Secret Gospel of Mark

From Academic Kids

The Secret Gospel of Mark refers to a previously unsuspected gospel mentioned in a letter that presents itself as written by Clement of Alexandria. The writer quoted two excerpts from a Gospel of Mark that do not appear in the canonic gospel. If Clement's reference is accepted, then there was a version of the Gospel of Mark being circulated privately in 2nd century Alexandria, kept from the Christian community at large. One excerpt quoted in Clement's letter is similar to the biblical story of the raising of Lazarus.

No reference to a Secret Mark is to be found in any other surviving public Christian text. Though no variant of any gospel is recorded in any canon list, although an alternative gospel of Matthew was known, as the Gospel of the Hebrews, to Irenaeus, Jerome and others, many of whom indicated that it may have been simply the hebrew original. The authenticity of the letter itself, the very existence of a secret gospel (literally "apocryphon), and whatever association this work may have had with the author of Mark, are all the subject of ongoing controversy, not the least reason for which is due to potential implications for Jesus' sexuality, which many Christians would find seriously offensive.


The Discovery And Disappearance

The discovery by Morton Smith, in 1958 (at the ancient monastery of Mar Saba) of a fragment of an unknown Secret Gospel of Mark provoked much debate. This Secret Gospel of Mark was quoted in a previously unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria, which had been transcribed into the endpapers of a 17th century printed book in the monastery of Mar Saba, twelve miles south of Jerusalem. This letter is consequently often called the "Mar Saba letter".

When found, the letter was photographed by Morton Smith, and the monks at the monastery separated it from the book, for conservation and separate storage. However, the whereabouts of the letter quickly became lost, prompting accusations of both a cover-up by the monks and fraud by Morton Smith. More recently, black and white photographs of the text, created by the monastery's earlier curator, have come to light.


Due to both the extremely controversial nature of the contents of the letter, and the implied existence of a Secret Gospel, as well as due to the fact that the original is no longer able to be examined due to being mislaid, there is much debate surrounding the authenticity of the letter.

Reasons in favour of authenticity:

  1. Analysis of the handwriting shows that the manuscript dates from before the 18th century; it is in the flyleaves of a book printed in the 17th century giving it a terminus post quem.
  2. This sort of material is entirely plausible in an Early Christian context.
  3. The strong Markan features of the style and vocabulary of the Secret Gospel and the strong Clementine features of the style and vocabulary of the rest of the Mar Saba letter show that the document is authentic.

Reasons against authenticity:

  1. In the absence of forensic evidence a 20th century date is entirely possible.
  2. We have no alternative ancient evidence of such a Secret Gospel or of such a letter by Clement, and despite similarities, there are also disagreements between the letter and what Clement says elsewhere.
  3. The similarities in style and vocabulary to Mark and Clement are certainly striking. However, in both cases statistical evidence has been presented that the similarities are too good to be true and suggest a deliberate imitation rather than an authentic work.

One should mention that while the authenticity of the Mar Saba letter is accepted by the majority of scholars, it is regarded by some as an 18th or 20th century forgery. The controversy is currently unresolved.

The framing letter

The letter allegedly by Clement was written to a follower named Theodore. According to the letter, the Secret Gospel of Mark was "a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected" in Egypt. Because of the contents of the Secret Gospel, described below, it has been heavily controversial.

On one hand, it clears up some inconsistencies in Mark which are mysterious, such as the scantily clad man in Mark 14:51-52, and fills a long-recognized lacuna that leaves an abrupt transition in Mark 10:46, discussed below. On the other hand, it has some elements of a fiction:

  1. the background story which explains the existence of the Secret Gospel;
  2. the convenient ending right before the Secret Gospel is explained;
  3. the sole interjection from the Carpocratians that seems to bring the subtext of the Secret Gospel into the clear.

