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First-Century Copy of Mark? – Part 1

On February 1 I had a public debate in Chapel Hill with Daniel Wallace, a conservative evangelical Christian New Testament scholar who teaches at that bastion of conservative dispensationalist theology, Dallas Theological Seminary. I have known Dan for over thirty years, since we were both graduate students interested in similar areas of research: my field (at the time I too was an evangelical) was textual criticism, the study of the ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and of what they can tell us about the “original” writings of the New Testament; his field was the grammar of the Greek New Testament.

The term “textual criticism” is a technical term. It does not refer to any study of “texts.” It is specifically the study of how to establish what an author wrote if we do not have his or her actual writings, but only later copies of them. In the case of the New Testament we have a highly ironic and problematic situation on our hands. We have thousands and thousands of later copies of the New Testament. But none of our copies are the originals or copies of the originals or copies of the copies of the originals.

The vast majority of our copies are from many hundreds of years after the originals. That in itself is not a problem, apart from a related circumstance. All of these surviving copies are different from other another, giving different wording for this verse and that verse, up and down the line, page after page over the entire New Testament. We don’t know how many differences there are among our surviving copies – by last count we had some 5560 copies in the original Greek language of the New Testament – but they appear to number in the hundreds of thousands. Most scholars think that there are some 300,000 or 400,000 differences among these copies.

The vast majority of these differences are completely unimportant, immaterial, insignificant, and don’t matter for a thing, other than to show that ancient Christian scribes could spell no better than most people can today. (And they didn’t have spell check! In fact, they didn’t even have dictionaries.) But some of the differences matter a lot, affecting how a verse, or a passage, or even an entire book is to be interpreted. When you change what the words of a text are, you obviously also change what the words of the text mean! And so it matters which words were originally written.

Over the thirty years since I first met Dan I have engaged in serious and rigorous research in textual criticism. It was the subject of my Master’s thesis at Princeton Theological Seminary. And then of my PhD dissertation. I have published seven books on the subject and lots of articles in scholarly journals. It is the field that I devoted the first twenty years of my research career to. Over that time I moved away from being an evangelical Christian who believed not only that we could reconstruct the very words of the original authors of the New Testament, but who also believed those very words were inspired by God.

The public debate that I had with Dan – who has himself remained a committed evangelical Christian over all these years – was about the former question. It was not over whether the words of the New Testament were inspired by God. It was over whether we can know with relatively complete confidence what these words are.

It is not surprising that Dan thinks we can know what they are. It would make little sense to say the words were inspired if in fact we don’t have the words. What good would it have been for God to inspire words that are now lost? I on the other hand have come to realize that despite our best efforts, we will never be able to know what those words were in many instances. We simply don’t have the kinds of evidence that are needed to be confident that our reconstructed texts – based on copies that are all full of mistakes from hundreds of years later – are exactly what the authors wrote.

In other blogs I will discuss various aspects of that question. Here I simply want to point out one issue that came up during our debate.

In the debate I pointed out that our earliest copy of the Gospel of Mark was P45 (called this because it is the 45th Papyrus [hence “P”] manuscript to be catalogued), which dates to around the year 200 CE – i.e., 140 years after Mark was first written. That’s our earliest copy. Between the original of Mark and our earliest copy there were something like fourteen decades of copying, and recopying, and recopying of Mark. Year after year it was copied. And the copies were being changed at every point. And then later copies were copies of the earlier changed copies. Then those earlier changed copies were lost; as were the copies based on them; and the copies based on them. Until our earliest surviving copy, P45 – which itself is not a complete copy of Mark, but highly fragmentary. Our first complete copy of Mark dates to around the year 360 – nearly three hundred years (count them 300 years) after the “original” of Mark.

