Craig Evans’ take on Secret Mark critically examined:
Craig A. Evans
In the previous post I examined Craig Evans’ attempt to link the mystery of the kingdom of God to forbidden sexuality in Secret Mark and came to the conclusion that the text does not support such an interpretation, as Jesus and the youth according to the preserved text of Secret Mark are not said to be involved in anything sexually. If so, you cannot claim that Morton Smith already before his discovery showed interest in subjects which are supported by the discovery.
But we could also investigate if Smith really linked the mystery of the kingdom of God to forbidden sexuality. In order to link these subjects, you must assert that Smith made a point of the mystery of the kingdom of God having something to do with forbidden sexuality. This is the real issue to be dealt with.
It is repeatedly said by different people, and now by Craig A. Evans, that Morton Smith “linked Mark 4:11 (‘To you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God . . .’) with secrecy and forbidden sexual activity”. But is this really so?
This argument is quite tricky to deal with. The reason for this is mainly due to the fact that Morton Smith made no real linkage between the mystery of the kingdom of God and secrecy and forbidden sexual activity. But since he mentions these things in close connection to each other, it might seem as if he did. And since the relationship between these entities is so indistinct, it also becomes difficult to unveil where the forgery proponents get lost. We need to know what Smith really is trying to say. The problem for me then is more of a pedagogic nature.
Of course this has already been quite thoroughly investigated by Scott Brown and Allan Pantuck. Brown showed in 2006 in Factualizing the Folklore: Stephen Carlson’s Case against Morton Smith, that the arguments presented by Stephen Carlson misrepresented what Smith actually wrote. And Pantuck made a similar rebuttal to the arguments presented by Craig Evans at the Toronto conference this year (basically the paper I am examining). So my attempt now will simply be a repetition of what previously has been elucidated by these two scholars.
Anyway, Evans’ claim that Smith published three studies where he made this connection; 1) in the 1951 English release of his Hebrew doctoral dissertation as Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels, 2) in a “1955 review of Vincent Taylor’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark” and 3) in his article “The Image of God” from March 1958, just a few month before he made his discovery at Mar Saba.
1) Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels (1951)
Smith’s dissertation was about Rabbinical (Tannaic) verbal parallels to Gospel material. Smith is comparing the Gospels to the Talmud, the Old Testament and so on. In the chapter referred to by Evans, Smith is in Allan Pantuck’s words “considering how the Gospels portray the words of Jesus in much the same way as the rabbis portray the words of the Law.” (Allan Pantuck, Reply to Evans, p. 2–3)
Evans then quotes the passage where Smith according to Evans links the mystery of the kingdom of God with secrecy and forbidden sexual activity. Like Stephan Carlson before him, Evans simply quoted those parts that would allow him to draw the conclusion he sought to find. He then continues …
I have quoted about one half of a lengthy paragraph. It is part of Smith’s discussion of human comprehension and what can and cannot be taught openly. The paragraph that has been partially quoted explores the idea that the early Church seems to have held to a doctrine of secrecy. Evidence of this, Smith thinks, is found in Mark 4:11, where Jesus explains to his disciples, “To you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God . . . ,” and in Paul, who says that he and other Christian leaders “speak wisdom among the perfect [or mature] . . . the wisdom of God in a mystery” (1 Cor 2:6–7).26 Following these two New Testament citations Smith suggests a comparison with the rabbinic distinction “between material suitable for public teaching and that reserved for secret teaching.” The secret teaching includes forbidden sexual relationships and Ezekiel’s vision of God’s chariot throne. The paragraph concludes with a further comparison with the Torah, which according to the rabbis was to be taught openly, and the teaching of heretics, which was to be taught secretly. Smith believes the evangelists Mark and John edited and presented the teaching of Jesus in response to this rabbinic teaching. (Craig Evans, Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark, p. 9)
So, according to Evans Smith suggested …
a) that the early Church held to a doctrine of secrecy,
b) a comparison with the rabbinic distinction “between material suitable for public teaching and that reserved for secret teaching.”
c) that the secret teaching includes forbidden sexual relationships and Ezekiel’s vision of God’s chariot throne.
