In 1958, the American scholar Morton Smith went to the ancient monastery of Mar Saba in Palestine to work on cataloguing the library. Smith reported that, while engaged in this work, he discovered a lost early Christian text. The text had been written into the end pages of a 1646 edition of the writings of the early church father Ignatius of Antioch; and it was written in a style of Greek handwriting which appeared to date from the late 17th or 18th century. The text claimed to be an extract from a letter written by Clement of Alexandria, a big name in the early church, to an unknown individual called Theodore.
The Letter to Theodore deals with a heretical sect called the Carpocratians, whom we know of from other ancient sources. The letter condemns the Carpocratians as sensual sinners. It reports that a longer version of Mark's Gospel was known in the city of Alexandria; this has become known as the Secret Gospel of Mark (SGM). According to the letter, the Carpocratians had made fraudulent additions to the SGM. The letter contains an extract from the SGM in which Jesus raises a young man from the dead and instructs him in the mysteries of God. Clement reports that the one of the additions that the Carpocratians had made to this part of the text consisted of the words "naked man with naked man".
The homoerotic element of the text guaranteed its notoriety. The notion that Jesus was gay was not new - it went back at least to Jeremy Bentham in the 19th century - but here was an apparently genuine ancient text which more or less explicitly attested to the idea.
Smith announced his discovery in 1960, but it was not until 1973 that he finally published the text of the Letter and his interpretation of it. He did this in two books: a scholarly monograph and a popular work. Most scholars initially welcomed Smith's find as an important contribution to early Christian studies. Right from the start, however, doubts began to be voiced about the text's authenticity. Forged documents which are mysteriously and conveniently "discovered" in later times are not an uncommon phenomenon, particularly where religious writings are concerned. Some scholars formed suspicions that the Letter and the SGM fitted rather neatly into this tradition.
Among the early challenges to the authenticity of Smith's discovery, the most serious were two pieces published in 1975 by the Catholic scholar Quentin Quesnell and the secular classicist Charles Murgia. Debate rumbled on for years, and the dispute was reignited in the early years of this century. In 2005, two writers, Scott Brown and Stephen Carlson, published books taking diametrically opposing positions. In 2007, the liturgical scholar Peter Jeffery published a further book of his own. Clutches of articles appeared, notably in the Journal of Early Christian Studies in 2003 and in the Biblical Archaeology Review in 2009. A useful compendium of conference papers was published in 2013 under the title Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery? Since then, discussion has continued - in large part on the internet. A general list of materials on the Letter, including numerous online resources, may be found here.
As to the figure at the centre of the controversy, Morton Smith was by all accounts a difficult man. He didn't suffer his adversaries gladly, whether they were practising Christians or secular liberals. He even managed to piss off the monks at Mar Saba while he was staying there. He trained as an Anglican priest but lost his faith by around 1950, when he was in his mid-30s, and worked exclusively in academia in later life. It seems that he had been aligned with the conservative "high church" wing of Anglicanism. In 1949, towards the end of his priestly career, he wrote a remarkable article for the Journal of Pastoral Care. In the article, he condemned homosexuality and other unorthodox sexual conduct in terms that were harsh even by the standards of the time. Smith's own sexuality remains unknown. He never married, and it is often said that he was gay, although there are reports of a couple of short-lived romantic relationships with women. It is not surprising that some have sought to link his personal history to his alleged discovery of an ancient gay Jesus.
Smith died years ago, back in 1991, but contributions to the debate on the Letter remain highly charged. A lot of people seem to be very, very sure that the Letter is forged - or not, as the case may be. The greater venom seems to come from the pro-authenticity side. In some cases, defenders of the letter are outraged on behalf of Morton Smith: the thinking seems to be that he was a nice man whose reputation has been shamefully traduced. One person has even made the laughable suggestion that the forgery theory equates Smith with Bernie Madoff - as if stealing tens of billions of dollars from retirees and charities is remotely comparable with hoaxing a bunch of self-important scholars. In other cases, the defenders seem to assume that the only people who are challenging the Letter's authenticity are malcontent Christian homophobes - an assumption that is both insulting and demonstrably false.
To add to the mystery, the physical text of the Letter has gone missing. The Ignatius book was taken from Mar Saba in 1976 to the library of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem. In 1977, the pages containing the Letter were cut out of the volume by the library staff. They were apparently last seen in 1983, when they were taken to a studio in Jerusalem to be photographed. It has been suspected that the Patriarchate has deliberately mislaid them because of their notoriety and embarrassing content. But finding the pages would not necessarily get us much further. Scientists could analyse the ink - but it is surprisingly easy for a modern person to make iron gall ink of the sort that was used in the 18th century.
