Let's attempt a little thought experiment. Let’s assume that the entire three pages represent an ancient correspondence and draw from an ancient “longer” and “more spiritual” version of Mark. Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that this longer gospel was known to Clement of Alexandria. Let’s further imagine that (according to the tradition Clement inherited in the late second century) this version of Mark was associated with Peter’s “notes” and Mark’s visit to Alexandria. In other words, let’s swallow the whole story put forth by the supposed “Clement” in this letter to “Theodore.”
If ancient, this letter is more significant than any innuendo present in "Clement’s" excerpt from Secret Mark. If from the pen of "Clement", this letter offers the first suggestion of “naked man with naked man” rumors connected to Jesus. The "portion" of the letter that survives is entirely devoted to contradicting this “blasphemous and carnal opinion”. According to the author, these carnal rumors can be traced to Carpocrates of Alexandria.
Within this context, the text quoted from Secret Mark is meant to refute these early accusations of homoeroticism. Rather, according to “Clement”, what supported homoerotic behavior to Carpocrates’ dirty mind, was truly spiritual in nature. This of course has parallels elsewhere (Quis dives 5.2). What is unique here—in fact one of the few unique things about the content—is that Jesus was rumored to be homosexual.
According to the author of this letter, the contents of "Mark" provide a rebuke of those who would encourage “naked man with naked man” relations. The Jesus of Secret Mark is spiritually engaged with the young man. The linen is then meant to emphasize that the young man was indeed clothed. According to “Clement”, it would require a demonic mind to read this story as an endorsement of carnal homosexuality—but this is exactly what the Carpocratians have done.
If this document represents an ancient correspondence, and if "Clement’s" interpretation is followed, Secret Mark provides the only repudiation of homosexual practice in the Jesus tradition.
Now then, this leads me to wonder: if this story has germinated from seeds planted in the early second century (or earlier, if Smith’s portrait is adopted) why is it necessary to remember a story about a Jesus who most certainly does not (according to Clement) engage in homoerotic activity? What purpose did this memory serve?
It is precisely here where I find the document—the climax of the document, one might say—especially fascinating. Clement tells Theodore that the guy-on-guy thing is untrue. This, of course, assumes that the rumors exist (!). And this is what gets the memory theorist in me salivating. That there are two possible ways to interpret Jesus’ esoteric slumber party betrays two distinct memory trajectories.
On this branch, we have the “carnal” interpretation; on that branch we have the “spiritual” interpretation. This prompts me to ask, what possible social memory best explains both trajectories? The answer, of course, is exactly what both Clement and Theodore assume: some early followers of Jesus thought that he was gay. If I was convinced that this document was from the pen of Clement, this is the conclusion that I would be forced to draw.
Of course, the way that the document is constructed, this information is not supposed to be preserved. Ironically (and the irony is ingenious) "Clement" betrays the very rumor that he is so interested in keeping secret.
Tune in on Monday for my next installment.