A First-Century Copy of the Gospel of Mark?
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.