The Secret Gospel of Mark and the Synoptic Problem

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The Secret Gospel of Mark and the Synoptic Problem examines how the Secret Gospel of Mark, said to have been discovered by Morton Smith, relates to the Synoptic Gospels. Helmut Koester hypothesized this relationship, specifically in reference to the formation of “Canonical” Mark. This article will analyse Koester’s theory, as well as its criticism by Scott G. Brown. Secret Mark's relation to the Gospel of John is also examined, as well as the question of the text's authenticity.

Koester’s theory[edit]

The Koester hypothesis. Matthew and Luke each derive from Q and a version of Proto-Mark, with Luke's Proto-Mark lacking Mark 6:45–8:26. Secret Mark as known by Clement was built upon the longer Proto-Mark and was in turn the basis for canonical Mark and the Carpocratians' recension of Secret Mark.

Helmut Koester has done considerable work in the past on the Synoptic problem. To begin with, his theory presupposed the Two-source hypothesis,[1] and was concerned with the issue that the text found in the canonical version of Mark could not have been the same as the one used by Matthew and Luke. Koester took a cue from recent studies of the Gospel of John at the time he was writing and believed that the Gospel of Mark was written in several stages.[2] Koester concluded that the original version of Mark that was written around 70 CE is now lost, but set out to reconstruct the stages which eventually led to the production of “Canonical” Mark. Koester’s reconstruction was different in that it included the Secret Gospel of Mark as part of the process that led to canonical Mark. It is as follows:

Stage 1a: The first stage in Koester’s theory begins with what he deems Proto Mark, believing it to be the form of Mark’s Gospel that was used by the author of Luke’s gospel. Koester believed that Proto Mark was probably the oldest form of Mark, though he thought it likely that it was preceded by several written sources that had at least been partly translated from Aramaic, which he believed had many of the Markan miracle stories and the Passion Narrative.

Stage 1b: This was what Koester believed to be an expanded variant of Proto Mark, which incorporated new miracles into Mk 6:45-8:26. Koester believed that the author of Matthew’s Gospel used this variant. Koester also thought that it was not impossible that this variant preceded the copy used by Luke, in which case Luke would have used a defective copy of Proto Mark.

Stage 2: In this stage of redaction, Koester saw Matthew’s Gospel as a thorough revision of Proto Mark. Koester believed that Matthew added five major speeches of Jesus, with materials drawn from Mark and especially from Q as a major structural element. Miracle stories were also assembled in Matt. 8-9.

Stage 3: In which Luke revised Proto Mark in a different way.: he followed the outline of Proto Mark in the first and third sections of his Gospel, but in the second section, what is commonly called the “travel narrative”, added materials drawn from Q and a special Lukan source.

Stage 4a: Whereas Matthew and Luke modified Proto Mark in order to create new Gospels, Proto Mark’s own development, which Koester believed resulted in “Canonical” Mark, preserved a more intact version of the original outline of the Gospel. The style and language was also maintained, and as a result Koester assigned this development to the Markan community. However, Koester believed that Secret Mark could be seen as a stage of revision in between Proto Mark and “Canonical” Mark.

Stage 4b: In which a different edition of Secret Mark was used by the Gnostic sect known as the Carpocratians. Clement of Alexandria, in his letter to Theodore that was discovered by Morton Smith, alleged that the Carpocratians added to Secret Mark various “pollutions”, such as nocturnal homosexual teachings.

Stage 5a: Koester felt that a number of features which distinguish Proto Mark from Canonical Mark have ties to the Secret Gospel. This belief of Koester’s lead him to conclude that “Canonical” Mark is derived from Secret Mark. The difference between the two, according to Koester, is that the redactor of “Canonical” Mark omitted the story of the raising of the youth in Secret Mark, and yet another incident in Mk. 10:46. Koester felt that the redaction of Proto Mark which produced Secret Mark must have occurred in early 2nd century CE. According to Koester’s reconstruction, “Canonical” Mark would have been written sometime thereafter, but before Clement wrote his letter to Theodore. Koester believed that the Carpocratians based their edition of Mark on an unabbreviated version of Secret Mark. Although Clement believed that “Canonical” Mark was written before Secret Mark, Koester believed that the truth was in fact the reverse, that “Canonical” Mark was a “purified”, abbreviated version of Secret Mark since he also believed that traces of Secret Mark were still visible in “Canonical” Mark.

