Baker Academic

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Secret Mark as Gay Advocacy (Part Four) - Le Donne

My previous posts on Morton Smiths's Secret Mark are here, here, and here.  In my last post, I argued that the Mar Saba document (the letter to Theodore that contains Secret Mark) is an example of "counter memory".  But while it looks to be an ineffective second-century counter memory, it functions very well as a twentieth-century counter memory.  And if counter memory, then the discussion of motive and agenda become paramount.

To this end, it is worth reiterating that very few scholars on either side of the forgery debate think that Secret Mark is a historical account.  The account was decidedly black by Jesus Seminar standards (if that does anything for you).  Smith wrote that Secret Mark was “an imitation [of Mark] of the simplest and most childish sort” (Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973], p.76).  And yet, Smith's historical portrait of Jesus was gay nonetheless.

If you measure academic generations in terms of retirement, at least two generations stand between mine and Smith's.  Previous generations were squeamish when it came to the topic of Smith's personal investment in a gay Jesus .  At least they were reluctant to write about this.  They were (and still are) quite willing to discuss Smith's supposed homosexuality in casual conversation.  Because of this, many critical assessments of Secret Mark have avoided the subject.  Whether it was for fear of being accused of homophobia, or because it smacked of an ad hominem attack, the topic has been taboo.  Bruce Chilton is one of the few willing to be transparent about Smith's motives juxtaposed against the spirit of the time (here).

My generation, for all of our faults, is much less squeamish about this topic.  First, this discussion carries much less of a risk of libel.  Second, while homophobia is still alive and well, the professional risks for openly gay scholars are considerably less.  While a great deal could be said about the humiliation, incarceration, beating, electroconvulsive experimentation, and murder of homosexuals during the 1950's (more here), it is perhaps equally relevant to point out that the gay advocacy movement was barely conceived in 1950's America.

Given this cultural context, Smith's open discussion of homosexual angst is quite remarkable.  For my part, I am much less interested in labeling him gay or bisexual, and much more interested in his early academic interest in the plight of gays in the Church.  In other words, Smith's orientation is surely relevant, but I'm much more interested in evidence of advocacy.  After all many, many LGBTQI folks are not inclined toward advocacy; and many advocates for LGBTQI equality are heterosexual.  So when I talk about Smith's open discussion of this topic, I'm not talking about his orientation.

It may well border inappropriate speculation to talk about a biblical scholar's psychology in relation to sexual norms and theological angst.  It is, however, necessary to consider what a scholar has published on these topics in a psychology journal.  In 1949, when the Christian world was ignorant, skittish, and/or hostile to such conversations, Smith published an essay titled "Psychiatric Practice and Christian Dogma" in the Journal of Pastoral Care (Issue 3; pp. 12-20).  He wrote of the deep rift between traditional Christianity and homosexual well-being.

Smith wrote (hypothetically) of a young man – a new convert – who seeks advice from a Christian counselor.  Smith explained that this young man “doesn't see that if two adult males enjoy each other sexually, any harm is done to anybody.”  Smith goes on: "He doesn’t seem to be unstable, keeps his job, gets on well in society, has lots of normal friends, and seems generally happy. And, after all, homosexuality has been a characteristic of some of the greatest men – Plato and Shakespeare, etc."

How must the Christian counselor instruct this young man?  Smith wrote:
He must be told that homosexuality is a sin far more serious than fornication, and that unwillingness or inability to repent of it automatically debars the sinner from the sacraments. Whether or not psychological or social arguments against homosexuality are used, it must be made clear that the sin is not a matter for dispute nor for private judgment, but is established by the Christian tradition which individuals can only accept or reject.  Finally, for the good of the congregation no less than for his own good, he must sooner or later be made to choose between his new attachment to the Church and his previous sexual adjustment, even though there be great probability that he will find no other adjustment so satisfactory. (pp 16-17)
Smith concluded that it was all but impossible for a homosexual to be “happy” as a member of the body of Christ (cf. p.12).  Smith wrote this as a member of the clergy, long before his own sexual orientation was widely discussed and long before he revealed his atheism.  According to Smith, the homosexual male must choose happiness outside of the bounds of Christian communion or (most likely) unhappiness within it.  As I hope that I've shown here, the concept of happiness was central to this argument.  I'm being redundant here for a reason that will become clear below.

