I’m old and my mind is going. Too much drugs, too much useless information clouds my brain. Which is why a lot of common knowledge straight up misses me.
As you are aware, I’m a nerd for New Testament/Early Christian history. Am I a Christian or a religious person? Not really, but I don’t understand the question enough to give a definitive answer (remember, my mind is going). I simply obsess over 1st Century Christianity because, as Bart Ehrman asserts, it might just be the most important era in Western History (I disagree. I think it’s the second most).
Unfortunately, there’s just not enough concrete information to definitely say what happened during Jesus’s real life ministry. Of course, speculating is part of the fun, but it’s also a curse. Because there’s so many gaps in the timeline, this invites a multitude of con artists and conspiracy mongers to perpetuate fabricated stories.
Which brings me to the “Secret Gospel of Mark”.
The actual Gospel of Mark, the one we have in the New Testament, is quietly the most important text in Western thought. I say this because the Gospels are certainly more widely read than something like Plato’s Republic, and Mark is the Gospel that Matthew and Luke based much of their texts on (the other source they both used, the hypothetical Q source, I would argue the author of Mark was familiar with as there are too many similarities…which would make Q the most important text. But Q remains hypothetical). Mark is therefore the oldest surviving account of Jesus’s life (the oldest surviving Christian writings, however, are the seven verified Epistles of Paul, with 1st Thessalonians being the oldest).
Now, there are A LOT of questions for Mark. Too many to recount here. It is the barest of the four canonical Gospels with plenty of peculiarities.
But what if someone credentialed allegedly came across evidence to fill in these gaps?
Enter Morton Smith, a Ph.D from Hebrew University and Th.D from Harvard Divinity, and professor of ancient history at Columbia University. Pretty impressive right?
I was made aware of this story when reading Ehrman’s Lost Christianities. I’ve never heard it before and I was shocked at my ignorance. Now Ehrman is probably the leading academic in the field of Early Christianity, and even he doesn’t quite know what to make of this story.
Briefly, Smith claimed to have found a lost letter from Clement of Alexandria, an early Christian theologian, which describes a variant of the Gospel of Mark and even provides a couple of passages. And boy oh boy! What passages they were!
The problem is that, allegedly, this lost letter was transcribed in the 18th Century, and Smith couldn’t provide the copy because it was property of a monastery in Jerusalem. He DID, however, provide photographs of the letter and scholars have determined that these writings were indeed in the style of Clement and Mark (and the handwriting was also of 18th Century style).
Additionally, Ehrman recalls a story of hearing another academic claiming to have seen the letter himself, despite the library still refusing to permit research into it. So, it’s safe to say that this letter genuinely existed.
Whether or not it was written in the 18th Century is a different story.
You see, because if there was one person on this planet that could have forged that document…well enough to fool many academics…Morton Smith was that man. And, apparently, he had a motive to do so (see Ehrman’s Lost Christianities).
For the record, I think the letter is a total, unambiguous forgery. Too good to be true+motive+means=bullshit. But I gotta tip my hat to Smith.
Every bullshit artist knows that eventually they’ll get caught in the lie. But the trick is to leave a shred of doubt. And Morton Smith either made the discovery of the millennium, or the greatest forgery of all time.