The news and inter-webs are abuzz over the recent details coming out about the alleged discovery of the oldest fragment of the gospel of Mark on record. Craig Evans, a New Testament scholar and professor at Acadia Divinity School, along with a team of still as of yet, undisclosed individuals in recent weeks are leaking progressively more details about the precise nature of the fragment and how it was discovered.
This is not news for those who have had their ears attuned to the world of NT scholarship, especially to those who heard the debate between Dan Wallace and Bart Ehrman in 2012, when Wallace leaked the existence of the fragment and forthcoming publication of the details with Brill Publishers. Through the deconstruction of a funeral mask overlaid on a 2000 year old egyptian mummy, Evans and his team were able to mine out various ancient texts from the mask including various greek texts, receipts, letters, and of course a fragment believed to be from the gospel of Mark. The initial word, though still as of yet unconfirmed, is that this fragment of Mark dates to about 90 AD, i.e., a full 100 years earlier than the pervious earliest fragment P45 (called this because it is the 45th Papyrus [hence “P”] manuscript to be catalogued), which dates to around the year 200 AD. The discovery, if substantiated, would be one of the most important manuscript discoveries in recent memory, for it would be the first and only fragment of any New Testament text from the first century, existing merely 20-30 years after Mark was written, meaning that this text was likely copied and circulated during the time when the original (or “earliest available form” if you like) of the text of Mark still existed.
As more information is released however, some important questions have been raised. Bart Ehrman in recent days on his blog has begun to deride Evans and his team because they likely deconstructed this mummy mask to mine out these documents illicitly for “apologetical” reasons in “disregard for the sanctity of surviving antiquities.” He further suggested that this practice will create a huge market among antiquities dealers to deconstruct more masks in order to look for valuable documents, effectively destroying pieces of egyptian history.
I think Ehrman’s accusations of impropriety and motive mongering are premature at best, especially since no one has actually seen or studied the fragment or how Evans’ team handled the artifacts in question. But he does raise some interesting questions:
Should these masks be destroyed in order to find documents from the past? One could very easily see that such a treasure trove of potential information would be valuable to a wide range of scholars, not just new testament scholars, but also Graeco-Roman historians, Egyptologists, and textual critics of all strips. What if some of the masks contained fragments from ancient classical works, say by Aristotle or Plato, thought to be lost to the distant past? Evans contends that the deconstruction in this case was permissible because the mummy was not a “museum-quality piece.” But are the documents that these masks preserve more valuable than the mummy itself? In looking for information about history, should we be willing to destroy important artifacts from the past to do so? Specifically to the Christian believer, apologist, or scholar, should we be so eager to find evidence for the early dating and authorship of NT texts, that we sacrifice the integrity of culturally significant artifacts of other people groups of the past to do so? In this case, Evans will likely win the argument because of the monumental and valuable nature of the discovery, but Ehrman worries that this sets a bad precedent, because likely the next mummy mask destroyed will not have a fragment from Mark or anything really worth preserving, and in the process, an important and valuable piece of the ancient Egyptian legacy is destroyed.
What do you think?