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New Manuscripts and the Destruction of Antiquities

As many of you know, in 2012 I had a public debate in Chapel Hill with Dan Wallace, professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, on the question of whether we have the original New Testament or not.  During the debate he dropped a bombshell, on me and all of us.  He mysteriously claimed that now we have a first-century copy of the Gospel of Mark.   This would be a copy well over a century older than any other that exists, and would give us a copy that is very close in date to the original.  He dropped the bombshell purely as a debating strategy, not in order to provide real information  – when pressed he wouldn’t say anything about the copy, except that it is not anything like a complete copy, but a fragment with probably a few verses, at best, on it.   But he refused to answer, and continues to refuse to answer, all the relevant questions:  How extensive is the fragment?   How does he know it is from the first century?  What experts have examined and dated it?  Are there any variant readings in it?  How does it tell us anything new, anything that we don’t already know, about the transmission history of Mark’s Gospel?  And lots of other questions.

He did say that the fragment would be published by the end of that year and, well, that hasn’t happened.

But it has been becoming clear what the situation really is, as announcements are now being made and news reports are being released.   The information we are receiving is very disturbing indeed.

The following article comes from  <http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/mummy-mask-found-contain-oldest-known-gospel-first-century-ad-1484086>

This complete disregard for the sanctity of surviving antiquities is, for many, many of us not just puzzling but flat-out distressing.   It appears that the people behind and the people doing this destruction of antiquities are all conservative evangelical Christians, who care nothing about the preservation of the past – they care only about getting their paws on a small  fragment of a manuscript.  Can there be any question that with them we are not dealing with historians but Christian apologists?

Here is the article:



By Mary-Ann Russon

 A papyrus fragment taken from this ancient Egyptian mummy mask could well be the oldest copy of a gospel known to exist

Archaeologists believe they may have found the oldest copy of a gospel ever known to exist, inscribed on a fragment of papyrus used to make an Ancient Egyptian mummy mask.

The ancient papyrus fragment contains a text from the Gospel of Mark and was written in first century AD prior to the year 90. So far, the oldest surviving copies of the gospel date back to the second century, which would make the new find at least 10 years older.

Pharaohs and nobility in Ancient Egypt might have been able to afford funerary masks made from gold but ordinary people usually could only afford mummy masks made from linen or papyrus.

Add to that, under the Roman rule of Egypt (30 BC-619 AD), Egyptian influences were being phased out by the Romans and indigenous Egyptians were considered to be on the lowest rung of society, far below Romans and Greeks, so the people were very poor.

Nevertheless, some traditions remained and at times, mummy masks would be made from recycled sheets of papyrus as the material was very expensive.



 Now a team of archaeologists at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia are taking mummy masks apart, using a special technique to remove the glue on the masks that does not harm the ink on the sheets of papyrus.

The researchers have discovered hundreds of new texts using this method, including philosophical writing and copies of stories by Homer, an important ancient Greek poet.

A papyrus fragment from the Gospel of Thomas written in Greek, which dates back to the third century AD (British Library)

“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,” Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College told Live Science.

The researchers are analysing the mummy mask texts in order to discover how biblical texts were copied and whether there were any alterations to the Gospel of Mark over time.

“We have every reason to believe that the original writings and their earliest copies would have been in circulation for a hundred years in most cases — in some cases much longer, even 200 years,” Evans said.

“A scribe making a copy of a script in the third century could actually have at his disposal [the] first-century originals, or first-century copies, as well as second-century copies.”



 Although Evans’ discovery is not insignificant, there are many scholars in the archaeology world who disagree with dismantling ancient mummy masks to access the papyrus texts.

There are also concerns Evans’ work is not grounded in fact. Questions posed to him about where the mask came from and carbon dating have gone largely unanswered, as the Acadia Divinity College professor said he and his team are subject to a nondisclosure agreement until the papyrus is officially published.

Evans confirmed to Live Science the owners of the funerary masks do not want to be known and the only reason he can even mention the first-century gospel fragment is because a member of his team leaked some of the information in 2012.

“Here’s a guy getting so excited about finding a first-century manuscript of a first-century text that he’s totally oblivious to the destruction of archaeological material it entails,” wrote Paul Barford, an English archaeologist living in Warsaw in his blog about private artefact collecting and heritage issues.

“By the way, they generally did not accompany sarcophagi. Getting the mask off the wrapping was usually accompanied by the destruction of the whole mummy.”



 Separate to archaeology is the field of Christian apologetics, whereby people seek to present a rational basis for the Christian faith against objections.

Apart from trying to prove miracles and defending authorship and dates of biblical books, Christian apologists often analyse ancient historical artefacts for connections to Christianity. Many archaeologists allege they obtain these items privately through unscrupulous means.

