In the late 1950s, a Columbia University scholar named Morton Smith claimed to have discovered part of a letter from Clement of Alexandria, copied into the blank pages at the end of a seventeenth-century printing of the letters of Ignatius. Morton’s personal transcription and translation of these words—published years later—are the only versions available. The original text from which he supposedly copied the words has been lost. It was only ever seen by Smith and perhaps two others. According to Smith, what he discovered was a reference by Clement to a “secret” gospel of Mark: a supposedly expanded version of the biblical Gospel of Mark.
Smith claims that Clement made two quotations from this Secret Gospel of Mark. One involves Jesus resurrecting a young man, who then spends the night with Jesus in some state of undress. The other implies that Jesus rejected the young man’s family. Clement’s supposed purpose in citing these accounts is to tell the letter’s recipient, Theodore, to deny the authenticity of the Secret Gospel of Mark. In so doing, according to Smith, Clement claims that Mark expanded his gospel and that only a select few people were meant to learn the secrets contained in this updated version.
Not surprisingly, virtually everything about the Secret Gospel of Mark is disputed by scholars. The words cited by Smith are found only in text that he transcribed from a copy found written in the back of a separate work from the seventeenth-century. Unlike actual Scripture, which has outstanding traceability, these words have literally zero support. If real, these fragments would be the only copies of Clement’s letters known to exist.
Even more condemning is that the Secret Gospel of Mark is never mentioned anywhere else, in any other source, in all of ancient literature. Other disputed works, such as the Apocryphal Acts and the Infancy Gospels, were mentioned by many early church fathers in order to refute heresy. Also, scholars have questioned Smith’s claims on the basis of anachronisms within the text, contradictions with Clement’s other writings, and even the handwriting found in the images produced by Smith.
In short, scholarly consensus is all but certain the Secret Gospel of Mark is a fictional work, which likely never existed at all. The only debate that continues is whether Morton Smith fabricated the entire text in order to claim a discovery. Not all scholars think this is the case. And yet, the full picture of Smith’s claims leads to lingering suspicion the text was forged in order to support his professional, ethical, and personal goals.