Both Smith and the Patriarchate took a series of photographs of the text. Can these tell us anything? The first attempt to study this category of evidence came in Stephen Carlson's 2005 book, which concluded that the handwriting bore the hallmarks of forgery. But Carlson was working from Smith's original poor quality photographs from the 1950s; and his professional background (as a patent attorney) did not equip him to put forward a reliable expert opinion. The situation changed in 2009, when Biblical Archaeology Review hired two native Greek experts to examine the photos, one an expert in historical palaeography (handwriting) and the other a specialist in modern forged documents. Predictably enough, they came down on opposite sides. The palaeographer thought that the writing had some suspicious features which were not consistent with the practices of genuine 18th century scribes. The forged document expert thought that the text was quite different from Smith's known Greek handwriting, and that it must have been written by a native Greek speaker.
It has to be said that the examinations of the handwriting may be a red herring, since it is possible that Smith had an accomplice. This may seem to be a step in the direction of gratuitous conspiracy theorising, were it not for the unusual dedication of one of Smith's 1973 books. Smith dedicated the book to "the one who knows". In the years since 1973, it has often been asked who "the one" was and what he or she knew.
The following list of arguments [and counter-arguments] for and against the authenticity of the Letter is offered in the interest of clarifying the debate. The list is not comprehensive, and it does not include arguments which have been decisively refuted.
Arguments for authenticity
1. A discovery of an allegedly ancient document is entitled to a presumption of authenticity. Many ancient documents like the Letter have been discovered in modern times by people like Morton Smith in places like Mar Saba. [True, but history also yields many examples of forged and conveniently-discovered texts. So the presumption of authenticity can be, and sometimes is, overturned.]
2. People who knew Morton Smith do not believe that he would have been capable of such a thing. [Others who knew him disagree.]
3. If a genuine manuscript of a lost text was going to be found somewhere, it would be found at a place like Mar Saba. [Indeed, which is why Smith planted it there.] Such a text might well be written into the end pages of a printed book, as this is an attested practice at Mar Saba.
4. Smith did not have the skills in palaeography, the Greek language or the works of Clement of Alexandria needed to forge the Letter. [Smith was a highly learned man with two doctorates. Nevertheless, there is some truth in this point - he did not entirely possess the skills for such an ambitious task, and that is precisely how he was caught.]
5. The Letter is written consistently with the other works of Clement, and belongs to an ancient literary genre (relating to warnings about unauthorised texts) of which Smith was unaware. [Whether the Letter does actually agree with Clement's other writings is disputed, and the text contains no clear traits which could only have come from an ancient writer.] Similarly, the SGM resembles Mark's style so closely that it could plausibly have been written by the evangelist himself.
6. Smith's correspondence with his mentor, the great Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem, shows that Smith had a sincere and lasting interest in the Letter and its meaning. [But what else would we expect to see in such correspondence?]
Strong arguments in favour of forgery
1. The Letter fits too conveniently with Smith's known scholarly interests and theories. [Smith had a lot of scholarly interests, and those mentioned below were not necessarily that unusual.]
- The Letter refers to Mark as having known of secret teachings of Jesus. In three publications prior to 1958, Smith showed an interest in secret teachings as a component of early Christianity (and he specifically referred to Clement in one of the publications).
- The SGM seems to show similarities with the Gospel of John - in particular, the story of Lazarus. Scholars have long wondered how John fits together with Mark and the other gospels, and the mainstream view is that John and the other gospels belong to different traditions. Yet Smith was already speculating before 1958 that Mark drew on a source linked to John, and the SGM appears to confirm this speculation.
- Smith's personal issues relating to gay sexuality have already been mentioned. The notion of Jesus as a libertine figure also appears elsewhere in his writings.
- Smith was aware of a 19th century debate about whether Clement condoned lying in certain circumstances. In the Letter, Clement resolves this debate by telling Theodore to deny, "even... on oath", that the SGM is really by Mark.
2. The text of the Letter goes on for long enough to include the attention-grabbing gay innuendo, but it mysteriously breaks off at precisely the point when Clement is about to explain the real truth, as opposed to the Carpocratian lies.
3. Scholars who doubt the authenticity of the Letter have concluded that its contents do not fit with what is known of ancient liturgical practices in Alexandria. They do, however, fit well with ideas that were prominent in Anglican liturgical scholarship in the period of the 20th century when Smith was an Anglican seminarian.
4. A genuine text dating from the 2nd century AD would have been copied and recopied multiple times over the years. With other ancient texts, this process inevitably leads to scribal errors and corruptions creeping in. Yet there are no serious textual corruptions in the Letter. This suggests that it has not gone through the repeated copying process of an authentic ancient text.
