One Thousand and One Untruths:

How Reliable Is the Account of Secret Mark

by Lee Strobel and Craig Evans?

by Roger Viklund Umeĺ, Sweden  


Svensk version


In The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ, journalist Lee Strobel offers another defence of traditional Christianity. Like his previous book The Case for Christ, which was well received among evangelical Christians, Strobel employs the investigative journalist approach, interviewing select experts whose views on various issues provide the basis for the book. The subject this time is the alternative Jesus theories and their credibility. The purpose of this article, however, is to investigate the investigators, to examine how credible Strobel’s evaluation of the alternative Jesus theories really is. I limit this survey to the interview with Craig A Evans on the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark, pages 48–52 in the book.


Strobel begins by telling us that he sits in “Evans’s dining room, listening in astonishment … [to] a bizarre story” about the Secret Gospel of Mark. Evans then says: “The story goes like this”!



Statement No. 1

“Morton Smith was a professor of Judeo-Christian Origins at Columbia University for years”


Although this is a trivial matter in this context, Smith was actually a professor of Ancient History at Columbia University.



Statement No. 2

At a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1960, he announced that two years earlier he had made a historic discovery at the Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean wilderness.


It is true that he did not publicly announce his discovery until 1960, but much earlier, shortly after he made his discovery, he showed it to colleagues and asked for their opinions. Already in 1958, the same year that he made the discovery, he also published a handwritten notebook with a Greek transcription of the letter and an English translation of it, though without photographs. This he did in order “to obtain copyright protection for the material. Smith submitted this work to the Library of Congress in December, 1958.”[1]



Statement No. 3

“In the back of a 1646 book was two and half pages of a letter ostensibly from Clement of Alexandria, who lived in the second century, to someone named Theodore. Smith speculated that a monk copied the letter onto the blank pages at the back of the book to preserve it, maybe because the original papyrus had been crumbling.

”The letter was in Greek, and Smith said it was written with an eighteenth century hand. Here’s what was so interesting: the letter contained two quotes from a previously unknown mystical or secret version of the Gospel of Mark. It describes Jesus raising a young man from the dead, and then later the youth comes to him ‘wearing a linen cloth over his naked body’ and ‘remained with him that night’ so that he could be taught ‘the mystery of the kingdom of God.’ Frankly, the homoerotic suggestion was hard to miss. The letter then ends very abruptly, just after it indicates that something really important was going to be revealed.”


This is a claim that is very often made, namely that the story in the Secret Gospel of Mark refers to the youth and Jesus having a homosexual relationship with one another. To me it seems to be mostly Christians who “discover” this “hidden” meaning. Let us therefore scrutinize the text in question:


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.

(Extract from the first paragraph of Secret Mark in Morton Smith’s translation)


One element referred to for the ”homoerotic suggestion” is that the youth is said to love Jesus, and in the second paragraph which Clement quotes from the Secret Gospel of Mark the same youth is probably mentioned and as the one Jesus loved.


And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them. (The second paragraph of Secret Mark in Morton Smith’s translation)


But the mere fact that they loved each other could not possibly demonstrate that they had a sexual relationship. If that were the case, the same thing would reasonably apply also to the disciple whom Jesus loved (see John 21:20); Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, all of whom Jesus is said to love (John 11:5); and the rich man whom Jesus loves and encourages to sell everything he has, give to the poor, and follow him (Mark 10:21).


Further, the text says that the youth was ”wearing a linen cloth over his naked (body).” But the youth then apparently had this linen cloth on him and was not naked. Moreover, the parallel with Mark 14:51–52 is obvious:


And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about [his] naked [body]; and they laid hold on him: And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked. (Mark 14:51–52)


If one now shall believe that the text in the Secret Gospel of Mark refers to the youth having sex with Jesus because he wears only a linen cloth, why was this not previously suspected when a young man wearing the same clothing attempted to keep following Jesus in Gethsemane—despite the fact that the disciples fled—and then actually relinquished his clothes and fled naked? Apparently this young man also spent time with Jesus (this is probably the same figure) and was naked except for the linen cloth. But we are all naked underneath our clothes.


Finally, some see a “homoerotic suggestion” in Jesus teaching the youth “the mystery of the kingdom of God”. That would then be some sort of metaphor for a heavenly orgasm! It would be interesting to know what they do with the fact that also the other disciples are said to have learned the mystery of the kingdom of God:


And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all [these] things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and [their] sins should be forgiven them.