Stage 5b: Koester believed that the addition of Mk.16:9-20 to the end of “Canonical” Mark showed that history of “Canonical Mark” was still continuing. Although there are Markan features in the longer ending, Koester felt that the further history of the Markan text was most deeply influenced by the two major revisions of Proto Mark by Matthew and Luke.[3]

Scott G. Brown’s criticism of Koester’s theory[edit]

Scott G. Brown has criticized Koester’s Theory, arguing that “Canonical” Mark is not an abbreviated version of Secret Mark, but rather that Secret Mark is an expanded version of Canonical Mark. Brown argues that Secret Mark probably contained more than the fifteen sentences quoted by Clement of Alexandria. Clement, in his letter to Theodore, describing the Secret Gospel as “mystic”, says that Mark transferred those things from his notes that were “suitable towards the study of knowledge”. Brown argues that the Alexandrian Church used “Canonical” Mark for instructing catechumens and Secret Mark for expounding more “secret knowledge”, that is, gnosis, the unwritten secrets of the Alexandrian Church. Furthermore, Brown argues that there must have been enough material in Secret Mark for it to be used for advanced, theological instruction. He argues further that Clement’s letter indicates that Secret Mark was very different - and much longer - than the “Canonical” Mark, and that it didn’t omit anything from the Canonical version.[4]

According to Brown, Secret Mark was not the product of a small redaction, whereby the redactor of the Secret Gospel subsequently eliminated only the two pericopae mentioned by Clement in his letter and thus created the “Canonical” version. What is being dealt with is something on a much larger scale.

Under Koester’s theory, Brown argues, the redactor would also have taken away the other mystical traditions found in the Secret Gospel, and would have reverted the text back to something much closer to proto-Mark. But, in such a case, according to Brown, why would then the redactor also overlook Mk. 14:51-52, and the smaller changes that spawned the minor agreements in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels against Mark’s? Why and how, then, would the redactor do this? Brown argues that, if the situation described above is what actually happened, the reason for it would remain elusive.

It would have to be explained why the more spiritual elements would have been taken out of “Canonical” Mark - and the Gospel therefore “despiritualized” - especially at Alexandria, where the exegesis of spiritual dimensions was undertaken by many. Brown concluded that the idea of a Markan Priority based on Secret Mark didn’t add up, and that Koester’s theory was simply too problematic.[5]

Instead, Brown believes that it made more sense for the shorter, “Canonical” Gospel to be expanded into the longer, spiritual Gospel of Secret Mark by the Alexandrians. Brown noted that the total disappearance of Secret Mark and proto-Mark under Koester’s theory is also harder to account for. How is it, Brown asked, that the version of Mark used by Matthew and Luke in 80s CE leaves us no trace, but somehow Secret Mark is able to influence all the other copies that come after it, including “Canonical” Mark? Once again, Brown thought that the situation proposed by Koester did not make much sense. The triumph of “Canonical” Mark over a widely dispersed proto-Mark, Brown argues, would have required some sort of official policy of replacement, but yet there is no proof whatsoever for such a policy ever taking place.[6] Brown thus concluded that it made more sense to believe that the Alexandrians expanded “Canonical” Mark into the longer, Secret Gospel for the purpose of higher, spiritual teaching that was not circulated outside of the Alexandrian Church.[7]

Secret Mark’s relationship to the Gospel of John[edit]

Although it is not directly related to the Synoptic Problem, Secret Mark also shares a relationship with the Gospel of John. Morton Smith noted that the pericope of the resurrection of the young man by Jesus in Secret Mark bore similarities to the story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel. Smith felt that the author of John did not know about Secret Mark, and that the story of Lazarus’s resurrection in John’s Gospel was an independent expansion of the pericope of the raising of the youth, that is also found in Secret Mark.[8] F.F. Bruce, however, has argued that the pericope of the raising of the young man is too clumsily based on the Lazarus pericope found in John, and that the pericope found in Secret Mark is not an independent Markan counterpart to the Lazarus pericope.[9]

Criticism concerning the authenticity of Secret Mark[edit]

In 1958 Morton Smith was cataloguing the contents of the library of the monastery of Mar Saba, when he claimed to have come upon copy of Isaac Voss’s edition of Six Letters of Ignatius, which was published in 1646. He claimed to have found a copy of a letter by Clement of Alexandria in the back of the book to a person named Theodore, in which Clement quoted from Secret Mark [10] and Smith’s discovery has been accepted by a large number of scholars as being authentic. Some authors however, such as Stephen Carlson in his book The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark, have accused Smith of fabricating a hoax. If Secret Mark is a hoax, then the issue of it being connected to the Synoptic Problem is made null and void. Therefore, it shall have to be examined here, albeit briefly. In the November/December 2009 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks wrote an article summarizing rather concisely the debate surrounding the authenticity of Secret Mark. It will be referred to here for its summarization of the arguments against Secret Mark’s authenticity.