At this point, allow me to state the obvious: it's incredible to believe that a scholar who had previously published on the topic of homosexuality in a context wherein the topic was so extremely rare in public discourse, just happened to find an ancient document so relevant for gay advocacy.  It is also worth noting that while the American gay advocacy movement was still incubating in the late 50s, it was well underway in 1973 when Smith published his two books about Secret Mark.  Just as the P.R.I.D.E movement was throwing off the shackles of legal oppression in the United States, Morton Smith was writing these words:
“Freedom from [Jewish religious] law may have resulted in a completion of the spiritual union by physical union” (Smith, Secret Gospel, p. 114; I credit Bart Ehrman for pointing out the particularly sexualized biases present in Smith’s interpretation; see B. D. Erhman, “Response to Charles Hedrick’s Stalemate,” in JECS 11 (2003), p. 157).
Let me underscore that I'm not suggesting that because Smith was concerned for homosexual well-being that he must have invented this document.  The key here is evidence of a discontentment strong enough to take action.  Those closest to Smith observed this very tendency in his character.  Smith "enjoyed provoking the conventionally faithful, proposing reconstructions of the past that opposed the narrative promoted by Jewish and Christian orthodoxies” (Albert Baumgarton, “Smith, Morton [1915-91],” in Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation: K-Z [Nashville: Abingdon, 1999], p. 477).  Smith’s deep (often hostile) misgivings with traditional Christianity bled through his publications, even in his early career.  William Calder wrote that Smith’s doctoral dissertation “was the first of many studies calculated to enrage the Establishment, Jewish or Christian, but far too intelligent and erudite to be dismissed as simply annoying” (William M. Calder III, “Morton Smith†,” Gn. 64 [1992], p.382).

I think that Carlson quite aptly summarizes this point:
Secret Mark supports not only Smith’s love of controversy but also his favorite target. It was written during the 1950’s, during an especially oppressive moment in American history when mainline ministers were urging the police to crack down on gay men gathered in public parks. What could be more upsetting to the Establishment in this historical moment than the intimation, revealed in an ancient text by the author of the oldest gospel, that they are crucifying Jesus Christ all over again? (p. 85)
On the cusp of the gay advocacy movement, a scholar who was deeply interested in this topic claimed to discover an ancient document that suggested the possibility that Jesus, himself, engaged in “naked man with naked man” activity.  That this “discovery” also confirmed Smith’s uniquely sexualized interpretation of "the mystery of the kingdom" (Mark 4:11) ought to be cause enough for suspicion.  That he was also a well-known provocateur should cause still greater suspicion (and has).  And my suggestions here do not even scratch the surface of all of the abnormalities that surround this story.

Carlson rightly calls the document a hoax rather than a forgery.  Ehrman rightly observes Smith's tendencies to oversex the text.  Watson convincingly shows Smith's literary dependence on the 1940's novel Mystery of Mar Saba.  Evans rightly draws out Smith's foreknowledge of the topics he "discovered".  Add to this the very twentieth-century euphemism "spent the night with" and the question of advocacy becomes just one more curiosity.  Like I said in my first post, I'm not offering some great advance in this discussion.  Really, I suppose that my main point is that as an artifact of counter memory, this document fits very well within the twentieth-century gay advocacy movement.

Finally, I think I might be the first to suggest this:  given Smith's thesis that a gay man could not find happiness with the Church, should we consider the possibility that "Theodore" is an homage to Theodorus the Atheist?  He is ranked here as the fourth greatest atheist of all time (I love lists):
Theodorus the Atheist from Cyrene lived around 300 b.c.e. He was banished from Cyrene in his early years, and moved to Athens to become a follower of the younger Aristippus. He also managed to get himself banished from Athens.... Theodorus taught that the aim of human life was to obtain joy and avoid grief, and that joy comes through prudence while grief arises from folly... Laertius complained that Theodorus "did away with all opinions respecting the Gods"...
In Smith's essay on psychology, he too placed a centrality on "happiness".  Smith drew a sharp distinction between the path of happiness and the path of Christian doctrine.  I will leave this as an open question: was the name "Theodore" chosen in homage?

