Identification of the Bethany Youth in the Secret Gospel of Mark with other Figures Found in Mark and John

Miles Fowler

JHC 5/1 (Spring, 1998), 3-22.  Note that in the footnotes "Smith (A)" refers to Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and the Secret Gospel of Mark and "Smith (B)" refers to Morton Smith, The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation (see note 1)


MANY Christian viewpoints were lost when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, but some of the stories that expressed these lost viewpoints appear to be hidden within the canonical gospels. While the evangelists often incorporated characters and stories intentionally from their sources, I believe that they also sometimes incorporated older stories they did not mean to keep but which came along with characters they wanted to preserve. In some cases, gospel writers and editors seem to have supplied characters with names where these figures had been unnamed in their sources, and even supplied characters with names inconsistently, not understanding that similar figures in different stories had been understood by some earlier Christians to be the same individual.1

In the final versions of the gospels, we can still see traces of earlier stories that are neither fully developed nor explicitly acknowledged in the canonical texts or any surviving traditions about them. I have in mind a particular group of stories that appear to stand behind the gospels of Mark and John and seem to link the identities between five different figures. A key to decoding these identities is the Secret Gospel of Mark, discovered in 1958 by Professor Morton Smith who found it quoted in a letter that had been written by a bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, at the end of the second century.2

During the past four decades of scholarly speculation about the origin and significance of Secret Mark, attempts to understand the relationship of its text to the canonical gospels have not always fully appreciated that the evangelists were trying to tell stories. John Dominic Crossan, for example, rightly finds echoes of Secret Mark throughout canonical Mark, but takes the view that these echoes are "textual debris" from Secret Mark, dismembered by late censors and almost randomly redistributed to canonical Mark without consideration for how little sense they might make in their new locations.3 This view depends upon the assumption that these echoes are meaningless in their "new" contexts; but such a view is neither necessary nor plausible once we see that, far from being meaningless, the echoes of Secret Mark within canonical Mark help to tell a coherent tale, and, what is more, tell one that is not merely parallel to but continuous with the story of Lazarus in John.

While I am agnostic as to whether Secret Mark was part of the original Markan text or added to it at a later time, I am convinced that the echoes of Secret Mark embedded in Mark were always part of Secret Mark and not added to canonical Mark after Secret Mark was removed. Instead, all elements of Secret Mark, both the passages of Secret Mark quoted by Clement in his letter and the echoes still found in canonical Mark (plus any passages that have been completely lost), were composed more or less simultaneously to create or add a coherent story-one that is not so coherent after much of it has been removed.4

I will focus on the way in which echoic links between Mark, Secret Mark, and John serve to reinforce a continuity between stories found in these three gospels as if they were different parts of the same story. I propose that, whether by the creation of material or inference from existing material (and subsequent redaction consistent with that inference), some late-first-century Christians understood there to be identities between up to five, seemingly-separate, youthful figures now found in Mark, Secret Mark, and John.

After introductory sections about Secret Mark (including its text) and the stories about the Bethany youth, I will discuss what I believe to be the most evident identity between figures, aside from that between Secret Mark's Bethany youth and John's Lazarus.5 Descending in order of confidence, I will then cover each other possible identity until I reach the one of which I am least confident. The first identity I will examine is the one between 1) the Bethany youth/Lazarus found in Secret Mark and John (see especially SGM 1:11 below and John 12:9-11) and 2) the youth who followed Jesus at Gethsemane (Mark 14:51-52). I will (unoriginally) recognize another identity between the Bethany youth (see especially SGM 2:1 and John 11:5) and 3) "the disciple whom Jesus loved most" (a.k.a., the beloved/other disciple, John 13:23). Traditionally, it has been thought that the beloved disciple was the Apostle John, though there have been those who have wondered how John, a Galilean, could have been known to the high priest in Jerusalem (John 18:15).6 We will find that it is more believable that the high priest would know the Bethany youth.

The remaining two youthful figures, who may be identical with the above three, are 4) the rich (young?) man (Mark 10:17-22), and 5) the youth in Jesus' tomb found there by Mary Magdalene and her two companions (Mark 16:5). Before concluding, I will look at an additional case of identity between the women at Jesus' crucifixion (Mark 15:40) and tomb and the three women at Jericho in Secret Mark's second chapter because their history with Jesus possibly adumbrates the Bethany youth's history with Jesus.

