BAR 17:06, Nov/Dec 1991
Morton Smith, Controversial Historian, Dies
Morton Smith, a member of BARs Editorial Advisory Board and a leading authority on ancient religions and magic, died of heart failure on July 11, 1991, at the age of 76. An outspoken critic of the Dead Sea Scroll editors who denied access to other scholars, Smith was a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, where he had taught since 1957.
Smith sparked a controversy in the world of Biblical scholarship with his 1958 discovery of the secret Gospel of Mark, a fragment of a letter believed to have been written by Clement of Alexandria, a second-century Christian teacher, for an inner circle of the Christian community. Smith had found the manuscript in the tower library of Mar Saba, a Greek Orthodox monastery in the Judean wilderness near Jerusalem. After years of research to establish its authenticity, he published his conclusions in a scholarly book, Clement of Alexandria and the Secret Gospel of Mark (Harvard Univ. Press, 1973), and in a popular book, The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark (Harper & Row, 1973). His research on the manuscript led Smith to believe that Jesus may have been a magician, rather than a rabbi, and that magical rituals played a significant role in early Christianity. He further described these ideas in a popular book, Jesus the Magician (Harper & Row, 1978), which won Columbias Lionel Trilling Book Award. The Society of Biblical Literature honored Smith in 1980 with the Ralph Marcus Centennial Award for historical research supporting Biblical studies.