The Secret Tradition, Part 3: The Debate over the Validity of Clement’s Letter to Theodore

By July 2, 2014

As mentioned in my previous post, Clement’s letter to Theodore has been very controversial and its authenticity has been heavily debated.  Again, I’m not an expert on the topic, but the controversy seems to be over a few particular issues.  The claim that Mark wrote “a more spiritual gospel,” or that Mark had additional information that he intentionally left out is an anathema to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, or the idea that the biblical canon is the complete and total word of God.  Mark’s secret gospel also suggested that Jesus had esoteric teachings, or teachings that were kept hidden from regular believers and reserved for the more spiritually advanced, another idea that Protestants don’t like.  The reference to the young man coming to Jesus by night who was naked underneath a linen cloth suggests some kind of secret ritual (a claim that Morton Smith, the document’s finder, stressed; see my next post); esoteric rituals are another concept that Protestants reject.  As Scott Brown argues, “Bear in mind that when scholars form opinions on non-canonical gospels they rarely stray from their religious commitments.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the assessments of longer Mark.”[1]  Finally, Smith made rather wild claims about what the secret ritual might have been like (see my next post), which made the document even more controversial.

What follows is essentially a review of Scott G. Brown, Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s Controversial Discovery Morton Smith went to the Mar Saba monastery (south of Jerusalem) in 1958 to catalog their library and found Clement’s letter transcribed in the back of a 17th century printed book.  Smith took black and white photos of the texts, which are still available and then worked on translating and interpreting the text, which he published in 1973.[2]  Others went and saw the text but then in the late ‘70s it was decided that the text would be safer at Jerusalem.  In the process of moving the text, the text went missing.  Yet the text was never in Smith’s possession and he had nothing to do with the text getting lost.  Hopefully it will turn up at some point.

That the text is missing is one of the many, generally unfounded criticisms leveled at Smith’s discovery.  Indeed, the find was controversial even before it was published, and the claim that it was forged was thrown about soon after.  The first assertions were that Smith had discovered either an ancient or modern forgery and then the charges of forgery were made against Smith himself.  Scott Brown, who argues for the validly of Clement’s letter, goes through the various charges and presents evidence to the contrary.  The charge of forgery has not been proven and though all scholars have to work with are photographs, Brown notes that forgeries have been detected from photographs.  Brown also argues that the kind of work forgers do would be very difficult on pages in a book (forgers tend to work on loose sheets).  Also, forgers tend to produce lots of documents (think Mark Hoffman, Brown’s main example) and Smith only produced this one (37-38).  “The premise that a forger could fool all of his or her contemporaries has past is expiry date,” argues Brown (37).

Critics also noted that Smith used the letter to make heterodox arguments about early Christianity, but as will be discussed in the next post, Smith’s odd interpretation of the text has not held up.  “Clearly, if Smith wanted to create a text that gave firm support for his revolutionary views about Jesus, he did a really poor job,” declares Brown (53).

Scholars have tried to come up with other metrics to prove the text a forgery like looking at the degree to which Clement’s vocabulary appears in the letter.  One went so far to argue that the letter had too much of Clement’ vocabulary and was thus a forgery.  Brown argues that “the ratio generated by his statistical model takes us well beyond the evidence” (54-56).

Ultimately, argues Brown, “most scholars who have actually studied the letter and written on the subject are inclined to believe that it was written by Clement” (19).

Then there are those who argue that Clement’s letter may be legitimate but that the document he was quoting, often called “secret Mark,” was a forgery since there was a lot of pseudepigraphal documents around at the time.  Yet Brown argues that “secret Mark” fits very well within the text, particularly the reference to a young man under a linen cloth in Mark 14: 51-52.  Brown goes so far as to argue that Mark indeed wrote “longer Mark” himself (xi).


[1] Scott G. Brown, Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s Controversial Discovery (Waterloo, Can.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005), xiv.  Brown calls the material that Clement cites “longer Mark.”

[2] Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Very interesting controversy that I’ve read on for a decade now. After all I’ve read, I’ve determined that Morton Smith did not forge anything. I do not think we can determine whether it is pseudepigrapha or actually written by Mark.

    Comment by rameumptom — July 3, 2014 @ 9:11 am

  2. I’ve been enjoying this series. Thank you.

    Comment by Stephen R. Marsh (Ethesis) — July 3, 2014 @ 11:28 pm

  3. Oh, sorry I missed this post (haven’t had time to read blogs much) thanks for linking to it. I think the Secret Gospel of Mark is really interesting for Mormons. I’m glad the tide shifted against the views back in the 90’s. As you note one can use the text without buying into Smith’s interpretations or use.

    Comment by Clark — July 15, 2014 @ 12:41 pm


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