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Finally! Now We Know. The “First-Century Copy” of Mark

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).

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.

https://ehrmanblog.org/first-century-copy-of-mark-part-1-members/

https://ehrmanblog.org/we-do-not-have-a-first-century-copy-of-the-gospel-of-mark/

https://ehrmanblog.org/why-would-it-matter-if-there-were-a-first-century-copy-of-mark/

https://ehrmanblog.org/what-the-new-fragment-of-marks-gospel-looks-like-the-so-called-first-century-mark/

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.  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.

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.

This post is free to everyone.  Most other posts require you to belong to the blog.  See what you can get for just a little money?  And all the  money goes to charity.  So join!


The Hobby Lobby, Biblical Manuscripts, and Academic Scandal
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Comments

  1. Avatar
    VEndris  June 24, 2019

    I am very curious as to how Dan Wallace is handling this. I would think he would at least privately apologize to you in particular if not publicly apologize to the whole community in general.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2019

      Yes, he did apologize to me. I posted on that (search for his name). I would love to hear his reactions to the latest developments.

  2. Avatar
    webattorney  June 24, 2019

    Any explanation from Prof. Obbink?

  3. Avatar
    Petter Häggholm  June 24, 2019

    Wow. The whole thing looked like a real debacle from the first moment when it was sprung on you during the debate, but adding theft and smuggling of archæological artifacts (that’s basically what it amounts to, isn’t it?) amps up the drama to a degree I couldn’t have imagined.

  4. Avatar
    Hngerhman  June 24, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    I am glad you are addressing this for the blog community – when it popped up on Brent Nongbri’s and Larry Hurtado’s blogs, I held off mentioning it this morning, as I wasn’t sure if asking you about it (given it all began with DW trying to ambush you with it) would be intrusive.

    With so many unanswered questions, I think many of us would very much like it if you would please parse it for us (the who/how/why of it all), as much as you might feel comfortable doing? That someone(s) would so brazenly deceive about as sensitive an artifact as (supposedly) “the earliest portion of the NT ever found” speaks directly to the fact that we inhabit a world short on integrity and long on fake news. A bit of extra sunlight as disinfectant for bad actors couldn’t hurt.

    Many thanks.

  5. Avatar
    Pedro  June 24, 2019

    Hi Dr. Ehrman:

    Just from what you’ve said here, I think that you would be justified in calling it a scandal. In fact, I have no other words to express the moral dimension of what happened. I’ve followed thia ever since your debate with Dr. Wallace. I’m shocked about this, although I long suspected that Mr. Obbink had a significant role with what happened.

  6. Avatar
    Tmatthewedwards  June 24, 2019

    “When it’s simply too good to be true… .” Barnum & Bailey must be smiling in their graves.

  7. Avatar
    hankgillette  June 25, 2019

    Is Professor Obbink going to prison?

    Even if he doesn’t, it seems that this would destroy his career. It must have been a very large amount of money for him to do this.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2019

      I don’t know what’s happening on that front (but I’m trying to find out

      • Avatar
        Hogie2  June 25, 2019

        Exactly what i was wondering. If it wasn’t his to sell, does he have to give the money back? Where is the money? Has he fled town? Did he actually believe he would get away with it? Will he attempt to defend his dating of it, or just say “oops, I was wrong?”

        • Bart
          Bart  June 26, 2019

          Apparently he has the money and the Hobby Lobby wants it back! It’s hard for me to figure out if he thought he could get away with it. Seems a bit difficult to imagine….

  8. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  June 25, 2019

    why were the gospels named after non-eyewitnesses and obscure people ?

    here is an answer :
    Meanwhile, the other Gospels were also circulating unnamed and none identified themselves as written by a witness nor were written as such. Those legends were invented later owing to convenience and confusion. But when names were assigned, authenticity would be undermined by associating them “suddenly” with witnesses, as surely such would have been mentioned and known before then, and surely the texts themselves would say this, not just the titles (whereas Luke and John both explicitly say they were not written by witnesses, so none could be assigned to those texts). That is why the authenticity of the Gospels in the current canon required picking obscure names and inventing legends about them.

    ///
    do you agree with this answer?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2019

      Not exactly. Two of them *were* allegedly eyewitnesses, and the other two were not obscure at all.

  9. Avatar
    Nexus  June 25, 2019

    Where I am from that’s called fraud. I wonder if the true owners have contacted any relevant authorities.

    The evidence you have is interesting. There is an invoice with bank information that is dated before the contract. The latest date is nearly a full year after your debate was published on YouTube. My vague recollection of all the writings on this subject is that some supposes that the purpose of the public declaration was to increase the price of the fragment.

    I have two questions:
    1) Why does a papyrologist need a fragment for four years? If one is *not* conducting scientific tests, like carbon dating, this seems a long time to me.
    2) What is up with the photo of Gospel list on the last page?

