Monday, January 19, 2015

More About the First Century Gospel of Mark Fragment

Tim Henderson at has provided this article which seems to have more information about that elusive “First Century Fragment from the Gospel of Mark” that we’ve been hearing about.

Not long ago, James White and several others had commented on a brief video by Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. That video seemed to have drawn its information from a Josh McDowell video that showed some pretty “unprofessional” handling of these new manuscripts.

Now another publication, again relying on a more in-depth interview with Evans, seems to have some more detailed information about how these manuscripts were obtained:

A text that may be the oldest copy of a gospel known to exist — a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that was written during the first century, before the year 90 — is set to be published.

At present, the oldest surviving copies of the gospel texts date to the second century (the years 101 to 200).

This first-century gospel fragment was written on a sheet of papyrus that was later reused to create a mask that was worn by a mummy. Although the mummies of Egyptian pharaohs wore masks made of gold, ordinary people had to settle for masks made out of papyrus (or linen), paint and glue. Given how expensive papyrus was, people often had to reuse sheets that already had writing on them.

In recent years scientists have developed a technique that allows the glue of mummy masks to be undone without harming the ink on the paper. The text on the sheets can then be read.

The first-century gospel is one of hundreds of new texts that a team of about three-dozen scientists and scholars is working to uncover, and analyze, by using this technique of ungluing the masks, [Evans said].

"We're recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries. Not just Christian documents, not just biblical documents, but classical Greek texts, business papers, various mundane papers, personal letters," Evans told Live Science. The documents include philosophical texts and copies of stories by the Greek poet Homer.

The business and personal letters sometimes have dates on them, he said. When the glue was dissolved, the researchers dated the first-century gospel in part by analyzing the other documents found in the same mask….

Evans says that the text was dated through a combination of carbon-14 dating, studying the handwriting on the fragment and studying the other documents found along with the gospel. These considerations led the researchers to conclude that the fragment was written before the year 90. With the nondisclosure agreement in place, Evans said that he can't say much more about the text's date until the papyrus is published….

Because these “papier-mâché” masks have some archaeological value, Evans noted that “when the texts are published the debate is likely to move beyond the blogosphere and into mainstream media and scholarly journals.”

Evans said that the research team will publish the first volume of texts obtained through the mummy masks and cartonnage later this year. It will include the gospel fragment that the researchers believe dates back to the first century.

The team originally hoped the volume would be published in 2013 or 2014, but the date had to be moved back to 2015. Evans said he is uncertain why the book's publication was delayed, but the team has made use of the extra time to conduct further studies into the first-century gospel. "The benefit of the delay is that when it comes out, there will be additional information about it and other related texts."

Given that the earliest Christians were likely to be the poorest of the poor, all of this seems more than plausible to me. Scripture fragments thrown in with other papers by unbelieving relatives to create a burial mask. There could be some exciting news ahead.


  1. Thanks, John!

    As far as I know, the portion of Mark's gospel contained in the fragment hasn't been publicly revealed yet. But I think there are some portions of the gospel that we can rule out as candidates. It seems unlikely to me that the fragment provides any significant support for the ending of the gospel at 16:8, since Evans recently gave the following endorsement to a book arguing for the longer ending of the gospel (taken from the Amazon page just linked):

    ''Nicholas Lunn has thoroughly shaken my views concerning the ending of the Gospel of Mark. As in the case of most gospel scholars, I have for my whole career held that Mark 16:9-20, the so-called 'Long Ending,' was not original. But in his well-researched and carefully argued book, Lunn succeeds in showing just how flimsy that position really is. The evidence for the early existence of this ending, if not for its originality, is extensive and quite credible. I will not be surprised if Lunn reverses scholarly opinion on this important question. I urge scholars not to dismiss his arguments without carefully considering this excellent book. The Original Ending of Mark is must reading for all concerned with the gospels and early tradition concerned with the resurrection story.''
    --Craig A. Evans, Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Acadia Divinity College, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada --Wipf and Stock Publishers

    I'm in the process of reading Lunn's book. It may be a long time before I finish it, since I currently have a lot of other things to do. I may post more about the book later this year.

    Just as I doubt that the Mark fragment offers significant support for an ending of the gospel at 16:8, I doubt that the fragment includes any identifiable portion of 16:9-20. Evans refers to being "thoroughly shaken" by Lunn's book and refers to how the book might change scholarly opinion. If Evans already knew of a first-century manuscript containing 16:9-20 before reading Lunn's book, I doubt he'd refer to being thoroughly shaken by the book and the potential for Lunn's book to change scholarly opinion.

    Maybe Evans didn't get the relevant information about the Mark fragment until after writing his endorsement for Lunn's work. But I doubt it. Lunn's book just came out in late 2014. Given Evans' standing in New Testament scholarship and how knowledgeable he seems to be about the Mark fragment (in spite of what the Live Science article suggests, I don't think everything attributed to Evans in the article was already publicly revealed), I doubt that Evans learned the relevant details sometime after writing his endorsement for Lunn's book. Evans' endorsement probably reflects his view of Mark's ending after learning the relevant details reported in the Live Science article. So, I doubt that the fragment tells us much about the ending of the gospel.