Roberta Mazza, a lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Manchester, has been trying to find out whom the papyri belongs to but has so far been unsuccessful.

Until the papyrus has been published, scholars and archaeologists will not be able to prove or disprove Evans’ work.

In her blog, she wrote of Evans’ talk at the 2014 Apologetics Canada conference: “These people are not doing any good service to the public and to our cultural heritage patrimony.

“The audience who attend their talks are told fantasy stories on the retrieval of papyrus fragments and their date, and on the quest for Christian original texts.

“Apologists’ speeches are not only misinformed, but can even encourage more people to buy mummy masks on the antiquities market and dissolve them in Palmolive soap.”

Brice Jones, a doctoral candidate in religion at Concordia University, is concerned apologists often have “no scholarly credentials” and this is part of the problem with private collecting, which denies the world’s people their heritage by hiding away artefacts that should be displayed publicly for study and enjoyment.

In his blog, he wrote: “The scholarly community needs to be more and more aware of these practices, how these artefacts are being used, and the religious agendas behind it all.”



Defending the Destruction of Mummy Masks
Public Reactions to Muslim Extremists



  1. Stephen  January 20, 2015

    Very disturbing, Here’s a link to the report from the LiveScience site:
    which itself includes links to Roberta Mazza’s and Brice Jones’ complete statements. Craig Evans is reported to have made this response, “We’re not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece.” An interesting distinction, one I’m sure would trouble most archeologists.

    I’m also troubled by the whole idea of a “non-disclosure” agreement. Naively perhaps I assumed this kind of research on ancient texts would be more transparent. Prof Ehrman, is this kind of thing common in your field? (I’m somewhat aware of the history of the Dead Sea scrolls.)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 21, 2015

      On non-disclosure: maybe I’ll post a piece on it. I had to sign one during my involvement with the Gospel of Judas.

      • countybaseball  January 22, 2015

        Are they saying this is a large piece of scripture?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 23, 2015

          No, probably a very small fragment.

          • Elisabeth  August 25, 2015

            If it’s such a tiny fragment, what value is it to a Christian apologist? If it proves to contain a variant, that does them a disservice; if it proves to match up with the text we have today (full of variants as it is already), to have just a few words match up proves nothing. It’s only useful to non-Christian textual critics if it happens to contain a variant, no?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 25, 2015

            If it’s a fragment that contains Mark and can be dated to, say 80 CE, then it would be by far our earliest piece from Mark. Apart from that, it’s hard to see how it would matter.

          • Elisabeth  August 25, 2015

            And I just realized this post is 8 months old – oops – has the text of the fragment been released yet?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 25, 2015


  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  January 20, 2015

    I posted about this on the forum a couple weeks ago and have been digging into it more ever since (there are several videos on youtube with vloggers discussing the story). The way these fragments are being handled is a complete travesty. From the way Craig Evans describes how he personally handled and “helped conserve” (my emphasis, not his) some of the fragments is shocking to say the least. As described, the masks are privately owned by some anonymous Christian (or maybe a group or institution?) so they can do what they want with them, but obviously, if the masks weren’t given to the appropriate scholars who knew how to properly conserve them, then there must be an agenda in my opinion.

    I’m a little mixed on my thoughts of destroying the masks to start off with, but I have to admit that if the masks are damaged in any major degree I guess it would be ok to break the papier mache pieces down into their individual component fragments, especially if there are tons of these things in existence. I’ve seen examples in Biblical Archaeology Review of masks from Roman graves from (I think) burials in Jordan and they’re quite beautiful when complete, especially when one realizes that we see the face of an actual person on them.

    I’m afraid this will probably turn into the Dead Sea scrolls all over again: a select group of “scholars” with privileged access and no one else gets to see the fragments, much less test them independently (ink test, carbon-14 dating, etc).

  3. BobHicksHP  January 20, 2015

    First, this comment is not intended as a judgment (either way), but is only presented as an irony.

    As part of my graduate training I had several courses in archaeology and participated in a few excavations, including authoring one site report. It was a long time ago (30 years), but even then one of the points of emphasis was that ALL archaeology, at every level, is destructive, and should only be undertaken when the predictable benefits out-weighed the destruction. So it would follow that the real question is just that. Where is the most benefit derived?

    My observation would be that how one answers that question (not just for this but every such situation) reveals a significant amount of bias. In other words, “My research is more important than yours.”

  4. Wilusa  January 20, 2015

    If the writer who said that accessing the masks involves destroying whole mummies is correct, I agree that it’s wrong. A violation of dead bodies.

    If, on the other hand, the “owners of the funerary masks” have masks that were long since separated from the bodies, I’m not so sure. I think many people would be more interested in what *might* be on those reused papyrus sheets than in funerary masks per se. I assume the researchers are taking many photographs of the masks before destroying them.

