Review of Bruce, F. F. The ‘Secret’ Gospel of Mark

Bruce, F. F. The ‘Secret’ Gospel of Mark. London: The Athlone Press University of London, 1974. [Israel/Herod/Christian/Theology/Mysteries]

This was a lecture of 11 February 1974 concerning the newly published “Secret” Gospel of Mark, found by Morton Smith. Bruce begins his lecture with the prevalent concept of “secret” religious writings pertaining to Judaism and Christianity. He does not dispute the authenticity of the find but argues against the content. The “secret” gospel of Mark arises from a statement attributed to Clement who said Mark had two gospels, one for the public, a second “secret” one with the secret teachings of Jesus referred to as mysteries of the kingdom which was for the initiated. Clement was writing a letter to a friend Theodore regarding some heretics who knew about the secret gospel of Mark and had misused it. He has read it and gives some details of its contents, particularly regarding an incident where Jesus raised a boy from the dead and the two spent the night together during which Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. One detail of the story is that the young man was naked but had a “linen robe thrown over his naked body.” Mormons find the linen robe and the notion of mysteries suggestive of temple ordinances. Scholars concentrate on Clement’s statements about a second gospel, often about the possibility of implied homosexual overtones. In this lecture Bruce gives his reasons for not accepting the story of the raising of the young man. Bruce says that other evidence shows Clement to be credulous regarding apocryphal material (pp. 12-13). He argues that the story is a “pastiche” collected from N.T. writings about the raising of Lazarus and other sources. The letter leads him to make serious connections with Alexandrian Gnosticism. Yet given the content provided by Clement, Bruce asks what is there of a ‘secret’ character about the story of the boy. It was the interpretation given to it, not the text itself, that was regarded as esoteric. Another interesting item that comes out of this lecture is that Bruce seems to have a fairly negative view of Pythagoras and the “mysteries” and a group called the Carpocratians. They emphasized Mk. 4:11, 34 where Jesus spoke privately to his disciples and in parables to the public, and the disciples were authorized to teach it to others. Bruce has this to say: “They themselves, in other words, were the custodians of Jesus’ private teaching–of the ‘messianic secret’, so to speak. But whereas the historical ‘mystery of the kingdom’ or ‘messianic secret’ was concerned with the nature of the kingdom, of the God whose kingdom it was and of the messianic ministry by which it was being inaugurated, it was reinterpreted – or rather misinterpreted – among the Carpocratians and in other gnostic schools in terms of mystical initiation.” The Carpocratians, it is alleged, also had a rather “libertine tradition” regarding sex, apparently believing in having wives in common. While Morton Smith is inclined to accept that idea, Bruce says he believes the libertine tradition in Christianity grew out of Gentile influence. Bruce concludes, however, by saying that his conclusions are so contrary to Smith’s that “one must do him the justice of giving his case the detailed consideration which it deserves.”

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