Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Quick One With The King Of Kings

Fifty years ago, according to the historian Morton Smith (1915-1991), he found a manuscript fragment in the library of a Greek Orthodox monastery near Bethlehem, in what is now the West Bank of the Occupied Territories. The material, handwritten during the 1700s in the endpapers of a printed book, turned out to be a copy of part of a letter from Clement of Alexandria (ca 150 – ca 215), an important early Church father, and that alone made Smith’s discovery significant. In the letter Clement attacked the Carpocratians, a notorious ‘heretical’ sect. But even better, Clement wrote that the evangelist Mark had written a longer, more “spiritual” version of his gospel for more advanced Christians, and Clement quoted a couple of passages from it.

Smith couldn’t take the original with him – it belonged to the monastery – so he photographed it. When he returned to the US, he announced his find and began studying it carefully, to try to determine whether the letter (and therefore the gospel quotation) was genuine. In 1973 he published two books: a dense scholarly monograph, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Harvard University Press), and a ‘popular’ account, The Secret Gospel (Harper & Row). There had been rumblings of incipient controversy before, but now it hit the fan.

The sore point was Clement’s quotation from Longer Mark. Here it is in Smith’s translation, with the immediate context in Clement’s letter:
To you, therefore, I shall not hesitate to answer the questions you have asked, refuting the falsifications by the very words of the Gospel. For example, after “And they were in the road going up to Jerusalem" and what follows, until "After three days he shall arise”, the secret Gospel brings the following material word for word:

“And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me.’ But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near, Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb, they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do, and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.”

After these words follows the text, “And James and John come to him”, and all that section. But “naked man with naked man,” and the other things about which you wrote, are not found.

And after the words, “And he comes into Jericho,” the secret Gospel adds only, “And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them.” But the many other things about which you wrote both seem to be, and are, falsifications.
Anyone familiar with the New Testament will recognize that we have here a version of the raising of Lazarus, familiar from chapter 11 of the gospel of John. The most striking difference is the rite it mentions, with the new disciple coming to Jesus wrapped in a linen shroud. Smith concluded that Jesus practiced a rite, the mystery of the Kingdom of God, which united the disciple spiritually with Jesus and set him free from the Law of Moses. In The Secret Gospel he added, “Freedom from the law may have resulted in completion of the spiritual union by physical union. This certainly occurred in many forms of Gnostic Christianity; how early it began there is no telling” (114). It was probably this speculation that drove his critics off the rails.

The authenticity of the letter is well-enough accepted that it’s now included in the standard edition of Clement’s works. There was always dissent, of course, and especially since Smith’s death in 1991, the controversy has heightened. The basic line of attack is that the letter, including the gospel fragment, is a hoax perpetrated by Smith himself.

To add to the complications, the original document has been lost, perhaps deliberately, by the monastery librarian; at least two other scholars have seen it as late as 1976, and a couple of color photographs were posted on the Web. Stephen C. Carlson, who purports to prove in his recent book The Gospel Hoax (Baylor, 2005) that the document was forged by Smith, had to base his handwriting analysis on Smith’s published photographs of the text.

But the core issue for most of those who believe that Smith forged the letter is that sly aside about “physical union,” i.e., sex. I’m not competent to have an informed opinion on the letter’s authenticity -- those who want to learn more can start here -- but I think I can say something useful about this.

Here I find myself in an unusual position, for me. Usually conservatives will deny that an ambiguous text should be read homoerotically, but this time it’s conservatives who insist that the passage from Longer Mark is about a homosexual encounter between Jesus and the rich young man. They’re not the only ones, it’s true: some openly gay Christian writers have also read it as a positive example for gay Christians today -- but they believe the letter is authentic. I think this unexpected agreement is fascinating, and probably significant.

But I don’t see anything homoerotic in the story. Sure, I wouldn’t mind having a handsome young man appear at my door wrapped in a sheet and nothing else, begging nocturnal instruction. (This reminds me of The Sensuous Woman, a self-help book for frustrated housewives of the 1960s, which recommended that they wrap themselves in Saran Wrap to greet their husbands at the end of the day.) Morton Smith, who was apparently gay, would doubtless have enjoyed it too, as would the gay Christian writers who’ve adopted this story, and so probably would many of Smith’s conservative accusers. But the text doesn’t, as far as I can see, support such a reading itself. Smith provided evidence that early Christian baptism, like initiation rites in other cults, often required the new Christian to wear a linen shroud over his or her naked body, and often took place at night, but his dirty-minded accusers insist on importing their own obsessions into the story.

I’m not calling these writers dirty-minded because I think sex is dirty, but because they do. And they do, Blanche, they do. They give their twisted libidos free rein to fantasize about Smith’s picture of Jesus as “a kind of bathhouse shaman who had initiated his (mostly male) disciples by means of late-night baptismal rituals featuring nudity and most probably sex” (Charlotte Allen, The Human Christ [The Free Press, 1998, p. 265]). Howard Clark Kee explained that Jesus refused to meet with his new disciple’s mother and a friend of hers because “they resented the homosexual relations Jesus was having with his male associates” (What Can We Know About Jesus? [Cambridge, 1990], 36). Another scholar claimed that Smith wrote the gospel fragment as an insider’s “gay joke at the expense of all the self-important scholars” (Donald Akenson, quoted by Scott Brown, Journal of Biblical Literature 2006, p. 373f). That Morton Smith theorized Jesus as a “Gay Magician” is virtually an article of faith among them, repeated without support in article after book after diatribe. It would be interesting if there were evidence that Jesus was gay, but there isn’t any.