    If those researchers are lying in their hints about the nature and importance of their finds to date, that of course is way out of line!

  5. Wilusa  January 20, 2015

    An OT question! You’ve said that when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians – much earlier than the Gospels, but after he’d met Peter – he would have been expected to know both the “betrayal by Judas” story and the “empty tomb” story, if they were true. (I know you don’t seriously doubt the “betrayal by Judas” story.)

    My question: Would he have known them at the time he founded the church in Corinth? In other words, should the Christians in Corinth have known the stories long before receiving his letter?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 21, 2015

      Yes, he met Peter three years after his conversion, some years before establishing the church in Corinth.

  6. paul c  January 20, 2015

    Contrast the above artifact destruction with non-destructive work being carried on in Europe. Ironically this article about reading wrapped scrolls came out today. Archaeologists know that we, “Kill the patient”, that we destroy some data while endeavoring to retrieve other data. If an artifact or site can be left alone so that future and better technology can be applied, it should be. But then, there’s “publish or perish”, isn’t there? http://www.parkrecord.com/ci_27355710/x-rays-unlock-secrets-ancient-scrolls-buried-by

  7. spiker  January 20, 2015

    I have eagerly awaited the release of this [fragment?] wondering year after year if it was just a tactic on the part of Dr. Wallace or a genuine find. You have to wonder what they think a fragment will prove? Either way this is a good pressure tactic. Kudos!

  8. Jim  January 20, 2015

    Have there been any studies showing that conservative evangelical apologetics leads to brain cell damage?

    Now maybe I’m dumber than a sack of rat excrement, but wouldn’t taking the mummy cartonnage to specialists with expertise in known techniques that lead to minimal damage to cartonnage fragments/layers, actually have netted more publications in the long run? On a positive note though, I suppose the gamble wasn’t all that big since using palmolive detergent leaves your hands looking much younger.

  9. rbrtbaumgardner  January 20, 2015

    Celebrity Contagion perhaps.


    Next they’ll be find pieces of the True Cross.

  10. Joshua  January 20, 2015

    no surprises here for me anyway.

  11. fishician  January 21, 2015

    I don’t know why Christian apologists would have any interest in this, as the Bible is, according to them, sufficient proof of what they claim. Why do believers seek anything beyond their sacred texts?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 21, 2015

      Great and interesting question. Maybe I’ll post on it.

  12. Michael  January 21, 2015

    I share your concerns Bart. It is remarkable what people will do to defend their beliefs.

  13. JEffler  January 21, 2015

    From what I am gathering from this post, it sounds as if you are all upset over someone damaging an ’89 Ford Escort in an effort to get the diamonds stashed in the glovebox – is this (roughly) accurate?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 21, 2015

      Depends on your perspective. That is certainly *their* view!

  14. Jana  January 21, 2015

    Thank you for clarifying Dr. Ehrman. No matter how you cut it (no pun) greed. It also makes me think that behind the seemingly feverish need for Christian discovery and at the expense of antiquities lies doubt.

  15. gmatthews
    gmatthews  January 21, 2015

    Sorry for asking this off topic question here, but I’m going out of town tomorrow and don’t want to forget to ask. I came across a post on reddit today discussing translation of the Greek words malakoi and arsenkoitai from Paul’s list of “wrongdoers who will not inherit the kingdom of God” from 1 Cor 6:9-10. The poster linked an article from the Heythrop Journal discussing how these words must be translated according to the time period in which they were used and as such probably a better translation is “molester” rather than homosexual or sodomite. The article is here: http://www.academia.edu/2507704/_An_Argument_Against_the_Use_of_the_Word_Homosexual_In_English_Translations_of_the_Bible_The_Heythrop_Journal_51_no._5_2010_723-729.

    What are your thoughts on the translation?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 21, 2015

      I think “molester” has a very modern sense to it as well. These are complicated terms, and there is a lengthy scholarly discussion about them. But almost everyone (in my circles, anyway!) agrees that “homosexual” is completely wrong. The ancient world had no conception of sexual orientation. Maybe I’ll post on this at some point.

      • Hank_Z  January 21, 2015

        Bart, you’ve mentioned this subject before. I’d love to see you post on it.

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  January 21, 2015

        Thanks, yes the Heythrop article said the concept of “homosexual” only came about in the 1800s.

      • jhague  January 24, 2015

        I look forward to your post on this subject. Until then, please recommend one of the better scholarly articles written for a general audience.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 24, 2015

          I’m happy to recommend an article — but what specifically are you interested in?