(Mark 4:11-12)


Would one then believe that also the twelve disciples have participated in some sort of group orgy? Perhaps the observation of the “the homoerotic suggestion [that] was hard to miss” is in the eyes of the beholder rather than in the text? (“That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand”). The view that the paragraph deals with homoeroticism is speculative and has no real support in the text.



Statement No. 4

”Why wasn’t the document simply examined by experts?”

”Because,” Evans said with a grin, ”It’s gone. Vanished. Smith said he left it at the monastery, but today nobody can find it, so it can’t be subjected to ink tests and other analysis. …”


This statement is technically not wrong, but grossly misleading. The way Strobel and Evans depict this, the reader is lead to think that Smith claims to have left the document in the monastery, and then when others tried to locate it, it was gone. This implies that the document might never have been at Mar Saba and that the only evidence that it was there is Smith’s own statement.


But in 1976, eighteen years after Smith’s discovery, Guy G. Stroumsa, now Professor of Comparative Religion, travelled together with Archimandrite Meliton from the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem, and the professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, David Flusser and Shlomo Pines, to Mar Saba to try find the book with the inscribed letter of Clement. And they did find it, evidently where Smith left it eighteen years earlier. They wanted to examine the writing:


We hoped to analyze the manuscript seriously and contemplated an ink analysis. At the National and University Library, however, we were told that only at the police headquarters were people equipped with the necessary knowledge and tools for such an analysis. Father Meliton made it clear that he had no intention of putting the Vossius book in the hands of Israeli police.[2]


At the same time the book was transferred from the library at Mar Saba to the Greek Patriarchate’s library in Jerusalem, and shortly afterwards the leaves containing the letter were detached from the book by the librarian Kallistos Dourvas to be stored separately with the book. As he did this, he also photographed the pages, this time in colour (these photos were published in 2000),[3] and he later testified that the manuscript of the letter of Clement was still in the Patriarchate’s library when he retired in 1990.[4] The pages were photographed also a third time, this time by Quentin Quesnell, who in the early 1980s took them to a firm and had them photographed. These photos have not been published.[5]


So Smith really did all he could do; photograph the pages and leave the book behind in the Mar Saba library in the care of the monks. He could not very well steal the book or tear off the pages and take them with him! When Morton Smith left Mar Saba in 1958 the book was still in the library. Besides, at the time of his discovery he was not fully aware of its significance. He found the document near the end of his stay at Mar Saba, and realised that it was a letter of Clement. Knowing that none of his letters had survived, and suspecting that there could be more spectacular finds to be made, he did not waste his time on the laborious work of translating the letter, but photographed the pages and continued with his examination of more books. Not until he came back to Jerusalem and developed the film did he fully decipher the text and realize that it also quotes from a hitherto unknown gospel.[6]


It is of course true that in spite of many attempts lately to locate the pages, no one has been able to do so. But to imply that Smith would have had anything to do with this is simply not true. If Smith forged the letter and was presuming that this would not be detected, he must have been bold enough to assume that nobody would get access to it in order to investigate it during a period of at least thirty-two years when it remained in custody at the Greek Patriarchate. To claim that “Smith said he left it at the monastery”, even though we know that he left it there, is grossly misleading and biased.



 Statement No. 5

... But he [Morton Smith] did photograph it [the letter], and after he died in 1991, large color photographs of the text were studied by Stephen Carlson.”


Fact 1: Smith took black and white photographs of the book pages in 1958. These black and white photos were published in 1973, but circulated among other scholars already in the late 1950s. Even though it is not explicitly stated, one gets the impression that it was Smith’s large colour photos that Carlson studied.


Fact 2: Colour photographs were taken in the late 1970s by Kallistos Dourvas and they were published in 2000.[7]


Fact 3: Stephen Carlson did not study “large color photographs”. He did talk about the colour photographs and drew some conclusions from them. But he never asked to see or use the original colour photographs. Instead he used the black and white reproductions that appeared in Morton Smith’s book, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (1973), for his study of the handwriting. These halftone reproductions were printed at 100 lines per inch and are rather to be seen as low resolution photos.


Thus, Smith took no colour photos, and Stephen Carlson studied no colour photographs, nor any “large” photos. There are therefore three factual errors in one sentence.