The Secret Gospel of Mark

WHAT WE HAVE of Secret Mark consists of two quotations in a copy of a letter (called the Mar Saba Letter after the monastery where it was discovered)7 attributed to Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215 CE). As of 1980, the document was in the possession of officials of the Greek Orthodox Church at Jerusalem where it presumably remains.8 A few scholars think that the letter might be a hoax because it is an eighteenth-century copy rather than an original second-century document in Clement's hand, and because too few scholars have had the opportunity to examine the copy directly, most having seen only photographic plates of it. Nevertheless, scholars have been willing "to accept the document's authenticity as a working hypothesis."9

Clement, in his letter, addresses his concern that the text of Secret Mark used by another sect differs remarkably from the version then in use by his own church. He says that the version of Secret Mark shown to his correspondent, Theodore, has been adulterated by a Gnostic sect called the Carpocratians. Clement does not deny the authenticity of Secret Mark but only this Gnostic sect's version of it. It is significant that Clement attributes the revisions of Secret Mark to Carpocrates who was born a century earlier. Clement must have believed that Secret Mark existed before 125 CE.10

Christian Gnostics believed that Jesus had imparted a spiritual knowledge based on the belief that their souls are divine and, thereby, alien from the material world which is regarded as evil in origin. Gnostics differed among themselves as to whether they ought to practice extreme asceticism or libertine abandon in response to this knowledge. Some, like the Carpocratians, were reputed to believe that Jesus engaged in sexual practices.11 Indeed, Clement's letter accuses them of importing this view into their version of Secret Mark. It is to counter what he describes as the "utterly shameless lies" of this sect that Clement quotes from his own copy of Secret Mark.12

In the following translation of Clement's version of the first chapter of Secret Mark (SGM 1:1-13) I have borrowed the style and vocabulary of the Scholars Version of canonical Mark13 except that I use the more traditional term "the kingdom of God," rather than the Scholars' "God's imperial rule." I have not used the Scholars Version of Secret Mark14 because it ignores the way that Mark and Secret Mark echo each other in Greek, as has been shown by several authors, for example, Smith and Crossan.15

1 They come into Bethany, and there was a woman whose brother had died 2 and [she] approaches and bows down before Jesus and says to him, "Son of David, have mercy on me." 3 But the disciples scolded her. 4 And Jesus got angry and went with her into the garden where the tomb was. 5 Right away there was a loud voice from the tomb. 6 Then Jesus went up and rolled the stone away from the opening of the tomb. 7 He went right in where the youth was, reached out a hand and raised him, taking hold of [his] hand. 8 The youth loved him at first sight and began to plead with him to stay. 9 And coming out of the tomb, they go to the young man's home for he was rich. 10 And six days later Jesus called him. 11 And when evening came, the young man went to him wearing a shroud over his nude body. 12 And he stayed all night as Jesus taught him the secret of the kingdom of God. 13 From there he gets up and goes back across the Jordan.

Secret Mark is to be inserted in the text of canonical Mark at designated points. Clement indicates that this first chapter of Secret Mark fits into the popular version of Mark between 10:34 and 10:35. Of this scheme Smith says:

[Professor Pierson] Parker had observed that the Lazarus story in John and the resurrection story in the secret Gospel occur at the same period in Jesus' career: Jesus has gone up from Galilee to Judea and thence to Trans-Jordan. I now saw that the framework of Mk. 10:1-34 plus the resurrection story of the secret Gospel was parallel to the framework of Jn. 10:40-11:54 plus the Lazarus story. This means that the secret Gospel fits the Markan framework at that place at which Clement said it stood in Mark!16

Clement says that a second chapter of Secret Mark belongs in the middle of Mark 10:46, the beginning of which Clement quotes as, "And he comes into Jericho," although canonical Mark 10:46a ought to read: "And they come into Jericho." (The source and significance of this discrepancy need not concern us here.) Here SGM 2 adds, "1 And the sister of the young man Jesus loved (Ígapa) was there with his mother and Salome, 2 but Jesus received them not."17 These two verses of Clement's Secret Mark fit neatly before Mark 10:46b: "As he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd ...,"18 and almost resolve the pointlessness of Jesus' visit to Jericho in canonical Mark. (Matt 20:29 skips Jesus' entry and proceeds to his exit, while Lk 19:1-28 has more happen during Jesus' visit.)

Smith's theory is that the first chapter of Secret Mark is an account of an esoteric initiation ceremony or baptism practiced by early Christians at night and using ritual nudity. The Carpocratians apparently interpreted that something salacious was going on between Jesus and the youth, but Clement denied this.19

Two Versions of the Bethany Story

THE PARALLELS between the Gospel of John's story of Lazarus and Secret Mark's story about the youth are striking, although Secret Mark's story is shorter and sparer in its details. Secret Mark's designated location in the public or canonical version of Mark also supports the comparison: Mark 10:32, two verses before the place where Clement says that Secret Mark 1:1-13 is to be inserted, tells us that the disciples are apprehensive just as they are at John 11:8, early in the story about Lazarus. In both texts, fear of Jesus' arrest is the cause of their apprehension, although they are going to Jerusalem in Mark and Bethany's proximity is incidental, while they are on their way to Bethany in John and Jerusalem's proximity is perhaps incidental to Jesus if certainly not to his disciples.

In each story the incident occurs at Bethany, the sister of the deceased approaches Jesus on the road (but one sister in Secret Mark, and two in John), the dead man's sister shows Jesus the tomb, and Jesus raises the man from the dead (entering the tomb and touching the deceased in Secret Mark, but keeping his distance in John). In Secret Mark, the young man immediately takes Jesus into his home which Lazarus eventually does (John 12:1-2).

