As has been all over the news recently, there is an alleged scrap of the first written Gospel from the Bible, the Gospel of Mark, as found inside of a papier-mache mummy. This has the potential to be a boon for New Testament studies, but there has been significant controversy about how this discovery has been revealed and how it was done. Even the mummy mask that is the source for this scrap of papyrus looks uncomfortable with how things are going.
A bit of background. The first anyone outside of the research group looking into this mask was back in 2012 when textual critic Bart Ehrman was having a debate with Daniel Wallace about if we could confidently say we have what the authors of the Gospels wrote. In that debate, Wallace, who believes we have almost perfect reconstructions of the texts, used a gotcha debating point that a research group had a first century scrap of the Gospel of Mark, to be published that year. Wallace gives some details in a blog entry from March , 2012, but it lacks some really important details. For example, where did the scrap come from, what is the text of the fragment (what lines of the Gospel of Mark), who did the dating of the scrap and with what margins of error, etc. Wallace said he had signed a non-disclosure agreement, even though that didn’t seem to stop him from blabbing about the papyrus in a public debate. I’m having trouble understanding that, but that’s hardly here or there.
More recently, Craig Evans gave a talk for a Canadian apologetics group, and this clip of that talk highlights what seems to be the same alleged fragment.
Roberta Mazza confirms that Evans is talking about the same fragment that Wallace did, and it is supposed to be published by Brill this year. However, that blog entry from Mazza shows that she isn’t happy about how this is going down. For one is how the presentations are apparently being used not so much for rigorous scholarship but as part of the apologetics package to sell the wares of evangelical Christianity. She also worries that the methods mentioned in how the papyrus was recovered may convince collectors to go out, find more papier-mache mummy masks and in effect tear them apart to find Gospel fragments. The destruction of ancient artifacts is hardly great practice, and this could be disastrous for doing ancient history.
It has also been unclear who has behind the discovery and dating of this papyrus, among others recovered from the mask. Part of the work seems to be done by Scott Carroll, as noted by Mazza and Brice Jones. Now, Carroll was on the payroll for the so-called Green Collection of papyri. The Green Collection is owned by the founding family of Hobby Lobby, which has been notorious in recent years because of their evangelical stances and the Supreme Court case from last year. How the Greens have created this collection of antiquities is unclear, though part of it may have been acquired through eBay. This makes it hard to know the provenance of much of that collection, as worried by Brice and others. Carroll’s current relations with the Green Collection seem to no longer be so strong, and the collection that may include the mummy mask may be one run by Carroll or another of his collaborators.
Another such collaborator gave me pause: the infamous Josh McDowell. In particular, it seems that McDowell, who has no training in papyrology and only a Masters in Divinity (not New Testament studies), was handling and extracting these papyri from mummy masks. It is also not clear, but McDowell may be financially involved; for all I know, he was the owner of the mask. I find it rather disturbing that someone like McDowell, who is notorious because of his shoddy book, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, is now supposedly central in uncovering these early fragments of the Gospel of Mark. More than that, apparently along the way Carroll and McDowell’s group have found the oldest pieces of the Letter to the Romans, the oldest piece of Exodus 24, the oldest piece of 1 Samuel. All of these firsts and earliests, and yet none of it published in peer-reviewed avenues. At least not yet.
It is also frightening because Carroll and McDowell are clear about their purposes. Carroll speaks as if he were having God work through him, and McDowell talks of overturning liberal theology. This is archaeology in the hands of evangelicals, and this has had a disturbing effect in papyrology already. One reason is that the dates provided by Carroll in one of his talks pegs this Gospel fragment to between 70 and 110 CE. That range is amazingly small, and other papyri claimed to be early versions of the Gospels have also been questioned for having such tight ranges. Really, there should be a date with a margin of error of fifty years or more, especially on small fragments. See in particular Brent Nongbri, “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel,” HTR 98.1 (2005): 23-48; P. Orsini and W. Clarysse, “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates: A Critique of Theological Palaeography,” ETL 88.4 (2012): 443-474. The latter source here notes how these sorts of questionable dating methods have been used for theological ends.
So unless there are some really solid grounds for the dating of this papyrus fragment, I am very suspicious of what is claimed here. I was even worrying if this was a fragment of the Gospel of Mark at all because of past speculations. In particular, a couple of scholars tried to argue that the scrap 7Q5 from the Dead Sea Scrolls was in fact a part of the Markan Gospel. That case was really built on a foundation of sand and is rejected by pretty much all experts. Things like that make me suspicious if the people working on the fragment actually have Mark or not. Now, they do claim to have pieces of Romans and the Old Testament, so either they have amazing pareidolia and see the Bible everywhere or the mummy mask is composed of someone’s old copy of the Greek Bible.