Statement No. 6

He himself was gay, which was a closely guarded secret in the 1950s. He had been denied tenure at Brown University and may have wanted to demonstrate his intellectual superiority by pulling off something like this.


Even though Evans says that “the question of his motive is the weakest part of the case” (which of course is true), still this revenge theory is purely speculation without any evidence in support. To claim that Smith may or even would have created and then planted the letter as revenge, because he did not get the tenure he applied for at Brown University in Rhode Island in 1955, is to invent the motive you’re looking for. The facts say just the opposite. Allan J. Pantuck has investigated Smith’s literary remains and he believes


that these papers show that Smith remained on good terms with the people at Brown and stayed in Providence for three years after he was dismissed (still officially teaching there for one of those years), that he was still held in high esteem by his colleagues, and that he was enjoying a period of good health, peace of mind, and academic productivity doing research on topics of interest with support for word and completing his Th.D. rather than teaching introductory classes to undergraduates and sitting on university committees.[8]


Furthermore, in 1957 he got a position at Columbia University in New York, where he came to stay for the rest of his career and where he seems to have got on well. During this period, Smith even “turned down a job at Cornell that offered him a higher rank and great salary to stay at Columbia.” In 1962 he was appointed professor at Columbia University, and later, considering the possibility that he might be asked to gain the post as Chairman at Harvard University, he wrote: “I am happy at Columbia and shall not like to leave NY.”[9] Not exactly any signs of bitterness and eagerness for revenge.



Statement No. 7

Carlson, a well-regarded patent attorney and amateur biblical scholar, thoroughly investigated the case, bringing in handwriting experts, and writing The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark in 2005.

“What’s your opinion about the authenticity of the letter?” I asked.

Evans’s answer was dramatic: “I think the clues really lead to the conclusion that the letter is a hoax and that Smith is almost certainly the hoaxer.” – – –

When experts examined the magnified photos of the text, they could see what they call ‘forger’s tremor,’ where the text isn’t really written, but instead it’s being drawn by a forger in an attempt to deceive. There are shaky lines, pen-lifts in the middle of strokes—all kinds of indications that this was forged.


Which experts, one wonders? The only “expert” who investigated and claimed to have found the “forger’s tremor” is Stephen C. Carlson, who has no credentials, formal training, or even prior experience as a document examiner. In addition, he asked a professional forensic document examiner named Julie C. Edison to review his work, but not the text itself without preconditions; extracts of her answers can be found here and here. But her opinion was not at all included in Carlson’s book. Moreover, it is a huge exaggeration to speak of “all kinds of indications that this was forged”.


I have examined every example presented by Carlson’s and compared them to the remaining text in the Clement letter. Contrary to the relatively low-resolution reproductions of Smith’s black and white photos that Carlson had access to, I have had at my disposal images scanned at 1,200 dpi (dots per inch) directly from the colour photographs Kallistos Dourvas took in the late 1970s. The results of my study is published in the article: Reclaiming Clement’s Letter to Theodoros – An Examination of Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis.


Stephen Carlson asserts that many letters are uneven and shaky; as if the text was slowly drawn to imitate a hurried eighteenth-century Greek handwriting. He further argues that the signs of this are evident in the beginning, and that the forger Morton Smith gradually becomes more skilful as the work proceeds. But no such transformation can be detected in the writing. Quite the contrary; the text is very consistently written and the scribe, although he writes some letters in varying ways, he still manages to almost always shape them in the same way when following or attaching to distinct letters. The examples of pen lifts given by Carlson are sometimes obviously not mistakes but letters meant to be written apart, and the other examples cannot for certain be shown to be pen lifts. Also the three examples Carlson has given for retouching are uncertain and in no way can be seen as proofs of anything.


The other signs of forgery which Carlson claim to have spotted are ink blobs at the beginning and end of the letters, as if the pen had come to a complete stop, and further tremors, as if the text was written very slowly, almost drawn. Such tremors and ink blobs do exist, but can more easily be explained by the author being an elderly man and that a quill pen easily leaves blobs, especially since the letters are very small in size. Some letters have a diameter of less than 1 mm, and if these small letters are heavily magnified, also the irregularities become heavily magnified.