The Bethany story is about someone who is raised from the dead after having been entombed, whereas all other stories about Jesus raising the dead are about someone who has not yet been buried. Even when Matthew (9:18-26) and Luke (8:41-56) share a story about a possible raising of the dead with canonical Mark (5:22-43), the details are equivocal. Was the person dead or did Jesus cure a grave illness?20

Luke 7:11-17 tells a story about raising a youth from the dead, which ultimately may derive from the same tradition as Secret Mark but is profoundly different from either John's or Secret Mark's version of the Bethany story. Despite remote similarities in other gospels, none of them attests to the Bethany story as Secret Mark and John have it; whereas, between those two, there are differences but the similarities are more significant.21

The Gethsemane Youth

BOTH the Bethany youth (SGM 1:11) and the youth who follows Jesus at Gethsemane (Mark 14:51) are described as a "youth... wearing a shroud over his nude body (neaniskos... peribeblÍnenos sindoma epi gumnou)." Those who come to arrest Jesus also try to arrest the youth, but he escapes, leaving his would-be captors holding nothing but the shroud (14:52). As is often the case with phrases in Mark that echo Secret Mark, nothing about this youthful figure appears in Matthew or Luke even though they report the rest of the scene of Jesus' arrest in much the way that Mark does (Matt 26:47-58//Lk 22:47-55).

Smith believes that the naked youth is awaiting a baptismal ceremony like the one undergone by the Bethany youth, but he does not suggest that they might be the same individual.22 It is easy to see why this is: If the only meaning of the nude youth in the shroud is connected to baptism and the Bethany youth has already been baptized, then why would he be going through the ceremony again?

To understand that there is another reason the youth could be wearing a shroud, it will be helpful to confirm that the translation of sindona as "shroud" is correct. At Mark 15:46, we find that the Greek word used for Jesus' burial cloth is also sindona. The same word is used in Greek for what some translations (e.g., the RSV) differentiate as "linen garment" and "linen [burial] cloth." Could it be that what each youth is wearing at SGM 1:11 and Mark 14:51 either is-or is meant to represent-a burial cloth or shroud? Returning to our question, then, why would the same individual wear a burial shroud in both scenes?

The answer is most surprising because of its inter-textuality. John 12:9-11 tells us the following:

9 When the huge crowd of Judeans found out he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, the one he had brought back from the dead. 10 So the ranking priests planned to put Lazarus to death, too, 11 since because of him many of the Judeans were defecting and believing in Jesus.

How would a crowd recognize which person standing among the numerous followers of Jesus is Lazarus? Mark 14:51 provides the answer that there could be no more impressive identification of Lazarus, nor any more vivid symbol of his resurrection, than his wearing a burial shroud.

John has nothing further to say about the plot against Lazarus, as if he forgets to continue this subplot or forgets to say that the ranking priests changed their minds about Lazarus. John 12:10-11 sets up the expectation, never realized in John, that Lazarus will be arrested; whereas Mark, while he never sets up such an expectation, nonetheless tells us of the attempted arrest of a man who fits the Bethany man's description. (Perhaps the lost portions of Secret Mark did include material about the passion, at least at the point of Jesus' arrest.23)

Secret Mark's clue that the Gethsemane youth could be the Bethany youth makes it likely that John 12:9-11 and Mark 14:51-52 complement each other and are telling different parts of the same story. Because this was a secret tradition, we can hardly be surprised that, while parts of it have found expression here and there, the whole story did not appear in any versions of Mark or John that have survived.

Identities of Figures 1) through 5) in Gospels

     John   Secret Mark      Mark

(esp. Jn 12:9-11) =
Bethany Youth
(SGM 1:11)      =
2) Gethsemane Youth
(Mk 14:51-52)

Lazarus (Jn 11:3, 5)
= 3) Beloved/Other Disciple
(Jn 13:23, 21:21ff)     =

Bethany Youth
(SGM 1:8; 2:1)    =

(See Rich Man
Mk 10:21)

Beloved/Other Disciple
(Jn 18:15; 20:4)    =

Bethany Youth
(SGM 1:8, 9)    =

4) Rich Man
(Mk 10:17, 21, 22)

Beloved/Other Disciple
(Jn 20:8 [20:12])    =

Bethany Youth
(SGM 1:6-7)    =

5) Youth at Tomb
(Mk 16:5)

The Beloved Disciple

THE IDENTIFICATION of Lazarus with the beloved disciple has been suggested before.24 John introduces a mysterious figure, identified as "the disciple whom Jesus loved most," who appears at the Last Supper (John 13:23). (Suggestively, John 12:2 has Lazarus dining with Jesus.) He is again designated as the beloved disciple when he appears at the foot of Jesus' cross (John 19:26). There is also a figure identified, at first, only as "the other disciple" who accompanies Peter to the High Priest's court (John 18:15ff), but John 20:2 clearly identifies this other disciple as the beloved disciple. Can we also identify the beloved disciple as the Bethany youth, known in John as Lazarus?

