Baker Academic

Monday, March 11, 2013

Secret Mark as Counter-Memory (Part Three) - Le Donne

My first two posts can be found here and here.

As I argued in my last post, if this document reflects the pen of Clement of Alexandria, the text betrays a memory/counter-memory exchange.  The “memory” that best explains Clement’s counter-memory is the rumor that Jesus was known to have engaged his followers in “naked man with naked man” activity.  Of course, social memory is often self-correcting.  Sometimes the counter-memory reflects the best explanation (consider the “birthers” attack of Obama; it was the counter-memory that won the day).  In such cases, we might simply say that the rumors are not always the best explanations of the perceived past and sometimes they are crafted intentionally.

But here is the next question: is the rumor that the author passes to us a memory that he (a) betrays, or is it (b) something that he intends to pass on?  In other words, does the author of this document really want, as he claims, to keep this rumor a secret?  Everything about this document suggests otherwise.

The author of this document would have us believe that he is anxious to keep all of these rumors suppressed.  Theodore should deny the basis of these rumors even if it means denying a document that he knows to exist! He writes: “not all true things are to be said to all men”. This is not dissimilar to what Clement writes elsewhere, but the author (remarkably) instructs Theodore to deny it with an oath!  Does this lend credence to a conspiracy theory for Christian origins?  It seems so to me.

And doesn’t the author try a bit too hard to convince Theodore that the secret must be kept only to reveal the secret — in writing and explicitly so — at the end of the document?  The author vaguely refers to the topic on the table.  He carefully dances around the topic of homoeroticism throughout the document: “unspeakable teachings”, “carnal and bodily sins”, “servile desires,” “blasphemous and carnal doctrine,” “falsifications” (x2).  The author is vague, vague, vague and then really vague.  This all sounds plausibly Gnostic.  But then he baldly reveals the basis for Carpocratian rumors—the very thing that he has just said are “not to be uttered”!  And so we have, revealed in writing, an excerpt of Secret Mark.  Finally, the document (just before it breaks off, mind you) bluntly lets the cat out of the bag.  To what do all these vague nods refer?  "Naked man with naked man."

Just for good measure, the author concludes (in the last complete sentence, anyway) in vagueness: “But the many other things about which you wrote both seem to be and are falsifications.”  Are we to imagine that poor Theodore has written Clement asking him about all sorts of heresies but that Clement dismisses all but one with a wave of his hand?  And the one heresy that he does address turns out to be half true?! 

Like Watson says:
In sharp contrast to this excess of detail, the ‘many other things’ listed by Theodore are dismissed without further consideration as blatant forgeries. The real intention of the letter is evidently to disclose the existence and content of the Secret Gospel, not to respond appropriately to Theodore. If that is the case, however, then Clement’s role as revealer of the Secret Gospel is parallel to Morton Smith’s as its discoverer.  (here, pp.147-48)
Further to Watson’s assessment, the author of this document provides every bit of information that a twentieth-century fundamentalist would need to know about Secret Mark’s status as Holy Scripture.  It comes from Peter (who took “notes”) via the same Mark who wrote the canonical gospel (who also took “notes”).  So any question of apostolicity and authorship has been answered at the start.  Moreover, we're given a few details about authorial intent: why it was written, when it was, why it was kept secret.  Most telling, to my mind, is that the author specifies that contents of the gospel are “divinely inspired” and that it has been “very securely kept”.  These details strike with the same ideological force as the Westminster Confession:
The Old Testament in Hebrew…and the New Testament in Greek…being immediately inspired by God and by this singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical. (Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 1, Sect. 8)
And if that were not enough, the author explains that he will provide the “very words of the Gospel”.  He emphasizes that his excerpt of the gospel will be “word for word”.  This has the look of someone who is attempting to convince an adherent of verbal plenary inspiration that Secret Mark is every bit as “divinely inspired” as the pages of their KJVs.

My good people, the author actually details where we ought to insert the text into our Bibles.  When I first read this text, I half expected to find a critical apparatus at the bottom of the page.

As I said in my previous post, 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. How fortunate we were to discover this text exactly when the gay advocacy movement began stealing the hearts and minds of our young people!  (More on this in my next post.)