In addition, we actually have an example of a genuine handwriting in MS 22 (MS = Manuscript) from Mar Saba where similar ink blobs and tremors occur. This handwriting probably also dates to the eighteenth century. It was this text that Carlson erroneously claimed was written by Smith as a hint that he had forged the manuscript of Clement’s letter. More on this later on! The picture to the right shows examples from MS 22 of ink blobs and tremors which are in every way as prominent as those in MS 65 (Clement’s letter to Theodoros). The left word is probably τοῦ with a very shaky tau (τ). The letter to the right is a lambda (λ) with very obvious ink blobs. In this case, therefore, Strobel and Evans are guilty of both errors of fact, misleading exaggeration and speculation.



 Statement No. 8

On top of that, when the Greek letters were compared to a sample of Smith’s own writing, they found the Clement text had the same unusual way in making the Greek letters theta and lambda as he did. That’s a powerful link.


Yes, if it were true it would perhaps be “a powerful link”. But of course it is not true. Again, there is no “they” who has compared and thought they found resemblances, but only Stephen Carlson, thus “he”. The similarity between how lambda was written in the letter by Clement, and Smith’s way of shaping the character, is solely confined to the fact that the letter in both cases was written in two ways, on the one hand without lifting the pen and thus in a continuous motion, on the other hand in two movements, where the pen was lifted. But such variations are very common and really say nothing. As for the rest, the lambdas in Clement’s letter to Theodoros do not resemble the lambdas which Smith wrote. Neither does the letter theta in Clement’s letter resemble Smith’s way of writing the letter. The only actual similarity to be found is that both the scribe who copied the Clement letter and Morton Smith “usually employed the one-stroke cursive form of theta that has been the standard form in Greek handwriting for many centuries.”[10] For those who wish to evaluate comparative examples, see Scott G. Brown’s article Factualizing the Folklore: Stephen Carlson’s Case against Morton Smith.



 Statement No. 9

“Plus, the photos indicated the presence of mildew on the book—something that wouldn’t occur in a book from the dry climate where the monastery was located. More likely, the book was from somewhere else—Europe, or North America. Also, there was no evidence of this book being in the Mar Saba library prior to Smith’s ‘discovering’ it.


 To clarify this statement by Craig A. Evans, I quote directly from his book Fabricating Jesus:


The discolored blotch that is plainly visible in the lower left-hand corner of the final page of the printed text of the volume and in the lower left-hand corner of the second page of the handwritten text prove that the handwritten pages were originally part of the printed edition of the letters of Ignatius. These corresponding blotches, as well as many of the other blotches and discolorations that can be seen in the color photographs, are mildew. The presence of this mildew strongly suggests that the book in question was not originally a part of the library of Mar Saba, whose dry climate does not produce mold and mildew in books. The mildew in the printed edition of the letters of Ignatius suggests that the book in which the alleged Clementine letter was discovered spent most of its existence in Europe. We may speculate that in Europe, or perhaps in North America, the book was purchased and the Clementine letter was drawn onto the blank end papers. The book was then taken to the Mar Saba Monastery, where it was subsequently ”found” in the library. (Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus, p. 96)


This is both speculation and exaggeration, at least in Evans’ book, which states that there is mildew (“These corresponding blotches … are mildew”). This is all about a spot that occurs in the lower outer corner of each photographed page and if the leaves are put together, the spots correspond in location and appearance. These spots have thus originated from a liquid or the like, that penetrated the leaves of the closed book and thereby left a discoloration.


The spots, whose maximum diameter is about 4 mm, are reproduced to the right enlarged. For an even larger and more high-resolution image, click here. The top spot is the one appearing on the front side of the last leaf where page three of Clement’s letter appears. The next spot is from the back of the preceding page, and spot number three is from the front side of the same, containing page one of the letter. The fourth spot comes from the back of still the next leaf, which also contains the final printed page of the book, an image that can only be found in Morton Smith’s black and white photos.


Clearly the stain has a different colour and therefore the paper is discoloured. However, it is difficult to determine that this is mildew. In what way would it be possible to distinguish a discoloration from a formation of mildew, in an image that only shows colour change?


Furthermore, the book was printed in Amsterdam in Holland already in 1646.[11] Some time later the book came to the Mar Saba monastery. This of course may have been far beyond the year 1646. The text was probably written into the blank pages of the book in the middle of the eighteenth century,[12] and we do not even know for sure if this was done in Mar Saba, or if the inscribed text already was there when the book arrived there. In any case, the book may have been in for instance Europe, a hundred years before it came to Mar Saba. Besides, what says that mildew never forms in the Judaean desert? So one cannot say that the presence of mildew would preclude that a monk at Mar Saba could have copied the letter into it in the eighteenth century.


