Dating Dos and Don’ts

P52, the John Rylands fragment,

I’m sorry for my absence from this blog! There’s just been too much to do so far this month/year: work, school, all my other writing, life in general …

Enough excuses. I want to write a series of posts this year on the Jewish side of the Bible, those books we call the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, or the Tanakh … they’ve got lots of titles. I’d also like to conclude the series I started last year, on the roots of Christian anti-Judaism and what we can know about the trial and death of Jesus.

But as usual, I’m distracted. It turns out that archaeologists may have discovered the earliest known Gospel fragment, from the Gospel of Mark. We don’t know much about this find … not yet. But from the little information we have so far, it appears that the fragment has been dated to the 80s CE, which would make the fragment 40 to 50 years older than the previously accepted oldest Gospel fragment (the P52 fragment of the Gospel of John, commonly dated to around 130 CE–this is the fragment pictured above).

We first found out about the possible existence of this fragment a few years ago, and in a strange way. One of the leading scholars of ancient Christianity and the New Testament is Professor Bart Ehrman, from the University of North Carolina. Prof. Ehrman is a best-selling author, and he’s also a self-professed atheist/agnostic (he says he’s an agnostic because he doesn’t think we can know there’s a G-d, and that he’s an atheist because he doesn’t believe there’s a G-d), and he likes to accept invitations to debate questions with scholars who are Christian believers. In 2012, Ehrman had one such debate with Prof. Dan Wallace of the Dallas Theological Seminary, on the question of whether we have the original New Testament. (That may sound like an odd question—of course we don’t have the original, if what we mean by “original” is the first copy of the books of the New Testament written by hand by their authors. Instead, the debate focused on how well we know the exact wording of these original books.) During this debate, Prof. Wallace stated that he knew of the discovery of a brief fragment of the Gospel of Mark that dates to the first century CE.  He revealed very little else about this discovery, but he stated that the fragment would be published before the end of 2012.

I first read about the new Mark fragment on Tim Henderson’s terrific Earliest Christianity blog, and along with Tim and countless others, I eagerly awaited the publication of this fragment. 2012 passed, as did 2013 and 2014, and the Mark fragment was not published. Every now and again, someone in the field would wonder out loud, whatever happened to the Mark fragment?

The fragment has yet to make its appearance, but it’s being talked about again—in all places, on the science news website LiveScience. It turns out (you can’t make this stuff up) that there’s a science/technology of peeling off layers from mummy masks in order to look for—and find!—old texts there. It turns out that the mummies for many Egyptians were made of papyrus or linen, paint, plaster and glue, forming a material called “cartonnage” that was something like papier-mâché. But fresh papyrus was expensive, so it was cheaper to make mummies out of papyrus that already had writing on it. (Kind of how we wrap fish in old newspaper, I guess.) And there are scientists and research institutions out there who are expert in the recovery of the texts used to make cartonnage, and it’s a team of such scientists that located the Markan Gospel fragment that’s the focus of so much attention.

My natural skepticism requires me to make a few points. First: up until now, no Gospel fragment has ever been recovered from mummy cartonnage. I know next to nothing about this subject, but it appears that the practice of building mummies from cartonnage may have ended before Jesus was born. So it’s a bit of a mystery how anyone can find Gospel texts hidden in a mummy. Perhaps we’ll find out that the Egyptians made mummies from cartonnage for longer than we’d previously believed.  Second, there are a number of smart people out there expressing concern over the practice of destroying mummy masks in the search for document fragments. Obviously, these masks are valuable objects in their own right, and it’s not clear how to decide when to destroy an ancient object of importance in the search for other ancient objects of importance. Finally: when it comes to assessing the meaning of this discovery, we’re going to have to be patient. The latest news is that this fragment won’t be published for another couple of years. We don’t know the reason for the delay. Once the fragment is published, we’ll need to wait a while longer, and let the scholars and scientists thoroughly examine this alleged Gospel fragment. We’ve been fooled by these fragments before.

There are many side-issues we could discuss at this point, but I’ll pick the one most interesting to me: why did Prof. Wallace bring up the discovery of this fragment in his debate with Prof. Ehrman? What does a tiny fragment of a single Gospel tell us about whether we have today an accurate copy of the original New Testament? I’ll explore this issue next time. In the meantime: leave comments! What do you think about this discovery? Is this sort of discussion interesting to you? Are you as fascinated as I am with the discovery of ancient document fragments, and in how to date the books of the Bible?