Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Very Reasonable Summary of the Mar Saba Discovery (By A German Of Course)

In 1958, while the American scholar Morton Smith was cataloguing books and manuscripts in the monastery of Mar Saba in the desert near Jerusalem, he discovered a handwritten text on the last free page and the inside-back cover of a printed seventeenth-century edition of the letters of Ignatius. On examination, this proved to be a hitherto unknown letter by Clement of Alexandria, quoting from a 'mystic' Gospel of Mark which was read in circles of initiates in Alexandria. Smith published his discovery in 1973, using photographs which he had taken. Between 1958 and 1973, a number of experts had confirmed that Clement was the probable author of the text itself, while the manuscript clearly indicated an eighteenth-century provenance; it was apparently common practice at that period in Mar Saba to write on blank pages and gaps in books and to copy fragmentary ancient texts. In the eighth century, John Damascene had worked in this monastery, and he mentions that he knew letters of Clement. This allows the construction of a slender line of transmission which lends a remote plausibility to the hypothesis that a letter of Clement was indeed handed on in this unusual manner.

Unfortunately, Smith linked his editio princeps to far-reaching conclusions about the picture of Jesus (further developed in his book Jesus the Magician, London 1978); the impression was given - although Smith himself does not actually declare this explicitly - that the text implies a homosexual relationship between Jesus and at least one of his disciples. This is one main reason why doubts about the status of this discovery have never been completely silenced. More fundamental questions are raised too; the whole thing may be a clever forgery composed at any time between late antiquity and the twentieth century. Assessment is made more difficult by the fact that, apart from Smith, no scholar has ever seen the original. All that investigations have shown is that the volume was transported from Mar Saba to the Orthodox patriarchate in Jerusalem, where the handwritten leaves were detached from the book in order to be better conserved. At the present date, however, the patriarchal librarian is unable to produce these pages, although it appears that older photographs taken by his predecessor have now been discovered. The Secret Gospel has its own homepage, with regular updates, detailing the various incidents in this chronique scandaleuse. [Hans-Josef Klauck, Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction p. 33]

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