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On Papyri and Integrity

May 29, 2018

The publication of the fragment of the Gospel of Mark that has been generating excitement and controversy for several years now and the preceding and ensuing accounts about it raise the issue of integrity.

The papyrus fragment (which I posted about most recently here) is now palaeographically dated by its editors as late second/early third century CE.  The earlier claim that it was a first-century fragment that was sounded by Daniel Wallace in a debate with Bart Ehrman a few years ago, was clearly based on incorrect information.  Wallace (in a commendable example of scholarly honesty and integrity) has now given his own account of how he was misled (here).

On another site, Brice Jones has expressed puzzlement (here) about claims that the fragment was offered for sale, given that it is now clear that it was part of the Oxyrhynchus hoard of ancient papyri held now in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford).  The claims implicate the esteemed papyrologist, Dirk Obbink, and Jones poses questions about how he could have supposedly offered the fragment for sale.

The recent news release on the fragment from the Egypt Exploration Society (which own the Oxyrhynchus Papyri) denies that any of the papyri in its collection was ever put up for sale (here).  As a further note, I personally have great confidence in Dirk Obbink as a scholar and a person of honor and integrity.  I will say nothing more about the claim that troubled Jones or the person to whom it is ascribed.  But I trust Obbink, and that means that the claim that he offered the item for sale like some huckster I regard as false and mischievous.

This whole drama has been a sad instance of ballyhoo and perhaps worse distorting what should have been a sober editing and analysis of a small but very important bit of papyrus.  I hope that we shall not see such a case anytime soon.

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14 Comments
  1. Gary permalink

    No quantity of early copies of the Gospels will confirm that the stories in the original autographs are historically accurate depictions of the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. The anonymous authors, whom the majority of scholars believe were *not* eyewitnesses or the associates of eyewitnesses, were writing in a genre of literature which allowed for extensive embellishment. For all we know, the only historical facts in the Gospels are that Jesus lived, was an apocalyptic preacher, developed a reputation as a healer and miracle worker, got on the wrong side of the Jewish authorities, was crucified by the Romans, and shortly after his death some of his followers believed that he had appeared to them in some fashion.

    That’s it.

    Even if we find all four original autographs, it will not prove that Jesus fed five thousand people with a few fish and loaves of bread, that he raised Lazarus from the dead, that the temple veil tore down the middle upon his death, or that multiple persons saw a walking, talking corpse eat a broiled fish lunch with his former fishing buddies.

    • Uh, Gary, how about you just attend to the issue in the blog posting, which wasn’t whether this or that event narrated actually happened as narrated, but that we have another early fragment of GMark. Gee wiz!! Take a breath. Just because you’re all worked up about anti-apologetic matters doesn’t mean you should trot out your phobias when they aren’t relevant. Stay cool, man!

      • Gary permalink

        Sorry, I thought I was talking about the topic of the post: the significance of this particular fragment of a copy of the Gospels, and then expanding it to the significance of ALL copies of the Gospels. Thousands of copies of anonymous books don’t mean diddly-squat except to say that the copyists did a good job of copying! I don’t understand why Christians were so worked up about a FIRST century fragment anyway. What would it have proven?

      • Gary: All early fragments of any text enhance our knowledge of the textual transmission of that text in the early period. Given the importance of GMark, an early fragment is automatically important. Do, take something for that allergy (or phobia) that somebody is going to “prove” Christianity to you. Chill.

    • David Madison permalink

      Gary, there are numerous problems with your comment but I shall confine myself to making one point, with the help of an analogy. Suppose that four people write biographies of someone and it is generally agreed that these biographies make their subject look like the funniest person who ever lived. Now, wouldn’t it be extraordinary if the subject of the biographies actually wasn’t funny at all?

      If you substitute “moral teacher” for “funny person”, you will appreciate the point. Is there embellishment in the Gospels? Maybe. Is the Gospel Jesus essentially a fictional character with no meaningful resemblance to the “real” Jesus? Extremely improbable.

  2. Oyebola Feranmi permalink

    Funny! I do not see the excitement over a first century NT fragment. Even the originals of the NT is not enough to convince the skeptics – they will only raise the bar of evidence higher.

    • Oyebola, The original of GMark would not of itself generate conversion to Christian faith! Scholars who work on the papyri are mainly just trying to get the best resources to trace the texts in question.

    • Gary permalink

      Provide good evidence that you have multiple, *independent*, eyewitness statements regarding the life, words, and deeds of Jesus and you will have our undivided attention.

  3. I thought Craig Evans and apologist Josh McDowell were saying that this fragment came from a mummy mask…

  4. Robert permalink

    Thank you, Larry, for your vote of confidence in Dirk Obbink. It is good to hear this. Some of the innuendo being spread about him are coming from anonymous comments or people who have not fully explained their own involvement.

  5. Griffin permalink

    Could this story be regarded as a recent example of how an irresponsible religious fervor can typically distort serious religious material, scholarship?

    • Well, “irresponsible” seems appropriate. I’m not sure what religion has to do with it.

      • The whole thing started because someone (who?) told Wallace to mention the fragment within the context of an apologetical debate with Ehrman. Then a recurring cast of Christian scholars and apologists leveraged the unpublished fragment in other apologetics talks, adding to the useless buzz. I think that’s how “religion” still has something to do with it.

      • Griffin permalink

        Especially, the tendency to move the date forward, to the first century, might have served Christian apologetics?

        Since that would give them earlier evidence for Jesus then they’d had before.

        Fortunately,.serious scholarship held the line. Against Hobby Lobby and others.

        Thank you all.

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