Thursday, August 2, 2012

Chapter One of Naked Man With Naked Man

In summer of 1958 an incredible discovery was made by a most intriguing individual. The man was Morton Smith, a first year Associate Professor of Ancient History at Columbia University. His discovery was the Letter to Theodore, a previously unknown correspondence from the third century Church Father Clement of Alexandria. Smith found the text while cataloguing the books of the Mar Saba monastery near Bethlehem. This ancient Christian landmark is now over fifteen hundred years old. Monks still direct visitors to a palm tree allegedly planted by the monastery’s founder St Saba in the fourth century.

Morton Smith first came to Mar Saba as something of an accident. As a twenty-six year old divinity student traveling on a fellowship from Harvard, he was caught by surprise by the start of World War II. There was no way for him to get home as the Mediterranean Sea was closed, so Smith ‘hung out’ in Palestine. He was staying in a small apartment owned by a Greek Orthodox priest who noticed his interest in liturgical rites at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. The priest encouraged Smith to visit Mar Saba and the young student stayed there for two months in 1941.

After the war was over Smith completed his studies in the United States only to come back to the monastery in 1951 for the fifteen hundred year anniversary of the Jerusalem Patriarchate. Smith maintained a correspondence with various officials in Palestine including the Patriarch Benedict who was elected to office in 1957. In the following year Smith was invited to catalogue the books of the Mar Saba library which the professor was eager to accept. Smith knew that monks tended to hand copy manuscripts into the unused pages of old books. He hoped to discover something noteworthy during his three week stay. One day toward the end of his stay at the monastery he was rewarded for his diligence.

While sitting in his cell he began puzzling over a text written in a tiny scrawl at the back of an edition of the letters of the second century Church Father Ignatius of Antioch published by Isaac Voss in 1646. As Smith later recalled it was "written over both sides of the last page (which was blank) of the original book and over half of the recto of a sheet of binders paper." As he began to translate the opening line, he quickly realized that this was a fragment of a letter written by a well-known early Christian named Clement of Alexandria to an otherwise unknown individual named Theodore.

The Columbia professor was justifiably elated. After all, to discover a new letter by an important Church Father was a once in a lifetime achievement. It would almost certainly impact the scholarly understanding of early Christianity in some way, as well advance his own career in some way. This is undoubtedly why Smith tells us that he photographed the text "three times for good measure." He was hoping that at least some of his images might be usable.

Smith published his results in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate journal Nea Sion, and later announced his discovery at the 1960 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature along with a full translation of the newly discovered letter. Smith also presided over a lengthy discussion over the significance of his find. The next morning a written account of his presentation was published on the front page of The New York Times and newspapers around the world soon picked up the story.

Smith went on to write two books on the subject of his discovery. The first entitled Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark was an incredibly dense scholarly tome delivered to the Harvard University Press in 1966 but which only made its way to bookshelves seven year later. In the interim, Smith got the idea to quickly put together an account of the circumstances which led to his discovery aimed at a general readership. This book entitled the Secret Gospel was released by Harper and Row in the summer of 1974.

It might be difficult for people today to get a feel for how uptight the world was back in the early 1970s. The word ‘gay’ hadn’t been given in its contemporary meaning yet. The reaction to Morton Smith’s study of the newly discovered material was almost universally hostile and this even without Smith implying the text was about same sex unions in Christian antiquity.

There was an established order in the world in those days. People knew who and what Jesus was as this understanding was essential to our inherited cultural identity. The fact that an Ivy League professor had uncovered a lost letter which by its very nature challenged those inherited assumptions was controversial enough. Smith wouldn’t have dared to claim that this discovery ‘proved’ that the Christian liturgy developed from same-sex attraction even if he thought it was true – and there is no evidence to suggest that he ever did.

Indeed Smith’s assumptions about the historical Jesus were rather conventional before making his discovery. In due course, as he struggled to make sense of the Letter to Theodore, he would develop a theory about ‘Jesus the Magician.’ Nevertheless it is important to note that even this understanding – as scandalous as it was at the time – hardly rises to the ‘blasphemy’ of subsequent interpretations of the same material. Smith’s greatest challenge was to make sense of the ‘secret gospel’ associated with the evangelist Mark referenced in the Letter.

