the secret Gospel by deceiving a presbyter of the Alexandrian church. Clement says that Carpocrates not only interpreted this text "according to his blasphemous and carnal doctrine" but added to it "utterly shameless lies." An example of the latter is cited at the end of the fragment, when Clement tells Theodore that "'naked man with naked man', and the other things about which you wrote, are not found" in the secret Gospel. Apparently they were in Carpocrates' text, and therefore this text was probably not a commentary, as Smith tentatively suggests, but another, third, edition of Mark—Carpocrates' version of the secret Gospel.

After rehearsing the history of Mark's text, Clement devotes a paragraph to how the falsifications of the heretics are to be handled. His point is that one should concede nothing to them, not even that the secret Gospel was written by Mark. Indeed, on the quoted principle that "not all true things are to be said to all men," Clement tells Theodore that one should deny Mark's authorship of this Gospel, even under oath! (In this light, and in connection with the truth withheld from the catechumens, one must wonder whether Clement was telling Theodore the full truth, since he did not have access to the secret Gospel, and since Clement only explained the section about which Theodore had inquired.)

Following a number of Bartlett-like quotations supporting this principle, Clement turns to the textual questions raised by Theodore. Importantly, both the questions and the answers are limited to one segment of the Markan text(s), Mark 10: 32-46. First, Clement says that the secret Gospel contains a story between Mark 10:34 and 10:35 in the edition known to Theodore (and to us), and he quotes it, a story about Jesus raising a young man back to life. After a description of the raising, the young man is said to have looked upon Jesus, loved him, and besought Jesus to let him follow him (cf. the story of Lazarus in John 11). Together, they went to the home of the (now) rich young man (cf. Mark 10:17-27). Then, after six days, Jesus gave the man instructions and he came to Jesus in the evening, "wearing a linen cloth over his naked body" (cf. Mark 14: 51-52). The story concludes: "And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God" (cf. John 3:1-4:2).

Immediately after this quotation Clement denies that it contained a reference to "naked man with naked man," or any of the other (unspecified) things about which Theodore had inquired. The presumption is that the quoted reference and other things appeared in Carpocrates' text. The same presumption is found in the next paragraph, where Clement says that after Mark 10: 46 the secret Gospel "only" adds, "And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them." After this, and just before the last line preserved in the manuscript, Clement repeats a formula from his first denial: "But the many other things about which you wrote both seem to be and are falsifications." Here Clement ends the first part of his response to Theodore. The second part is not preserved.

So much for the text. Needless to say, before any interpretations can be offered, two questions have to be answered. Is the fragment from Clement of Alexandria or is it a forgery? Are the quotations from the secret Gospel composed by the same person who wrote the now canonical Mark? Suffice it to say that a major reason for the fifteen years between the discovery of the fragment in 1958 and the publication of it in 1973 is that Smith took these questions, and those of interpretation, with the utmost seriousness. Besides presenting all of the relevant texts and arguments, the volume from Harvard also contains the comments of about twenty-five scholars who read various chapters of it. This is important because their comments reveal a strong consensus that the fragment is authentically Clementine, not a forgery. On the other hand, because fewer people read the chapter on the quotations we cannot speak of a meaningful consensus. Nevertheless, Smith has presented a formidable array of lexical, stylistic, and textual critical evidence which persuasively suggests both that one and the same person wrote our Mark and the quotations from the secret Mark, and that the latter have left their impress on textual variants of canonical Mark and Matthew in the early centuries. While many will remain unpersuaded about the authenticity of the fragment and/or its quotations, the evidence cannot be dismissed out of hand, as it probably will be because of the one-sided and peculiar picture Smith creates from it.

According to Smith, the keystone of his picture is the answer to the question: What is the secret of the kingdom of God which Jesus taught the young man that night? Smith's quest for the answer leads to a wide range of subordinate yet important conclusions, including: the reconstruction of a lengthy section of the secret Gospel; the hypothesis that this Gospel was a source for both canonical Mark and John; the hypothesis of a baptismal liturgy that was the context in which the problematical narrative segment was shaped, preserved, and interpreted; the model of Jesus as magician; and a plan for a totally new picture of Jesus and the early history of the Christian religion.