  10. Avatar
    Stephen  June 25, 2019

    Will that panel session be recorded in any form? It might help people outside the scholarly community to know about this since apparently there are still evangelical apologists touting the discovery of a first century copy of Mark.

    thx

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2019

      Not to my knowledge. They never are, in my experience. Too bad!

  11. Avatar
    webattorney  June 25, 2019

    It seems to me this development calls into question every previous discovery or finding made by Prof. Obbink.

  12. Avatar
    dannawid  June 25, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    So Dan Wallace apologised. Would it not be more honorable and face saving to revert to the theory of “Divine mystery” when theologians are stumped? instead of making unsubstantiated claims to prove their arguments. When The Five Gospels of the Jesus Seminar came out around 1990, the Catholic Bishop of Toronto agreed with its substance but he was opposed to making it public because it may shake the faith of common folks. So if one needs to use fraud for the good of the church, one is justified. Some people may say this hypocrisy.
    Do you think that the church fathers believed that NT was not divinely inspired and this why some scribes took liberties in its editing?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2019

      It completely depends, I’d say, on which church fathers and which scribes. But no, by the end of the second century, at least, most Christians seem to have thought the text was inspired. Scribes someties changed it because they thought someone had changed it *before* them! Or because they thought the inspired ideas could be expressed more clearly.

  13. Avatar
    rburos  June 25, 2019

    Your study of ancient papyri, as well as our laymen’s interest in the results, is admittedly an extremely nerdy endeavor. But now we have scandal! It’s all so much fun! What next? Somebody needed money to pay off gambling debts or a love child? This string is reading like one of those old-fashioned chapter plays. . . She can’t be dead, MISERY CHASTAIN CANNOT BE DEAD!

    In other words, I hope this string goes on for a month.

  14. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 25, 2019

    I feel like “mistakes” is a very charitable term for what of the scribes did to the manuscripts they were copying… 🙂
    What do you think of the “Minimal Facts Argument” that William Lane Craig trots out whenever he’s doing a debate?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2019

      I don’t think they are all facts.

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  June 26, 2019

        I would love a post where you went through the argument. One can always hope!

        • Bart
          Bart  June 27, 2019

          The main one is that “everyone” agrees there is an empty tomb. Well, no. Search “empty tomb” on the blog and you’ll find som posts on it.

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  July 4, 2019

      “mistakes” is a very charitable term for what of the scribes did to the manuscripts they were copying” –
      Exactly!! So often (always?) the mistakes “happen” to re-inforce your bias!
      Oops I accidentally added a zero to my salary and omitted a zero from yours! Yeah, “oops”.

  15. Avatar
    Mark57  June 25, 2019

    I’m surprised this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often. Faith & critical thinking seem next to impossible to square with each other. They just don’t mix well. 😉

  16. Avatar
    Mark57  June 25, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I’m not sure if links are allowed so please delete if not, but this article has some more information that may or may not be useful. https://www.thedailybeast.com/did-oxford-scholar-dirk-obbink-secretly-sell-bible-fragment-to-hobby-lobby-family

  17. SonOfZeusTruly
    SonOfZeusTruly  June 25, 2019

    Finally! Thank you for what you do and the hard work you put in for a great cause. Let’s not give up and keep hope even when others loose thiers.

  18. Rick
    Rick  June 28, 2019

    Before jumping on the conclusion Obbink perpetrated a fraud, I have to ask, would there be any advantage to The Museum of the Bible aka Hobby Lobby/the Greens to “own” the specimen without having possession? Is there evidence, such as cancelled check/wire transfer etc., that money actually moved from Hobby Lobby to Obbink? In other words is there a scenario that would benefit Hobby Lobby by producing a fake contract?

    Sorry if I missed other evidence ….
    Signed, the Retired Auditor

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2019

      I think the only thing the Greens buy manuscripts for is to own and display them. I don’t know what the evidence is for the transfer being made, but I understand that Obbink did indeed receive the money, and possibly still has it.

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  July 4, 2019

      My cynical self thinks the Greens have not bought the scrap, they’ve bought the professor. Dirk Obbink. That’s more valuable to them. It’ll pay dividends down the line, like buying Scott Carroll has.

  19. Christopher
    Christopher  July 4, 2019

    Bart,
    Just a slight possible correction. You stated “The debate was held in Memorial Hall at UNC Chapel Hill”. I was in the audience at your debate with Daniel B Wallace at SMU, Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, and Dan made the same announcement, certainly seeming as if it was first the first time, ever! You certainly acted extremely surprised and quite more than a bit taken aback. In fact, in my memory, I recall him specifically saying that this was an announcement for the first time, ever. Are you certain it was UNC instead of SMU?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      I don’t think that happened at SMU did it? Hmm. Maybe it *did*. I thought it was at Chapel Hill. Are you sure?

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