Morton Smith: American historian (1915 - 1991) | Biography
peoplepill id: morton-smith
5 views today
5 views this week
Morton Smith
American historian

Morton Smith

Morton Smith
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American historian
Was Historian Writer Academic Educator
From United States of America
Field Academia Education Literature Social science
Gender male
Birth 29 May 1915, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Death 11 July 1991, New York City, New York, U.S.A. (aged 76 years)
Morton Smith
The details (from wikipedia)


Morton Smith (May 29, 1915 – July 11, 1991) was an American professor of ancient history at Columbia University. He is best known for his reported discovery of the Mar Saba letter, a letter attributed to Clement of Alexandria containing excerpts from a Secret Gospel of Mark, during a visit to the monastery at Mar Saba in 1958. This letter fragment has had many names, from The Secret Gospel through The Mar Saba Fragment and the Theodoros.


Smith was born in Philadelphia on May 29, 1915. He received his bachelor's degrees from Harvard College and the Harvard Divinity School, a Ph.D. from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a Th.D. in theology from Harvard Divinity School. He taught at Brown University and Drew University and then he became a teacher at Columbia University in 1957. He became professor emeritus in 1985 and continued as a lecturer in religion until 1990. He died of heart failure on July 11, 1991 in New York City.

Smith was well known for his sharp wit when it came to religious debates. He made regular scholarly contributions in many fields, including but not limited to: Greek and Latin classics, New Testament, Patristics, second-temple Judaism, and rabbinics. Despite the numerous accusations of forgery against Smith's finding, Smith was seen as a dedicated scholar when it came to research. He was said to have devoted fifteen years of his life to just studying his finding of the Secret Gospel.

Mar Saba letter

Ancient Mar Saba monastery, founded in the fifth century.

Discovery of the letter

Mar Saba is a Greek Orthodox monastery overlooking the Kidron Valley in the West Bank east of Bethlehem. In 1973 Smith published a book in which he wrote that he had discovered a previously unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria (c.150 - c. 215) while cataloging documents there in the summer of 1958. The letter, according to Smith, had been copied onto the endpapers of Isaac Vossius' 1646 printed edition of the works of Ignatius of Antioch. Modern discussion of the letter concludes that the paper bound in was also 17th Century. Smith subsequently published a second book for a popular audience in 1974.


The letter congratulates Theodore on silencing the Carpocratians, heretical group who were citing a libertine version of the Gospel of Mark. The bulk of the letter is spent acknowledging the fact that there is indeed a "secret [or "mystic", depending on translation] Gospel of Mark," but Clement's version of this gospel is not the version used by the Carpocratians. According to the letter, the Carpocratians had altered the gospel significantly. In particular, the letter quotes "Secret Mark" to the effect that Jesus had a practice of initiating his male followers into the "mystery of the Kingdom of God" by verbal instruction. But, Clement insists, "Secret Mark" does not include the phrase "naked male with naked male."

Accusations of forgery

The Mar Saba letter was initially received as a notable discovery as it was not only a previously unknown letter written by Clement of Alexandria, but a secret letter to his disciple Theodore. But right from the start, some scholars voiced the opinion that the letter is not authentic, and that it was either an ancient or medieval forgery. In 1975, Quentin Quesnell published a lengthy article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, where he even suggested that Smith had forged the document himself, and then photographed his alleged forgery. An incensed Smith issued a furious rebuttal, whereupon Quesnell disclaimed any personal accusations against Smith.

In 1985 in his Strange Tales Per Beskow of Lund cast doubt on the Gospel, Smith responded by threatening to sue the publisher, Fortress Press of Philadelphia, "for a million dollars" and the publisher amended the offending paragraph.

Scholars such as Philip Jenkins and Robert M. Price pointed out parallels between The Secret Gospel of Mark and a novel by James H. Hunter published in 1940 entitled The Mystery of Mar Saba. Craig A. Evans (2008) concludes that "The upshot of the whole matter is that Smith's Mar Saba Clementine is almost certainly a hoax and Smith is almost certainly the hoaxer. No research into the Gospels and the historical Jesus should take Smith's document seriously." Evans also notes that unusually the copy of Voss' edition of Ignatius had the note "Smith 65" inked into the copy, and there was no record of it having been in the library's catalogue before.

History of the manuscript

In 1941, Smith, at age 26, was on a trip to the holy land with the Harvard Divinity School. Due to issues relating to the war, he was stuck in Jerusalem, where he made acquaintances with a leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, who gave him a tour of various places, one of which happened to be the Mar Saba monastery. While there, Smith was given access to the libraries of the monastery. Years later, in 1958, having landed a teaching career at Columbia, Smith was awarded a sabbatical. With his sabbatical, Smith decided to return to Mar Saba, having since become very interested in the Mar Saba library. He recalled that during his first visit, the library had been a terrible mess, and according to Smith no one had bothered to catalog it. In fact Smith's evidence on this point is incorrect, since while the catalogue may not have been updated in 1941 the library had a catalogue from 1923, in which the copy of Voss' 1646 edition of Ignatius is not listed, indicating that the book could only have entered the library after 1923. Further the Voss' edition of Ignatius is missing from the most likely point of entry, the list of 263 books bequeathed to the monastery by Patriarch Nicodemus in 1887 which includes the 1715 Oxford edition of Clement, but makes no mention of a 1646 Amsterdam edition of Ignatius. So, according to Smith, during his sabbatical Smith undertook the task of cataloging the Mar Saba library. It was during his time spent cataloging the library that Smith discovered, written on pages at the end of a book attributed to the seventeenth-century Amsterdam printer Isaac Voss. Ironically this book contained letters from the Orthodox bishop Ignatius of Antioch, letters which Voss had collected into this rare volume, with the purported idea that it was a collection of legitimate letters penned by Ignatius, significant at the time because there had been many letters in circulation forged in the name of Ignatius. This fact has been a player in the critical studying of Smith's discovery, as Smith's reputation for sharp-witted cynical humor lends well to the idea that he may have intentionally chosen this volume in which to forge his "discovery." (Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities. Oxford, 2003.)

