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A First-Century Copy of the Gospel of Mark?

January 26, 2015

In the last week or so I’ve had a number of inquiries about news stories of the discovery of a fragment of the Gospel of Mark dating to the first century AD.  Actually, this isn’t a new claim, but instead a rehashing (or belated notice) of a story that initially appeared back in early 2012.  But, thanks to an article more recently in “Live Science” (here) the story has taken on renewed life.  Concerns and critiques have been offered in news outlets as well, this one instance here.  So, I’ll offer some comments in what follows.

First, some background.  The original news derived from a public debate held in Chapel Hill, North Carolina between Dan Wallace and Bart Ehrman, during which Wallace mentioned that he’d been told that a first-century fragment of Mark had been identified.   That generated some excitement and critical comments, such as those from Brice Jones here.

The more recent excitement seems to have come from someone, apparently at “Live Science”, noticing a Youtube talk by Craig Evans (here) given in Canada back in 2014, in which he mentions again this putative fragment of Mark.  Evans appears essentially to be reporting on the claim initially reported by Wallace, and was not himself directly involved in the process of taking apart mummy cartonage to look for manuscript fragments.

Here are my own thoughts on the matter.

1) First, no such claim can be engaged at all unless/until the item in question is made available for critical scrutiny by qualified scholars (and that means scholars who are qualified to make an independent judgement on palaeographical grounds).  This hasn’t been done, and so the entire matter is (or should be) moot.  What do I think of the claim?  Can’t comment, as there is no item openly available for critical scrutiny.

2) Second, there are further good reasons to treat this particular claim with caution.  By wide scholarly consent, the Gospel of Mark was composed sometime roughly 65-75 AD.  It was obviously copied and circulated, as scholars also dominantly think that the authors of Matthew and Luke used Mark as the model for their own accounts of Jesus (and for much of the contents of their respective accounts).  But the chance of fragments a first-century copy of Mark being found are very, very slim.  In that very early period there would have been far fewer copies than, say from the third century AD.  But, thus far, the only copy of the Gospel of Mark from the first three centuries is in the Chester Beatty Gospels Codex (P.Chester Beatty I, or P45).  So, you see what I mean. Mark seems not to have been copied nearly as often as the other NT Gospels, so the statistical chances of any copy surviving are slim, and the chance of fragments of a first-century copy surviving very, very, very slim.  Many things are possible in principle, but don’t bet the farm on this one!

3)  Evans (a personal acquaintance) assures me that he didn’t go to the press, and that his own statements when contacted were much more cautious than what was reported.  Personally, I think it was misguided even to refer to this item in the talk from which the YouTube video came.  It scores no apologetics points to invoke as relevant evidence something that can’t be verified.  But that’s milk that’s been spilled.

4) Finally, some (especially Roberta Mazza) have complained about the use of “unprovenanced” items, i.e., artefacts whose derivation is unknown (or at least not, yet, indicated).  This is a fair concern . . . in principle.  It is particularly relevant with reference to artefacts that have been discovered more recently, when there are protocols that are supposed to be followed.  But there are many, many artefacts that were taken from their original finding-spot and acquired by collectors in the early 20th century, and their provenance is unknown.  Let’s think of some major collections, such as the John Rylands Library, the Chester Beatty Library, the Freer Gallery, etc.  To take items with which I’m acquainted,  Charles Freer was never able to verify where his biblical manuscripts came from.  He purchased them from an Egyptian antiquities dealer and that’s all we know for sure.

Lots of colleges and individuals who contributed to early 20th century expeditions in Egypt got back papyri as a return for their gifts.  Often, these items sat in institutional libraries or in the hands of individuals for many decades, never studied or published.  In recent years, a number have come onto the market, as institutions find that they need the money, and heirs of those individuals sometimes think they want money more than scraps of papyrus.  For whatever reason, papyri acquired long ago under very different circumstances and rules than we advocate today come up nowadays for acquisition.  So long as those who acquire the papyri make them available for scholarly study in due course, that’s about all we can ask.

So, what we can ask in the case of this putative fragment of Mark is that the owner(s) enable the scholarly world to access it, so that a critical and measured analysis can be done.  Until then, there is no need to ask what I think of the claim that it is a first-century fragment of Mark.  No data, no opinion.