The letter, for instance, sheds light on Clement's views on justifiable means of opposing error (in this case of a minor sect, followers of a certain Carpocrates:

"Such men are to be opposed in all ways and altogether. For, even if they should say something true, one who loves the truth should not, even so, agree with them. For not all true things are the truth, nor should that truth which merely seems true according to human opinions be preferred to the true truth, that according to the faith."

A justification for an ad hominem argument, for not all true things are the truth. But such techniques of achieving orthodoxy were familiar and raised no hackles in the 20th century readers who were seeing this letter for the first time.

Versions of Mark

According to the Mar Saba letter, the leader of the Carpocrations, however, had procured a copy of a work by Mark the Evangelist that was being very carefully guarded in Alexandria. It is significant that Clement attributes the uses being made of Secret Mark to Carpocrates, who was born a century earlier. Clement must have believed that Secret Mark existed before 125 CE. How it got to Alexandria, Clement reports to his correspondent, referring to the Secret Gospel:

"As for Mark, then, during Peter's stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord's doings, not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the secret ones, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed. But when Peter died a martyr, Mark came over to Alexandria, bringing both his own notes and those of Peter, from which he transferred to his former book the things suitable to whatever makes for progress toward knowledge. Thus he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected. Nevertheless, he yet did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic teaching of the Lord, but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils. Thus, in sum, he prepared matters, neither grudgingly nor incautiously, in my opinion, and, dying, he left his composition to the church in Alexandria, where it even yet is most carefully guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries."

This story portrays apostolic-era Christianity as a conventional Greek or Hellenistic mystery religion, where initiates are progressively let in on additional layers of secret doctrine as they advance their status within the cult.

Thus the canonic Gospel of Mark would be the public doctrine available to anyone, and the starting point for all new initiates. The Secret Gospel of Mark the text for those ready to advance to the next level of insight, and the "things not to be uttered" and the "hierophantic teaching of the Lord" would be reserved for the innermost circles midrash; perhaps only the Apostles. Mark, as a mystagogue, is portrayed as a spiritual guide for those initiates ready to advance to the second level. Notice that Clement is defending Mark's partial revelation of the cult's secrets as appropriate, judicious, and duly cautious.

The theme of secrecy in the canonic Gospel of Mark

The canonic Gospel of Mark reveals that secret teachings were a feature of the message Jesus imparted to his inner circle. This sort of "layered revelation" was a common feature of the mystery religions of the period, but historically has not been ascribed to Christianity.

The motif of secrecy in Mark is a rather complex one, as was recognized long before the Mar Saba letter was discovered (Grant 1963) ( Robert M. Grant identifies both a theme of silence and one of secret or private teachings in Mark. The silence may be that of exorcised demons (1:25, 34; 3:12) or enjoined on men who have been cured (1:43-5; 5:43; 7:36, 8:26), as well as on the disciples themselves: they are to keep private the identification of Jesus as Messiah (8:30), the transfiguration (9:9) or even his whereabouts whether in Tyre (7:24) or travelling through Galilee (9:30). There is a secret knowledge imparted by Jesus, "the secret of the kingdom of God" (4:10-12). "To a considerable extent the full revelation is given only to the four disciples who were the first to be called (1:16-20, 29; 5:37; 9:2; 13:3; 14:33). Teaching about the passion and resurrection is given only ‘on the road’ apart from the multitudes (8:27; 9:33; 10:32)." (Grant 1963)

The Text of the Secret Gospel

In response to his correspondent, Theodore, Clement quotes two sections which he claims have been distorted by the heretics. The brief excerpt from the Secret Gospel of Mark quoted by Clement raised a storm of controversy:

"And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan."

According to Clement's description, this episode would have been found between Mark 10:34 and 35.

A second fragment of Secret Mark occurred at Mark 10:46. Helmut Koester and J. D. Crossan have argued, because of the narrative discontinuity here in Mark's Gospel ("Then they come to Jericho. As he was leaving Jericho with his disciples...") that Secret Mark was in fact prior to the canonical Mark, leaving open the question of whether the true nature of things is that the canonical Mark is an abbreviated Secret Mark, with an original "Mark for the uninitiated" having been lost.

