A First-Century Fragment of the Gospel of Mark?

Recent headlines have appeared with the tantalizing news that a manuscript fragment of the Gospel of Mark has been found to date to the first century, just a few decades from its original composition. News sites have run with the story, even Orthodox sites.

But, before we begin celebrating what could be a monumental find for New Testament manuscript studies, we should examine the case a bit more closely to determine whether or not it is legitimate. In 2012, when a Coptic manuscript came to life claiming to speak of “Jesus’ wife,” Christians naturally balked at the idea with immediate skepticism, and over the next two years, the manuscript, the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” was shown to be most likely a modern forgery.

While we might rejoice at the prospect of a 1st century fragment of the Gospel of Mark much more than we would rejoice at a so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” we should apply the same skepticism before we accept its claims.


Questions about the (lack of) Evidence

The top-rate scholars at the blog Evangelical Textual Criticism (the same folks who had a large hand in debunking the”Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” story) have opined on the 1st century Mark (FCM) claim on two occasions revealing some very troubling questions. Professora Candida Moss of the University of Notre Dame and Joel Baden of the Yale Divinity School co-authored a piece for CNN raising similar objections to the enthusiasm surrounding the supposed finding. In addition, University of Manchester papyrologist Roberta Mazza has offered a very piercing critique. Let’s look at a few of them.

  • This isn’t the first time we have heard of this manuscript. It was first spoken about in 2012 with initial plans to publish it in 2013. The fact that it remains to be published (the plans now call for 2017), one can only wonder how publication of a small manuscript could take longer than my (already long) dissertation.
  • The manuscript is held by a private collector in the Green Collection, owned by The Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, and only a handful of carefully chosen scholars have had access to the manuscript. What does this mean? The broader scholarly community has not been given access to examine the manuscripts. Even a pre-publication edition and hi-res photographs of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” (GJW) were made public almost immediately for the broader scholarly community to scrutinize.
  • Support for a first-century date is unconvincing. Radiocarbon dating is not very precise, and paleography (dating by handwriting analysis) is only accurate to around 50-100 years. Neither of these tools alone are normally used to conclusively date a manuscript. Dating is aided primarily by context including where the manuscript was found and what it was found with. Since the provenance of the manuscript is claimed to be an Egyptian mummy mask dating from c. 200 CE, there is very little that can be said in this regard.
  • There are ethical questions, both in regard to the withholding of the manuscript from the academic community as well as the destruction of an ancient artifact (a mummy mask) in order to search for biblical manuscripts. A recent piece by Roberta Mazza deals with these issues. In short, since we do not know where the mask came from, who it was purchased from, or how it was obtained in the first place, it all becomes a bit shady. There were also some concerns in this regard to GJW, which pointed in the direction of a possible forgery.


The Waiting Game

Now, it is important to note that no one is accusing anyone of anything here. We are not accusing Josh McDowell, Craig Evans, or Daniel Wallace of forging the manuscript or conspiring to forge it. Nevertheless, there are some serious questions that have been asked which demand answers before we can enthusiastically celebrate the claimed find. Furthermore, until proper academic protocols are followed and the manuscript is published in an edition with a complete description of its finding, provenance, extraction from the mask, decipherment, and dating, we can not be convinced in any way that the finding is legitimate. Again, while we are not accusing anyone of forgery, proper academic protocol calls for skepticism until the evidence is published and other scholars have a chance to review it and offer their opinions. We will just have to wait until the manuscript is published before anything conclusive can be said about this supposed manuscript find.

Keep an eye on the blogs linked above, and as always, I will keep everyone updated here on DH.

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