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Defending the Destruction of Mummy Masks

In yesterday’s post on New Manuscripts and the Destruction of Antiquities, I cited an article by Mary-Ann Russo that explained the situation about the mummy masks that were being destroyed in order to acquire papyrus fragments of the New Testament.  The scholar mainly cited in that article as being involved in that process was Craig Evans, a friend of mine with whom I have had several public debates.   Craig feels that he has been somewhat misrepresented in this article, and sent me a clarification.   I have asked and received his permission, and this is what he says:  (NOTE: after this paragraph is a lengthier explanation and justification of what they are doing when destroying mummy masks):


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An Expert Talks About Mummy Masks and Papyri
New Manuscripts and the Destruction of Antiquities



  1. gmatthews
    gmatthews  January 21, 2015

    This is going to turn into the Dead Sea Scrolls all over again. I know it can take years to publish for many finds, but I bet this drags out into the next decade. I didn’t really have a problem with them destroying the masks because it was clear to me from the LiveScience article and the youtube video that the masks they were using were not in the best shape or the best examples. My concern is with how he described handling the papier-mache fragments with Palmolive himself.

    I guess we’ll have to wait and see how truthful they’re being about “Nothing is to [be] force[d] or made to fit a particular perspective.”

    This was the first time I was aware Larry Hurtado was involved (I don’t recognize the other names he mentions). I had checked his blog yesterday to see if he had any comments about the story, but apparently he’s in Hong Kong so I don’t guess we’ll be hearing from him, if at all, until he gets back. His involvement, though, makes me feel a little better about the whole thing.

  2. Aleph82
    Aleph82  January 21, 2015

    I’m sitting on the fence on this issue. Desecration makes me queasy, but I think arguments can be made on a case by case basis that the potential science gained could put you somewhere in the black when you work out the morality of it all. I really, really don’t like how much authority private collectors have over “their” artifacts. In a situation involving a great historical, I think just about everyone would prefer to see a civil institution take possession of it. There’s a reason that collectors of antiquities are stock villains in Hollywood.

    At the same time though, I really would like to see what comes of this text. Even if it’s only a few versus, even if it gives us little useful information, it’s first century copy of Mark! That by itself is amazing! To me at least, and I suspect many others, it’s far more wondrous than the mask, on which, let’s face it, Craig has a point: we’re not exactly dealing with the Elgin marbles here.

  3. talitakum
    talitakum  January 21, 2015

    I’d say that Evans has some good points here. “in the opinion of the owners (whether museums, private collectors, whatever) recovery of written text outweighs the mask itself”. I believe that in fact someone must decide what to keep and what not – I don’t think we can preserve all the existing artifacts of the ancient world. We wouldn’t even know where to keep them (let alone the costs), and the contribute to our culture from an unknown ancient artifact is obviously zero. If we have enough pieces of such masks to be exposed and studied, I think we shouldn’t overlook the importance of the recovery of an important ancient text. Moreover, if such text is really a I-st century Mark, granted it will become much more known and famous that the mask. It will be culturally more important. In this specific case we’ll have witnesses of both masks and texts to be exposed and studied, so I personally don’t see any major issue.

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    Jimmy  January 21, 2015

    Wow. I really don’t have a problem with the destruction of the mask, so long as they are inferior and what lays beneath is more valuable. Similar to the digs he mentioned any archaeological discovery is going to do some destruction. However, this is mind numbing that it is saying another two years!!! Did Dr. Evans just write this right now. So in a week we went from 2015 to 2017. I do not know if I should laugh or cry.

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    Kevin  January 21, 2015

    You could in the near future, with a good amount of software work, be able to NMR (MRI imaging is the medical version) these masks and get the written data non-destructively. Here’s an article on that progress:
    I am good with what this team does as long as it’s done in the way that archeologist practice today – take a small destructive sample and leave most to future studies.
    It’s a real bummer that they don’t publish. Years is too long. The Mark fragment could just be poor dating and not interesting at all – how would anyone know?

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    lbehrendt  January 21, 2015

    In your prior post, you stated that you were disturbed by the way this discovery was made and is being handled. Has Dr. Evans succeeded in addressing your concerns?

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    RobertaMazza  January 21, 2015

    In case you and your readers are interested, I attach a link. I have no words left to comment what I have seen and found in the course of this year. Shame is the only word that comes to my mind, and I explain why here:

    Thank you.

    Roberta Mazza
    University of Manchester

    • Bart
      Bart  January 23, 2015

      Ah, thanks! I didn’t see this before I posted your article today!! Many, many thanks, and keep us apprised of your expertise.

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      starlight  January 24, 2015

      Yes, thank you for the invaluable, very disturbing information. These so-called scholars are so desperate for relevance, they have sold their souls for fame and fortune. What will their ignorance and betrayal do for legitimate research?

