A bizarre detail in the Gospel of Mark leads a Mythicist to an intriguing speculation.
Have you ever noticed a bizarre detail in the Gospel of Mark? In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Judas arrives with an armed crowd to arrest Jesus, and all his disciples flee:
A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. [Mark 14:51–52]
You could easily have missed it. I cannot remember the priest ever labouring the point when he read Mark’s Passion in full on a Palm Sunday. Neither can I remember the nuns ever mentioning it, not that one would to a class of prurient teenage girls prone to sniggering at the slightest innuendo.
However, the nuns could not avoid the references to ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ in the Gospel of John, such as this one during the Last Supper:
The disciples began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one He was speaking. There was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved. So Simon Peter gestured to him, and said to him, ‘Tell us who it is of whom He is speaking.’ He, leaning back thus on Jesus’ bosom, said to Him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ [John 13:22–25]
You can imagine us giggling and whispering to each other, ‘Jesus was gay and John was his boyfriend.’
However, John the Evangelist may not have been the Beloved Disciple, as we were taught, after all. Some scholars have identified him as Lazarus of Bethany whom Jesus raises from the dead [John 11:1–44]. In fact, the clues in the Gospel of John are evident. When Lazarus is dying, his sisters send word to Jesus, saying ‘Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.’ And Jesus is willing to go to Bethany because ‘Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus’ [John 11:3–5]. It has also been noted that the Beloved Disciple is not mentioned before John 13, after the raising of Lazarus.
Later, in John 21, the disciples are discussing their future with Jesus. Jesus tells Peter that:
…you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.’ Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’ Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them… So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, ‘Lord, and what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!’ Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die… [John 21:18–23]
Who else would people believe would never die, but someone who had already been resurrected by Jesus?
As famous as this miracle is, and how central to Jesus’ story, the raising of Lazarus is exclusively found in the Gospel of John and is not mentioned in any of the other gospels as they appear in our Bibles.
The only other mention of a Lazarus is as a fictional character in a parable Jesus tells in the Gospel of Luke [16:19–31], The Rich Man and Lazarus. In this parable, Lazarus is a beggar who is turned away from the door of a rich man. When they die, Lazarus is ‘carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom’ while the rich man finds himself burning in Hell. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a little water to cool his tongue, but Abraham tells him it is not possible. So the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them not to make his mistakes, but Abraham replies that they should listen to Moses and the Prophets, and if they will not, not even a man returning from the dead will convince them.
Here we have another Lazarus who ‘lies in the bosom’ of his spiritual master, but while in Luke, Abraham refuses to bring Lazarus back from the dead as it would convince no one, in his gospel, John turns this story on its head, as it is precisely so that the people will believe in him that Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. [John 11:40–42]
While this parable has been identified as a source for the story of the raising of Lazarus, it may well be that there is another source, which will bring us back to the naked man in the Garden of Gethsemane and the discovery of a secret gospel.
Morton Smith and the Secret Gospel of Mark
In 1958, Morton Smith, a professor of Ancient History at Columbia University, was granted permission to spend three weeks cataloguing the library of the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Saba which was situated between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. The library was much neglected by the monks and its most important books had long been removed to the library of the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem, but there were still hundreds left. Having visited the library several years earlier, Smith believed there might be some treasure hidden amongst the dusty tomes, and indeed there was.
Hand copied in an 18th century Greek script onto the endpapers of a copy of Isaac Voss’s 1646 edition of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, Smith discovered a previously unknown letter written by the theologian Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215CE) in which he quoted two passages from a secret, longer version of the Gospel of Mark. Not allowed to take the book out of the library and with little time to study the manuscript, Smith took black and white photographs of the pages. Over the following years he studied them in depth, consulting many experts in the field, and finally published his findings in 1973.
In 1976 a group of scholars gained permission to take the book from Mar Saba to the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem for safe keeping. There they proposed that the manuscript should be forensically tested, but the only facilities that could carry out the tests were those of the Israeli police, and the Greek Orthodox authorities refused to place the book in Jewish hands. In 1983 the manuscript pages, which had since been removed from the book, were professionally photographed in colour, although these images were not published until 2000. Unfortunately, some time after 1990, the manuscript pages went missing and have not been seen since. (See more about the Secret Gospel of Mark)
While most of Morton Smith’s peers welcomed his findings, given the circumstances, it is no wonder that many others doubted the letter’s authenticity, though most of these doubts were aired after Smith’s death in 1991, when he could no longer defend himself against accusations of forgery. The question has been debated at length ever since and is now at a stalemate. However, in Smith’s defence, I would point out that it was not he who stood in the way of the manuscript’s being studied by other scholars or forensically examined, and he had nothing to do with its eventual disappearance. In fact, given the letter’s controversial implications (as we shall see), it is rather in the interests of the Greek Orthodox authorities that the manuscript should disappear and never be authenticated.