The Bethany youth/Lazarus could have been a disciple because disciples and apostles are overlapping but distinguishable categories and Jesus had many more disciples than apostles.25 Jesus is only said to have loved (using agapa or other forms of agapaŰ) the rich man (Mk 10:21), Lazarus, Mary and Martha (Jn 11:5), the beloved disciple (Jn 13:23, 19:26, 21:20), his disciples (Jn 13:1, 34; 15:9, 12), and his Father (Jn 14:31).26 SGM 2:1 also tells us that Jesus loved (Ígapa) the Bethany youth. At John 11:3, Mary and Martha inform Jesus that their brother, "the one you love (phileis = "are fond of")," is seriously ill. (Jn 20:2 similarly uses phileis in referring to the beloved disciple.) John 11:5 then tells us that Jesus loved (Ígapa) Lazarus, Mary and Martha. How does Jesus know the Bethany family? John does not say, but the implication is that the Bethany family has been devoted to Jesus for some time. (Below, I will consider whether Mark/Secret Mark affirms this prior, on-going relationship.)

We never hear another word about Lazarus after chapter twelve of John. The first reference to the disciple that Jesus loved most appears in chapter thirteen. Was it only after the raising of Lazarus that Jesus loved this disciple "most"? It is likely that we are seeing John's editorial hand in the gospel: Even though these two figures may have been the same individual according to an earlier tradition, John gives the name "Lazarus" to the character in chapters eleven and twelve (except for one instance in Jn 11:44 where he calls him "the dead" [ho tethnÍkŰs]), but treats him anonymously in chapter thirteen and following chapters27 because whichever author of John it was that named the Bethany youth Lazarus did not have full knowledge of the tradition behind the stories he copied from earlier sources (or else he did have such knowledge but wanted to keep it secret).

At John 21:21, Peter asks Jesus what is to become of the beloved disciple. Why should Peter be concerned as to whether this disciple, of all people, is going to die? (At John 21:22, Jesus clearly answers as if this is Peter's question.) It has been assumed that this dialogue has only to do with the general problem of the delayed Parousia which arose when Jesus did not come back by the late first century;28 but why is it about the beloved disciple, in particular, that Peter asks, and why does he seem so unsettled by the youth's very existence? There is no reason to suppose that that disciple would die before Peter in the natural order of things if he is younger than Peter; yet John 21:23a suggests that there is speculation within the earliest Jesus movement-especially by Peter-regarding the mortality of this disciple, whoever he is. (If the beloved disciple is supposed to be the youth resurrected at Bethany, some early Christians might wonder whether he is immortal in the same sense that Jesus is.) Moreover, if, perhaps even in historical fact, Peter went around saying that a certain youth would never die, and that youth did die, such an embarrassment might explain why the synoptic gospels omit stories about Jesus raising his friend from the dead. Secret Mark could have belonged to the original text of Mark, and this would explain why it needed to be cut out. This would also explain why one of the authors of John felt at pains to explain away Peter's claim (Jn 21:23b), ironically memorializing an embarrassment that no one remembers.

At the foot of Jesus' cross, Jesus commands the beloved disciple to take Jesus' mother, Mary, as his own mother (Jn 19:25-27). Recall that SGM 2.1 says, "And the sister of the young man Jesus loved was there with his mother and Salome."29 If the Bethany youth and beloved disciple are one and the same, we have the sister of a youth who is loved by Jesus turning up in the company of Jesus' mother and Salome30 so soon after the Bethany incident that the Bethany family could have been well-acquainted with Jesus and his mother before the Bethany incident in the tradition behind Secret Mark and John. (I have more to say about this below.)

If he is both the Bethany youth and Gethsemane youth, the beloved disciple endangers himself when he enters the high priest's court with Jesus (Jn 18:15). Why he is not prosecuted may have to do with his wealth and position and even his acquaintance with the high priest (supported by Jn 18:15) and/or the realization on the part of Jesus' enemies that they only need to eliminate Jesus without whom the youth poses no threat (unsupported). In any case, nothing actually guarantees his safety, so that the bravery of the beloved disciple is quite remarkable. Ironically (there is that word again), John does not remark upon the unnamed disciple's courage at all but, instead, focuses on the contrasting cowardice of Peter (Jn 18:17)!

The objection that the beloved disciple is not called a "youth" is, of course, easily answered by the famous clue that he must be youthful because he is a faster runner than Peter (Jn 20:4). This clue becomes even more important in the next section.

The Rich Man

WHEN Lazarus appears in John, he evidently has a prior relationship with Jesus although its beginning is not spelled out in that gospel as we have it. A prior, an on-going relationship between the Bethany youth and Jesus is still less clear in the case of Mark/Secret Mark. In the previous section, I showed how SGM 2:1 possibly hints at a prior relationship between the families of Jesus and the Bethany youth. Here I will set out several clues to their previous acquaintance as individuals.

We do not have to backtrack very far prior to Mark 10:34, where Secret Mark begins, before coming to Mark 10:17-22 which tells of a man "who possessed a fortune" asking Jesus how to attain eternal life. Secret Mark happens to make the point that the Bethany youth is rich, apparently because he owns his own home. Lazarus, in John, may also be wealthy based upon the same criterion.

