About a week ago, M* ran a post on the Secret Gospel of Mark. I swung by my local library and checked out a copy of Crossan's Four Other Gospels: Shadows on the Contours of Canon (1985), which has a short but informative chapter on Secret Mark. Alas, I'm too late for the discussion at M*, but since my earlier post on the Gospel of Thomas was so well received, I'll go ahead and post my comments here. I'll summarize (1) what Secret Mark is; (2) why most Christians don't like it; and (3) why some Mormons do like it.
A Fortuitous Find
What is called The Secret Gospel of Mark derives from an old letter, supposedly written by Clement of Alexandria, discovered in one of those musty old Middle East monasteries in the desert in 1958 by Morton Smith, a Columbia University professor. [Well, it was actually the copy of a copy of a copy, etc., of a letter supposedly written by Clement, but you know what I mean.] The letter reveals Clement's knowledge of passages from an extended version of Mark (Secret Mark) that included additional passages not found in the present book of Mark. Clement was writing to critique an early Gnostic group called the Carpocratians, who had their own extended but, according to Clement, corrupted version of Mark.
The original of the copy of Clementine's letter is unfortunately lost, but scholarship has proceeded on the basis of Morton Smith's photographs of the document. Crossan's opinion is that "canonical Mark is a very deliberate revision of Secret Mark," that is, Secret Mark came first, then was edited to give us Mark as we have it today as a defensive response to Carpocratian abuse of the sensitive passages of Secret Mark. In the following quote is the text from the letter relating one such passage from Secret Mark, as given by Crossan (p. 111), which supposedly appeared in between Mark 10:34 and 10:35:
And they came 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 came 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.
Why Some Christians Don't Like It
They don't like any extra-biblical document, so they don't like Secret Mark anymore than they like the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Nag Hammadi manuscripts (of which the Gospel of Thomas is the best known text). To conservative Christians especially, the content of the passage above is sort of unnerving, both in the suggestion that Jesus is conducting some strange initiation process they can't explain and in the claim there is a secret teaching relating to "the mystery of the kingdom of God" that is not accessible via the existing biblical writings.
Why Some Mormons Might Like It
Oddly, for the same reasons most Christians object to it. Mormons might like it because it lends support to the Mormon view that the Bible as we have it is incomplete and that some things were left out, removed, or suppressed. The suggestion that there are ordinances or rituals beyond the those recognized by Western Christianity is also well received by Mormons.
Interestingly, the story as reconstructed by Smith and commented on by Crossan reveals a purely natural transmission process for the various Markan manuscripts, and a flawed, fallible process at that, since relevant passage from the original extended version of Mark (under this theory) were lost. Mormons, by contrast, stress the supernatural transmission of their recovered scripture, the Book of Mormon: in the miraculous preservation of the plates themselves, in the use of seerstones to produce an English language text, and in the mental/spiritual revelatory process Joseph Smith employed while dictating the text to his various scribes.
So what to make of Secret Mark? One view is to take it as presumably authentic and try to figure out how it expands our understanding of Mark and the story of the gospels. This is the approach taken by Morton Smith and by Crossan (who does at the same time explain why the status of the Clementine letter is nevertheless uncertain). Another view, to be highlighted in the forthcoming book discussed in the M* post, actually posits that Morton Smith possibly forged or faked the manuscript. That, of course, is the same charge Christians throw at Joseph and the Book of Mormon, and justifies simply ignoring the content of the unwanted new manuscript. There is enough circumstantial evidence in the Smith case (meaning Morton Smith) to give some support to the charge.
A uniquely LDS view might be based on the standard announced in D&C 91 for dealing with apocryphal scripture: "Whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth. And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom. And whoso receiveth not from the Spirit, cannot be benefited."
Finally, here is a link to Smith's English translation of the entire Clementine letter. It includes the long quote I provided above, as well as Clement's statement that even more explicit statements in the Carpocratian version of Mark were spurious.
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