If the intended audience of this document is a second-century “Theodore” whose orthodoxy has been troubled by heretics, Clement’s letter is a blunder.  If “Clement” intended to keep a veil of secrecy around the mystical truths of Christ, this letter is ironically ineffective.  If this document is an excerpt of a larger letter, why does it look to have a central theme, foreshadowing motifs, a grand reveal, and a conclusion?  Finally, if this letter was intended for a second-century Theodore, why does it seem to be written specifically for twentieth-century fundamentalists?

As a product of “counter memory”, this document fits remarkably well within the twentieth-century, Christianized West.  Secret Mark provides fundamentalists with a text that repudiates homosexuality and the letter itself provides historical Jesus scholars with unique evidence for historical study.

Tune in tomorrow to see me play amateur psychologist and gossip columnist.


  1. I am enjoying the series. I especially like the line "I half expected to find a critical apparatus at the bottom of the page" :) It may be worth considering Brown's parallels in Clement's Stromateis of his strategy to quote proof texts of heretics at length just to show where they interpolate or twist something ("Letter to Theodore," p. 543-549, Perhaps Clement's goal was not to get Theodore to keep silent about the rumours the Carpocratians were already spreading (which you would be right that the letter fails to suppress), but, because the Carpocratians deeply falsified the spiritual text known to Clement, to deny by oath that the "Carpocratian version" was Mark's spiritual gospel (a half-truth)?

  2. “And they came to Bethany, and a certain woman whose brother had died came out and threw herself before Jesus and said to him, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me.’ But the disciples rebuked her. Becoming angry, Jesus went off after her into the garden where the tomb was and suddenly there was heard coming from the tomb a loud voice. Approaching, Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb and immediately going into where the young man was, he stretched out his hand and raised him, holding his hand. And gazing at him, the young man loved him and began to plead with him that he might be with him. And going from the tomb, they went into the young man’s house, for he was rich. After six days, Jesus summoned him and when evening came, the young man went to him wearing a linen cloth over his naked body and he stayed with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And then, arising, he went to the far side of the Jordan.”

    I agree that the document bears the indicia of a sort of "kit" for amending Mark. And your point about “Clement” appearing to reveal a secret in order for the “kit” to have a purpose is very persuasive. Further to my comments on the last post, this does not appear reliably to connect to first century rumor. Moreover, the passage is marked by several strange disconnects that may indicate hasty construction:

    1. Why do the disciples rebuke her?
    2. Why is Jesus angry and why does he need to “go off after her” when she hasn’t appeared to go anywhere?
    3. Where does this garden with a tomb come from?
    4. Whose loud voice is coming from the tomb prior to the actual raising of the young man?
    5. What happened in the six days between the visit to the young man’s house and the summons from Jesus?
    6. Isn’t everyone interacting with Jesus wearing something over his or her naked body?

    As to the audience, doesn’t it also work for gay advocates as well by inserting the issue directly into Mark for discussion and interpretation?


    1. As to this question: "As to the audience, doesn’t it also work for gay advocates as well by inserting the issue directly into Mark for discussion and interpretation?"

      answer: without a doubt! It very well could be that the entire context of repudiation was created to render a plausible reveal about the supposed rumor.


    2. Yep. That's what it looks like to me.

  3. Anthony, if I’m asked to argue for the authenticity (are we still allowed to use that word?) of the letter, I think I can make a case that the letter sets forth a historically plausible story.

    Why didn't Clement tell Theodore that there was no Secret Gospel? The answer may be that Clement’s rules on when it’s OK to lie (“answer the fool”, etc.) simply didn’t extend to a good church official like Theodore. Or perhaps Theodore already knew that such a Secret Gospel existed (and was to be kept secret), but did not know what the Gospel said.

    Why give Theodore the contested content of the Secret Gospel? Perhaps in order to perpetrate a successful conspiracy, the conspirators themselves have to know what’s going on. Or putting it another way, Theodore needed the truth concerning the Secret Gospel in order to convincingly lie about it. Yes, you can point to any number of successful conspiracies where key conspirators were kept in the dark, but there’s no accepted handbook for conspiracies, and Clement might have reasonably felt that Theodore needed to know the whole truth.