At Mark 10:21, Jesus looks at the man and loves him. The Scholars Version eccentrically uses "(love) at first sight" even though Jesus first saw the man four verses earlier. The Greek at both canonical Mk 10:21 and SGM 1:8 says, "looking upon him, [he] loved him (emblepsas autŰ ÍgapÍsen auton)." Jesus is the subject of the verb in Mark and the intended object in Secret Mark. If Jesus were the subject in both sentences, then there would be no reason to suspect a connection between the rich man and the youth. It is because the formula is the same but the meaning is different that we are justified in suspecting that the second instance of the phrase complements the first and does not merely repeat it. That the rich man is the object of the verb in Mark and the youth is the subject in the same phrase in Secret Mark could mean that this secret version of Mark is hinting at an identity between the two.

Actually, the Scholars' translation of "he loved him at first sight" may have some validity after all. If so, any freshness of recognition has theological meaning to those who told this story-not the ordinary seeing of a person for the first time, but the spiritual recognition of their true nature. It could be that Jesus recognizes the youth's spiritual worthiness at Mk 10:21 and that the youth then sees Jesus' true nature as messiah at SGM 1:8. Smith reached much the same conclusion:

The whole section-secret Gospel and all-was intended to be understood as dealing, not with two rich youths, but with one. The one whom Jesus loves and who rejects him in Mk. 10.20-22 is identified with the one whom Jesus raises from the dead and who then loves and follows him in the secret Gospel. The moral symbolism is obvious and the identification has been made in Mark's regular fashion, by the use of identical phrases.31

Smith is persuaded that the story connecting the rich man with the Bethany youth was told precisely to redeem the distressing implication of Mark 10:23 which is that those with great wealth can hardly be saved:

[E]ven the rich man who at first rejected Jesus, although dead and buried in the world, could still be saved by the miracle of the resurrection and could receive the true, gnostic baptism, for which one came in the proper baptismal garb, a white sheet over the naked body.32

As is often the case with Secret Markan echoes, the phrase at Mark 10:21 about Jesus loving the rich man is absent from Mt 19:16-22 and Lk 18:18-23 where the other synoptics tell the same story. There are other differences as well. Only Matthew (19:20) refers to the questioner as a youth (neaniskos). Mark 10:17 introduces the questioner as "one having run up (prosdramŰn)" without saying whether he is man or boy. It is noteworthy, however, that scholars have long made use of John 20:4 to prove that the beloved disciple was youthful because he outran Peter. Is it a coincidence, then, that the rich man who approaches Jesus running at Mark 10:17 is called a youth in Matthew's version? (I wonder whether there are any examples of ancient story-tellers who portray middle-aged rich men as running anywhere unless their lives are threatened.)

Luke 18:18 identifies the questioner as a ruler (archŰn). As a wealthy man in first-century Palestine, he is likely to be someone who has inherited wealth, prestige, and authority all at once. Recall that the "other disciple," in John, is known to the high priest (18:15) which is not surprising for a wealthy Judean aristocrat from a suburb of Jerusalem. Also, if this is the man whom Jesus asks to care for his mother at John 19:26-27, the choice is most prudent.

Mark gives us no reason to assume that the rich man has been in Jesus' entourage before Mk 10:17, but where did he come from, and how does he know who Jesus is? Similarly, while Secret Mark does not say explicitly that the Bethany youth or his sister knew Jesus beforehand, how does the sister know that he is supposed to be the messiah when she meets him on the road? What is she doing on the road when her brother's tomb is elsewhere? Did the author(s) of this story have in mind, as answers to such questions, that the rich man and Bethany woman are supposed to have seen and heard Jesus on one or more previous occasions?33

The Youth at Jesus' Tomb

ANOTHER PIECE of Secret Mark, which may have influenced all of the canonical gospels, is the final appearance of a youth in Mark: "And when they went into the tomb, they saw a young man (neaniskon) sitting on the right, wearing a white robe (stolÍn leukÍn), and they grew apprehensive" (Mark 16:5). Even Crossan seriously considers this identity, albeit, in his scheme, more as a relocation of troublesome text than as a deliberate echo.34 The "white robe" (stolÍn leukÍn) is not a "shroud" (sindona), but thus Mark uses a youth to announce Jesus' resurrection.

While it is possible that a youth is sometimes just a youth and that this is not necessarily our Bethany youth, the youth at the tomb appearing to be mortal favors the possibility of an identity. In parallel scenes, John 20:12 describes "two heavenly messengers [angels] in white"; Luke 24:4 describes "two figures [literally, men]... in dazzling clothing"; and, while Matthew (28:2-3) says that there was only one angel, his is more impressive than anyone else's: "The messenger [literally, angel of the Lord] gave off a dazzling light and wore clothes as white as snow." Mark's simpler messenger is a "young man" in not-necessarily-dazzling white. Is the resemblance to the youth of Bethany mere coincidence, or did the youth whose tomb Jesus entered, later enter Jesus' tomb? Did each participate in the other's release from death?

