Morton Smith (May 29, 1915 – July 11, 1991) was an American professor of ancient history at Columbia University. He is best known for his controversial 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.
Mar Saba is a Greek Orthodox monastery overlooking the Kidron Valley in the West Bank east of Bethlehem. In 1973 Morton Smith published a book in which he claimed to have discovered a previously unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria (c.150 - c. 215) while cataloging documents there in the summer 1958. The letter, according to Smith, had been bound into 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 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, Morton 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 beforeThe controversy is ongoing and far from settled, although there is no lack of scholars on both sides already claiming victory. The letter appeared provisionally with qualification in a German edition of Clement's works in 1980
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