Smith reported he found the manuscript in the Mar Saba monastery in 1958, photographed it carefully, and then left the book where he found it. He first announced the discovery publicly in 1960 but, due to various delays, his main publications on the subject did not come out until 1973. When people asked him where the original manuscript was, he replied, "On the third floor of the library, where I found it." Four scholars found the manuscript there and saw it in 1976. They were Professors David Flusser and Shlomo Pines, both of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Archimandrite Meliton of the Patriarchate, and Guy Stroumsa, at the time a Harvard graduate student (Stroumsa, who was to become a respected historian of religion himself, recounted this story in 2003).

Then the chief monk got involved, and is reported to have transferred the book to the Patriarchal Library in Jerusalem, and the librarian at the Patriarchal Library removed the manuscripts from the end-papers of the book where Smith had found it, and took more photographs.

Arguments for and against forgery

There are, as of 2008, three relatively new books in print which deal with the allegations of forgery: Stephen C. Carlson's The Gospel Hoax, Baylor University Press, 2005; Peter Jeffery's The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, Yale University Press, 2006 (both arguing for forgery by Smith), and Scott G. Brown's Mark's Other Gospel, Wilfrid Laurier, 2005 (defending Smith).

In 2010 the Biblical Archaeology Review hired a Greek forensic handwriting expert, Venetia Anastasopoulou, and a Greek paleographer, Agamemnon Tselikas, to assess the document. The forensic expert Anastasopoulou, an expert witness in many Greek court cases, compared the surviving photographs of the manuscript with known examples of Smith's own handwriting, including notes he wrote in Greek, and concluded that it was unlikely that Smith could have so successfully imitated the 17th or 18th Century handwriting of the letter. The paleographer Tselikas, director of the Center for History and Paleography of the National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation, concluded that the handwriting of the Clement letter does not match that of any known scribe at Mar Saba monastery in the 17th or 18th Centuries, and in fact indicates 20th Century forgery or imitation of 18th-century Greek script. Tselikas concludes that Smith either forged the letter or had someone else do it for him before placing the 17th Century edition of Ignatius into the Mar Saba library.

The controversy is ongoing and far from settled. The letter appeared provisionally with qualification in a German edition of Clement's works in 1980.

Contribution to Old Testament studies

Smith's contribution to Old Testament studies was contained in his "Palestinian Parties and Politics That Shaped the Old Testament" (1971). Using form criticism to reconstruct the social background to the Old Testament, Smith advanced the proposal that two parties had vied for supremacy in ancient Israel, the first composed of those which worshipped many gods of which Yahweh was chief, while the other, the "Yahweh-alone" faction, was largely the party of the priests of Jerusalem, who wished to establish a monopoly for Yahweh. In monarchic Judah the Yahweh-alone party were a permanent minority; although sometimes able to win over a king like Josiah to their cause. Meanwhile, the population at large, including most of the kings, remained stubbornly polytheistic, worshipping the same gods as their neighbours in Moab, Ammon etc. In the post-Exilic period the idea of Yahweh as the only god of Israel finally triumphed, but a new division emerged, between the separatists, who wished the Jews to remain strictly apart from their neighbours, (this separation being defined in terms of purity), and the assimilationists who wished for normal relations with them. Ultimately, by the late Persian/early Hellenistic period, the purists won, the modern version of the Hebrew Bible was written, and a recognisably modern Judaism emerged.



  • Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels (1951)
  • The Ancient Greeks (1960)
  • Heroes and Gods: Spiritual Biographies in Antiquity [in collaboration with Moses Hadas] (1965)
  • Palestinian Parties and Politics That Shaped the Old Testament (1971)
  • Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (1973)
  • The Secret Gospel (1973)
  • The Ancient History of Western Civilization [with Elias Bickerman] (1976)
  • Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God? (1978)
  • Hope and History (1980)
  • Studies in the Cult of Yahweh. Vol. 1. Historical Method, Ancient Israel, Ancient Judaism. Vol. 2. New Testament, Early Christianity, and Magic [edited by Shaye J. D. Cohen] (1996)
  • What the Bible Really Says (edited with R. Joseph Hoffmann (1992)).


  • Lionel Trilling Book Award for Jesus the Magician
  • Ralph Marcus Centennial Award of the Society of Biblical Literature
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
Search trend
comments so far.
From our partners
Sections Morton Smith

arrow-left arrow-right instagram whatsapp myspace quora soundcloud spotify tumblr vk website youtube pandora tunein iheart itunes