In order to explain "the secret of the kingdom" Smith sets aside all traditional plans and pictures and gathers all known evidence for secret phenomena in the early Christian period—Jewish, Christian, and "pagan." The Harvard volume, again, is a gold mine of information about the terminology and practice of secret rites and lore, mystical ascents into the heavenly realm, spiritualism, shamanism, and magic, erotic and otherwise. From an impressive mass of such data, and from an application of them to the biblical texts, Smith concludes that the nocturnal session referred to in the longer quotation from the secret Gospel was an actual and typical occasion in the life of Jesus, one which illustrates his distinctive contribution to the history of ancient religion. The nocturnal event was a baptismal initiation into a mystical and libertine cult. The mystery of the kingdom consisted of the young man's experience of spiritual and perhaps physical union with Jesus whereby both experienced a mystical ascent into the heavenly kingdom, aided by Jesus' use of magical techniques. This is the keystone of Smith's new picture of Jesus and early Christianity. (He does not explain what physical union entailed but, in the Harper & Row volume, leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions from sexual innuendo; cf. pp. 71, 80, 114, and 140. Strangely, this is one of the few technicalities he does not explain.)

From this keystone Smith re-interprets biblical texts and constructs the following picture. When Jesus was baptized by John he felt himself possessed by a spirit and made into a supernatural being, a "son of God." Self-hypnotized (deluded), he subsequently acquired the magical technique of hypnotizing others, enabling them to share his personal experiences. Liberated experientially from corporeal bonds, he and his followers also saw themselves as morally and socially liberated from the Law of Moses. They enjoyed experiential "trips" [sic] of ascent into heavenly realms and lived the life of libertines. Moreover, besides the initiatory baptismal rite, Jesus' immediate followers also joined him spiritually and physically in a rite in which they ate his body and drank his blood (the eucharist). Then, after his death, emotional dependence on him led his followers to experience hallucinations from which they concluded that he had been raised from the dead. Group emotional seizures followed, producing ecstatic results such as glossolalia, which in turn attracted new followers. However, political considerations within the post-hallucination community soon led to internal polarization between libertinists and Law-abiders. For different reasons, the representatives of both poles wanted to keep the secret life secret, some to practice it and some to suppress it. This is why, until Smith's discovery and interpretation, we hear so little—virtually nothing—about the secret life, except from those like the Carpocratians who were blatantly defiant of secrecy and good form. However, Smith submits that numerous biblical texts, previously ambiguous or wrongly interpreted, offer abundant evidence for the secret life when read in the light of his discovery and analysis. Therefore, and paradoxically, while the pole which became orthodox suppressed the secret and libertine side of the faith, both the orthodox secret Gospel and the heretical Carpocratians reflect the secret life introduced by Jesus himself. And so on.

Smith's picture of Jesus and early Christianity differs from the academically standard picture(s) both in his selection of evidence and in the way he arranges it. Most of the evidence has been known since the turn of the last century, but much of it has been left out of consideration or interpreted in the light of other evidence. The other evidence, therefore, has provided the model(s) for the standard picture(s), while the new evidence provides the model for the new picture. Hence the importance of the authenticity of the new evidence. For the purposes of this review it might be well to assume its authenticity, which I am inclined to accept, and compare the critical features of the respective pictures.

The early Christian notion of the kingdom of God is fundamental for both pictures. Whereas others have emphasized the imminent coming of the kingdom, and therefore its futurity, seeing in Jesus' words and deeds the beginning of the coming of the kingdom and in his resurrection the first event in the general resurrection of the dead expected to precede the coming of the kingdom. Smith differs in two respects. First, he does not see Jesus' words and deeds concerning the future-coming as distinctive [sic] of Jesus' activity; the baptist and other prophets did the same. Thus, and second, Smith looks for Jesus' distinctive activity in relation to what he enabled his followers to do in his own time. Here Smith zeroes in on a fact which others have recognized but, according to Smith, underestimated, namely that the kingdom of God is present in heaven—until it comes. Accordingly, he argues that Jesus, like some of his contemporaries, had a personal experience of the heavenly kingdom through mystical ascent, but differed from them by making his experience the basis of a cult. Thus magically informed rites of ascent into the heavenly realm, both initiatory (baptism) and repeated (eucharist), are the basis of both moral and theoretical libertinism. This spiritual and moral freedom is constitutive of the religion introduced by Jesus.

