Morton Smith, a controversial Columbia University historian who discovered evidence of a "Secret Gospel of Mark" and theorized that Jesus was a magician figure, has died of heart failure in his New York City home. He was 76.
Smith, who died July 11, was an acknowledged authority on ancient history, including early Christianity and its relationships to Judaism and mystery cults. He frequently upset many biblical scholars with his provocative theses and sharp criticisms of colleagues who disagreed with him.
A major controversy stemmed from his 1958 discovery in a monastery outside Jerusalem of a copied segment of what Clement of Alexandria, a 2nd-Century church leader, called a "secret" version of the Gospel of Mark. The hitherto unknown episode told of Jesus raising a young man from the dead, then later teaching him "the mystery of the kingdom of God" during a nighttime ritual in which the youth wore only a linen cloth.
Smith's arguments for its authenticity--not as a part of the original Gospel, but as part of a later, lost version--has been accepted by many mainline New Testament scholars. Although a few scholars suspect a hoax, published collections of apocryphal gospels now include the "Secret Mark" episode.
At the same time, Smith angered many Christian scholars when he suggested in his 1973 book, "The Secret Gospel," that there was a licentious streak in some early Christian groups, who were inspired in part by accounts of Jesus. Though the Gospels depict Jesus as an exorcist and miracle maker, critics believed that Smith failed to prove that the orthodox stream of early Christian churches conducted erotic ceremonies of the type allegedly conducted by heretical, 2nd- and 3rd-Century Christian sects.
One prominent defender of Smith was Hans Dieter Betz, then of the School of Theology at Claremont. Betz told a colloquium in 1975 that the image of the historical Jesus as a magician and mystagogue "cannot be simply dismissed" as the invention of later heretics.
The portrayal of Jesus in the biblical Gospels contains "similar traits in spite of the fact that the Gentile Christian gospel writers have done their best to reduce the element of magic and mystery," Betz said.
Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels, author of "The Gnostic Gospels," said Smith was admired not only for precise scholarship but also for being a rarity among scholars--"an excellent writer."
Yet, when he elaborated on his thesis in a 1978 book, "Jesus the Magician," the reviews in religious publications were mostly skeptical. One reviewer called it "another ingenious but tendentious reconstruction of what Jesus could have been."
Smith received doctoral degrees at Harvard Divinity School and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He taught at Brown and Drew Universities before joining Columbia in 1957.
He had no immediate survivors.