 According to Clement, Mark not only composed the familiar gospel which bears his name in our New Testament canon but another text which was ‘guarded’ by the Alexandrian community in the early third century. This gospel could be called ‘Mark+’ as it was our familiar narrative ‘plus’ a number of other additions of a mystical nature.  In one addition cited by Clement in his letter to Theodore, a dead youth is brought out of his tomb by Jesus in order that he learns the 'mystery of the kingdom of God.’ No one knew that this narrative ever belonged to the gospel of Mark before Morton Smith made his discovery in the Mar Saba monastery. Smith struggled with the question of 'what it all means' because quite frankly the answer lay beyond his inherited presuppositions.

For Morton Smith the historical reality of the existence of Jesus was beyond question. As such the only way someone could have added a story like this about Jesus is because it was thought to have actually taken place in history. As such, Smith was led to his theory that Jesus was a magician almost entirely based on the intellectual ‘baggage’ as it were, he brought with him into the examination room.

Yet do these additions to the gospel of Mark really tell us anything about Jesus or the person or people who made the additions? This is a question that Morton Smith never seems to grasp in any of his studies of the material. Surely, the fact a gospel says that this happened does not mean that it actually happened. To this end, it no longer needs to be examined in terms of ‘giving us information about Jesus’ but rather the early Christian culture at Alexandria.

Indeed we can utterly ignore most of what Morton Smith has written about his discovery as it develops from such an unsophisticated understanding of the purpose of material. After all, Clement tells us that the mystagogue – the person who initiates others into the divine mysteries – is Mark the author of the gospel, rather than Jesus. For the purpose of understanding this document and the early tradition of the Alexandrian Church, Jesus could be anything from a literary invention to a wholly supernatural being. It really doesn’t matter.

Once we get past Smith’s interpretation of the material, there are only two other interpretations available to us. Both happen to exist only in a fragmentary form. We see that Clement of Alexandria begins his letter by rejecting the claims of a contemporary heretical group – the Carpocratians - whom he opposes numerous times in his other writings. The plain reading of what Clement says in the Letter of Theodore is that these heretics understood this 'mystery' – i.e. a rite of some sort, growing as a vine pruned from the pages of the secret gospel by St Mark himself, developed from the sacredness of same sex attraction.

All of this is again is plain from the Letter to Theodore but it is rarely articulated by scholars simply because it goes against all that we have we have brought with us into the examination as intellectual baggage. Indeed we don’t think of the gospel as a sophisticated literary invention. We have difficulty ‘turning down the volume’ on Jesus as it were and focusing our attention on Mark as a crafty artist. In fact, Protestants have perhaps the hardest time with the idea that the gospel just served the function of ‘background music’ to the liturgy, the real experience of most ancient Christian faiths. ‘Hardest time’ - save for the presence of all the ‘gay stuff.’

Why it is exactly that sophisticated people have such a difficult time with the homosexual references in the Letter to Theodore is beyond me. After all, Clement consistently uses Plato to explain the gospel in his previously known writings and the centerpiece of the Platonic worldview is that ‘salvation’ as such develops through sublimated same-sex attraction. Why on earth wouldn’t there exist somewhere in Alexandria a gospel which did the sublimation for the faithful?

In any event, it is enough to acknowledge that this ‘homosexual interpretation’ of the gospel is the earliest interpretation of the material from Secret Mark. It exists prior to the composition of the Letter to Theodore. Clement purpose in writing the letter is to offer up an explanation to Theodore of another way of interpreting this material. In the most explicit terms possible says the mystery of the kingdom of God taught by Jesus had nothing to do with 'naked man and naked man’ - rejecting the very words cited by Theodore from the lips of the heretics in a previous letter.

It would be wonderful to know what Theodore originally told Clement in the correspondence which preceded this letter, nevertheless this letter no longer exists. It isn’t hard to make out what was said based on what survives – in essence:

Theodore: What’s this I hear about this gospel which features naked man and naked man?
Clement: Naked man with naked man and the other things about which you wrote are not found in the gospel.

This, my friends, is the Reader’s Digest version of the original correspondences between Theodore and Clement. We only happen to have a small sliver of what was originally written between the two men. It would for instance be nice to know how Clement originally argued the material should be interpreted, but we aren't so lucky. The handwritten transcription of the original manuscript ends abruptly at this very point Clement originally told us this information.

Now in a perfect world, the two original interpretations of the secret gospel would be all that really matters - after all, no one living after the beginning of the third century likely ever saw this text again. However scholarship loves to weigh in on things like this. They start a debate about something said in an ancient witness and before you know it they have almost completely forgotten the original witness and start attacking and insulting each other through veiled barbs and innuendo.