The Three Women

ANOTHER possible connection between figures in Secret Mark and Mark was suggested to Smith by professor R. Schippers of the University at Amsterdam, and involves the women Jesus meets at Jericho (SGM 2:1). The first woman on the list in Secret Mark appears to be the sister of the Bethany youth, the same woman introduced at SGM 1:1-2. Cross-referencing Secret Mark with John 11:1-44, this sister is identified with Mary/Martha (since John has given the youth/Lazarus two sisters instead of one). Schippers suggests that, in an early tradition, Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala were the same person or at least that stories about them were interchangeable.35

The other two women are identified as "his mother and Salome." Salome also appears among those present for the crucifixion at Mark 15:40 where the list is replete with names. Could the two lists, SGM 2:1 and Mk 15:40 be of the same three women? Though we have never heard of them before the crucifixion in Mark, we are told that they "had regularly followed and assisted him when he was in Galilee, along with many other women who had come up to Jerusalem in his company" (15:41).

The Greek text of Mk 15:40 literally lists these figures as follows: Mary Magdalene; Mary, James' (the Less) and Joses' mother; and Salome (Maria hÍ MagdalÍnÍ kai Maria hÍ IakŰbou tou mikrou kai IŰsÍtos mÍtÍr kai SalŰmÍ [ IŰsÍ for IŰsÍtos and other variations are found in some MSS]). The feminine article "Í" and the word for "mother" (mÍtÍr) that it modifies form a sort of womb enclosing the names of Mary's sons but excluding Salome.36 Salome is a companion of the two Marys, not one's absent daughter, pace Robert Eisenman. I do, however, find persuasive Eisenman's argument that Mary, the mother of James and Joses, is actually Jesus' mother, indeed, that "Joses" is most likely a variant of "Jesus."37

Given the equivalence of the maternal Marys, we now have identified the women on the lists (SGM 2:1 and Mk 15:40) as the same persons. The same three women appear at 16:1, although Salome is not named along with the two Marys at 15:47. Neither does she appear with them at all in the other gospels.38

If Mary Magdalene is the sister of the youth she finds in Jesus' tomb, why does she not recognize him? I suspect that that this is because characters merged, separated and became obscure to the redactors depending upon the story's given stage of development, but it is also possible that some of the identities suggested here were never intended. (In that case, one could invoke the legal concept of severability.) Nevertheless, I think that, in addition to an extended tale about the Bethany youth, we have found a companion story about his sister as a perennial member of Jesus' entourage, often seen as part of a group of three women. Probably, the whole family of the Bethany youth was seen as having a relationship with Jesus beginning before the Bethany incident.

Schippers' Equivalent Lists of Three Women

SecretGospel of Mark, 2:1 Canonical Mark, 15:40

Bethany youth's sister


Mary Magdalene
"His mother"(Mary, Jesus' mother) = Mary, mother of James...
Salome = Salome


I HAVE SUGGESTED that the youthful figures examined above were linked in a single story across three different gospels. Perhaps the story is still not self-evident although I have alluded to it each time I have exposed one of its links. The story is about a well-to-do family from Bethany consisting of at least one brother and one sister39 who follow Jesus and become prominent in the early movement around him. Not only does the sister become a regular companion of Jesus' mother, but she becomes an avid disciple. Her brother becomes a favorite of Jesus, especially after Jesus raises and initiates him. He plays so prominent a role at public appearances that Jesus' enemies single him out as the disciple they would most like to arrest along with Jesus, but the political connections of the young aristocrat finally dissuade them from condemning him. At the crucifixion, both brother and sister are on hand, agreeing to take care of Jesus' mother. (This is a legend that makes Jesus an only child, apparently, because Mary did not need special protection if she still had James and other living children.) The Bethany siblings also are present at the resurrection. This is the basic framework of the Bethany legend, but it may have varied from teller to teller. For example, while the connection of this tradition with the town of Bethany is attested by both of the versions of the Bethany incident that are known to us (SGM 1-13 and John 11:1-44), there is no certainty that there were not other versions of the same tradition that were set in Galilee. Much of chapter seven in Luke, is framed by two stories (7:11-17 and 7:36-50) which are like those associated with Bethany in the other gospels; yet Luke's setting is Galilee.40

A key element of the story about the youth in Secret Mark is that he underwent a lengthy baptismal ceremony. Morton Smith's theory is that Jesus' form of baptism was different from John the Baptist's and was kept a secret during Jesus' lifetime. Although championed by Paul, it involved a lengthy initiation process and proved impractical for mass baptisms. It therefore remained secret while the Church also adopted a modified baptism based on John's method.41 If Smith is correct that the stories about the Bethany youth related to a long, secret ceremony preserved and practiced in exclusive circles, it is not surprising that, when the Church condemned secret teachings, esoteric references to mysterious youthful figures in Mark and John had to be explained away by such confabulations as the identification of the beloved disciple with John the Evangelist.