5. The language of the Letter sounds too much like Clement. It is as if a 20th century writer had used modern scholarly tools - in particular, Otto Staehlin's fully indexed 1936 edition of Clement's works - in an attempt to replicate Clement's style, but had overdone the job in the process. The same kind of observation has been made about the SGM contained in the Letter: it consists of phrases cut and pasted from the canonical version of Mark. [Smith can't win. He discovers a text containing genuine Clementine and Markan language - and his critics complain that it is too Clementine and too Markan!]
6. The homosexual aspect of the Letter is suspicious, for several reasons:
- The practice was that ancient homosexual liaisons were initiated by a teacher figure with a younger disciple figure. It was an important point of protocol that they were not initiated by the disciple. This was not fully understood by modern scholars until 1978, when the British classicist Kenneth Dover published his seminal study Greek Homosexuality. The Mar Saba letter depicts the young disciple as initiating the relationship with Jesus. [Why would we assume that ancient Christian sects that believed in a gay Jesus complied with conventional Hellenic rules on homosexuality?]
- Our ancient sources report that the Carpocratians were sexually promiscuous, but nowhere do they state that they practised homosexuality. To the contrary, in his undoubted writings, Clement reports that they believed in holding women in common. [Our sources refer in general terms to the Carpocratians as sexually promiscuous. This may have included homosexuality even if it was not expressly mentioned.]
- The Letter uses the phrase "spent that night with him" in the context of Jesus staying with the young man. The use of the phrase "spend the night" as a euphemism for sex is a modern English idiom rather than an ancient Greek one.
- While Jesus had a close relationship with the young man, the SGM presents him as rejecting the company of women. It has been suggested that this reflects a misogynistic conception of homosexuality which belongs among 20th century ideas rather than ancient ones.
- The palaeography expert engaged by BAR reported that no other known manuscripts from Mar Saba are written in the same hand as the Letter.
- Where is the earlier source text from which Smith's manuscript of the Letter was copied? Even if the source text does not survive today, there is a fair chance that it would be recorded somewhere. The holdings of Greek Orthodox monasteries and libraries are well documented for the 18th century. Yet it has never been found. [This is an argument from silence and proves nothing.]
- There were only a few monks at Mar Saba in the relevant period. It is likely that any copying activities which they engaged in would have prioritised scriptural and liturgical texts rather than something like the Letter. [This is suppositious and proves nothing.]
- It is curious that the scribe copied the Letter into an edition of Ignatius rather than an edition of Clement, even though the Mar Saba library seems to have had an edition of Clement. [It is idle to speculate on the motives that an 18th century scribe had for what he did.]
8. There are a couple of suspicious features of the volume of Ignatius that contained the Letter:
- The final section of printed text which is immediately opposite the first page of the Letter complains about... falsifications of ancient writings. The photographs of the Letter which Smith published in his popular 1973 book show this. The photos in his academic book - the one which he knew would be pored over by scholars - do not.
- There is no evidence that the Ignatius volume was at Mar Saba before 1958. It was not mentioned in three past catalogues of the library's holdings, which go up to the early part of the 20th century. [The catalogues were not comprehensive.]
Weak arguments in favour of forgery
1. A pulp novel from 1940 entitled The Mystery of Mar Saba dealt with the finding of a controversial early Christian text at Mar Saba. One of the characters in the novel was a Lord Moreton. [The practice of manuscript-hunting that inspired the novel was well established by 1940, and Smith lived in that world. This is a case of art imitating life rather than the other way around. And the name "Moreton" is unlikely to be anything other than a coincidence.]
2. The Letter refers to the "truth hidden by seven veils". It later refers to a woman called Salome. It has been suggested that this is a reference to the gay icon Oscar Wilde's play Salomé, in which the title character dances the dance of the seven veils. [This can plausibly be explained as a coincidence. The phrase "seven veils" was not invented by Wilde, and it occurs in a different part of the Letter from the name Salome.]
3. The Letter talks about truths being mixed with lies using the metaphor of adulterated salt. But salt was cheap and plentiful in the ancient world, and our ancient sources do not otherwise talk about adulteration of salt as being a problem. Moreover, only salt with free-flowing grains can easily be mixed with other ingredients. The first manufacturer to produce free-flowing salt was the Morton Salt Company in 1910. [This argument is ingenious but unconvincing. The idea that Smith knew about the history of salt production, and worked a mention of adulteration into his letter as a kind of obscure confession, is far-fetched.]
4. Smith never returned to Mar Saba to re-examine his find. [But why would he? He had photographs, and a re-examination of the physical evidence would be of no interest to a textual scholar like him. It has also been claimed that he did make a return visit at one point.]