Some have argued that Smith appeared to take his research on Secret Mark quite seriously.  I think he delighted in the froth he’d stirred up, reserving the right to be indignant when overly conservative agendas were laid bare.  In short, I think he was a brilliant trickster and wanted his hoax to live on long past his death.  Truly, it’s hard not to admire how utterly clever the man was.  According to "Clement":
"Answer the fool according to his foolishness," teaching that the light of truth is to be hidden from those who are mentally blind, and it also says, "from he who has not, it shall be taken away," and "let the fool walk in darkness."
So very, very clever.



  1. Nothing to do with validity, but...
    Secret Mark being discovered and published by a person interested in gay issues in the 50's.
    If it was found by a scholar that was "fundamentalist", and anti gay, I doubt if it would have seen the light of day. Athanasius would have been pleased. I think Smith's orientation should not even be considered. Either the facts on the document stand on their own, or they don't. Projecting motivations of Smith does smack of hate mongering.

    1. Dear Anonymous, I'm very sorry that you see it that way. I couldn't disagree more. The discussion of motives is the bread and butter of the historian. Historical artifacts and events must be contextualized. Moreover, the concept of advocacy is entirely unintelligible without a plausible accounting of motives.

      I do hope, however, that you see that I've emphasized advocacy and placed almost none on personal orientation.


    2. I didn't direct my comments at you. Only at anyone attacking Smith on those grounds. Sorry if there was a Mis-spoke on my part.

  2. Superb post, Anthony. I particularly appreciate the stress on Smith's intelligence. I have been dismayed to see recent attacks on Smith's intelligence in the (laudable) attempt to suggest that he did not engage in a hoax. It is good too to see you picking up on key and often neglected themes in Carlson's work and developing them. There is some publishable material here, I would suggest.

  3. Anthony, this is brilliant stuff. I’ll need to go back to part 1 and re-read all carefully. I agree with Mark, I think there’s a book in this, where you could riff on numbers of topics, including social memory and modern Jesus scholarship. It would be EXTREMELY valuable IMHO for a scholar to look at the phenomenon of this letter apart from questions of its authenticity. I think you’re seeing something, that the importance of this story is in what it says about us, not Jesus. If the letter also functions to help explain social memory, then you could have a “soon to be a major motion picture” on your hands.

    A few thoughts: first, I think you should consider whether there is a memory trajectory of Jesus engaging in “naked man with naked man” activities that is independent of Smith and that can be traced prior to the 20th century. This is WAY beyond anything I’ve ever examined closely. But fast internet research indicates that King James I defended himself against the charge of sodomy by reference to the relationship between Jesus and “his son John”. 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot dropped an aside in his Essay on Painting as to the possibility that a “half tipsy” Christ at the wedding at Cana might have “glanced at the bosom of one of the bridesmaids and at Saint John’s buttocks, uncertain if he would remain faithful to the apostle …”. Are these spurious factoids that we focus on because of our changing attitudes about LGBTQI issues, or is there really a stream of thought about Jesus’ relations with men that goes back quite a ways?

    Second: I think you properly focus on Smith’s books being published in 1973, after the birth of the social liberation movements of the 1960s, and shortly after the Stonewall “riots” of 1969 (the event commonly used to date the beginning of the Gay Liberation movement). But Smith announced his finding at a meeting of the SBL in 1960, and 1960 was nothing like 1973 when it came to LGBTQI issues. If you want to consider Smith’s motivations, you need to make sense of these motivations in terms of 1960 as well as 1973.

    Third: I’m trying to understand what you mean by referring to the purported Clement letter as “an artifact” of “twentieth-century counter memory.” Presumably, you’re saying something more than that the letter is (probably) a hoax intended at minimum to stimulate the kinds of discussions we’re having here, and that you’re referencing here. Presumably, not all hoaxes in the realm of Jesus scholarship are about creating counter memory. Moreover, how could this hoax have created an effective twentieth century counter memory when (as you argue) the letter if authentic would have been an ineffective second-century counter memory? If we cannot realistically think of this letter as coming from its purported place and time, how could it function today as counter memory?

    1. Rapid fire: (1) yes, that would be an interesting survey! (2) Smith was obviously interested in the plight of the homosexual within and without Christian boundaries as early as 1949. Moreover, 1969 was the explosion, the fuse had been lit much earlier (see the Eric Marcus book linked above). (3) twentieth century mnemonic = Jesus is asexual; counter mnemonic = perhaps not?