          • jhague  January 24, 2015

            Most people only know what they read in their NIV Bible. If the NIV says that homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God, then homosexuals are going to hell. These people do not understand that the Bible includes mistranslations that are very misleading. I’m interested in a presentation that will help explain to people who believe that the NIV is the final word that the clobber passages are misunderstood and improperly presented by Christians today.

          • jhague  January 27, 2015

            I hope I worded this understandably. I would like an article that clearly explains how the clobber verses have been mistranslated, have been misinterpreted and are misused against the gay community. Thanks

          • jhague  February 9, 2015

            Any luck with an article? Ok if not. Thanks

          • Bart
            Bart  February 10, 2015

            Sorry – I’m not sure what you’re referring to!

          • jhague  February 10, 2015

            Sorry – You had mentioned that you might be able to recommend a good article for a general audience regarding the correct interpretation of the Bible passages that fundamentalist use incorrectly to bash the gay community. Thanks

          • Bart
            Bart  February 11, 2015

            Ah, I don’t remember that! OK, I’m not sure of a good article, but there are good books about the Bible and Homosexuality. I would suggest the collection of essays edited by my friend Jeff Siker, Homosexuality and the Church, and a book of essays written by another friend, Dale Martin, with the provocative title, Sex and the Single Savior.

  16. Kevin  January 21, 2015

    Will scholars not use the information gathered in this way? What if the dating turns out to be good, will the data then be ignored or somehow shunned like nazi research? Is it that bad?

    Private property rights with antiquities and fossils and the like is a tough issue, usually because good science and our heritage is destroyed in the collecting, handling, and sale. But what if the destruction of these things produced good data that people cared about?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 21, 2015

      No, whatever they find will of course be discussed on its own merits, not based on the means by which it was uncovered.

  17. deadkennedy  January 21, 2015

    So So angry.

    The spiteful part of me hopes that they find nothing of value, but it seems like they have been happily ripping apart antiquities for a while on the basis of “we own them” so not finding anything hasn’t stopped them in the past.

    What is very troubling is that one of the financiers buying up the death masks appears to be Josh McDowell, a Christian evangelical apologist with no scholarly credentials. He is perhaps best known for his book, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, which attempts to prove the legitimacy, relevancy, and historical accuracy of the Bible (sourced from Brice Jones blog).
    You can see him boast of his vandalism here http://vimeo.com/62646535 from the 24 min mark, he even has slides of the act.

    Maybe if they do find something ground breaking like

    “the following presentation is fiction and any similarity to a person living or dead is purely coincidental”

    or maybe that’s just me being spiteful again.

    What really

    • Mark  January 22, 2015

      Just watched the video. Wow. He is cavalier about it. If these texts were as precious to him as he says, he couldn’t be like that. I’m not surprised to learn that scholars have to make decisions about how to treat artifacts, and value judgments have to be made. Maybe it’s reasonable to take apart a funeral mask to see what a text says. I’d be surprised if there weren’t generally recognized principles to determine what the right thing to do is. I seem to recall this coming up in the context of paintings and non-sacred manuscripts too. I thought your terming it “vandalism” was probably hyperbole. Then I watched the video. Sad.

  18. stephena  January 21, 2015

    The kind of unspoken irony here is that the third or fourth century pagans destroyed a first century scripture (of some kind, that it was allegedly Christian makes no difference) in order to make a pagan mummy mask. Just saying, perhaps we ought to consider that as part of this story, since that was the “Original Destruction” here.. I, too, am upset at losing an antiquity, but we have to have a bit of balance.

    My sneaking suspicion is that we haven’t heard any definitive reports about the content of this discovery from Wallace and the Christian apologists who funded this search because they did indeed find a fragment of Mark from the first century (or even a “Sayings Gospel” such as Q!) and the Jesus in that Gospel doesn’t match up with Mark or any other one we know today. Or perhaps that’s too dramatic. I just hope they come clean with what they found sometime soon.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 23, 2015

      I’m sure it matches with Mark. If it wasn’t a good match, they would claim it’s a non-canonical Gospel!

  19. dostonj  January 21, 2015

    Assuming for the sake of argument that this fragment contains authentic text from Mark’s gospel and in fact dates to c. 80 CE, of what historical consequence is this discovery beyond being noted as the only known NT textual fragment dating to the 1st century? Am I correct in thinking that this discovery does not alter, but instead corroborates the relatively firm consensus that the Gospel of Mark was most probably written c. 60 A.D.? This date for Mark is fairly uncontroversial among most Chistian scholars and mainstream secular scholars.

  20. John  January 24, 2015

    James Carroll’s new book, Christ, Actually, posits a Palestinian origin for Mark in the period immediately following the destruction of the Temple. Is this a mainstream view? (I haven’t finished the book yet.)

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