Clement of Alexandria and the Secret Gospel of Mark
The letter Morton Smith discovered is addressed by Clement of Alexandria to a certain Theodore. (See the letter in full) It can be inferred from the letter that Clement is writing in response to Theodore’s enquiry about a version of the Gospel of Mark used by the Carpocratians, a Christian sect notorious for engaging in sexual orgies and spouse-swapping as part of their liturgical practice. Clement denounces the Carpocratians as heretics and accuses them of surreptitiously obtaining a copy of the Secret Gospel of Mark held in Alexandria, which was reserved only for ‘those who were being perfected’, and falsifying it to justify their depraved practices. According to Clement, after the martyrdom of Peter, Mark brought Peter’s notes as well as his own gospel with him to Alexandria, and added to his gospel esoteric teachings only suitable for ‘those who are being initiated into the great mysteries’. In order to ensure that Theodore not be misled, Clement quotes from the Secret Gospel:
…after ‘And they were in the road going up to Jerusalem’ and what follows, until ‘After three days he shall arise’ [Mark 10:34], 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 saying 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 straightway, 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 came 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.”
And these words follow the text, ‘And James and John come to him’ [Mark 10:35] 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 came into Jericho,’ [Mark 10:46] 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.”
Morton Smith disagreed with Clement on whether this text was added to Mark’s gospel, proposing, instead, that it was part of the original gospel but edited out later because of its homoerotic content. In fact, the inclusion of this text makes sense of odd details in the canonical gospel.
According to the canonical Mark 10:46–47:
Then they came to Jericho. And as He was leaving Jericho with His disciples and a large crowd, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the road. When he heard that it was Jesus the Nazarene, he began to cry out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’
However, it seems strange that the text should read that Jesus arrives in Jericho and then leaves after nothing happens. Including the letter’s text makes more sense of this paragraph (and also explains why the blind beggar addresses Jesus with those words, the same words that got a result when used by the young man’s sister).
As for the longer extract, it would seem to account for the naked man in the Garden of Gethsemane, who could be the same young man or another acolyte to whom Jesus has given the same instructions (but who picks the wrong night to approach Jesus). In fact, as some scholars have put it, this passage makes coherent several incoherent details in the canonical Mark, including also, the rich young man who approaches Jesus in Mark 10:17–25 and whom ‘[l]ooking at him, Jesus felt a love for him… [Mark 10:21], as well as the young man wearing a white robe that the women see in Jesus’ empty tomb. [Mark 16:5]
I would also add that Clement – and the tradition he cites – cannot be right about Mark being an associate of Peter who based his gospel on information he received from him, as Peter was the leader of the Torah-observant Christians, while Mark’s gospel advocates for a Torah-free, gentile Christianity. (See Why I am a Mythicist.)
The Gospel of John and the Secret Gospel of Mark
As we have seen, there are those that propose that the Clementine letter is a forgery. It is indeed possible that Morton Smith, having read the literature identifying Lazarus as the Beloved Disciple, and putting that together with the aforementioned details in the Gospel of Mark, fabricated the letter. However, considering the origin of the elements in John’s story of the raising of Lazarus, it would not be Smith we should charge with fabrication.
As we have seen, one source for the story of Lazarus is the Lukan parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. As Richard Carrier points out, this transformation of Lazarus from a fictional character in a parable, to Lazarus, the resurrected Beloved Disciple, not only reverses the message conveyed by the story, but is evidence that the Gospel of John is a complete fiction, despite John’s claim that his gospel’s primary source is this very Beloved Disciple ‘…who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.’ [John 21:24]
The parable is not the only element of the story John has taken from the synoptic gospels. Lazarus’s two sisters, Martha and Mary, also come from Luke [10:38–42], where they entertain Jesus in their home, but there is no mention of their having a brother.