But in order to more easily follow Smith’s train of thoughts, I will quote the entire pertinent passage from Smith’s book Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels from 1951:
Further, I think the passage in Sifre on Deut. to have been based on the fact that an important part of primitive Christianity was a secret doctrine which was revealed only to trusted members. Such a doctrine is suggested by the words put in the mouth of Jesus, speaking to his disciples: ‘To you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but to those outside all things are in parables, that they may surely see and not perceive,’ etc. And Paul himself wrote in I Cor. 2.1–6 ‘and I, coming to you, brethren, came not proclaiming the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom . . . that your faith might not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. But we speak wisdom among the perfect, and a wisdom not of this age . . . but we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery.’ A similar distinction was recognized by the Tannaïm between material suitable for public teaching and that reserved for secret teaching, as we learn from Hagigah T 2.1 (233): ‘The (passages of the Old Testament dealing with) forbidden sexual relationships are not to be expounded to three (at a time,) but may be expounded to two; and the account of creation not to two, but it may be expounded to a single hearer; and (Ezekiel’s vision of) the chariot may not be expounded to a single hearer unless he be learned in the Law and of good understanding.’ In spite of this the composers of T L thought, as has been seen, that there was an important difference between the words of the Law, which were taught openly, and the teachings of the heretics, which were taught secretly. (Morton Smith, Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels, 1951, p. 155–156)
Smith is not at all linking the mystery of the kingdom of God with forbidden sexual activity. What he is doing is showing that there is a difference between the outer teaching for the general audience and the inner teaching preserved for the disciples or a smaller group; and that this is true both among Christians and the Jewish rabbis. And while doing this he is providing examples to prove his point.
The Christian examples he takes from Mark 4:11: “To you is given “the mystery of the kingdom of God, but to those outside all things are in parables, that they may surely see and not perceive,” and from Paul, 1 Cor 2:1–6: “But we speak wisdom among the perfect, and a wisdom not of this age”.
Then Smith says that a “similar distinction was recognized by the Tannaïm between material suitable for public teaching and that reserved for secret teaching”. He is accordingly referring to a “similar distinction” between the inner and outer teaching made by the Jewish rabbis. Notice that he is only claiming that both Christians and Jews have a similar distinction between teaching meant for the people and teaching meant for a small group of chosen individuals. That is the point Smith wants to make and in order to do so, ha also exemplifies this from the Tannaic literature by referring to the Mishnaic tractate Hagigah 2.1, which Smith then quotes:
“The (passages of the Old Testament dealing with) forbidden sexual relationships are not to be expounded to three (at a time,) but may be expounded to two; and the account of creation not to two, but it may be expounded to a single hearer; and (Ezekiel’s vision of) the chariot may not be expounded to a single hearer unless he be learned in the Law and of good understanding.” (Morton Smith, Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels, 1951, p. 155–156)
According to this text there are three subjects that could only be expounded to a few people: 1) Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot could only be expounded to a sage, 2) the account of creation (from Genesis) could only be expounded to a single hearer, and 3) the passages of the Old Testament dealing with forbidden sexual relationships could only be expounded to two hearers.
According to Smith this shows that also the rabbis made distinctions between inner and outer teaching. The fact that one of the tree examples in Hagigah happened to be about forbidden sexual relationships, was not the issue for Smith; it was the fact that it only could be expounded to a few. Smith did not link the mystery of the kingdom of God with the forbidden sexual relationships; he simply gave a few examples which would prove his point of similarities between the Tannaic and Christian teachings.
Incidentally, these “forbidden sexual relationships” refers to the Levitical laws from primarily the Book of Leviticus. And although homosexuality is one of the sexual activities that are forbidden, there are a vast number of other sexual behaviors which are equally forbidden; that is incest, sodomy, intercourse with a woman who has her period, or is married to another man, intercourse with an animal, castration and so on. Homosexuality is simply one of the forbidden sexual relationships referred to in that part of the Hagigah.
2) The 1955 review of Taylor’s commentary on Mark
Evans writes the following:
In his 1955 review of Vincent Taylor’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark Smith vigorously challenges Taylor’s denial that Mark 4:11 envisioned secret rites. Against Taylor, Smith reminds us that Mark represents Jesus “as teaching in secret and commanding secrecy on many occasions,” which is based on the “recollection that Jesus (also for a wide variety of reasons) practiced secrecy.” The first part of Smith’s statement will elicit no objection from those persuaded by William Wrede’s interpretation of Mark (wherein the point of secrecy was to hide the messianic identity of Jesus), but the second part of Smith’s statement is quite another matter. Jesus “practiced secrecy,” we are told, “for a wide variety of reasons.” What could Smith have had in mind? Could one of those reasons have had to do with teaching regarding prohibited sexual activities, as perhaps hinted at in his dissertation? And as hinted at in subsequent publications, not to mention his remarkable discovery at Mar Saba? (Craig Evans, Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark, p. 10–11)
I am quite surprised that Evans even tries to cast suspicion on Smith by alluding to this classical review by Smith.
