The Story: “There's nothing more likely to get the blogs all talking than a rumor about a newly discovered manuscript fragment.” That line is just begging for a qualification. Nevertheless, Mark Goodacre, at NT Blog, meant it, and the rumor has indeed caused a stir among the biblioblogs.
The Background: It all started at a recent debate between Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace on the reliability and authenticity of the New Testament text. In the debate, Wallace made the following claim:
Bart had explicitly said that our earliest copy of Mark was from c. 200 CE, but this is now incorrect. It's from the first century. I mentioned these new manuscript finds and told the audience that a book will be published by E. J. Brill in about a year that gives all the data.
According to a tweet by Andreas Kostenberger, who was live-tweeting the event, Ehrman questioned Wallace about the manuscript, and Wallace responded that he's unable to provide additional details. Ehrman was skeptical.
Wallace reflected later on the exchange about Ehrman's skepticism:
In the Q & A, Bart questioned the validity of the first-century Mark fragment. I noted that a world-class paleographer, whose qualifications are unimpeachable, was my source. Bart said that even so, we don't have thousands of manuscripts from the first century! That kind of skepticism is incomprehensible to me.
Why It Matters: Bart Ehrman has made a career out of writing best-selling books that question the reliability of the Bible, arguing that since we do not have the original manuscripts and what manuscripts we have contain thousands of variants, we can have little faith in their accuracy.
I asked Andreas Kostenberger about the potential significance of such a discovery. He replied:
To some extent, the impact of the find, if confirmed, depends on the size of the fragment and on the likely date. Given that currently the earliest known fragment dates from around AD 125, any certified find of a first-century Gospel fragment would certainly be critically important, especially if the fragment agrees in wording with the currently available texts. If so, this would confirm the stability of the manuscript tradition, significantly reducing the time between the earliest extant text and the original publication of Mark. Such a discovery would have the potential of undermining the argument by Bart Ehrman and others that significant changes were introduced between the original documents and the first available copies. The effect that the Qumran discoveries had in confirming the reliability of the transmission of the OT text comes to mind in this regard (though the parallel is not exact).
Compared to any other ancient document, the New Testament already carries the most compelling evidence for reliability. This chart* (below) shows the overwhelming evidence, as far as the number of manuscripts and the time span between the original and copy, that we can trust that what we have of the New Testament is what the authors wrote. Any further corroboration from possible earlier manuscript fragments of Mark is simply piling on top of what is already convincing evidence.
*Adapted from a chart by Daniel B. Wallace, published in his chapter, “The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts,” in Understanding Scripture: An Overview of the Bible's Origin, Reliability, and Meaning, ed. Wayne Grudem, C. John Collins, and Thomas R. Schreiner, ©2012, p. 114. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.