In 1973, Morton Smith announced a spectacular discovery that promised to reshape the understanding of the New Testament. The authenticity of that alleged find is still hotly debated, and I belong to the school that believes it to be fiction. Actually, I would go further. I think his find was from the first inspired by fiction, by novels. One of those fictional sources is now well known, but I believe that I am the first to draw attention to another.
Smith's book was Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, and it was taken sufficiently seriously to be published by Harvard University Press. Smith claimed that in 1958, he had made an astonishing find at the monastery of Mar Saba, in Palestine. In a previously unknown letter from c. 200, Clement of Alexandria wrote to one "Theodore," discussing the various versions of Mark's gospel circulating in his era. There was the canonical gospel that we know, but he also knows another secret version. He quotes a portion of this text, which concerns a young man whom Jesus instructed by night. But in yet a third edition, condemned by Clement, the Carpocratian sect had elaborated that passage by adding overt sexual content—"naked man with naked man." While Clement's church condemned that deviant book, it approved the "mainstream" clandestine text. Moreover, the alternative passage quoted by Clement was part of a whole expanded gospel, most of which is now lost. This has come to be known as the Secret Gospel of Mark.
Apart from its implications for the canonical text of the New Testament, Clement's letter suggested that much early Christian doctrine was transmitted through esoteric or mystical teaching, much of which was subsequently lost. This was explosive stuff. But did Secret Mark ever exist? Put another way, is Clement's supposed letter authentic? If not, when was it composed? Might it be an early forgery—perhaps 3rd-century—or did Smith forge it himself? Although some scholars had doubts from the beginning, fears of libel suits made them nervous about speaking openly before Smith's death in 1991. Also, many highly qualified and reputable scholars accepted the discovery at face value, claiming that it shed invaluable light on the process by which the gospels were composed. Secret Mark, for instance, still appears as genuine in the current fourth edition of Complete Gospels, a collection of canonical and alternative ancient texts edited by Robert J. Miller. This volume was a central project of the ultracritical Jesus Seminar.
Recently, Tony Burke has edited an impressive collection of scholarly essays under the title Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery? The Secret Gospel of Mark in Debate (Cascade Books, 2013). Whichever side you take in the controversy, this book is eminently worth reading as a model of how first-class critical scholars go about forming their conclusions and debating disputed points. In these pages, admirably, their fundamental disagreements remain firmly within the boundaries of civility and mutual respect.
Arguments against the reality of Secret Mark abound, and the case against Smith himself gains strength the deeper we dig into his background. By any standard, this was an epochal discovery, and it strains belief that it should have been made by a scholar who had previously been writing on precisely the passages elaborated in Clement's letter. From the late 1940s, too, a decade before his alleged discovery, he had been working on Clement, and planning a book on Mark's Gospel.
Moreover, Smith himself had a deep personal interest in occult and antinomian traditions, and for many years he corresponded with Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish messianism and mysticism. (The correspondence has been edited by Guy G. Stroumsa, as Morton Smith and Gershom Scholem: Correspondence 1945-1982 (Brill 2008).) Smith's 1978 book, Jesus the Magician, depicted Jesus himself as a wandering sorcerer. From this perspective, the alleged letter of Clement, with its exposé of the ancient church as a base for secret mystical instruction, was precisely what he might have hoped to find to confirm everything he ever believed. It's far too good to be true.
In 2001, I pointed out an odd fact about the location of Smith's alleged find, in the monastery of Mar Saba. In 1940, Canadian evangelical James H. Hunter published a novel called The Mystery of Mar Saba, which depicted a plot to undermine the morale of the Christian West. To accomplish this, Nazi agents planted a forged gospel text called the Shred of Nicodemus, with the goal of disproving the Resurrection, and they did this at Mar Saba itself. This proto-Indiana Jones thriller was popular, running into multiple editions. As I have noted elsewhere, the fact that Smith's alleged find occurred at Mar Saba is either strong proof of the text's authenticity, in that nobody would have dared invent such a thing, or else it is a tribute to the unabashed chutzpah of a forger. If you are going to fake a fossil discovery, you would have to be very brave to do it at Piltdown.