Other things said along the way though also make me very suspicious about the quality of the work involved in this. One argument McDowell (and Evens apparently in the video above) makes is that the mask must have been from a pagan and he used Bible fragments because he was trying to destroy a book he thought was silly or unworthy. But the first question should be how does he know it was a pagan that was mummified and not a Christian? While the practice is associated with the ancient Egyptians, there were plenty of mummies found in Egypt that are of Christians. Just in the news last year a mummy was found with a tattoo mentioning the archangel Michael from c. 700 CE. Also, the logic that the reason Bible fragments are on the mummy are illogical; if this was to disrespect the Christian scriptures, then does that mean the person was also trying to disrespect the epics of Homer also found with the mask? Did this pagan also hate paganism? There is nothing but the flight of imagination here as some modern evangelicals are trying to find evidence of early persecution of the faith (something that has also been found to have been exaggerated).
The scraps found with the mummy instead suggest to me that these were the sorts of old manuscripts that he had around, worn out to not be worth keeping anymore. And if this person had a copy of the Christian Bible around, that should be evidence that this person was a Christian and not a pagan.
Okay, it should be very frightening if, with the very little bit of information that these evangelicals have posted, this team’s assessment can be so easily to be shown to not just be problematic but the exact opposite conclusion can be drawn with better justification. I’m a nobody with no expertise in these things, and yet I can find how the claims don’t stack up. If this is what is going on behind the scenes, we have to be extremely suspicious of any dating conclusions made.
But even if there is a fragment of Mark from 90 CE in their possession, what would it show? What would it prove? It would demonstrate that the Gospel existed before the end of the first century, but that is already what most scholars think. So other than excluding a later date supposed by few, the origins of the Gospel are not all that illuminated. Also, if it is just a scrap of Mark, it will not be able to tell us most anything about how much the version of Mark reconstructed today by textual critics may have differed from the autographs (the originals).
In fact, I wonder if it could show the exact opposite. Consider the case from the Nag Hammadi library and the Epistle of Eugnostos along with the Sophia of Jesus Christ. We know that the Eugnostos letter was written first, and it had all sorts of sayings that were not said by Jesus but instead the alleged author. In the Sophia, those saying of Eugnostos as now on the lips of Jesus. Some also suspect things found in the letters of Paul became sayings or deeds of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.
This example highlights an issue: depending on the part of Mark the fragment allegedly comes from, for all we know it may be a disconnected saying of Jesus but removed from the Gospel context. Could we instead be seeing some saying that later would be put in Jesus’ mouth? For all we know, we can find a saying of Jesus before it was attributed to him, just like in the case of Eugnostos. We might have a source for Mark rather than Mark itself. If that is the case, then with a dating of 90 CE by the evangelical team for the mummy fragment, that may indicate that the Gospel of Mark, using this old source, was written after 90 CE and mean the Gospel is not older but younger than expected.
So again, depending on the nature of the evidence, we may need to come to the exact opposite conclusions of the team. That means until this evidence is published and reviewed by experts we can only be frustratingly unsure about anything related to this fragment of a Gospel. We should be skeptical of
- having a Gospel fragment at all (could be mistaken identity; one wonders if there is forgery, but I doubt it)
- the dating (the range given is absurdly too small)
- the origins of the fragment
- what it indicates about the origins and development of the New Testament
We also have reason to be weary of the very methodology involved since it includes the destruction of ancient artifacts. This leaves me with another question: why did they even think destroying this mask in the first place? What was the motivation? Did they think they would get Gospel fragments out of it?
The introduction of this fragment has been done in all the wrong ways, trying to be spectacular without the needed peer review, and instead it is designed to act as a bludgeon for Christian apologists–one that logically cannot even show what it wants. Even if this Gospel of Mark fragment is real and comes from 90 CE, that doesn’t show the Gospel was written before 70 CE, and it doesn’t show that what was written in the Gospel actually happened; fictions can be written just as early and biographies. There is a big misunderstanding about history and logic even work, and that is assuming in the best of situations.
Now, I must say this. All of the claims about the fragment could be right, and I welcome it. I do hope to read the book concerning the fragment, among many others, when it is published (allegedly this year, but I doubt the timeline since the proponents have been saying it will come out in 2012, 2013, 2014, and this year). It would, at least, put to rest the possibility that Mark is a 2nd century composition (something I consider at least possible, though not necessarily probable). And perhaps textual critics will find it of use if it concerns a passage from Mark that has been uncertain in the reading. We will need to wait and see, but even once published I will be quite skeptical until others can properly review and analyze the results.
Update: Great piece by Candida Moss and Joel Baden on the claims. Apparently now the fragment won’t be published until 2017 instead of this year, assuming no further delays! I have to quote this:
Some people are saying they have this really old and important thing, and they will show it to all the rest of us in a few years. (Essentially, this papyrus is the scholarly equivalent of “my girlfriend who lives in Canada.”)