Crossan considers-and immediately rejects-the idea of an identity between the rich man and the Bethany youth, in part reasoning that, if there were such an identity, Clement would have mentioned it.42 Of course, we would not expect a secret tradition to be trumpeted about. We ought to be surprised, instead, that Clement wrote anything at all about Secret Mark. Indeed, one of the frustrating things about the fragmentary copy of Clement's letter is that it ends with the words, "Now the true explanation and that which accords with the true philosophy...."43 It is fair to suppose from this that the lost portion of the letter answered at least some of our questions about the interpretation of Secret Mark.

If the question about the difficulty of being a wealthy Christian, raised by Mark 10:23ff, were meant to be answered by the identity of the rich man with the Bethany youth, it is troubling that the identification not only has not survived to our time, but that it may not even have survived the first century of the Jesus movement (Clement himself could have been ignorant of it)! This is not, however, any more troubling than that the identity of the Bethany and Gethsemane youths was lost or that the identity of the Bethany youth and the beloved disciple was subverted by the pious conceit of the identity of John and the beloved disciple.

If some of the youthful figures in John were once joined in identity with those in Mark and Secret Mark, this material about Jesus and one of his disciples was not original to the later contributors to Mark and John who secondarily and inconsistently gave different names and designations to the same figures in different pericopes. I am tempted to suggest, for example, that the identification of the beloved disciple with the other disciple was earlier obscured by John but that the Redactor of John added clarifications of this disciple's identity at John 20:2 and 21:20 based on the Redactor's partial knowledge of the tradition. This is the sort of complicated textual analysis I had better avoid, however.

Similarly, I would not like to speculate as to where the stories under discussion originated. Clement believed that Mark was expanded into Secret Mark at Alexandria,44 and Helms argues for the Alexandrian provenance of one or more of John's sources,45 but Mark, Secret Mark, and John seem to have been produced in different places. I do not know where the Christians who told the Bethany story came from, only that they appear to have been influential enough to leave it to posterity, embedded in the canonical gospels. The stories were venerated by subsequent generations, and the evangelists preserved them without necessarily understanding them. Perhaps the evangelists sometimes even disapproved of the implications of these stories but were unable to eliminate them because of their established place in Christian tradition.

Why members of this group did not remain influential and why the story that was so important to them was not kept alive as an on-going tradition is best explained by the fact that one of the keys to the tradition is a nominally secret gospel. The keepers of this lore did not freely share their full interpretation of the gospel message and succeeded so well in keeping their secret that it was lost to posterity.

The identities of certain youthful figures might not be the only, or even the primary, concern of Secret Mark. I have cited Smith's view that the theme of much of chapter ten of Mark was baptism.46 The possibility that the whole of Mark emphasized baptism or initiation seems to be supported by Mark's beginning with Jesus' baptism, his echo of Jesus' baptism at 9:7, and the emphasis on baptism in the portion of Secret Mark known to us from Clement's letter.47 Of course, I could be seeing a pattern where one does not exist, but perhaps the author(s) of Secret Mark deliberately created a pattern for some of their readers to see. Clement's revelation of Secret Mark may be the window through which everyone can see it.

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1 See Morton Smith (A), Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 152-153; or Morton Smith (B), The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 53.

2 See Smith (A), especially 446-447.

3 John Dominic Crossan, Four Other Gospels (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1992), 73-75, and again, 82-83. Smith (B), 68, unwittingly abets such a mechanistic view by suggesting that "the only function" of one of the echoes of Secret Mark in Mark is an identification of figures and that it otherwise "makes no sense."

4 The echoes of Secret Mark within Mark may be cues to intended locations of lost esoteric passages of Secret Mark. See Smith (A), 189, for an example. I suspect that Mark 9:2 is another.

5 Smith (B), 45. Smith immediately recognized the identity of the Bethany youth in Secret Mark with Lazarus in John.

6 See Andrew Louth in his appendix to Eusebius The History of the Church, trans. by G.A. Williamson (New York: Penguin Books USA, 1989), 379-380.

7 Smith (A), 446-447 (an English translation) and 448-453 (a transcription of the Greek text along with photographic plates of the document).

8 Crossan, 68.

9 Crossan, 70; see also Smith b, 29-30.

10 Smith (B), 40.

11 See Crossan, 64. See also Robert Funk, Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (A Polebridge Press Book. New York: Macmillan, 1993), 554.

12 See Smith (A), 447.

13 See either Funk et. al. (supra, n. 11), 39-127, or Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels. (A Polebridge Book. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 13-52. see also my own Greek-English interlinear version of Secret Mark appended to this paper.

14 Miller, 411.

15 See Smith (B), 42-43. Crossan, 76ff, interprets these echoes, I think wrongly, as having been relocated from Secret Mark to Mark.

16 Smith (B), 47.

17 Until SGM 2:2, Secret Mark's vocabulary is uncannily similar to canonical Mark's (except, possibly, "for he was rich" at the end of SGM 1:9 which sounds more like Luke 18:23), but the word for "received" (apedexato) at 2:2 neither belongs to Mark's vocabulary nor does its connotation here belong to his time whereas it belongs to the vocabulary of Clement and that of his time. Clement, or someone close to his time, probably cut off a dialogue between Jesus and the women by creating this second verse (Smith (A), 121-122). Smith suggests that this was because Salome was a controversial figure (Ibid, 189-192), but without knowing what Theodore had read in the Carpocratian version of Secret Mark, it is impossible to be certain of what Clement was up to.

