Alleged Oldest Fragment of the Gospel of Mark Found on Mummy Mask

papyrus-fragment-taken-this-ancient-egyptian-mummy-mask-could-well-be-oldest-copy-gospel-knownThe 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?

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12 Responses to Alleged Oldest Fragment of the Gospel of Mark Found on Mummy Mask

  1. Beau Quilter says:

    I think that, if the handlers of the Green Collection of Mummy Masks want to convince us that the destruction of these masks is legitimate and scholarly … they are shooting themselves in the foot by inviting the participation of buffoonish non scholars like Josh McDowell, who openly jokes that they can do whatever they want with a mask, since they “own it”:

    • Hi Beau, it’s been a while since I’ve checked the blog. Whatever comments Mcdowell or other christian apologists may have said (or done) aside, I’m a little disappointed at the invective and conspiratorial acrimony being hurled in the direction of credible scholars like Evans, Wallace, etc. Bart Ehrman has been on a veritable witch hunt on his blog calling up every credible papyrologist and paleographer he knows to see if he can figure out whose working it. He claims Evans is a “friend” of his, but I really have a hard time believing it from his comments. There might be grounds for criticism to be sure concerning about how the ancient artifacts were handled, but let’s wait and see what gets published in the Brill book. Best to you.

      • Beau Quilter says:

        I really have a hard time believing Wallace is a friend of Ehrman’s when he pulls out the first mention of this Mark fragment claim as a talking point in a debate, with no evidence to back it up, and later retreats into silence, citing nondisclosure agreements that “presumably?” were not in force during his first leak at the debate.

        It’s hard to know what kind of response these Green collection “scholars” and apologists are expecting when they continually parade these claims before their religious audiences, while pleading “nondisclosure agreements” to scholars, and no actual publication forthcoming until (now, apparently) 2017. Those, like Ehrman, who call them on this unprofessional behavior, are not looking for “witch burnings”, they are looking for responsible scholarship.

        I’m not sure how you can put “aside” what McDowell and others have said. The video speaks for itself.

      • Ehrman is the one who called Evans a “friend” on his page. I don’t know what his relationship to Wallace is. In any event, not being a text scholar, I don’t really know if leaking info on a manuscript project is normal (even with a non-disclosure form), or if this is just a special case because of the gravity and wide spread impact of the discovery. There are some interesting philosophical questions here to be sure. As I mentioned in the original post “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?” Everyone knows that archeological is inherently destructive. To dig up anything usually requires the destruction of something else. Decisions must be made about what artifacts are worth preserving and destroying all the time. So this is not a unique situation by any stretch. My immediate intuition is that if there are an abundance of these mummy masks, some of which are being preserved for posterity in museums, then there might be prima facie grounds for the deconstruction of some in order for scholars to advance our understanding of the ancient world even further.

      • Beau Quilter says:

        Real scholars approach invasive archeology with great care, transparency, and with concern to cause as little damage as possible. The Green Collection apologists are broadcasting unverified “results” with no transparency whatsoever in terms of actual scholarly dating or papyrology. What little we have been able to witness of their unpublished protocols in slides and videos, demonstrates a hurried carelessness using very questionable techniques (palm olive soap?!) From all indications, not only are the masks in danger; the very texts they are rushing to uncover are torn, held up to be read still wet from the sink, and handed about in the bare hands of nonprofessionals and undergraduates.

        Legitimate scholars are putting pressure on the Green Collection for very good reasons.

      • I think I agree with you insofar as it was not fair of Wallace to volunteer the existence of the manuscript in a debate forum where he knew his opponent could not have any way of responding. I also agree that if McDowell was somehow involved with the handling and care of the ancient manuscripts, that’s a problem. He uses the word “we” in the video, suggesting that he was involved with the Mark discovery, but it could be that he was doing his best Brian Williams impression here. I’m inclined to give Evans and Wallace, who are bone fide scholars, the benefit of the doubt, and am willing to wait to see what they publish before passing judgement. But my original and primary question still stands: what is worth more, the masks or the manuscripts? And what criteria should be used in order to make these judgements? Best to you.

      • Beau Quilter says:

        McDowell does far more than use the word “we”. He points out his own hand holding a fragment of manuscript and a pair of tweezers in the slide, then describes how scared he was of tearing the manuscripts the first time he tried it. Whoever he was working with replied, “If you tear it, you tear it. We own it, so it’s OK.” If the video is anything to judge by, there is a lot of tearing going on.

        My problem with Evans and Wallace is their irresponsible announcements, not just of discoveries, but of unverifiable conclusions about the discoveries, years before any sort of formal publication. This is not academically professional behavior.

        Regardless of whether the masks are “worth more” than the manuscripts, the manuscripts themselves are being treated by barehanded non experts, in videos clearly passing fragments around while they are still wet and fragile. The concern of scholars about the Green Collection “methodologies” is hardly unwarranted.

        If you think McDowell is lying about his experience you can watch him participate in another video featuring Scott Carroll leading an entire room of non professionals including McDowell in the handling of the masks:

      • I was not suggesting that McDowell was lying, but perhaps massaging the truth a bit. In any event, I’m not sure how common it is for non experts to handle ancient artifacts. As anyone whose been to graduate school in an academic discipline knows, graduate and research assistants do much of the grunt work for the “experts” involved on large grant funded research projects. In fact, if anyone wants to, they can participate in an archeological dig (under the supervision of the lead archeologist). I know lot’s of lay persons who have done this. So I don’t know how common it is for non-experts to be involved on manuscript projects. It might be more routine than you’re giving credit. But maybe you’re right, in which case this would be an anomaly and breach in protocol, something I hope they’ll take responsibility for. Best.

      • Beau Quilter says:

        In the video above, it is not graduate and research assistants handling the artifacts. It is undergraduates, and non experts completely outside the discipline. We know this because Baylor bragged about the fact. Professional papyrologists have already been commenting on this, troubled by the ethics of these procedures and the provenance of the artifacts.

      • Maybe so, and if that is the case, then my hope along with yours would be that those working on this project would be held accountable, take responsibility, and reform their practice. For the time being however, I’m content to wait to see what they eventually publish and not base an opinion of a categorical nature on a few scant quotations and you tube videos. My post was again, not on the research ethics involved, but the larger philosophical questions associated with destroying one artifact in order to have access to another and to respond to Ehrman and other’s insinuation that mining out manuscripts from these discarded masks is somehow inherently illicit (which I don’t necessarily agree with).

      • Beau Quilter says:

        While you are content to wait on an eventual publication, professional scholars are not content – nor should they be. It is not uncommon for the results of archeological investigations to take a long time for publication. This is appropriate and reasonable. Good archeological investigation takes time, and good results often require the time-consuming confirmation of multiple scholars.

        However, there is no good academic reason to withhold the investigative procedures and protocols that are being used in an archeological investigation; quite the contrary, it is irresponsible and unprofessional to withhold this information. That is why you are hearing completely appropriate complaints from Ehrman and other scholars. Not because the Green Collection isn’t publishing results – results take time. Rather they are complaining about the unprofessional secrecy of the Green Collection’s protocols.

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