DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Secret Gospel of Mark

The Church at large has for centuries promoted the four Gospels as the only true source of information about Jesus of Nazareth. Only in the past century or so has that position been weakening as other non-canonical works have been opened up to the public.

In the process, a number of new or ignored sources about Jesus have been brought into the light and analysed by scholars and others. One such is the Gospel of Thomas. The Secret Gospel of Mark is another.

The traditional gospels spring to mind when the word "gospel" is used. Secret Mark is in reality only a couple of short fragments.

The first fragment is about 180 words long [1]. It tells of a woman who begs for mercy from Jesus. He goes into a garden where he hears a voice from a tomb. He opens the tomb and brings out a young man. Jesus then goes to the young man's house and teaches him the mysteries of God's kingdom.

The second is much sorter, only 23 words long. It relates how Jesus refuses to see the sister of the young man and her mother, Salome.

The Secret Mark was accidentally discovered by Columbia University Professor Morton Smith in the summer of 1958 at the Greek Orthodox monastery of Hagios Sabbas near Jerusalem.

One day towards the end of his stay at the monastery, he began puzzling over a text written in a tiny scrawl. It turned out to be a fragment of a letter by Clement of Alexandria (150-215). It was written over both sides of the last page (which was blank) of an old book and over half of a sheet of binders paper. It was a common practice for monks to hand copy manuscripts onto the unused pages of old books.

Clement's letter was to a certain Theodore, who had asked him a number of questions about the Gospel. In can be inferred from the letter that Theodore had himself seen a copy of the entire Gospel. The Alexandrian Church seems to have had two versions of Mark's Gospel - one for public consumption and one for Christian initiates.

According to Clement, Mark wrote the Gospel we know while he was in Rome. The Secret Gospel was written by him in Alexandria. It included passages intended only for "those who are advancing with respect to knowledge (gnosis)" because it contained "things not to be uttered". Clement assured Theodore that only enough information was given to lead advanced initiates "into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils."

Since the publication of Secret Mark in 1978 a number of theories have surfaced about it.

To get a good perspective it's useful to note that even our Mark's Gospel probably didn't reach its final form until the second century. Although it was first written around 70, editors seem to have made minor changes for a while afterwards. Clement thought that the Secret Mark fragment should be placed between between Mark 10.34 and 10.35 in our canonical gospel

Some scholars have noted what they see as similarities between the canonical Mark and Secret Mark:

  •  Both refer to a young man (neaniskos in Greek) who is dressed in a linen cloth. One is in Mark's account of the happenings in the Garden of Gethsemane (14.51-52).

  • There are also some linguistic similarities between the two gospels.

One scholar concludes that Clement was wrong in thinking that the Secret Mark fragment fits into the canonical gospel:

Clement is�wrong about where these expansions come from. They are much more likely to be the work of some Alexandrian Christian Jew, who lived before Clement, and who was familiar with one or more of our canonical gospels. [2]

Overshadowing the entire debate is an accusation that the original evidence has been faked by is finder. This is because all that now exists in the public domain is a photograph of what Professor Smith says he found. The original is, as far I can tell, either no longer accessible or has now been lost.

The Secret Mark fragment testifies to the instability of New Testament texts before the end of the second century. Only after that point was the Church able to preserve the texts as we now have them. By implication, there existed large numbers of "heretical" gospels and letters which were excluded, destroyed and lost. And as textual analysis proves, even those we have were on occasion added to, corrected and purged of doctrinal error.

But, more importantly, Secret Mark adds nothing to our knowledge of the Jesus of history - that is, the Jesus who actually existed and did and said certain things. At best, it shows us something of how the early Christians imagined he was.

_____________________________________________________
[1] In the translation provided by The Complete Gospels, Polebridge Press, 1992. See also The Biblical Archaeology Review for Morton's own translation.
[2] Pierson Parker quoted by Charles W. Hedrick and Nikolaos Olympiou

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