The corresponding passage in Secret Mark reads:

"Then he came into Jericho. And the sister of the young man whom Jesus loved was there with his mother and Salome, but Jesus would not receive them. As he was leaving Jericho with his disciples..."

Interpretation of Secret Mark

The statement "Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God" has been interpreted as a reference to the rites of baptism. The idea that Jesus practised baptism is absent from the synoptic gospels, though it is introduced in the Gospel of John. Several further echoes of Secret Mark are identifiable in the canonic Mark, according to textual analysts.

Further interpretation of Secret Mark in a context within Canonical Mark, suggests a correspondence between the youth in Secret Mark, and the mysterious almost-naked figure who is in the company of Jesus but flees when he is arrested at Mark 14:51, and also with the figure present in the empty tomb at Mark 16:5. By understanding the earlier incident in secret Mark as an initiation, the figure may be symbolic of an individual's progress through Christianity, or as a gnostic esoteric twin (c.f. the name of Didymous Judas Thomas) of Jesus.

An alternative and more controversial understanding, first implied by Morton Smith, which also considers these mysterious figures to be the same individual, is that this figure is Jesus' boyfriend, with whom Jesus falls in love (and thus desires to bring back to life). The presence both at the tomb, and the arrest, being indications of the strength of the romance, and an implicit sexual undertone is sometimes taken to be implied by taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. Such a theory also implies that the beloved disciple, mentioned in the Gospel of John (and whom the other disciples wonder if he may ever subsequently die), is in fact this individual (who is usually taken to be John), and may in fact be Lazarus (who, after escaping death, one may wonder whether he may die again).

Clement specifically chooses these passages to counter the Carpocratian's claim that their copy of the text even contains the phrase gymnos gymnos, which means naked man with naked man, indicating an explicitly sexual relationship. While Clement's purpose is to contest such a claim, it is clear, from the fact that he feels he needs to, that the passages were even then, not long after having been written for the first time, being interpreted as indicating a romance between Jesus and the youth. It is significant, therefore, that Clement does not attempt to contest the implied romance, merely objecting to claims of a lack of celibacy, i.e. objecting to the idea they had sex in favour of they fell in love.

These different interpretations have the tendency to neatly explain many of the more mysterious isolated parts of the gospels as part of a single thread, either one of homosexual romance, or alternately of mystic esoteric initiation. However, since mainstream Christianity is vehemently opposed (for obvious reasons) to the idea that original Christianity, or even just one of the gospels, took the form of a mystery religion, and also since the idea that Jesus has a sexuality at all, and especially an homosexual one, is an anathema to almost all Christians, the content of Secret Mark is extremely controversial.

There is still much work to be done on coming to a fuller understanding of the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark, yet it is one of the more interesting discoveries to have been made in modern times. Major questions remain, even to its authenticity.

Another theory, presented in the May 9th 2005 Issue of the Canadian Magazine Macleans by Brian Bethune has a different take on it: '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.'

In Mark 10:35, James and John ask Christ for positions of higher honour once Jesus is an Earthly ruler. 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?'

This baptism is, of course, Jesus' crucifixion. The boy, who Jesus raised from the dead in the Secret Gospel of Mark, was taken privately to learn the secret that were available only to those who had died and were 'reborn', through knowing Jesus. This is, by speculation, the true price one has to pay to enter the kingdom of God.

External links


  • Robert M. Grant, A Historical Introduction to the New Testament Harper and Row, 1963: Chapter 8: The Gospel of Mark (
  • Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark Harvard University Press, 1973 (the scholarly version)
  • Morton Smith, The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark, 1981 (the popular version)
  • Robin M. Jensen The Two Faces of Jesus, Bible Review, Oct 2002, p. 42
  • Morton Smith, Jesus, the Magician, Harper & Row Publishers, 1978
  • E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, University of California Press, 1951de:Geheimes Markus-Evangelium

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