In his response to my discussion in the debate, Dan made a surprise announcement. We now have a first-century copy of Mark, he told the astonished audience (and the astonished Bart). When asked, he would not, or could not, tell us very much about this first-century copy of Mark. But it is obviously very important to know the details:

  • How extensive is this copy? Is it a complete copy of Mark? Or a fragment? If it is a fragment, how much text is found on it? Twelve chapters? Two verses? It obviously makes an enormous difference! But Dan would not say.
  • How was it dated? Dan would not say.
  • Who dated it? Dan would not say
  • Has anyone corroborated the dating by rigorous testing. Dan would not say.

All Dan would say is that the manuscript had been discovered; it had been dated by a renowned (but unnamed) palaeographer (i.e., expert in ancient handwriting: that’s how ancient manuscripts are dated, by analyzing the handwriting) who “had no theological bias” (I was not sure why Dan made that point; what does theology have to do with the dates of ancient handwriting); and that it would be published by the respectable publishing house E. J. Brill “in about a year.”

I have lots to say about this remarkable announcement, some of which I will say here in this public forum and some of which I will reserve for my membership site. For this forum, I should say, first of all, that it struck me at the time and still strikes me now as a rather strange debating point for Dan to have made, and it makes me wonder if it really was simply to “score a point” rather than to provide helpful information. In effect what he was saying was that contrary to my claim, there was in fact a copy of Mark from near the time of original, that he had evidence that would counteract my views. But, in effect what he is saying is: “I won’t tell you anything about this evidence! Trust me on this one!”

I really don’t think a public debate is the place to raise evidence that you are not willing to talk about, and that if you aren’t willing to state what exactly the evidence is, then you shouldn’t bring it up (I have evidence, but I won’t tell you about it).

Moreover, I don’t understand why there is so much secrecy about this “manuscript.” Why NOT tell us where it was found, who found it, how extensive it is, who has examined it, what his grounds for dating it were, whether his views have been independently corroborated? Is it so more people will buy the book when it comes out? Is this secrecy driven by a profit motive? If not, why the secrecy?

Dan has been repeatedly asked for more information, and he will not give it. I don’t know if he owns the manuscript, if he has seen the manuscript, if it is his book that will contain information about the manuscript, or anything else. The one piece of information that I have been able to gather is that we are not talking about a large manuscript with lots of text on it (say, several chapters, let alone all of the Gospel of Mark). It appears to be a scrap of papyrus with parts of a few verses on it.

The other thing I will say about this entire business is that publishing such a scrap as a book rather than in an academic journal where claims can be evaluated and reassessed by real scholars in the field is a very poor way to promote scholarship.

But let’s say that the dating is right, and that now we have a scrap of Mark from the first century. Let me be the first to say that I think that would be absolutely fantastic! It would be great! May many more appear!

Dan has gone on record as saying that this will be a discovery as significant as one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (see more here). He is wrong about that. In fact, if it is just a scrap, as it appears to be, then it probably will not change a single, solitary thing in the entire field of New Testament textual criticism.

I will extend this discussion by explaining why in the longer version on my membership section.

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First-Century Copy of Mark? – Part 1 (members)



  1. Frank  April 21, 2012

    I watched this debate recently. I was extremely excited when I heard him mention that we have a first century copy of Mark, but crushed when he said it would take a year to publish it!!!

    I’m not sure if I should be excited or annoyed that it will be next february that it comes out…

    • Frank  April 21, 2012

      Also what is that picture next to my comment and why does it make me look like a criminal haha

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  April 22, 2012

        I wish I knew what the picture was ! But you do look intimidating! Did you not put the picture there?

        • Frank  April 22, 2012

          Not personally. Maybe someone got onto my e-mail at sometime in the past?

  2. Steve Platt  May 7, 2012

    It seems rather odd to castigate Daniel Wallace for refusing to share details of his first-century copy of Mark, only to conceal part of your own argument behind a paywall. I understand that you are charging for membership to raise money for charitable purposes but there is nonetheless a glaring contradiction here. As an admirer of your scholarly work who knows nothing about your charitable work, I think you’d do better to separate the two.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 8, 2012

      I do apprecitate your concerns, but I don’t see the contradiction. My views are available for anyone to see. Dan’s views are a big secret that no one can see. If you want to see my views, all I ask is that you contribute a few bucks to charity. If you want to see his … well, you can’t.