This is how the business of scholarship plays itself of course but in the case of the Mar Saba letter it really has developed to the detriment of the discovery. After all, no one is out there defending the original interpretations of the material. Instead the debate inevitably shifts to discussions about Morton Smith, why he did this, why he didn't do that - all because the experts ‘already know’ that homosexuality and same sex attraction is ‘utterly incompatible’ with the faith of the early Church.

Indeed homosexuality is the eight hundred pound elephant that is in the room whenever the Letter to Theodore is brought up. The very thought that these same ‘Platonizing Christians’ in Alexandria might have developed a gospel which incorporated Plato’s interest in same-sex attraction is somehow ‘scandalous’ and ‘unthinkable.’ What gets brought up instead is the whole distraction about whether or not Jesus was gay. The bottom line here again is that it is unlikely that the sophisticated Alexandrians who manufactured the longer secret gospel actually thought that their creation represented ‘real history’ in our modern sense of the word. In fact, Clement himself even seems to confirm that this was certainly not the case.

Why then even bring up ‘the person of Jesus’ in relation to any of this? All that the study of the secret gospel can help provide for us is an understanding of the origins of Christianity and the ultimate question - how gay was the early Church? By this we mean - how deeply was the gospel – the gospel that originally governed the Church of Alexandria - rooted in same-sex attraction? It goes without saying that it would be impossible to write a ‘between the sheets’ history of the early Church. We simply don’t know enough about anyone before the Renaissance period to develop any comprehensive biographic material.

At best we can hope to demonstrate a consistent pattern in the existing references which seems to point to the hallowedness of same-sex attraction and moreover the pairing of men in some sort of mystical union. In the end, it is up to the reader to decide whether or not this is enough to prove that the early Church was ‘gay.’ Nevertheless, the claim of contemporary conservatives that Christianity began as a movement fundamentally opposed to homosexuality and same-sex attraction is downright silly. Most of these people have never even read the earliest source and have no interest in doing so if that would result in a challenge to their inherent worldview.

Indeed these people typically misunderstand the entire context for incorporating Platonic ideas into Christianity. The Alexandrian Church wasn’t arguing of course that Jesus commanded his disciples to engage in sodomy. Nor was it merely ‘accepting’ or ‘turning a blind eye’ to homosexuality within the religion. The starting point of this understanding was that only a small portion of men were attracted to other men. Most people were destined to reproduce like animals because they possessed animal souls. It was only in the souls of the ‘few’ that the mystery of the kingdom of God had any chance of playing out.

So it is that when we look at the earliest reaction to the discovery at Mar Saba – our clearest testimonial to the function that same-sex attraction played in the Alexandrian Church – we see a scholarly community ‘troubled’ by the presence of homosexual themes. James Charlesworth and Craig Evans, both respected academics in their own rights, bring forward the objection that “this epistle lends apparently (and conveniently) lends a measure of support to Smith’s controversial contention that Jesus was a magician, and a homosexual only adds to the suspicion that this Clementine epistle may be a fake." Yet there were certainly plenty of witnesses to the idea that Jesus was a magician before Morton Smith. As we shall soon see, the very same thing can be said with respect to same-sex attraction and ritual pairing within the early Church.

The reality is that Morton Smith was entirely uncomfortable with the gay implications of the text. He did his best to avoid mentioning what is plainly evident in Clement’s correspondence. Yet Smith wasn't alone in side stepping of the original homosexual interpretation of the material from the ‘secret Gospel.’ Since 1974 there have been a few notable attempts to make sense of the discovered material and how the longer ‘secret’ text of Mark might be related to our familiar canonical gospel of Mark. Yet almost no one here seems to wants to acknowledge the eight hundred pound gay elephant in the room.

Indeed the Canadian scholar Scott Brown epitomizes the attitude of 'serious scholarship' with respect to the ‘homosexual question.’ We see in his writings a complex shell game develops to actually hide the ‘problem.’ In fact Brown only makes mention of the original homosexual interpretation of the Carpocratians in the very last paragraph of his Mark's Other Gospel which deals with many other issues related to the discovery. In a thinly veiled insult against those who accept the plain meaning of the text, Brown dismissively references the fact that “many other scholars declared the text to be self-evidently gnostic, and some supposed that the incident has homosexual overtones. The gay reading of [the material] is very popular among non-scholars."