Although Smith sees Paul, operating in the 'fifties some twenty years after Jesus' death, as more Law-abiding than libertinistic, he argues that Paul's view of baptism in Romans 6 was as present-oriented as Jesus' view. Thus he says that the believer mystically dies and rises with Christ in baptism, whereas other critics, who agree that the initiate symbolically dies, read the future tenses in this passage as references to the believer's resurrection in the future, should his real death require that he be brought back to life for eschatological judgment. Here Smith ignores the future dimension of resurrection and uses the more mystical letter, Colossians, to interpret Romans, whereas many critics deny that Paul wrote Colossians precisely because it says, as Paul elsewhere does not, that the believer rises with Christ in baptism.

The durability of Smith's picture depends on how well it represents the relationship between the present and the future of the kingdom of God in our evidence. In spite of his arguments I remain persuaded that the impending coming of the kingdom (i.e., eschaton) rendered the present a penultimate moment which simply cannot bear the burden of Smith's onesided case for its ultimacy. To be sure, his interpretations explain some of the problematical present-oriented assertions in our texts. Yet there are other ways to explain them, e.g., by saying that Paul did not write Colossians, which for a number of reasons seems probable. But, more important, I think that Smith's one-sided picture misrepresents the predominant future-oriented assertions in our texts. To say, as he seems to do, that these are but the public front of a movement which really believed in something else is a dubious tour de force. In the broad view, therefore, Smith has employed a fundamentally a-temporal model in his portrait of Jesus and early Christianity, a model like that of Paul's gentile problem children in 1 Corinthians, whereas the model of the traditional portraits is fundamentally temporal—the end-time process has begun, either in Jesus' activity or in his resurrection, and it will soon be completed, when Jesus returns. Whether we today believe this view or not is irrelevant. The fact is that early Christians believed it, and lived accordingly.

Three issues illustrate some of the more specific problems posed by Smith's picture—his interpretation of Paul and Mark, and his view of the problem of cultural translation.

Although Smith interprets Paul's comments on baptism in Romans 6 as referring to a baptismal experience of resurrection, thereby undercutting the notion of resurrection from the dead as future, the text speaks of an entrance into a new moral life in and with Christ, a life which will endure until the believer is turned over to God by Jesus at the end, as indicated in 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4. The latter texts, moreover, make it clear that baptismal resurrection, if there be such, is not ultimate, since only those who literally die will be raised at the end. They will be brought back to life so that they, together with those who are still alive, may "meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thess 4:13-17). At least for Paul, baptism entails admission into a community in which one leads a new moral life, and this life is conditioned on the one hand by the belief that the end-time process has begun in Jesus' death and resurrection, and on the other by the belief that Jesus' imminent return will complete the process. This is a temporal structure in which the relationship between the earthly believer and the Lord in heaven is radically qualified by beliefs about the past and the future, both of which place moral demands and experiential limitations on the present. 1 Corinthians represents Paul's suppression of a-temporal enthusiasm in the present; the Corinthians misunderstood the temporal structure inherent in Paul's view of the death and resurrection of Christ. Smith's interpretation is closer to the Corinthians' view than it is to Paul's.

