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Jesus Christ and Naked Men September 23, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

All the fuss about Jesus’ wife the other day, put Beach in mind of an earlier controversial Biblical find, one that is, in many ways, more exciting. In 1958 a (then) young Biblical scholar Morton Smith (obit 1991) was working in the library of the Monastery of Mar Saba on the West Bank when he discovered a text copied out onto the end papers of seventeenth-century collection of the works of Ignatius of Antioch. This text, though written in an eighteenth-century hand, was (or purported to be) a letter of Bishop Clement (obit c. 215), a father of the Church. In this letter Clement described the existence of a secret Gospel of Mark that had some passages in it that worried the authorities. One of these passages described a Lazarus like scene where Christ raises a young man from the dead and then spends the night with him in an initiation ceremony. Clements explicitly denies that Christ, as certain heretics claim, ‘slept naked man with naked man’. Coming from a defender of orthodoxy the implication might be that this line was in an early version of Mark, perhaps even the original and that it had to be covered up with sand by diligent heterosexual types; friends of the episcopal patriarchy etc.

The implication then is of some kind of homo-erotic relationship between Christ and the man he had saved in part of Christian belief in the second or perhaps in the first century. But how reliable is this text? Since it was first published by Morton Smith in 1973 doubts have been cast upon its reliability. In fact, three positions have crystallised. The first that this was a forgery worked by unknown individuals. The second that this was a forgery worked by Morton Smith himself. And the third, definitely a minority position – though held by some respectable scholars – that the letter is genuine. All of this was complicated by the fact that, at least at first, Smith alone had seen and photographed the letter. It is one thing to make the find of a century on a flyleaf, still another not to be able to produce said flyleaf when the scholarly mud starts flying.

Smith was ready to use legal remedies against anyone who dared to claim that he had produced the fake himself. Now twenty years after his death that threat of legal action has receded. But what are the chances that Smith himself was responsible? Two monographs have been dedicated to this thesis. And there are several persuasive points that lead us in this direction, not least the fact that the book in question does not appear in a catalogue of the Mar Saba library in 1923. It looks very much as if it was inserted into the library between then and when Smith claimed to have looked at the book in 1958.

By some claims Smith, himself a homosexual, was the ideal joker. He was – and Beach has heard this at first hand from those who worked in that field in those years – a brilliant linguist and an able scholar. He too had an exaggerated self belief that might have given him the sense that he had the right to make a mockery of his fellow academics. What for Beachcombing though is strangest is Smith’s behaviour in relation to the infamous flyleaf. By all accounts he first read the flyleaf in 1958, but then took fifteen years to publish. He was in no hurry and if this was a trick there are elements of the very long con. Was he waiting for the ink to dry or did 1958 never happen? He was a good enough scholar that there was no need for him to invent work for himself: a faked fly leaf works only as a private joke unless we start worrying about the meagre financial advantage from Secret Mark’s publication. (These were in the good old days before the Holy Blood) Yet he had to spend many subsequent years defending himself from the charge of being a forger. He also discussed the work in all seriousness with colleagues who took the discovery seriously and his ideas about Secret Mark evolved through time. Then, just to complicate matters a little more, in 1976 the flyleaf was seen in Mar Saba library by a group of scholars, it was photographed properly in 1977 and subsequently lost again after being brought to the library of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

More thoughts on Secret Mark? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


23 Sept 2012: Beach can hardly contain his excitement as this post led to a first, an ‘historical’ email from Mrs B (just back from mass). The email is in a foreign language but the gist of it is that if the post were about Islam and if Beach has embassies in the Middle East his ambassadors would be being publicly decapitated just around now.

25 Sept 2012: MR writes ‘I don’t know if you have seen this article Tony Grafton wrote a few years ago for a serious, but not scholarly, magazine. The latter third concerns Smith’s correspondence with  Gershom Scholem. Grafton advances the theory that the previously  correspondence as it refers to ‘Secret Mark’  suggests that Smith was not the forger, secondly the evolution in Smith’s own approach to early Christianity was a consequence of his long friendship with Scholem.  There does seem to be a fourth possibility that has been overlooked – that the letter is a genuine late C17th/18th. text by Greek monastic scribe but copying a forgery.  However it is troubling that Smith’s ‘Mar Saba’ discovery does seem to fill out preexistence questions in Smith’s earlier thought, see Francis Watsson ‘Beyond Suspicion: On the Authorship of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark,’ JTS 61 [2010]: 128–70.  Myself the novel ‘The Mystery of Mar Saba’ is simply one of those co-incidences. If you have an interest in forgery and religious origins you might take a look at the career of Mark Hoffman. KMH, meanwhile, writes: One thing that might be worth mentioning is that the ancient Semitic definition of ‘naked’ and the modern definition are a little different. We all know the modern definition. The Semitic definition would have permitted a loin cloth or similar device to protect the genitals from unfavorable environmental happenings. The image of completely naked human beings before the fall is misunderstood  in this regard (woven vines for protection would have sufficed before the ‘aprons’ of fig leaves).  Likewise, Peter, described as naked in John 21: 7, wasn’t naked in the modern sense. The “initiation ceremony” is quizzical because, other than  the sacraments, Christianity is uncharacteristically free of the initiation concept so prevalent with other religions of the time. The only sacrament operating at the time of Christ was baptism, derived from John the Baptist.