As we hunt for what happened to the Carpocratian ‘naked man and naked man’ reference in Scott Brown’s writing we have to all the way back to his 1999 PhD thesis to find something substantive. It is there we are told that "though an unusual encounter, the sense that Jesus is enacting a ritual with homosexual overtones is no more a necessary implication of this story than it is in, say, the Gethsemane scene, where a youth appears dressed in the same way, or the last supper scene in John, where a disciple whom Jesus loved lies against Jesus' bread." Yet this is totally inappropriate comparison for several obvious reasons.

On the one hand we have Clement explicitly connecting the material from secret Mark with the “naked man with naked man” interpretation put forward by the ancient Carpocratian sect. The fact that in the lead up to this reference Clement describes the Carpocratians as ‘carnal,’ full of ‘bodily sins,’ ‘slaves of servile desires,’ ‘blasphemous’ and ‘polluted’ makes clear the context of this statement. Brown also fails to note there are no ancient witnesses to the claim that the Gethsemane scene had something to do with homosexuality because quite frankly there are no surviving references to this section of the gospel of Mark – period.

There are of course the inevitable objections that “naked man with naked man” might not necessarily imply a homosexual relationship between those two men. Of course this is what scholars do. They are diligent ready arguments for the empty courtroom of theoretical abstraction. There can be no other meaning for the reference in this age or any other age. Take the relatively recent arrest of the Hollywood actor Matthew McConaughey in Austin in 1999 which was widely reported at the time.

The newspaper accounts of the incident developed from the original police report reported that McConaughy was "arrested early Monday during a disturbance at his home in which police said he was dancing naked and playing the bongo drums. McConaughey, 29, was arrested at around 3 a.m. and booked into the Travis County Jail on suspicion of possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and resisting transportation, according to a police statement ... Police said they were called to McConaughey's home in an upscale neighborhood in west Austin after receiving a complaint of loud music. Police saw him through a window naked and playing drums and another man dancing and clapping." McConaughey's career took a huge hit after his arrest as the circumstances 'proved' at least in the public eye that he was caught in a homosexual act.

The question here no less than with Secret Mark isn't whether the actor was 'really' gay or not. Perception is everything in public life. McConaughey's efforts to resurrect his career were almost more shameful than the original arrest, with the actor adopting a faux 'stoner personality' suddenly in all his interviews apparently to distract attention from the implication of his being arrested naked with another man.

In many ways the efforts of Brown and others to avoid the obvious implication of “naked with naked” in the text deserves the same kind of ridicule. It is as hopelessly contrived efforts of McConaughey to rescue his career. As one observer noted in the comments section of a Los Angeles Times story about the actor’s recent marriage to a Brazilian model, the social implications of 'naked man with naked man' remains the same - "such a cover marriage! She is totally his beard. He is gay as can be. I know one of his exes. Think back to when he was busted for pot in Austin - he and a 'male friend' were completely naked in Matt's bedroom together, yet all the media focused on was that he was smoking pot. How many straight men do you know that sit around naked when they drink beer or smoke pot together?"

Scott Brown's careful avoidance of the original homosexual interpretation of the thesis was published in the very same year as McConaughey's arrest. We can use reference both as witnesses to the same underlying social stigma associated with homosexuality at the turn of the century. Religious scholarship is typically even more conservative than the general public. We are after all dealing with a very sensitive subject matter – the relationship of Jesus with his disciples, and that of the hallowed Fathers of the Church to one another. Scott Brown no less than Morton Smith before him, in seeking to have scholarship take the discovery seriously, thought it necessary to downplay or hide altogether some of the inherent 'queerness' in the text. It almost seems as we have an unconscious adaptation of one of the great pieces of social legislation during the Clinton administration – i.e. 'don't ask, don't tell.'

Many people forget that the actual name of the policy at the time was 'don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue.' In other words, it was a quiet acknowledgement to ignore the truth. Instead of tackling the question of whether or not discrimination against homosexuals was unjust, this political compromise was hailed as a way everyone could get along. Yet the legislation ultimately established ignoring homosexuality as official government policy.

Scott Brown’s approach to the Letter to Theodore offered scholarship a way of embracing the Letter to Theodore without having to deal with the same uncomfortable topic. Yet not talking about the original homosexual interpretation of the secret gospel is a little like not being able to reference getting while referencing the topic of smoking marijuana. We should be thankful that we now live in an age where we can past the necessity of ‘political compromises.’ The scholars of previous ages were so intent about avoiding discussing the topic of homosexuality and same-sex attraction within the Church that the fields are now ripe for harvesting in this new age of promise.

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