The importance of the canonical Gospel of Mark is twofold. On the one hand Clement describes the motivation for its composition, and therefore Clement's reliability is in part dependent on whether this motivation—catechetical instruction—is perceivable in the version of Mark we know. On the other hand, it is through our Mark that Smith must pass on his way to reconstructing what Jesus was all about, especially in his teaching about the mystery of the kingdom of God. In this light, we should note that the initial formulation of Smith's views on Mark was made around 1962. Since that time it has become increasingly clear that Mark was much more than the collector and editor which Smith and others then saw him to be. Thus many today see Mark as a bona fide author, although an author who used and irranged for his own purposes pre-shaped sources, whether oral or written. The point is that the new view of Mark, emergent as it is, does not sustain Clement's thesis that Mark was written as an instructional text for catechumens in Rome. Mark 13 rather suggests that the whole narrative was written to correct (contradict) the view of those who said that Messiah Jesus and the kingdom were coming, or had come, in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem ca. A.D. 70. Mark's answer? Not yet (13: 24-27; cf. 14: 61f.)! Further, as I understand it, Mark's answer is also directly related to the mystery of the kingdom of God (Mark 4: 11), which Smith worries about: the mystery is that it is Jesus, the son of man, who died, rose, and appeared in Galilee, who will soon come on the clouds of heaven to bring about the end. Thus, as often in old Jewish thought, "mystery" here refers to future events, not to present experience. Consequently, the notion of the mystery of the kingdom in Mark requires that the same notion found in the quotation from the secret Gospel be reconsidered. Although Smith's keystone is not dependent on canonical Mark, if this Mark presents an alternative explanation of the mystery of the kingdom, Smith's evidential base is diminished.

Finally, related to my comments on Paul and Mark is the fact that Smith uses apparent ambiguities in them to work back through them to Jesus. Only by working back through later sources can we get to Jesus and then move forward to reconstruct the history of Jesus and the movement which began with or after him. My comments are intended to suggest that the way back is not that easy, and that Smith needs to retrace his steps. In this connection, therefore, we should also observe that Smith knocks over one of the traditional academic roadblocks, the distinction between Palestinian and Hellenistic. The usual argument is that Palestinian Semitic traditions and institutions were translated into Greco-Roman (Hellenistic) categories when Christianity moved out of Palestine into the Greco-Roman world. Thus much of what Smith sees as original to Jesus is seen by others to have resulted from the process of cultural translation. Magic, a-temporal piety, libertinism, etc., are usually seen to originate or proliferate in the translation, not in the original. Against this view Smith rightly observes that Palestine was already hellenized well before the time of Jesus. However, it does not follow from this that there was no translaiton, or that magic, a-temporal piety, and libertinism originate—in their Greco-Roman form—in Palestine. For example, besides the clear translational problems Paul deals with in 1 Corinthians, the preservation in Greek of the Aramaic Talitha cumi (Mark 5: 41) and Ephphatha (Mark 7: 34) shows that the magical significance of these expressions comes in the translation. In the original, the former was non-magical, "Little girl, I say to you, arise," as was the latter, "Be opened." The hocus pocus comes from the translators! Now Smith is correct when he says that the healings in the original were magical or thaumaturgic. But when the translators preserved Aramaic phrases incomprehensible to Greek-speaking audiences, they were heightening the magical characteristics of the stories. In so doing, moreover, the translators raise the question of what was gained and what lost in the process of translation. Did the original audiences understand the stories in the same way the later audiences understood them? And why does Mark demystify the stories by explaining what the transliterated Aramaic phrases actually meant?

However the questions of gains and losses are resolved, we still have to reckon not only with new things taking place in the process of cultural translation, thereby putting up roadblocks on the way back to Jesus, but also with the fact that this was a process of cultural transformation. In the period Smith is concerned with, beginning at least in the 'fifties when Paul began admitting ethnic gentiles into the church in droves, emergent Christianity was changing its ethnic constituency, from Semitic to gentile. In this light, therefore, I for one am unable to move so quickly back from the end of the second century, or from the end of the first century, to the time of Jesus. Smith's incredible erudition surely gives him an edge, but in his ecstasy he passes through barriers which block the way of most mortals.

Smith has done a brilliant job of gathering evidence too long ignored, but his conclusions are as premature as they are tendentious. With a certain smugness he asks, "Will the reader please offer another explanation for all these problems?", i.e., for the many anomalies left over from the old paradigm (s). I can only answer that because we are in the process of changing our paradigms, and because we have more evidence to work with than Smith includes in his picture, it may take another fifteen years, matching his own fifteen, to come up with another explanation and another picture. In the meantime, whether we agree with Smith or not, some of us will find his two volumes to be as useful as they are provocative.

Williams College Norman R. Petersen