      • ntuser  May 8, 2012

        Not true about Dan Wallace’s views. I googled them here:
        I lot to go through. I’ve only checked out a few.
        I am for the paywall forum idea though.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 9, 2012

          We are talking specifically about his “revelation” of a first-century copy of the Gospel of Mark. Does he ever spill the beans anywhere?

          • ntuser  May 9, 2012

            My mistake. I was addressing the debate topic of original texts. Dr. Wallace started a blog but nothing on this supposed early find of Mark so far, which does suck.
            I still want to echo Steve’s wish that the full criticism on this site be public even if for no other reason than that I think it might elicit more knowledge.

  3. steve enterkin  May 18, 2012

    On page 252 of Peter, Paul & Mary you state that Romans 16:7 contains a reference to a female apostle Junia and that the editors have changed this to a male namesake.
    Why when I checked my Greek NT edited by Aland,Black etc p 574-575 and the dictionary in the back p 87is the reference to a male-not female as you say-apostle?
    Steve Enterkin

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 18, 2012

      I think it is an easy answer. The dictionary was produced by someone (a white male) who could not *believe* or *imagine* that an apostle could be a female. But the reality is that Junia is a female name; there was no name “Junius” in the ancient world; and so this person mentioned in Rom 16:7 is definitely a woman.

      • steve enterkin  May 19, 2012

        But what about the Greek text? Here we have on page 574 and 575 of the Greek New Testament edited by Kurt Alan et al Iounian which according to my edition is supported by enough textural citations to rate it an (A). This is a masculine not famine proper noun. IS it your contention that the text in addition to the dictionary is wrong?
        Steve Enterkin

        • steve enterkin  May 21, 2012

          Again, I can understand your comments about the editors etc not wanting to show a female apostle, but within the actual text we have Paul here speaking not of a female apostle. This reading is confirmed within Sinitius and many other ancient texts according to my copy of the Aland edition of the Greek New Testament. I do not understand your insistence on their being a female apostle here in light of this textual evidence. However I may be mistaken and am open to correction if it can be shown from the available text.
          As an aside, regardless of this particular text, I am of the opinion that in the early days of the church,ie, prior to 75-80 especially, their would have been female as well as male ‘apostles’, who were spreading the faith and establishing new churches. This is the case today within the emerging church which is composed of a genere of folk I think similar to the early Christians. Go to an independent charismatic or pentecostal church in the inner city, Africa or rural America an I think you will see something very much akin to the first century church. I think you might both enjoy it and learn something!

          STeve Enterkin

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2012

            I think you’re misreading the Greek. Iounian is a feminine name, not a masculine one. I’m just reading what the Greek says, and not accenting it differently so as to make it say something else. If you want a full discussoin of it, you should look at Eldon Epp’s book on Junia the Apostle: it’s a decisive study.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 21, 2012

          Yes, the name is definitely Iounian, as opposed to Ioulian. But Iounian is a woman’s name (Junia). If you accent it differently, you can make it into a man’s name (Junius), but unfortunately that name did not exist in the ancient world. (The original copies of the NT, of course, did not have accents at all). The dictionary provides both forms of the name, masculine and feminine, for anyone who wants to insist that a woman could not be an apostle so that this person had a name that no one else in antiquity had.