Moreover, John identifies Lazarus’s sister Mary as the otherwise unnamed woman who anoints Jesus with oil while he is at dinner [John 12:1–8]. In shaping this incident, John takes elements from Mark [14:3–9] and Matthew [26:6–13] where the anointing takes place in Bethany, the disciples object because the perfumed oils are a waste of money that could go to the poor and Jesus rebukes them saying the anointing anticipates his death. Luke’s version of the story [7:36–38] is quite different to the others as the woman is a repentant sinner (by implication a prostitute) who, as opposed to Mark’s and Matthew’s version, anoints Jesus’ feet rather than his head. John also has Mary anoint Jesus’ feet, which makes his version rather confusing. While anointing Jesus’ head is an act of veneration, anointing his feet is an act of humility, thus implying that Mary is a sinner. While it might not have been meant that way, this parallel with Luke has tainted Mary of Bethany ever since and allowed her to be equated with Mary Magdalen.
Tellingly, in the canonical John, the identification of Mary as the woman who anoints Jesus, is made before the anointing scene in John 12, when Lazarus’s family is introduced:
It was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. [John 11:2]
This demonstrates what many scholars have long argued: that the Gospel of John has been edited, rearranged and redacted by more than one hand, in this case by moving scenes around.
Given the above, it would not be implausible to suggest that the original author of the Gospel of John had access to the Secret Gospel of Mark, from which he took his primary source for the story of the raising of Lazarus. He chose that name, and showed him ‘resting in Jesus’ bosom’ in order to make explicit that he was reversing the message of the parable. Luke also provided the names of Lazarus’s sisters, who give the author scope for a more personalised and dramatic story and also, in stating that Jesus loved all three siblings equally, an opportunity to tone down the homoerotic implications of Jesus’ relationship with Lazarus. I would also suggest that John’s original version of the miracle story was longer and continued along the lines of the story in Secret Mark, thus making clear why Lazarus is known as the Beloved Disciple, but that it was later redacted to remove the more blatant homoerotic elements, just as the Gospel of Mark was.
Who is the Naked Man?
So, what are we to make of all this? If the letter is authentic – and for the sake of argument, let us accept it is – it has disturbing implications for the Church.
Is Secret Mark telling us that Jesus was no better than many a cult leader who has taken advantage of his position to have sex with his followers, and male followers at that? If Christians were to acknowledge that Jesus engaged in homosexuality, the Church could no longer impose the heterosexual norms on its adherents, or discriminate against or victimise anyone who goes outside those norms. They could no longer oppose progressive law reform on matters of sex and gender. They might even have to acknowledge that Jesus said nothing against abortion. In fact, they might lose the very foundation on which the Church has based its authority and power.
However, from a Mythicist point-of-view, no such problem exists. (See Why I am a Mythicist) If the Gospel of Mark is an allegory in its entirety about a celestial Jesus who never lived on Earth, he had no physicality and therefore no sexuality. The incident just becomes part of a wider allegorical story about the nature of Christian conversion, baptism and discipleship.
The story begins with the rich young man who asks Jesus how he can gain eternal life. When Jesus questions him he answers that he has kept the Law of Moses since his youth. Then:
Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property. And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!’ [Mark 10:21–23]
In other words, you cannot be a Christian if you are attached to worldly goods. A metaphor for worldliness is clothing which not only disguises your true self but displays your wealth. Taking off your clothes would symbolise not only shedding your wealth, but acknowledging your true self. Jesus’ instruction to the young man to come to him wearing nothing but ‘a linen cloth over his naked body’ means that one should approach Jesus’ teachings with an open heart and no attachment to things of this world. Jesus teaches the young man ‘the mystery of the kingdom of God’ after he has died and been reborn, a metaphor for baptism in which one dies to one’s old life and is reborn in Jesus. As a Christian one shares with Jesus in his suffering and sacrifice, as does the young man in the Garden of Gethsemane, as well as sharing in his resurrection, as does the young man in a white robe found in Jesus’ empty tomb. And, of course, all this is achieved through the love of Jesus.
From the point-of-view of the Church, the mythicist reading of the Secret Gospel of Mark would be the most acceptable, but to accept it would be to acknowledge that the gospel is an allegory and not historical, that Jesus is a mythical, celestial being who never lived on Earth and therefore never bestowed his authority on the Church. This would challenge the Church’s very existence. Better to make the Secret Gospel of Mark just disappear altogether.
© Pauline Montagna 2022
Dr Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, Sheffield Phoenix Press (2014)
Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The battles for scriptures and the faiths we never knew, Oxford University Press (2003)