      • Bart
        Bart  January 24, 2015

        I wouldn’t say they’ve sold their souls. But I think they would be better served to allow the fragment to be examined by a broad range of experts instead of releasing spectacular claims to the public before the piece has been subject to scholarly evaluation.

        • Avatar
          starlight  January 26, 2015

          I agree with you, Bart, and thought it would be common practice with regard to something that might turn out to be a very significant discovery.

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    Tmanns  January 21, 2015

    It sounds like Mr. Evans is having an exciting time right now, filled with anticipation and hope. Thanks for sharing this Prof. Ehrman.

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    magpie  January 21, 2015

    A fascinating unfolding of history. Thanks for sharing the details and clarifying the issue.

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    timber84  January 21, 2015

    I assume we still don’t know how many verses of Mark are included on the fragment. Were there any other Christian texts discovered among the mummy masks?

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    Kevin Nelson  January 22, 2015

    Do you know the people he mentions (Dirk Obbink, Mike Holmes)? If so, what level of confidence do you have in them, and would you describe them as being more Christian apologists than historians or archeologists?

    If these masks are already in poor condition and there are many similar masks in better condition, then it sounds to me like Evans has a point. But I would certainly like some external confirmation of that.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 23, 2015

      I don’t know Obbink. Mike Holmes is my oldest and closest friend in the text-criticism field. He’s a fine scholar — but not an expert in papyrology or palaeography, the two subfields of immediate relevance.

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    RonaldTaska  January 22, 2015

    Readers might be interested in today’s (Thursday) “NPR” website article entitled “X-Rays Open Secrets of Ancient Scrolls.”

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    Wilusa  January 22, 2015

    He doesn’t actually spell out the answer to the question that troubles me: whether they’re destroying actual mummies. But I get the *impresson* they’re not, since he refers not only to masks of human faces, but also to depictions of crocodiles, etc.

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    hmltonius  January 22, 2015

    I’ve learned from watching your debates with Craig Evans the importance of statement analysis when considering his remarks! I wonder what he suspects the primary reason is for delaying the publication of a purported 1st century fragment beyond his stated “guess” of wanting to include later century papyri (why?) and what he knows but can not tell you beyond what he “mostly” knows.

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    spiker  January 22, 2015

    “…this will be the first New Testament manuscript that dates to the first century. The fragment is to be published later this year (by E. J. Brill).”

    This seems almost verbatim from what Wallace claimed during his debate with you in 2012.
    Are they taking advice from Harold Camping? Keep rolling the year forward? Maybe the finding
    confirms what you have been saying all along and now they need to present it, strategically:
    Well it may LOOK like it confirms what Dr. Ehrman has been saying all along, but if you read it
    aloside the fragment of Obadiah, you’ll see that it homogenizes the parameters of Lukean priority
    vis-a-vis Mark’s longer ending.

    It’s tricky to evaluate his other claims:

    These things belong to various museums, universities, and private collections. Many of them are in poor condition, either from exposure to the elements or to vermin, or whatever. Some likely suffered damaged from rough handling (see the attachment, which illustrates what I mean). Some are well enough preserved but they are very poorly made and the artwork is quite shabby. These are the specimens that are being deconstructed in order to recover the papyri….”?

    Is it that he’s arguing that such fragments are only found in damaged and poorly made items?
    That better quality items weren’t made with such things or that “Museum quality and display quality pieces” aren’t deconstructed even if they may contain valuable text? Is it that scholars are only interested in “Museum quality and display quality pieces”? Don’t scholars care about what they might learn from “well enugh preserved pieces etc?

    Notice in contrast to the hey we’re only deconstructing damaged and poorly made items sentiment.

    “I have suggested that we think of it as a form of archaeology, which in order to dig down to the desired level, sometimes we dig through (and therefore “destroy”) another level. We always try to preserve at least a sample of the destroyed level, but this is the choice we have to make.” Even a
    “Museum quality and display quality” level?

    I don’t doubt Evan’s integrity or motives, I’m just wondering if he realizes how his response comes across. I mean why go through the whole damaged poorly made song and dance if you’re approach is well, sometimes we dig through (and therefore “destroy”) another level.”

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    RonaldTaska  January 23, 2015

    Some of the readers of this website might be interested in Googling an article that was just published on the “Religious News Service” website about the passing of the Jesus Seminar/Historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg. Like Crossan, Spong, and you, he helped summarize scholarship for those of us who read a lot but are not trained experts in the field..

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    Wilusa  January 24, 2015

    I can’t help thinking of a pet peeve I have: buildings in the city where I live being described as “historic” just because they’re *old*. Not everything old is “historic,” or worth saving!

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