  4. Hagar  May 21, 2012

    well this is what we think as Muslims about the gospels _ we believe that there had been once a gospel a true one with the actual words of God brought to the Christ himself peace be upon him but it no longer exists – it was intended for those who lived in that particular time and place – not the whole world – the Christ as we believe was sent by God only to the sons of Israel ” Bany Israel” calling for the one God the only one to deserve to be worshiped assisted by miracles like bringing dead to life by God’s will curing incurable diseases by God’s will ” the Christ is only a very celebrated prophet – a slave of God like other prophets beginning of Adam who we mention with all respect and ending by Mohammad the last messenger of God carrying all the same message and mission – respecting and believing in all of them equally is a part of our belief but absolutely not the way the old testament speaks about David and Solman > a blind and guilty cant lead the way for others – a prophet must be the living teachings of God not the first to disobey – our idea about the guilt of Adam is totally different from both the Christian and Jewish one there is no inherited sign every one is responsible for his acts_ the sin of Adam was only an experience to realize how the devil hats Adam and his sons and how he tries to harm them and the God had forgave it – directing us to ask Him forgiveness every time we make sins – may God guide us all the right way

  5. Hagar  May 21, 2012

    do you refuse to deal with comments written by Muslims ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 22, 2012

      On the contrary — if there are questions I can answer, I’m happy to do so. I have had several comments from Muslims (and Christian fundamentalists) that appear to be meant to proselytize others, and I would prefer not to post those on the site. But genuine questions and discussions I completely welcome!

      • Hagar  May 23, 2012

        thank you D.Ehrman
        I want to know according to the new testament what is the name of the father of Mary mother of the Christ ?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2012

          The NT never mentions Mary’s father, either obliquely or by name. The later tradition, encapsullated, in particular, in the Proto-Gospel of James (the Protevangelium Jakobi) is that his name was Jehoichim. But that is simply a later (second century) legend.

  6. Hagar  May 23, 2012

    and what is the exact meaning of ” Mary”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2012

      Off hand, I’m not sure that it means anything — it’s just a name. (I am at the beach and away from my books; maybe someone else has other knowledge about it?)

  7. Hagar  May 26, 2012

    thank you Dr .Ehrman
    According to Luke :
    23 Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, 24 ……………. the son Seth, the son of Adam,the son of God
    Here is some remarks about this genealogy:
    1- What someone may understand from : the son of Adam the son of God is that Adam not the Christ is the son of God
    2- Does the gospel here inform about what people thought about the geneology of Jesus or telling us the truth that he is the son of God I see some contradiction between this Geneology and the word the son of God at the end because of “ so it was thought “ in the beginning
    a- Did people though it was the true geneology? or
    b- That Jesus was the son of God? or
    c- The true one and Adam is the son of God ?
    3-The expression: so it was thought means that was what people used to think about Jesus not the true fact , of course they did not know about the whole Geneology but only that Jesus was the son of Joseph ,why Luke is so aware about giving the details of this false idea ? and in that way that makes me understand that the true information is the completion of the wrong one .
    4- The gospel of Luke was written sometime after Jesus ‘s life on earth , does this mean that this false idea about his geneology remained the whole of this life? and when the truth was revealed ?.thank you

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 29, 2012

      Thanks for these questions. But I’m afraid they are too long and complicated (and numerous) for me to respond to here. If you have one question at a time, I might be able to handle them!

      • Hagar  May 29, 2012

        well let us take the last question :
        4- The gospel of Luke was written sometime after Jesus ‘s life on earth , does this mean that this false idea about his genealogy remained the whole of this life? and when the truth was revealed ?.thank you

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 29, 2012

          No, probalby the genealogy was “invented” either by Luke or one of his sources, long after Jesus’ life. We have no way of knowing when or by whom. But it stands at odds with the genealogy in Matthew.

          • Hagar  May 30, 2012

            you mean that the genealogy in Matthew is the true one ?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 30, 2012

            No, there is not a true one. Both of them were “made up.”

  8. chrishuntley  August 9, 2013

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,
    You’ve stated that the earliest fragments we have of Mark differ greatly. I’m ok with variants as long as they don’t change a major NT doctrine. Can you give an example of what you would consider “differ greatly”?

    Thank you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 10, 2013

      Maybe the last twelve verses of Mark? You may want to read my book Misquoting Jesus, or even better, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

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