How Should We Respond to Reports that a Fragment of Mark Dates to the First Century?

An Egyptian mask made from papyri and linen. Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, Creative Commons.
An Egyptian mask made from papyri and linen. Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, Creative Commons.

It was reported yesterday that a three-dozen member team of scientists and scholars—apparently including the well-respected New Testament historian Craig Evans—is working on a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Mark, discovered as part of an ancient Egyptian funeral mask.

Due to the expense of securing clean papyri sheets in the ancient world, the papier-mâché of these masks was made from recycled papyri that already contained writing. Evans explains, “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.”

It is not entirely clear from the report whether Evans himself is part of the research team (although it leaves that impression). It could be, however, that he is speaking with more of an editorial use of “we.” Evans explained the discovery ten months ago at the 2014 Apologetics Canada Conference (Northview Church in Abbotsford, BC and Willingdon Church in Vancouver, BC Canada) on March 7-8. In the video below, he dates the fragment to the AD 80s, though the report from yesterday refers to it as being from the AD 90s:

The Gospel of Mark fragment under discussion here seems to be the same one that Daniel B. Wallace surprisingly referenced in his February 2012 debate with Bart Ehrman.

If the dating of this is accurate, this would be the oldest New Testament manuscript fragment discovered and a substantial discovery, since no one has yet found a first-century fragment. (The oldest fragment we know of is from the Gospel of John, called P52 [Papyrus 52—pictured to the right], discovered in 1934 and dated to the first half of the second century.)

John Rylands Library Papyrus P52, recto [Gospel of John, c. AD 100-150]
John Rylands Library Papyrus P52, recto [Gospel of John, c. AD 100-150]
Some caution is in order, however.

There are at least four methods for determining the dates of ancient manuscripts:

  1. radiocarbon (carbon-14) testing of the manuscript
  2. palaeography (handwriting analysis) of the manuscript
  3. analysis of the archaeological context surrounding the manuscript
  4. comparison of the manuscript with associated writings

As Peter Williams points out, 1-2 will not help researchers reach a date as precise as AD 80 or 90. That leaves 3-4.

But even this makes it difficult to reach a certain conclusion. Williams explains a best-case scenario:

If for convenience we suppose that [1] other manuscripts in the mask are ones with dates that survive (remembering that for a majority of texts no date survives) and [2] that the mask luckily enough contains four texts with firm date formulae (which would be really nice, but quite unlikely) and that these date formulae show manuscripts from the years 50, 60, 70 and 80, [then] that would still not mean that they could not be put together with a manuscript from considerably later than the year 90 to make a mummy mask.

The double negative in the last clause is a little confusing. Williams means that even if conditions were ideal, it still wouldn’t preclude the fragment itself from being later than the other fragments surrounding it. The other possibility, of course, is that somehow the archaeological context itself would date the mummy mask to a specific decade, though this would be unusual.

How should we respond to something like this? I think it’s appropriate to be hopeful. As an evangelical, I believe the best historical evidence points to the New Testament gospels composed in the first century: Mark (mid- to late 50s), Matthew (50s or 60s), Luke (c.  58-60), John (mid- or late 80s or early 90s). If this discovery doesn’t pan out, it doesn’t affect our dating of the gospels because the dating of the autographs (the originals) is not dependent upon the dating of manuscripts (the copies). If it does pan out—especially if it can be dated with confidence to the 80s—it would be a major discovery, because the oldest of anything is always noteworthy.

As Christians, we should take a “wait and see” approach. It’s tempting to be either naïve (of course this is true!) or cynical (of course this isn’t true!). One of the unfortunate things about announcing a discovery apart from a published peer-reviewed process is that the church and the culture simply have to take the scholars’ word for it. Amateur sensationalistic archaeology (which this does not appear to be) follows a predictable script that almost never involves peer-review publication first. So I think the cause of truth—whatever that may be in these cases—is best served when there is rigorous scholar vetting before popular announcements and debates.

Let’s think critically and wait to see the published results. Until then, debating the details won’t get us very far.

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