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Secret Mark as a Second Century Gospel

In the following points, I will briefly outline how Morton Smith’s discovery of Clement’s Letter to Theodore may supplement what we know about the reception of Mark’s Gospel in Alexandria. Of course, Smith was an informed biblical and Patristic scholar and could have been aware of these links if he forged the text himself. However, if that is the case, why did Smith make far-fetched proposals that the contents of Secret Mark was part of a proto-Gospel underlying Mark/John that depicted Jesus as a libertine magician performing a baptism ritual, proposals that have no grounding in the actual text.

  • Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2.16.1; 2.24) provides our oldest extant written attestation of the tradition that Mark was the bishop of Alexandria, a tradition that is fully explored in Thomas Oden’s The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing Early Church Tradition (see my review). Could the seeds of this tradition lie in the belief that the evangelist Mark wrote a second edition of his Gospel in Alexandria?
  • Clement of Alexandria produced a treatise entitled “Who is the Rich Man that is Being Saved” and curiously dealt with errant interpretations of Mark’s account of a rich young man (see Mark 10:17-31) rather than the more popular Gospel of Matthew (see Matt 19:16-30). Against readers who contend that salvation for the rich is impossible outside of strict asceticism and relinquishing of possessions, Clement insists that Mark’s text is really about gaining control over our passions. The excerpt from Secret Mark is inserted after Mark 10:34 and balances out the former story by telling of another rich young man who was resurrected and abandoned everything to attain the “mystery of the kingdom of God” (cf. Mark 4:11) apart from burial shroud in which he died to his former life.
  • There are other signs that a scribe imitated Mark’s Gospel. Mark retells the unique story of a youth who is willing to follow Jesus when he is arrested in the garden, but then flees in the nude when someone tries to seize him and accidentally rips off the linen cloth he is wearing instead. Secret Mark is a later attempt to supply a backstory for this character as well as fill in a lacuna in Mark 10:46 by describing what happened during Jesus’ visit in Jericho.
  • Irenaeus reports that the gnostic Carpocratian sect rooted their ideas in the “mystery” Jesus privately taught his disciples (Against Heresies 1.25.5). Many scholars link their carnal reading of Secret Mark with their suspected morally libertine views that one must practice every way of life in order to be liberated from the material world, but perhaps their reading of the characters’ nakedness is metaphorical for release from the mortal coil or furthers the point on renouncing personal possessions.
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