The statement by Strobel and Evans that “there was no evidence of this book being in the Mar Saba library prior to Smith’s ‘discovering’ it” is also a none-argument, since there is also no indication that it wasn’t. That’s just a way of throwing suspicion upon somebody without any facts to back it up. The story goes like this:


There was a seven-page list from 1910 in which 191 book titles from Mar Saba were recorded and where Vossius’ book on Ignatius’ letters was not included.[13] But what does this really show? That the book was not in the library in 1910? No it does not! Since Smith found 489 books in just one of the two libraries,[14] it is obvious that most books were never included in the 1910 book-list.[15] So the fact that the book into which Clement’s letter was copied was not included in the list actually says nothing, neither pro nor con.



Statement No. 10

“And here’s something strange: the book had ‘Smith 65’ written on it. Would you, if you were a guest in somebody’s library, looking at his rare books, write ‘Strobel 65’ on the title page? I find that very strange. If it’s your book, however, you might not hesitate.


Of all the statements Evans is said to have made regarding Morton Smith, Clement’s letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark, this one for sure is the most startling one. Smith was searching the books at Mar Saba for ancient manuscripts, either copied into the books or being part of the bindings when the books had been repaired. He found 96 books containing such manuscripts and of these 96 he catalogued 76 (excluding the liturgical texts). In all the books he catalogued, as far as I know, he also discretely wrote his name and the number the book received in his catalogue. This he did in order for the books to be more easily located. So he wrote ”Smith 22” in the upper right-hand corner on the inside of MS 22,[16] a document we shall return to later on.


Evidently Smith marked all the books, so in the future they would be identifiable; all according to normal procedure. The idea that Smith would have written ”Smith 65” only in the book in which he also wrote the letter of Clement, and this because it was his own book, must surely be regarded as highly imaginative.


This is therefore speculation which ignores the fact that we know that Smith wrote his name and the catalogue number into other books; accordingly errors of fact.




 Statement No. 11

”But one of the most intriguing clues involves another Mar Saba document that had been cataloged by Smith. It’s written in the same hand as the Clement letter. But there are two unusual things about it. First, Smith himself dated this sample to the twentieth century, rather than the eighteenth century when the Clement letter was supposedly written. And second, it’s signed ‘M. Madiotes. ”


This is simply wrong! In Evans’ defence, and thus also Strobel’s, can be said that at the time the interview was done and the book went to press in 2007, it was not widely known that Carlson had been mistaken. On the other hand Scott G. Brown had already made it absolutely clear in two articles in 2006, that Carlson had “mistaken two different writers for one” and also “misattributed the top handwriting to M. Madiotes”, and that the evidence for this would be published later by Allan Pantuck “when he resolves some bureaucratic issues”.[17] This also happened in 2008, when Allan Pantuck and Scott Brown published hitherto unknown material from Smith’s literary remains, in the article Morton Smith as M. Madiotes: Stephen Carlson’s Attribution of Secret Mark to a Bald Swindler. The images below from MS 22 come from this article.


First of all, MS 22 is not a text written by one person, but a set of short texts written by several people. Secondly, the text that Carlson claims is written in the same hand as the Clement letter is not written in the same hand, but in a markedly different one, yet still a characteristically eighteenth-century handwriting. This is shown in the examples below. Thirdly, Smith had not dated this text to the twentieth century. He had not dated it at all, nor commented on it. Fourthly, the text is not signed by M. Madiotes. It is not signed at all. That is because the text supposedly written by M. Madiotes is a different hand on the same page. Fifthly, the text said to be by M. Madiotes is written in a different style and upside down in relation to the text Carlson assumed was written by M. Madiotes. Whoever wrote this, wrote nothing apart from the name (his name?). Sixthly, it was therefore only the name that Smith dated to the twentieth century. The text that Carlson mistakenly thought that Smith attributed to M. Madiotes is in contrast written in typical eighteenth century handwriting. All in all, so to speak, six errors of fact!


I will give but a few examples of the different hands in MS 22 and the Clement letter (MS 65) and do not intend to make a thorough survey. The only fully identifiable word from MS 22, which also occurs in the Clement letter (MS 65), is (apart from a definite article) the word “book”. It occurs on one occasion at line 20 on page 1 of MS 65. At MS 22 (to the right above) it is written βιβλειον and at MS 65 (to the right below and converted from colour to greyscale) it is written βιβλίον. As can be seen β as well as ι, λ and ν are drawn in a markedly different way.