In his book The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament (Pilgrim Press, 2003), Theodore W. Jennings makes an interesting case that the New Testament depicts Jesus as erotically drawn to other males, and they to him. (He takes Longer Mark into account, but it’s not essential to his reading.) It’s not a new idea. The Elizabethan writer and spy Christopher Marlowe was accused of having said that “St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma”; many gay men for the past century and more have read the fourth gospel’s references to the Disciple Jesus Loved as romantic or erotic.

There’s also a tantalizing moment in the canonical gospel of Mark. When Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane,
Now a certain young man followed Him, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body. And the young men laid hold of him, and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked [Mark 14.51-52, New King James Version].
This fellow has the same keen fashion sense as the rich youth in Longer Mark. Why was he with Jesus that night? Scholars have no idea. The incident doesn’t appear in any of the other gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ arrest.

Now it gets kinky. Stephen Carlson writes in The Gospel Hoax, 70:
The sexually charged climax of the Secret Mark means that what these [two different] young man were seeking was, to use the words of New York statute, “a crime against nature or other lewdness.” In other words, Secret Mark easily conjures up to the twentieth-century reader the image that Jesus was arrested for soliciting a homoerotic encounter in a public garden [quoted by Scott Brown in JBL 2006, 373].
This is a highly revealing speculation, and it indicates what is wrong with a gay reading of Longer Mark: even if Jesus invited the rich youth to come to his room for some all-night lovin’, why did he want him to arrive in such a, well, eccentric outfit? Ditto for the youth in canonical Mark 14:51-52: if he was cruising for action, why was he wearing a shroud? For a burial shroud is what that linen sheet connotes. First-century Judea was, on Carlson’s assumptions, highly advanced in the fetishes of its gay scene. (And not only Carlson: Jennings overlooks the significance of the shroud in his positive homoerotic reading of Mark in The Man Jesus Loved.) Carlson believes that Smith based his fabrication of Longer Mark on American gay customs of the 1950s, but I’ve never heard of guys cruising Central Park, or anywhere else, in shrouds. Even if it happened once in a while, it wasn’t standard operating procedure. I certainly don’t recognize twentieth-century gay men’s customs in these stories.

Carlson also apparently believes that Smith erred by presenting an egalitarian gay relationship between men of about the same age, which didn’t fit the classic Greek model. I can’t see this either: Jesus was a mature man, the rich young man was younger even if not a boy. Jesus was also the teacher (and the Messiah, the Son of God to boot!) and the youth was his disciple. If Longer Mark was meant to depict an erotic relationship, it is not an egalitarian one. (One also can’t assume that Jesus would have followed the pagan Greek pederastic model, which in any case often stretched to include men near to each other in age.) To get the evidence to fit his agenda, Carlson has to twist it around quite strenuously.

Even if they get rid of Longer Mark, Smith’s accusers now must do something with the naked youth in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ love for the rich youth (Mark 10:21), Jesus’ love for Lazarus (John 11:3), Jesus’ love for the Beloved Disciple, which all conjure up homoerotic encounters for the prurient twentieth-century reader. Maybe Morton Smith traveled to the first century in a time machine and put those passages into the original gospels! Maybe Smith and Jesus were gay lovers, who fabricated Secret Mark together to make it appear that Jesus was a “bathhouse shaman” and discredit the modern church! And now that Smith’s accusers can’t look at love between Jesus and another male without seeing hot-hot-guy2guy action, they’re doomed. (For that matter, the loose woman wiping perfume from Jesus’ feet with her hair [Luke 7:38] is pretty steamy stuff. So, the gospels depict Jesus as a swinging bisexual.)

I suspect that these writers think they can discredit not only Smith himself but the manuscript simply by saying that Smith was gay. No doubt this move still works in fundamentalist circles, which to judge from recent events are crawling with closet cases desperate to distract attention from their own furtive gropings by pointing at Teh Gays. That such virulent homosexual panic could sweep through New Testament studies in the 1990s and after doesn’t speak well for the field. More liberal scholars don’t seem to be much better (even the reasonable Bart Ehrman still believes that Smith forged the letter and gospel fragment, for no reason except that he could; and because he could have, he therefore did), but they can mostly stifle their personal discomfort with homosexuality enough to recognize that a smear is a smear.

I first read The Secret Gospel sometime in the mid-1970s, before I started reading seriously in Christian origins. My reading led me eventually to Morton Smith’s other work, which taught me a great deal. I never met him, and to judge from some snippy things he wrote about homosexuality and other matters in his Hope and History, I doubt we’d have gotten along well. But my intellectual debt to him is enormous. I think Clement’s letter and the gospel fragment are probably authentic, though I have some quibbles with Smith’s interpretation and theorizing about them. His opponents’ reliance on ad hominem attacks and smears, preferably after Smith was safely dead, is testimony to the strength of his scholarship generally. If it were really so badly flawed, they could expose its errors. They don’t, so evidently they can’t.