The Secret Gospel
by Morton Smith
Harper & Row, 148 pp., $5.95
Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark
by Morton Smith
Harvard, 452 pp., $30.00
Chance finds have played a significant part in revolutionizing the study of New Testament origins and the early Church. It was the German scholar Karl Holl, for instance, who in 1933 discovered the first manuscript texts within the Roman Empire of the sayings of the Persian heresiarch Manichaeus among the stock-in-trade of a Cairo antique dealer. Holl had been correcting proofs of an edition of the Church father Epiphanius, and he had just reached the latter’s description of the tenets of the Manichaeans the night before. He spotted the key phrase, “And now the Illuminator said…” on the top line of a discolored and waterlogged papyrus which the dealer brought out for his inspection. He bought the papyrus. From now on, the Manichaean sect to whom St. Augustine had adhered for nearly ten years could speak for themselves and not through the mouths of their opponents.
Professor Morton Smith tells of a similar stroke of luck. Both his books, one popular and the other a scholarly treatise, seek to prove that the eighteenth-century manuscript he came upon in the monastery library of Mar Saba in the Judaean desert is not only a record of a hitherto unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria (flor. 180-200), but throws a new and sensational light on the character of Jesus’ ministry.
The story which he unfolds in The Secret Gospel is a splendid one. In 1958 he was revisiting the Mar Saba monastery after an interval of seventeen years. Nothing seemed changed. At the Orthodox Patriarchate at Jerusalem he found his old friend Father Kyriakos was as genial as ever. A twenty minutes’ taxi drive brought him to the monastery where he was met by the Archimandrite, but electricity had wrought havoc with the mystic beauty of the six-hour liturgy, and he found himself spending his time in the monastery library locating, reading, and cataloguing the manuscripts. Soon he noticed that old manuscript material had been used for bookbinding, and near the end of his stay he was looking at a tiny handwriting which had been used in this way. It began, “From the letters of the most holy Clement, the author of the Stromateis. To Theodore.” It went on to praise the recipient for having silenced the Carpocratians.
Smith knew enough about early Church history to realize that the Clement of his text must be Clement of Alexandria, who flourished as a Christian teacher in that city from 180-200, and that one of the heretical sects which he refuted was the Carpocratians. They believed that sin, and in particular sexual sin, was the means of salvation, and this outraged Clement. Only a page and a half of text survived, but this was enough to excite Smith’s interest. He read the remainder with increasing incredulity. Then he photographed the manuscript and with the help of the Israeli scholar Dr. Gershom Scholem began to transcribe and study it at leisure. What he read put even the discovery of a hitherto unknown letter of …