Taylor claims that there “is no case” in “the NT, and especially in the Pauline Epp.” in which μυστήριον (mystêrion) “connotes secret rites or esoteric knowledge communicated to ‘initiates.’” Taylor then refers to Mark 4:11 and says that in this “passage and its parallels, it is used of a knowledge concerning the Kingdom of God which has been imparted to the disciples, but not to the people in general.” It is this assumption by Taylor to which Morton Smith is responding. He writes:
This looks self-contradictory, but perhaps T. intended to distinguish between ‘the disciples’ and ‘initiates,’ or some word such as ‘Elsewhere’ should be understood before the first sentence. However, the secrets to which μυστήριον refers in the rest of the NT are not always ‘open,’ e.g. 1 Cor. 2.6 f. (cf. 3.1–3); Col. 2.2; Eph. 5.32. In 1 Cor. Paul says plainly that there is a wisdom which he preaches among the ‘initiate’ (τελείοις), but which he cannot yet preach to the Corinthians because they are still ‘carnal.’ Paul, therefore, claimed to have a secret doctrine. As for Jesus, Mark, of course, represents him as teaching in secret and commanding secrecy on many occasions. The worst error of the ‘Messianic secret’ theories — as Cadbury has remarked — was that they tried to explain all or most of these occasions by reference to a single motive. Actually, the early Church had a wide variety of motives for attributing secret doctrine to Jesus, and among them may well have been the recollection that Jesus (also for a wide variety of motives) practiced secrecy. Every such attribution, therefore, must be judged individually. (Morton Smith, Comments on Taylor’s Commentary on Mark, HTR, Vol. 48, No. 1, Jan., 1955, p. 29)
As can be seen, Smith is never referring, or even alluding, to any prohibited sexual activities. That “the early Church had a wide variety of motives for attributing secret doctrine to Jesus, and among them may well have been the recollection that Jesus (also for a wide variety of motives [not “reasons”, as Evans quote Smith]) practiced secrecy”, does of course not imply that Smith “had in mind” a “teaching regarding prohibited sexual activities”. Why would he? He was simply responding to Taylor’s assertion that mystêrion (μυστήριον) never “connotes secret rites or esoteric knowledge communicated to ‘initiates” in the NT.
In fact Smith does not even think that the expression “the mystery of the Kingdom of God” was something Jesus originally said. Smith continues namely…
Mk. 4.11–12 is probably an answer to Jewish polemic. The Jews are saying, ‘Jesus was not the Messiah, because if he had been he would have been recognized by our scholars. He was heard and rejected.’ The Christian answer is, ‘They never heard his true teaching. He revealed the mysteries [sic!] of the Kingdom only to his disciples; for outsiders he had only parables. Thus he fulfilled God’s command to prevent the Jews from believing.’
So, if Smith did not think that Jesus taught the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but the Christians later invented that saying, how could he then have thought that this saying was a reference to secret sexual practices taught by Jesus? There is nothing in Smith’s review of Vincent Taylor’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark which suggests that Smith believed that the secrecy practiced by Jesus had anything to do with prohibited sexual activities; as Evans is suggesting.
3) The article “The Image of God” (March 1958)
This is what Evan says:
In an article that appeared in March of 1958, just a few months before Smith visited Mar Saba, Smith once again mentions the Hagigah passage from the Tosefta. This time, however, he also mentions Clement of Alexandria and cites his work Stromateis. This interesting article calls for a few more comments. Twice Smith mentions Hagigah, one time in reference to the story of the Jewish sage Aher, who “used the spiritual power acquired by his mystical esperience [sic!] to lead good Jews into heresy.” Smith mentions Hagigah a second time in reference to “the teaching about the throne of God,” which was “to be kept most secret of all.” Smith adds that this teaching “quite possibly was not committed to writing.” In a footnote to this final part of the statement Smith references Clement of Alexandria, where in Strom. 1.1.13–14 he discusses secrecy, the secret elements of Jesus’ teaching, and how it is incumbent on him (Clement) to omit some of the teaching, and to impart what teachings he thinks he is permitted to impart cautiously, lest his readers “stumble by taking them in a wrong sense.” Here we have echoed themes articulated in the paragraph from the 1951 dissertation quoted and discussed above.
It is quite difficult to follow Evans’ logic here. You have to study the footnotes, which I have not included in the quotation, in order to realize the connections Evans is trying to establish. According to Evans Smith mentions the tractate Hagigah twice. I don’t know what Evans wants to make out of the fact that Smith is saying that the “vegetable symbols originally outranked the astral” and that it “is probably older”; and then supports this statement with this footnote:
The symbolism persisted, of course, after the destruction of the Temple. When Aher entered paradise “ he cut down the plants ” , i.e. used the spiritual power acquired by his mystical experience to lead good Jews into heresy (T. Hag. 2.3, ed. Zuckermandel, p. 234). … (Morton Smith, The Image of God: Notes on the Hellenization of Judaism, with Especial Reference to Goodenough’s Work on Jewish Symbols,” BJRL 40 (1958): p. 505, n. 1)
This has nothing to do with anything Evans is intimating and it is not even referring to the same paragraph in Hagigah as the one dealing with forbidden sexuality.