    2. (2) Agreed. But 1969 marks a sea change in the movement. The movement's strategy prior to 1969 came under sharp criticism. You are arguing that Smith was sensitive to the changing times, and that his release of his books in 1973 was connected to the rise of the gay liberation movement during the four prior years. That's reasonable, but you'd have to consider that the groundwork for his 1973 release was established well before 1969. Did Smith revise his original plan in 1969 or shortly thereafter, to take advantage of the changed conditions? If so, what was the original plan? Or was Smith the kind of guy who wouldn't be affected by Stonewall and the more "out" kind of advocacy of the new movement? If so, then your argument about 1973 is somewhat undercut. A third possibility is that Smith was put off by the post-1969 movement (the way that the "old left" was put off by the "new left"), and that his books were intended to make both sides uncomfortable.

      (3) If Smith wanted to create a counter-memory against Jesus being asexual, arguably the more effective counter-memory would be the married with children counter-memory of Dan Brown. Also, you've pointed out that no one (not even Smith) argues for the historicity of Secret Mark, so presumably the memory being countered is not that of Jesus. Thinking about this, perhaps the memory being countered is that the church's opposition to homosexuality goes back to Jesus -- the counter-memory being that this opposition was invented by people like Clement. I'm not satisfied with this alternative, but so far it's the best I can come up with.

  4. Yes, Anthony, I concur with Mark that this is a very well rounded post and I am grateful for the summary. I think though that there is one more option that you have not considered. In fact I have never seen it in print and it speaks to a possible historical validity. When Peter Craigie (Word commentary on the Psalms, 1-50) quotes C.S. Lewis on 'second meaning' in the Psalms, he has Lewis writing in 50's language: "Lewis (p. 101 ff) commends the understanding within Judaism of the allegory of God as Bridegroom. His comment is telling:
    'Thus the allegory which at first seemed so arbitrary – the ingenuity of some prudish commentator who was determined to force flat edifications upon the most unpromising texts – turned out, when you seriously tugged at it, to have roots in the whole history of religion, to be loaded with poetry, to yield insights.'"

    Lewis with his Surprised by Joy and the Great Divorce clearly intimates a singularity of relationship that includes the whole body in the Anointing of the Psalms or of 'Christianity'. This is 'not to be spoken of' as Paul writes in a couple of places, but it is nonetheless true. Like the uncertainty principle, when you open the box you kill the bird. There is little reason to doubt that the instruction in the Song to 'catch the foxes' (a word play balanced by the Shulamite) is a similar play that cannot be 'explained away'. (Is this the job of historians?) It speaks to a history of the personal in the Anointed and in the Anointing of any age. It is not necessary to preclude or assume homosexual relations. In fact, it is almost the only argument in favor of precluding sexual relationships. It is not at all a moral argument, but a spiritual one. Of course, it is therefore beyond good sense to legislate such a thing.

    1. I'm sorry to say that I don't follow you, Bob.

      I agree that metaphor of marriage and later allegorizations have been fruitful for both Jewish and Xn interpreters. Are you saying that this helps to explain an ancient provenance?


  5. Thanks for this series. It's really interesting how you're using social memory to inform our understanding of this case. Good stuff here.

    I continue to be struck at how well Secret Mark fits mid-twentieth century sexual mores. It would be less effective today, where the current Zeitgeist is that Jesus must have been married (hence the intense interest in the Jesus' Wife Fragment today).

    (PS. There's a typo in your quotation from my book. It's "intimation," not "imitation.")

    1. whoops! I'll fix that... I must have been so excited with what I was reading that my fingers got away from me.

      Excellent book.


    2. As a result of this post, I am reading your book on Smith. Fascinating so far.


  6. I understand that I am sometimes hard to follow. Sorry. What I am saying does not undo your arguments for a 20th century hoax, but that the knowledge to which Secret Mark alludes is not inconsistent with other experiences implied in the Scripture. In this sense, it is a very good piece of work - and took in (if indeed it is a hoax) none other than several Clementine scholars who were in unanimous agreement in 1994 (Miller/Funk - the Complete Gospels p 408). I recall Crossan having a long section in one of his books on this as well, implying acceptance - but I can't find the reference.

  7. Very impressive! Any plans to address the Gospel of Jesus's wife? Another fragment of uncertain provenance with just enough text to create a major sensation by addressing a contemporary issue, delivered to a feminist scholar . . .