    1. Thanks Jason -- even if the fragment doesn't say much about the ending, I think it will have the effect of moving a great deal of other New Testament scholarship earlier into the 1st century. That in itself will be a wonderful thing. (And there are also other fragments, to, which could help to significantly alter the things across the board).

    2. I mentioned that, as far as I know, the portion of Mark's gospel contained in the fragment hasn't been publicly revealed. I should add the following from one of the threads linked in the Live Science article:

      "Just 2 weeks ago (dated Apr 23, 2014), evidently he [Josh McDowell] spoke at Wheaton Bible Church and the video is posted here:…At 1:12:40 in this Apr 23 video he mentions the early fragment of Mark... and that it's from Mark chapter 1. Prior to this, I don't think which passage in Mark had ever been mentioned (but maybe I'm wrong on this)." (comment made by Jeff at 2:10 P.M. on 5/5/14)

      The video cited doesn't seem to be available any longer. It's likely that McDowell is referring to the same fragment Evans is addressing, so McDowell is claiming that the fragment in question is from Mark 1.

  2. If you became convinced the longer ending of Mark is authentic and inspired, how would that affect your Christian walk?

    1. Why should I pursue that rabbit trail?

  3. No disresepct, but I was asking Jason. He is the one currently reading Lunn's book.

    1. scrappy,

      There are too many issues involved to mention all of them. But like other textual matters, the ending of Mark affects how widely particular beliefs were attested by the earliest sources, how we interpret other passages, how we view the vocabulary of the author, what we think of the intelligence of the author, and harmonization of scripture, for example. Even where something in Mark's ending doesn't change our conclusion on a subject, it can still change the degree of probability we assign to that conclusion. There can be a cumulative effect when you add up textual issues. The ending of Mark could have significance in making a cumulative case that it doesn't have when considered by itself. And, like other disputed matters, it's relevant to the reputations of Christians involved in the dispute, how Christians spend their time, etc. If you can significantly advance the effort to settle a dispute, that advance can be important even if the underlying issue in the dispute isn't. I should be writing more about the ending of Mark later this year, and I'll have more to say about the significance of the ending at that point.

    2. Jason,
      Along with Lunn's book, I hope you have the 2014 edition of mine, "Authentic: The Case for Mark 16:9-20." You can e-mail me for a copy in Word.

  4. This is a response from someone who is obviously critical of the find. If her reactions are correct it seems to raise problems for the find. It makes me a little skeptical, though I trust Evans and Wallace.

    Dear Calum, yes maybe recovering the content of the original text is the correct phrasing; sorry but I really wrote this post a while ago out of rage for the incredible level of ignorance of what I saw and heard in the video. I believe that some Christian apologists and self-defining scholars who are talking of papyri in public events (e.g. Evans, Josh McDowell, and Scott Carroll) are certainly not in a position to achieve a degree of accuracy whatsoever. As I have already tried to explain in past blog-posts 1. the masks they are usually showing seem Ptolemaic/early Roman (do we want to re-date even Jesus date of birth?), 2. there is not a single example of New Testament papyrus coming from mummy cartonnage so far, 3. the use of recycled papyrus for making mummy cartonnage ends in the Augustan era according to current scholarship and findings, 4. there is methodology developed in the 1980 that allows the extraction of fragments with minimal damages to the mummy cartonnage: this is in any case a procedure which should be performed by experts, after discussing pros and cons, following established protocols including the recording of images and so forth so on. Evans is talking nonsense and his behaviour risks to fool people to buy mummy masks and cartonnage on the antiquities market (legal and illegal) for destroying it in order to find who knows what. This by the way will inflate mummy cartonnage request on the legal and illegal market and as a consequence also prices for the joy of some dealers and the dismay of those academics, experts and people who believe we have to protect our cultural patrimony.

    Found Here:

    1. Pseudo-Augustine - This article in the LiveSciences publication seems to have a whole new interview of Evans. I saw the Josh McDowell video upon which the earlier (November 2014) Evans reporting was based -- it's unfortunate that McDowell wasn't quite as "scholarly" as he could have been in his treatment, but I'm with you, I'm more inclined to believe Evans and Wallace and (from the OP) Tim Henderson. The fact that Brill has not only got "a book" but "a series" planned for this whole thing, indicates a level of seriousness that the "faces and voices" writer seems not to comprehend.

    2. One of my concerns is that skeptics might accuse Josh McDowell of contaminating the evidence. That we lack a proper chain of custody. The wrong people were given access.

      Now, perhaps McDowell was let in after experts examined the fragment.

    3. I got the impression that McDowell did this with "one" of these -- and that there were more than one.

      And while I'm not familiar with how "chain of custody" might play into the keeping of these things (think of what they must have gone through when many early manuscripts were found in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) -- but it certainly can't be as rigorous as, say, a DNA sample.