Revisiting this book six months after publication is painful, now that Stephen Carlson has put Secret Mark to rest. It's so diligently argued, carefully considered, and plausibly sounding at times, that one could almost believe it describes the hermeneutical intent behind an ancient document. Brown's thesis is that Secret Mark was part of a longer version of the gospel of Mark, written by the same author, but for advanced readers who might have a more gnostic understanding of the first version. Longer Mark elaborates themes of discipleship and Christology already in place, especially elements which were left ambiguous or obscure in the shorter version, like the mystery of the kingdom of God (Mk 4:11) and the appearance and flight of the young man in Gethsemane (14:51-52). Brown even suggests that Secret Mark is an actual parable of the kingdom:
"As an enacted parable of the kingdom, the raising of the young man...illustrates the paradox that one must undergo death in order to defeat it. The private explanation of this parable [where the young man spends the night with Jesus] expounds this insight by using baptismal imagery of death and rebirth [naked under the linen]... Baptism imagery is used here to interpret the salvific dimension of the young man's rising according to the analogy of dying (drowning in water) and rising again, though the baptism by which the transformation is attained is not the rite itself, but a metaphorical immersion in literal suffering and death." (p 206)
While Morton Smith is laughing from the grave, it would be a mistake to dismiss Brown as a fool. By all indications, he's a sharp scholar who knows his stuff (though Mark's gnosticizing of his own gospel is rather hard to take seriously). Even the best can be taken in by hoaxes, and that's what happened here. In fact, I wasn't sure how to rate this book. Does it deserve amazon's lowest rating (one-star) for building a theory of gospel origins on a prank? Or is it valuable for precisely this reason, as an illustration of academic credulity in the context of a wider hoaxing phenomenon?
Brown would find neither flattering, so I should point out some decent things about the book, especially in terms of what it argues against rather than what it argues for. Brown points out considerable problems with ideas that Secret Mark was part of an early version of Mark, part of a secret and elitist gospel, or was used for purposes of pre-baptismal catechism. He's also right about certain scholars who have dismissed Secret Mark as a hoax for the wrong reasons -- whether out of prejudice or malice. In particular, he scores zingers against Jacob Neusner, who clearly maligned Smith out of spite, owing to the infamous fallout between the two men. It's embarrassing to see Neusner's pre-'84 and post-'84 remarks laid out on the same page, as he went from Smith's "brilliant account" of a discovery which "ranks with Qumran and Nag Hammadi, Masada and the Cairo Geniza, but required more learning and sheer erudition than all of these together"; to Smith's "forgery of the century"! (see pp 39-40).
Mark's Other Gospel is ultimately the tragic product of a scholar who ignored (or couldn't see) the humor in Secret Mark. That it's the most ambitious treatment to date only accentuates the tragedy. Perhaps this serves all the more as a lesson to us, in the wider context of literary hoaxes and forgeries.