The next reference to Hagigah is according to Evans “in reference to ‘the teaching about the throne of God,” which was ‘to be kept most secret of all.’” Evans then says that “[i]n a footnote to this final part of the statement Smith references Clement of Alexandria, where in Strom. 1.1.13–14 he discusses secrecy, the secret elements of Jesus’ teaching, and how it is incumbent on him (Clement) to omit some of the teaching, and to impart what teachings he thinks he is permitted to impart cautiously, lest his readers ‘stumble by taking them in a wrong sense.’” Evans believes that “we” thereby “have echoed themes articulated in the paragraph from the 1951 dissertation”. But is this really so? This is what Smith writes:
It is upon the tree of life that God rests when he comes to the Garden of Eden—on this rabbinic, pseudepigraphic, Christian and magical texts agree.(2) This legend, plus the fact that the tree of life is the symbol of the saint, enables us to understand the cryptic saying of Resh Laqish, “ The patriarchs, they are the throne of God “.(3) We should not expect this doctrine to be developed in the preserved rabbinic material, since the teaching about the throne of God is specified as that to be kept most secret of all,(4) and quite possibly was not committed to writing.(5)
4 Hagigah 2. 1 and parallels.
5 Cf. Clement of Alexandria, Strom. I. 1. 13-14 etc.
Smith is simply supporting his view that “the throne of God” is to be kept secret by referring to Hagigah 2.1, where as we have seen the Mishna forbids any public teaching regarding Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot or the throne. It is true that Hagigah 2.1 also refers to all sorts of forbidden sexuality, but this is not what Smith is referring to in this case. It is amazing that someone can suggest that Smith is alluding to forbidden sexuality by referring to a certain passage, although he explicitly refers to another subject in that passage.
Smith then refers to (or cites) Clement, Stromata 1.1.13-14 etc., to support that this secret teaching was not committed to writing. That he chose Clement to support this idea is of course quite expected. As Scott Brown puts it:
Again, Smith was discussing secret doctrines, and Clement is the most obvious Christian example of the widespread philosophical attitude that the most profound doctrines should not be put in writing: (Scott G. Brown, Factualizing the Folklore: Stephen Carlson’s case against Morton Smith, HTR, July 1, 2006, p. 325)
But all this does of course not support anything of Evans’ suggestions. The mystery of the kingdom of God and Mark 4:11–12, are not mentioned; neither is any forbidden sexuality. The reference to Hagigah 2.1 is to another prohibition and not to sexuality. And just because this tractate happens to be in a footnote followed by a footnote reference to Clement of Alexandria, does not support that Smith linked them to each other.
Evans claim that Smith already before he made his discovery of the Clement letter with two extracts from a Secret Gospel of Mark in the summer of 1958, had expressed similar ideas as those found in Secret Mark. Apart from the fact that those elements are not found in Secret Mark, Smith never made the connections Evans is saying that he did. According to Evans:
Prior to the discovery of the Clementine letter at the Mar Saba Monastery Smith had published three studies (1951, 1955, 1958) in which he discusses (1) Mark 4:11 (“the mystery of the kingdom of God”), (2) secrecy and initiation, (3) forbidden sexual relationships, including union with a god, (4) omitted Markan material with Johannine traits, and (5) Clement of Alexandria, usually in reference to his Stromateis, who believed it was necessary to omit some of Jesus’ secret (potentially offensive) teaching. (Craig Evans, Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark, p. 14)
It is of course not a bit strange if a scholar who has studied both Christianity and Judaism, also in his writings has mentioned Mark 4:11–12 and the mystery of the kingdom of God, and secret teaching as well, since also this was part of his study field. But the point is if he made the connection between the elements Evans believes can be found in Secret Mark. And the answer is definitely no.
In his dissertation and book, the Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels from 1951, he does not link the mystery of the kingdom of God with secrecy and forbidden sexual activity. He is simply showing that there is a difference between the outer teaching and the inner teaching and supporting this with examples to prove his point. Then he happened to chose Mark 4:11 as one of the Christian examples and Hagigah as the Jewish example to prove his point, and one of the subjects in that tractate was about all kinds of forbidden sexual relationships. That is all there is.
The 1955 review of Taylor’s commentary on Mark shows nothing at all. Smith is never referring, or even alluding, to any prohibited sexual activities. Evans’ belief that Smith would have alluded to “teaching regarding prohibited sexual activities” is totally unsupported.
And in his 1958 article “The Image of God”, Smith never even mentions the mystery of the kingdom of God, nor refers to any forbidden sexuality. He simply happened to put two footnotes next to each other, one referring to Clement where he suggest that not everything should be put in writing, and the Hagigah, where it said that the throne of God is to be kept secret.
Next, I will look into Evans’ suggestion that Smith would have supported the idea that Mark should have omitted material with Johannine traits and that this is also true regarding Secret Mark.
Roger Viklund, 2011-08-30