18 I will use the Scholars Version of the gospels (see supra, note 13).

19 Smith (A), 174, 447. See also Crossan, 81, 82.

20 Smith (A), 156, notes that Jesus' resurrection miracles were attacked in antiquity on the grounds that the people were not dead. For example, a little girl is not dead but asleep just as Jesus says (Mark 5:39). This is similar to Jesus' saying about Lazarus at John 11:12, but Mark never tells us whether sleep is a metaphor for death, whereas John makes it clear that it is (11:13-14; See Ibid., 153). Mark 9:26 tells of a rumor about Jesus raising the dead that follows the cure of an epileptic. Matthew 17:14-18 and Luke 9:37-43 repeat this story as a cure without any reference to a mistaken rumor about raising the dead. Either the rumor was not mentioned in their copies of Mark, or Matthew and Luke considered such a non-miracle inappropriate and left it out.

21 Smith (A), 148ff, may be summarized by saying that if you have seen the structure of one miracle story, you have seen them all, but the two versions of the Bethany story are also remarkably similar in content.

22 Smith (B), 81.

23 Crossan, 82: "I do not presume it contained a passion and resurrection conclusion [italics in original]."

24 Smith (A), 191, cites, for example, Karl Eckhardt, Der Tod des Johannes als SchlŁssel zum Verstšndnis der johanneischen Schriften (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1961).

25 See Eusebius, EH, 1.12 and 3.25. See also Luke 6:17, 10:1; Acts 1:15; Mark 2:15, and Irenaeus Against Heresies, 1:25:5 (quoted by Crossan, 81).

26 Smith (A), 119.

27 Eckhardt, 22 (cited by Smith [A], 153), suggests that both Lazarus and the beloved disciple were unnamed in John's source.

28 See Randel Helms, Who Wrote the Gospels? (Altadena, CA: Millennium Press, 1997), 151-152.

29 Because no other possible reference to the mother of the Bethany youth is found in Secret Mark or John, I assume that "his mother" refers to Jesus' mother.

30 Mark 15:40 portrays Salome as standing near Jesus' cross, and Gos. Thom. 61.4 seems to identify her as a disciple of Jesus.

31 Smith (B), 68.

32 Ibid., 66.

33 They might need only one encounter to recognize Jesus but more than one to decide to seek his advice or help. While other figures recognize Jesus as messiah on first sight, they are usually possessed (or infirm, which is often treated as the same thing in the gospels). As far as we know, the rich man and the Bethany woman are not possessed on the occasions recounted in Mark 10:17-22 and SGM 1:1-13.

34 Crossan, 77.

35 Smith (A), 121. The theory is based on confusion over the identity of the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany (Matt. 26:7, Mark 14:3, and John 12:3). Only John identifies her as the Bethany youth's sister. Luke 7:37ff seems to put the incident in Galilee.

36 The case endings appear to agree: IakŰbou is genitive; IŰsÍtos appears to be a third declension genitive of IŰsÍs, SalŰmÍ is nominative.

37 Robert Eisenman, James, the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Viking Penguin, 1997), 844-847. Schippers also points out that the mother of James and Joses must be Jesus' mother (Smith [A], 121).

38 Smith (A), 189-192, gives a concise survey of the mostly apocryphal references to Salome, the most orthodox of which brand her with an unsavory reputation. Gnostics appealed to her as an authority, making her a repository of Gnostic theology and a lightning rod for orthodox polemics. She seems to have been banished from canonical texts later than Mark.

39 I have ignored all evidence that the Bethany story depends on stories from 1 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 4 or the Egyptian myth about Horus resurrecting Osiris, who has two sisters (Helms, 122ff).

40 See supra, note 35. Luke 7:2-10 and 7:11-17 are companion or double resurrection stories which, taken together, exhibit Luke's patented brand of symmetry, and each has features reminiscent of the Bethany story. Luke 7:2 says: "A Roman officer had a slave he was very fond of but who was sick and about to die," which is vaguely reminiscent of John 11:3, though the vocabulary is completely different.

41 Smith (B), 94-98, 119.

42 Crossan, 78-79. The rest of his argument is that the Bethany youth is introduced as if he were previously unknown to the narrative.

43 Smith (A), 447.

44 Ibid., 446. See also 92: Smith questions "Clement's credulity about apostolic authority."

45 Helms (supra, n. 28), 122-128; also idem, 131-133.

46 Smith, 68.

47 The Gospel of John also brings John the Baptist into the story early on, intriguingly puts him at Bethany, and, at 1:28, curiously places Bethany near the Jordan River. It is as if this is not so much a geographical mistake as a sacrifice of geographical accuracy to a secret symbolic meaning so as to put John the Baptist at Bethany and on the banks of the Jordan simultaneously.

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Copyright © Institute for Higher Critical Studies, 1996. Web version created April, 9, 1999

Darrell J. Doughty
Institute for Higher Critical Studies
Drew University, Madison, NJ, 07940