There are two major arguments in favor of Secret Mark being a hoax:

1. Morton Smith had the scholarly expertise required to create the hoax.

2. The document (referring here to Clement’s letter to Theodore) contains flaws and anachronisms that affirmatively show that it is a hoax.[11]

If Smith did hoax Secret Mark he would have to be capable in the following areas, according to Shanks:

“1. He would need to know enough to forge the two fragments of Secret Mark. Thus, he would have to be an expert in composing Greek, but also in New Testament textual criticism sufficient to fool a text critic like Harvard’s Helmut Koester.

2. Smith as forger would also have to be an expert in Clement, the purported author of the letter, as well as in the various subjects, like the Carpocratians, mentioned in the letter. He would also have to have sufficient knowledge of Latin to forge the Latin passage in the letter.

3. Finally, he would have to be an expert in 18th-century handwriting (paleography), when the 2nd-century Clement letter was apparently copied in the back of the copy of a 1646 edition (by Isaac Voss) of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch.[12]

Even if the document is a hoax, Shanks notes that it does not prove that Smith is the hoaxer. Shanks also points to three flaws in Clement’s letter that have been alleged to demonstrate that Secret Mark is a hoax. Firstly, there is a reference to salt being adulterated with another substance in the letter that is an anachronism: that technology that is being referenced is a modern one. The only way salt can be adulterated is if it is poured. In order for it to be poured, it would first have to be granulated, a technology that the people in Clement’s time did not have access to. Stephen Carlson also thinks that this is a reference to the Morton Salt Company, a clever pun on Smith’s own name and a hint towards the identity of the hoaxer. The second flaw has to do with how homosexuality is portrayed in the letter. Shanks notes that Pearson has asserted that the view of homosexuality found in Clement’s letter is to be rooted in the middle of the 20th century, one that would be inconsistent with how homosexuality was viewed in ancient Greco-Roman culture. The third flaw also features another anachronism: Clement is referred to by the title Stromates. This is seen as anachronistic, Shanks says, because the letter was apparently written in the late 2nd or early 3rd century and Clement was not known by the title of Stromates until later.[13] Finally, Stephen Carlson has noted a fourth flaw in Clement’s letter. Carlson has observed the shakiness of the handwriting in the letter, a phenomenon known as forger's tremor, as well as the retouching of letters, the inclusion of 20th century letter forms and the letter too closely imitating Clement’s writing style until the end. Carlson alleges that all of these things point to the fact that Secret Mark is in fact a hoax.[14] Despite pointing out numerous things that have been used to condemn Secret Mark as a hoax, Shanks remains objective in his overall view of the controversy, concluding that in the end the controversy simply pits one scholar against the other.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Helmut Koester, “History and Development of Mark’s Gospel (From Mark to Secret Mark and “Canonical” Mark)” in Colloquy on New Testament Studies: a Time for Reappraisal and Fresh Approaches, ed. Bruce Corley (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1983), 35.
  2. ^ Ibid., 36-37.
  3. ^ Ibid., 54-57.
  4. ^ Scott G. Brown, Mark's Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith's Controversial Discovery (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005), 117.
  5. ^ Ibid., 117-118.
  6. ^ Ibid., 119.
  7. ^ Ibid., 120.
  8. ^ Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1973), 192.
  9. ^ F.F. Bruce, The “Secret” Gospel of Mark: the Ethel M. Wood Lecture Delivered Before the University of London on 11 February 1974 (the University of London, the Athlone Press, 1974), 20.
  10. ^ Ibid., 5-6.
  11. ^ a b Hershel Shanks, “‘Secret Mark’: A Modern Forgery? Morton Smith- Forger,” Biblical Archaeology Review, vol. 35, no. 6, November/December 2009. URL: Accessed: November 22, 2009.
  12. ^ Ibid.
  13. ^ Ibid.
  14. ^ Stephen C. Carlson, The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2005), 73.