    If you’re suggesting that Clement writes Theodore in a sub rosa effort to break the conspiracy and bring the Secret Gospel to public attention … I guess that is possible too, but in that case Clement’s effort didn’t work, as the Secret Gospel remained secret. You write that this letter is “ironically ineffective” at preserving the secret, but as the secret remained secret for 1,800 years, I’d suggest that your standards for judging a conspiracy are a tad too strict!

    You ask: "Are we to imagine that poor Theodore has written Clement asking him about all sorts of heresies but that Clement dismisses all but one with a wave of his hand? And the one heresy that he does address turns out to be half true?!" YES. But the logic is that IF something is both heretical and half-true, THEN an explanation is in order.

    Ultimately, I think this letter is a forgery, for many of the same reasons you mention in this post. But based on the little I know about Smith, I think the purpose of the forgery was to prove that Smith was the smartest guy in the room … and for this purpose, I don’t think Smith was imagining a room full of fundamentalists.

    1. Larry, I suppose that what I was trying to say - and it is my fault for not making this more clear - is that if the best explanation for the letter is to expose rather than to conceal, the author is likely not Clement and likely not ancient.

    2. But based on the little I know about Smith, I think the purpose of the forgery was to prove that Smith was the smartest guy in the room … and for this purpose, I don’t think Smith was imagining a room full of fundamentalists.

      Nicely put, Larry.

      I agree with you about the provenance of the letter, but unfortunately not due to any scholarly expertise on my part. My litigation experience makes my eyes roll when I hear about conspiracies involving large organizations or institutions offered to explain the absence of convincing evidence. As Anthony points out, the structure of the letter "fragment" sort of gives the ruse away – why is it that the scribe put it in an unrelated book and then didn’t finish it? Just got bored? Why so many missing transitions (see my comment to yesterday’s post on this). I think the recently revealed “fragment” purportedly referring to Jesus's wife is cut from the same cloth. Art forgers know that the way to put it over is to paint a picture that some scholar has predicted would be found, which may, if it’s good enough, get you an automatic advocate . The authors of these "fragments" take the same approach -- paint a picture of Jesus practicing some contemporary policy (married clergy, etc.) and craft it to attract friendly scholarly support and pretty soon we are talking about a gay Jesus who also has a wife.


    3. Anthony:

      I agree that the best explanation is to expose, and it is to "expose" something that was never there.


  4. I had mention in my comment in the last post that to act like there is no context for a 'longer gospel of Mark' about male on male affection, love or friendship is misguided. The Philosophumena (commonly attributed to Hippolytus) makes this explicit. Marcion added mystical ideas from Empedocles and thus adding to canonical Mark.

    What does the author of the Philosophumena focus his attention on in particular? Marcion is centrally focused on salvation through philia. Is philia homosexual love? No, not quite. But it was thought to be embodied - in particular - by male to male relationships.

    That's not to say that women were incapable of philia. But it is important to note that the Philosophumena goes out of its way to rule out the most natural applications of philia and women - i.e. marriage and child rearing.

    Again this is not to mean that this longer gospel of Mark with mystical added bits about philia EXCLUDES women, but as with Logion 110 of the Gospel of Thomas, if women and men are to be paired they must imitate male-to-male philia (and especially not bear children).

    The point of course is that you predicated your discussion by saying that there is no context for the male to male relationship between Jesus and the youth in Secret Mark and I think that's not exactly accurate. Clement says that this relationship has been misrepresented as being sexual in some way or at least implying sexuality through nakedness.

    I think that the longer Marcionite gospel of Mark and its injection of 'philia' into the gospel narrative is the missing contextual link for Secret Mark. Philia isn't 'just another word for love.' One would have to have read Jacques Derrida's The Politics of Friendship and other discussions of philia.

    But of course, the typical scholar of early Christianity spends most of his time reading a fairly limited pool of words - what we might call 'Church Greek.' Yet Clement is clearly more sophisticated than most. He uses the term philia as a core part of his understanding of salvation and even cites Empedocles to explain its significance.