Furthermore, there is the word παρον from MS 22: a word that does not occur in MS 65. However, παρ as part of other words, occurs on seven occasions. The table below shows παρ from the word παρον in MS 22 to the left, followed by the seven examples from MS 65 (the Clement letter).

As can be seen all three letters are written differently in MS 22, compared to how they are written in MS 65. The last letter rho (ρ) is written in a markedly different way and all four examples of that letter from the MS 22 are presented in the table to the left. These four rhos (ρ) in no way resemble the seven rhos (ρ) in the table above (excluding the first one which comes from MS 22). Furthermore, the initial pi (π) is done in a different way. The three pis (π) that occur in MS 22 are reproduced in the vertical table to the right. The transition to the next letter is made by a sweeping curve. In the Clement letter (MS 65) each and every one of the seven examples include a 360-degree loop before connection is made to the next letter.



 Statement No. 12

The name [M. Madiotes] didn’t mean anything to me. “Who’s that?”

“Very good question. It sounds like a Greek name, but it turns out it’s pseudo-Greek, coming from a root that means ‘sphere,’ ‘cueball, or ‘bald.’ Interestingly, Smith was prominently bald for his entire adulthood. So could the name mean ‘Morton the Baldy’? Certainly seems possible.”


Also this is consequently wrong. First of all, Madiotes is a regular Greek name and therefore not pseudo-Greek. That Carlson did not find the name in the Greek telephone directory online and therefore assumed it was an invented name, was due to the fact that he solely searched the spelling Μαδιότης while the name exists in a variant spelling Μαδιωτης.[18] Secondly, Smith himself did not think that the name was Madiotes (Μαδιότης) but instead Madeotas (Μαδεότας). Thirdly, Smith was most likely wrong, even with the name being Madeotas. It is more likely that the very faintly reproduced name is M. Modestos (Μ. Μοδέστος, reproduced to the right), a common name at Mar Saba, and which not in any way is based on the verb μαδω (mado), which, according to Carlson, would denote the bald swindler (the Greek verb mado can also mean “to swindle”) Smith. Incidentally, this is irrelevant because no matter what the name is, that person has not written the text upon which Carlson based his hypothesis. Thus, three errors of fact.




The tactic Strobel uses through Evans is to depict Smith in an unfavourable light and suggest that he had motives to forge the letter. This he does by asserting that the letter had disappeared, while he withholds from the reader the information that apart from Smith a number of other scholars also had seen it; that the text portrays a homosexual act; that Smith himself was a homosexual and therefore had reason to falsify a text that would make Jesus gay; that Smith wanted revenge because he did not get a fulltime job at Brown University and would have assumed that this had to do with his homosexual disposition. All of it is either wrong or misleading and speculative.


In addition, Evans and also Strobel took over several mistakes that Stephen Carlson made, and uncritically (and one might assume willingly) embraced these arguments, without a thorough investigation of their truthfulness. On top of that they have also exaggerated Carlson’s results and delivered unreserved conclusions beyond what Carlson himself has dared to. They also erroneously claimed that Carlson and other experts had studied large colour photos, while in reality only Carlson has done the study and then by basically relying on low-resolution black and white reproductions.


The reliance on Carlson’s conclusions led to their claim that there are tremors and pen lifts which would point to forgery; this they have done without examining the text themselves or checking if other genuine eighteenth-century handwritings also show these features (and as shown, at least one more do). To reinforce that impression they claim that the experts found ”all kinds of indications that this was forged”. Erroneously they claimed that “the Clement text had the same unusual way in making the Greek letters theta and lambda as” Morton Smith did. They wrongly say, relying also this time on Carlson, that Smith forged a different text in the same handwriting, attributed it to a certain Madiotes, a cryptic description of himself as a bald swindler, and as a clue on purpose dated this text to the twentieth century, Smith’s own time. All of this completely wrong.


In this short text of a little more than four pages in the book by Lee Strobel, I have selected twelve statements. Among these there are at least sixteen factual errors, three misleading representations and four exaggerations. Some ”mistakes” are more of a trivial kind, while others form the very basis for rejecting the letter as illegitimate. The rest, on which I have not commented, consists mostly of speculations without any factual support, and more or less just opinion and sarcasm. Part of the fault lies without any doubt in the method Strobel employs of simplistically depicting complicated problems, but Evans has obviously misled him.


