I have posted on and off over the past six or seven years about an allegedly first-century copy of the Gospel of Mark that some scholars claimed we had now in our possession. This would be by far the earliest manuscript we have of any part of the New Testament, a matter of real importance and interest. But it turns out NOT to be that, and it has involved a real academic farce.
Those of you who have followed this charade know most of the important facts, but for those of you who don’t, and just to remind those of you who do, let me set them out, before explaining the new development:
In 2012 I was holding a public debate on whether we can know what the authors of the New Testament “originally” wrote, given the fact that we don’t have their original writings but only later copies of them, all of them different in many, many small ways and sometimes in more important ways. Virtually all of these copies are many centuries removed from the originals. The debate was held in Memorial Hall at UNC Chapel Hill with Dan Wallace, a Professor of New Testament at the conservative evangelical Dallas Theological Seminary (you can see the debate on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kg-dJA3SnTA&t=4770s), and author of Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, and Reinventing Jesus, among others.
One of the points I always argue in this kind of debate is that we simply don’t have early manuscripts to help us know what the originals of the New Testament said. I usually use Mark as an example. Mark’s Gospel was written around 70 CE. We don’t have any copy of any kind of Mark until around 200 CE – and that copy is highly fragmentary: it contains *portions* (sometimes just a few verses) of just eight of the Gospels sixteen chapters. don’t have a complete Gospel until around 370 CE. That is to say, the *first* full copy is 300 years after the original, 300 years during which the book had been copied, and recopied, and recopied, with all the copyists making small or big mistakes (and then of course the errant copies are copied by scribes who make further mistakes and their copies are copied and… and so it goes for three centuries before we have any copy based on these copies of the copies of the copies.)
Given that state of affairs, how can we possibly know what Mark himself wrote? We usually suppose (or at least I do) that we have a pretty good idea for most of the pasages of the book. But can we be *sure*? And in *all* places? My view is: we *can’t*. There are lots and lots of places, some of them significant, where we simply don’t know and can’t know.
During the debate, Dan wanted to argue that we have excellent manuscript copies of the NT and Mark in particular, and in that context he delivered a real stunner. He meant it as a zinger to blow me out of the water. He indicated that a previously unknown and unannounced copy of Mark’s Gospel had been discovered that had been reliably dated by one of the world’s experts to the *first* century! Yikes! Now THAT could change things.
But he wouldn’t tell me, or the crowd, anything about the manuscript.
This announcement created a HUGE stir in the community of scholars committed to textual criticism. Massively talked about and discussed. And Dan would never reveal any more information about it, other than that the text was going to be published soon and that he had signed a non-disclosure agreement making it impossible for him to provide any further information. The issue kept coming up and continued to be discussed for years.
As it turns out, the whole thing was a farce, as many of us suspected and all of us learned for certain a year or so ago.
And now we know how it all happened, as of yesterday.
For background, you might want to read some of the earlier posts I’ve devoted to the question over all this time. Here are some of them. If you want to see all of the relevant posts, simply search for First Century Mark (or first-century Mark) on the blog.
The explanation of what happened has now come forward from a representative of the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., a scholar named Mike Holmes, and the author of The Greek New Testament and The Apostolic Fathers. Mike and I have been good friends for forty years. He and I were the final two graduate students of the great textual expert Bruce Metzger at Princeton Theological Seminary. Mike himself is a fine scholar who retired a couple of years ago from a long career as University Professor of Biblical Studies and Early Christianity at Bethel College, an evangelical institution, and assumed duties at the newly established Museum of the Bible. He and I see each other regularly at annual meetings and stay in contact both professionally and personally (we have published two books together, one of them in two editions).
The context is this. This coming November, at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in San Diego, there will be a panel session devoted to the question of First-Century Mark. When it became clear last year that in fact First-Century Mark was NOT first century (when the tiny fragment was itself published and dated much later than the first century), I contacted the chairs of the New Testament Textual Criticism section of the SBL to suggest we have a panel discussion about the ethics and propriety of how the entire thing (I’m tempted to say scandal) developed, in connection with Dan Wallace’s announcement at the debate, to the people who had misled him to begin with, to the involvement of the Museum of the Bible, to the ways antiquities are generally handled in the academy, to… related issues… One of the chairs of this section at the SBL you know: Stephen Carlson, who has done those guest posts on Papias for the blog; the other I’ve mentioned before and has agreed to do some *future* guest posts (very soon, in fact), Jennifer Knust, Professor of Early Christianity at Duke, and author of To Cast the First Stone and Abandoned to Lust.
They agreed it would be a good idea. There will be a number of people doing various kinds of assessments of the whole affair, including me since I was involved in (or rather, the object of!) the first airing of the claims, and Mike Holmes, as a representative of the Bible Museum, since, as will become clear, the affair implicated the Museum itself, and Mike will explain what actually happened.
But in advance of the meeting, just yesterday, Mike sent all of us the first public explanation of how the fragment came to be (wrongly) touted as a spectacular find of the first century. I have attached the explanation here, below. I will explain it all further tomorrow, in case it needs a bit of unpacking (I think it probably does).
Short story. It appears — from what Mike has now been allowed to inform us – that it goes back to the expert on ancient manuscripts Dirk Obbink, a well-known professor at Oxford University. Obbink was responsible for publishing this small fragment of Mark in the long-running series called The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (a highly erudite enormous set of volumes devoted to papyri of all kinds discovered in digs started at the end of the 19th century in the ancient Egyptian city named Oxyrhynchus). Obbink did not *own* the fragment (it is owned by the British Egypt Exploration Society since it is a fragment discovered in Egypt during British archaeological digs), but he had it in his possession (since he was publishing the text with an analysis, he need to be given temporary possession of it). Nonetheless he claimed he *did* own it and he sold it to the Museum of the Bible, evidently for a lot of money (amount unspecified), based on a false claim that in fact it dated from around 100 CE – making it a very hot piece of papyrus indeed!
In fact he didn’t own it so that it wasn’t his to sell, and it didn’t date from 100 CE. We don’t know much more than that. But Mike has provided proof for the claims. Here they are: Contract and List of Four Gospel Fragments. Again, I’ll explain more fully in my next post.
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