Second Thoughts on the Secret Gospel -- By: Robert M. Price

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 14:1 (NA 2004)
Article: Second Thoughts on the Secret Gospel
Author: Robert M. Price


Second Thoughts on the Secret Gospel

Robert M. Price

Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary

As I write, it is thirty years since the appearance of Morton Smith’s twin volumes, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark and The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel according to Mark. It is also the thirtieth anniversary of the paperback publication of Irving Wallace’s novel The Word, already a phenomenal best seller in hard cover the previous year. What might the one author’s work have to do with the other’s, you ask? Simply this: from the beginning, a number of Smith’s colleagues and critics suspected, even charged him with forging the document as a hoax, which is exactly what happens in Wallace’s immensely enjoyable novel. Some said Smith, once an Episcopal priest, had a poisonous hatred for the Christian religion, especially for its historic homophobia, and that The Secret Gospel was an attempt toward evening the score.

Tantric Messiah

As most readers surely know by now, the fragmentary quotation from this hitherto-unknown gospel, contained in an ostensible letter from Clement of Alexandria, made brief but suggestive reference to the possibility that Jesus practiced a libertine ritual of homosexual initiation with his disciples. Clement warns his correspondent, Theodore, that the specific passage in question was a heretical interpolation by the trouble-making Carpocratian Gnostics, but, as Smith knew, this only means that Clement would have found such a passage objectionable, though he liked the rest of the text. Classifying a bad passage as secondary was an old trick: Jeremiah had already used it in Jer 7:22 and 8:8. So did the Ebionites, who believed Jesus

had come to identify false pericopes in the Torah so the faithful could henceforth disregard them. Smith himself professed to think the Clementine letter as well as the underlying Markan apocryphon authentic and thus sources unlocking the mysteries of Christian origins.

Smith ventured that Jesus was a kind of antinomian Gnostic who led his disciples into a trance ecstasy, experiencing the Kingdom of God on earth, much as Irenaeus tells us that Markos the Magician used to teach wealthy New Age matrons how to speak in tongues and prophesy. Smith said that, yes, this initiation included homosexuality as a rite of liminality, betokening the transcendence of this world by the holy-minded transgression of its categories and its laws. Such notions are common to Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism, though for Smith to claim Jesus and the first Christians indulged in such adventurous pieties is rather like John Allegro’s theo...

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