If one were to assume that the rest of the book contains as many errors as the part on Secret Mark does, and to extrapolate the purely factual errors that occur in this part of the book onto the book’s body of roughly 260 pages—there would be about a thousand factual errors.[19] Obviously, this cannot be done without further examination.


At the end Strobel asks Evans what the fact “that many Biblical scholars accepted Secret Mark” does “say about Biblical scholarship”? Evans replies: “I think it’s an embarrassment”. For once I agree with Evans. It is an embarrassment. But not the fact that many have accepted Secret Mark as (probably) genuine, but rather that Evans lent himself to act as an expert for Strobel and also acted in a patronizing way on a matter on which he obviously is ignorant. If anything is embarrassing for Biblical scholarship, it is ignorance matched with condescension.



Copyright © 2009

Roger Viklund

7 September 2009




[1] Allan Pantuck has commented upon this at Timo S. Paananen’s blog Master’s Thesis: Chapter 2.5 An analysis of Stephen Carlson’s handwriting analysis - Part IV 2077/3561 words. Pantuck writes: “The sheets are handwritten, with a 1 page introduction explaining what it was and why it was being published this way. It was not really meant for distribution to the general public, but instead allowed Smith to submit the photos, text, etc to other scholars for their assessment and opinions without giving them permission to print or quote from the letter.”

[2] Gedaliahu A. G. Stroumsa, Comments on Charles Hedrick’s Article: A Testimony (Journal of Early Christian Studies 11:2, Summer 2003: 147–53).

[3] Charles W Hedrick, Nikolaos Olympiou, Secret Mark: New Photographs, New Witnesses, The Fourth R. 13:5 (September/October 2000) – available online here.

[4] Guy G. Stroumsa, Comments on Charles Hedrick’s Article: A Testimony, JECS 11 (2003): 147–53. Charles W. Hedrick, Nikolaos Olympiou, Secret Mark: New Photographs, New Witnesses, The Fourth R 13/5 (September–October 2000): 3–16.

[5] In the early 1980s, Quesnell was allowed to look at the two folios of the manuscript. He also obtained permission from the Patriarchate to have color photographs made of the folios by a firm in Jerusalem. Footnote: Personal communication. Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary. Hermeneia – A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (Fortress Press, 2007, p. 491).

[6] Morton Smith, The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark, p. 13–14.

[7] Charles W Hedrick, Nikolaos Olympiou, Secret Mark: New Photographs, New Witnesses, The Fourth R. 13:5 (September/October 2000) – available online here.

[8] Allan J. Pantuck on Stephen Carlson’s blog Hypotyposeis.

[9] Allan J. Pantuck on Stephen Carlson’s blog Hypotyposeis.

[10] Scott G. Brown, Factualizing the folklore: Stephen Carlson’s case against Morton Smith, Harvard Theological Review (2006), 99:3, 291-327.

[11] The book is a 1646 first edition of Epistulae genuinae S. Ignatii Martyris, including Ignatius of Antiochia’s so-called authentic letters; a book edited by Isaac Vossius.

[12] Morton Smith had ten experts examine the writing and their consensus “would date the hand about 1750, plus or minus about 50 years”. Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (1973), p. 1.

[13] Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (1973), p. 290.

[14] Allan J. Pantuck; Scott G. Brown, Morton Smith as M. Madiotes: Stephen Carlson’s Attribution of Secret Mark to a Bald Swindler, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 6 (2008), 106–125.

[15] Allan J. Pantuck on Stephen Carlson’s blog Hypotyposeis.

[16] Allan J. Pantuck; Scott G. Brown, Morton Smith as M. Madiotes: Stephen Carlson’s Attribution of Secret Mark to a Bald Swindler, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 6 (2008), 106–125.

[17] Scott G. Brown, Reply to Stephen Carlson, The Expository Times, Vol. 117,. No. 4, 144–149, (2006); Factualizing the folklore: Stephen Carlson’s case against Morton Smith, Harvard Theological Review (2006), 99:3, 291-327.

[18] February 5, 2006, Textual Criticism, entry 1587.

[19] In only about 4.3 pages there are 16 factual errors. This means about 3.7 factual errors per page. The body of the book is about 260 pages. 260 x 3.7 ≈ 1000.


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