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9 Comments
  1. Larry, I beg you pardon but to compare our colonial past and what is happening today is like comparing apples and oranges: we are all aware that some of the papyri in collections like the Rylands and others came to us as the result of a systematic pillage Europeans and North Americans have conducted in the 19th and the early 20th century. But now? We must be much more responsible as scholars, collectors, dealers, and any other subject involved with antiquities. What I have seen happening with some recent collections is simply appalling, as I have written more than once on my blog. Do we want to talk about Scott Carroll, ex director of the Green Collection, again?
    Also, you correctly write that papyri sat in libraries for ages, unstudied, untranslated, etc.: true but now we have hundreds images of published and UNPUBLISHED papyri freely available on many collections’ websites (including the Rylands), and honestly I am not seeing this crowd of scholars wishing to publish them. Why? Why if people are so disappointed by the rhythm of publishing don’t give a real contribution to it?
    Finally, to give you an idea about the looting and smuggling of antiquities from Egypt I am attaching just the last report on an operation that recovered, among others, mummy masks: http://artdaily.com/news/76069/2-200-pillaged-artefacts–many-from-ancient-Egypt–seized-in-European-crackdown-#.VMthCUu-r7W
    That’s why we MUST be very clear about the provenance of what we publish.

    • I entirely agree with your exhortation, Roberta. But we simply don’t know (yet) whether the items at the centre of recent rumours (mummy masks, papyri derived from them) are things brought out of Egypt long ago or more recently, or anything else. It’s right to demand that information be given about the provenance of an item, but in this case we have to wait for putative papyrus fragment to be published properly.
      And, yes, there are many unanalysed and unpublished items lying in the holdings of places such as the Rylands. But, of course, a full analysis requires an “autopsy” of the item, not simply judgements formed from online photos.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    What you say about waiting for the actual evidence and assessments to emerge is appreciated. Craig Evans clearly states in no uncertain terms that the manuscript dates to the 80s of the first century. However we don’t even need to know anything about the manuscript in order to be initially sceptical about that particular claim for the simple reason that expert paleographers invariably offer a range of possible dates (usually give or take 50 years) rather than a pinpoint like that. So even a fragment dated tentatively by an expert paleographer to the late first century, could still actually date to 130 AD and still be within a reasonable margin of error for palaeographical dating. The obvious reason for Evans breaking with convention is his apologetic agenda. Believers will get very excited if the manuscript checks out of course, but do they realise just how deeply unimpressive it seems to everyone else with their heads screwed on?

    By the way I’m assuming the dating Evans refers to has been done on the basis of paleography rather than, say, the date and provenance of the mummy for example. However if that is the basis for the very specific 80s claim it could be open to all sorts of other problems.

  3. Jim permalink

    I realize that ripping apart mummy masks might not be your primary interest in life🙂 , but is there a possibility that the “unique hands on” protocol employed (in the Josh McDowell video) could affect the validity of the carbon-14 dating result? Likewise, could the protocol employed potentially affect dating by paleography, especially on small fragments where there are not many letters and where such “unique” processing might result in some distortion in the letters? I guess what I’m wondering is if the dating has potentially been compromised by the process that was used?

    I suppose the most logical answer is to wait until the precise details of the process have been published, but that’s possibly two years away … and the suspense is killing me. (Please feel free to put this comment in the trash if it belongs there)

    • Contamination of a sample is a potential hazard that could affect Carbon-14 dating. I have no knowledge of what procedure was followed in the treatment of the mummy material. As I wrote earlier, no data, no comment.

  4. Peter Turnill permalink

    Thanks for that, Dr Hurtado. I met Dr Evans last year and he gave a fascinating presentation on archaeology in general and how they recover these texts from masks, etc. He did mention this Mark fragment, but there wasn’t much he could say, except that “the cat had been let out of the bag!”

    Could you perhaps explain why this find – if it is agreed to be first century – could be so exciting? No-one really needs to prove that Mark wrote his Gospel in the first century (do they?), so what might the benefits be otherwise? Perhaps if it offered an interesting textual variant, or gave an early witness to a particularly disputed text (e.g. Mk 1:41)?

    All I can think of is that such an early fragment would extend the textual history remarkably far back, but aside from this fact itself, does its value not depend on how big the fragment is (i.e. how much text of Mark’s Gospel it covers) and whether it contributes to a problem area? I suppose I’m asking, “What is the potential significance of recovering a first century Mark fragment?”

    • Scholars always want the earliest copies of any texts. The closer in time we can get to the composition of the writing, the better. The copying of texts involved the possibility/opportunity to introduce changes/variants, whether accidentally or deliberately. So, the more copies and the earlier the copies the better.
      Even fragments of early copies are important. We can at least test the random sample of text preserved as to what variants it may have, and how faithfully the text may have been copied.

  5. Another balanced and informed post. The agnostic route is certainly the most prudent before the papyrus is published or at least some solid information comes out.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to give the document’s provenance a pass, however. Certainly there’s a long history of undocumented extraction of papyri from Egypt, but it’s incumbent upon owners and collections to follow the documentation as far as it goes and it make this information available.

    Another concern in the case of this papyrus is its (supposed) extraction from mummy cartonnage (or if this fragments actually proves not to have come from cartonnage, then others in their possession). How was this done? Why was it deemed necessary to destroy mummy masks when there exists a low-cost, low-tech method that is able to preserve the artifact as well?

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