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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. He is also the author of several books, including Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament and Reinventing Jesus. 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 have extended this discussion by explaining why in the longer version on my membership section–Join now or log in to read the complete content.

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  1. Avatar
    Mitchellwhurst  April 18, 2012

    It’s interesting how new discoveries by Christian evangelicals always fit their existing narrative, rather than create a new one.

    So grateful for this site and a members only comment section. As a former evangelical [and, like the fine professor, graduate of Moody Bible Institute], it’s nice to participate in discussions of this nature that my still evangelical mother cannot read! Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 20, 2012

      From one Moodyite (is that what we called ourselves?) to another: welcome! And I’m in the same boat; my good Christian mother too will in all probability not be reading these pages!

      • Avatar
        Adam  April 27, 2012

        I’m a Moody grad also (’08). Alot has changed for me since then also. It was a painful process of change to say the least.

        • Avatar
          Scottandwendi  November 22, 2013

          Sorry to be joining the conversation a little late, but it seemed like this post has attracted a number of ex-Moodies, and I wanted to put in a quick plug for the Facebook group for recovering Moodies entitled “Moody Bible Institute Heretics”: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2598310994/

          We’re a diverse group of both Christians and non-Christians, comprised of atheists, agnostics, Unitarians, Episcopalians, and converts to Orthodox denominations, among others. The group’s foci are sharing experiences of being a part of the bastion of fundamentalism that is Moody, and sharing insights on life after and outside of the Moody bubble.

          If this sounds like something you’d be interested in joining, all are welcome! The only requirements are tolerance, kindness, and open-mindedness.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  November 22, 2013

            Wow! OK — this is the first I’d heard of it. Sounds very interesting indeed!

          • Avatar
            bjs8579  August 26, 2014

            I came across this and had to respond late as well. I am also a fellow Moodyite (’04) and went down a very similar path. I left the evangelical fold a while ago, and I’m agnostic now more than anything. Bart, I really appreciate your work. My staunch southern baptist mother would also not be reading these pages!

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    PaulH  April 19, 2012

    Great thread Bart. Maybe Dan also has the body of Bigfoot in his basement freezer, and he’s waiting for the right time to produce it?

    Just because something’s really old, doesn’t give it extra credence.

    Knowing his luck he’s probably got the last chapter of Mark and it’s missing the end 12 verses. How could he ever make that public? 🙂

  3. Avatar
    jimmo  April 19, 2012

    My understanding is that 7Q5 allededgly contains parts of Mark, but only if you interpret all of the partial and missing letters in a very specific way, and that this is the only New Testament reference in the scrolls. (but *only* if you plugin a lot of missing letters)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 19, 2012

      Yes, that’s right. There have been numerous reconstructions of that fragment, and the vast consensus among both New Testament textual critics and Dead Sea Scroll scholars (of the very many of both that I know, I can’t think of an exception) is that the fragment is decidedly *not* a copy of Mark. Thanks for the comment

  4. Avatar
    Milo  April 19, 2012

    I am a new member and am excited to be a part of it. Thanks Bart

  5. Avatar
    Phillipsna  April 19, 2012

    lol, So has Dan Wallace joined the blog yet?

    • Avatar
      Mikail78  April 19, 2012

      “lol, So has Dan Wallace joined the blog yet”

      Now, that is something that I would LOVE to see! LOL!!!!!

  6. Avatar
    screwtaperocks  April 19, 2012

    It is difficult to think of any discovery that would be as amazing as the documents found at Qumran. Perhaps…If someone found Q, or one of the M or L source gospels, then that would be in the running to rival the Dead Sea Scrolls. Then again, I don’t think anyone before 1947 could have dreamt up something as huge as the Dead Sea Scrolls and its community. Whatever else might be out there may have the same undoubted potential to revolutionize our knowledge of the Bible and history,

    With that being said; In my opinion no single discovery can ever legitimize Conservative, Fundamentalist, or Evangelical Christianity. Thanks to the Enlightenment, and folks like Bart Ehrman, free thinking people can see in a concise way that you can’t save it. The problems are too vast.

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    ntuser  April 20, 2012

    What Dan Wallace is doing by abiding to an agreement with the discoverer is not “secretive” in any negative sense. New discoveries in all sciences are given a period of time for the principle investigator to publish his or her own analysis. I don’t know why this would be surprising or questionable to anyone in science. I am more familiar with Astrophysics and data is usually proprietary for a year or more. See this from the Hubble Space telescope website:
    Often a teaser on major news comes out, and that’s fine, but we just need to wait and be respectful of the scientific process. The bigger the claim that doesn’t pan out the more egg-on-face for the claimant that’s all.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 20, 2012

      Interesting point. That makes sense in the sciences, I think. There have been enormous controversies in the humanities, and specifically in biblical studies, when scholars have been unwilling to make their “findings” public. The best known instance is with the Dead Sea Scrolls, where after some years (Dan is not this bad, let me add!), the ones controlling the dissemination and publication of the scrolls were finally forced by a public campaign to release them. In these instances we are not talking about private discoveries of science (where someone discovers something that he or she alone has been able to demonstrate) but discoveries of material artifacts that just happen to fall into the hands of one person or another, and who, therefore, really should not have proprietory rights over them. But I do appreciate your point!

      • Avatar
        jimmo  April 20, 2012

        Could it be a publisher thing? You once mentioned your publisher did not like “Lost in Transmission” for “Misquoting Jesus”, and a similar thing happened to me. I’ve also had to sign non-disclosure agreements for a few computer tech books I reviewed prior to publication. Perhaps Dr. Wallace is contractually bound not to saying beyond what he already has. I have never met Dr. Wallace personally, but I have had email exchanges and read many of his articles, and I get the impression that we would not intentionally be deceptive or dishonest.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  April 20, 2012

          I need to be completely clear on this. I do NOT think Dan is being deceptive of dishonest! We have been friends for thirty years, and even though we disagree on a lot (a WHOLE lot!), I do not at all want to impugn his integrity in the least. He may have signed a non-disclosure agreement making it impossible for him to talk about it; I myself have had to do that before (with the Gospel of Judas, for National Geographic), so I understand about that. I’ve never heard of a publisher in our field requiring this, however; and he indicates that E. J. Brill will be the publisher. I know the editors at Brill quite well as for many years I have co-edited one of their monograph series (New Testament Tools, Studies, and Documents); I don’t think they would require silence. My hunch is that in Dan’s case it is self-imposed, but I don’t know why — and it’s just a hunch.

    • Avatar
      cozmot  April 23, 2012

      You’re missing the point. Wallace was not giving a “teaser.” He was in a debate and countering a point that Ehrman made. He did this by citing something that he could not or would not discuss in the tiniest detail. This kind of nonsense does not belong in a debate. Moreover, until Wallace or someone else produces this new scrap and submits it to the scrutiny of recognized experts and scholars, this will be nothing better than the Jame Ossuary with its Aramaic inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Is the inscription authentic? Fake? Probably fake, but until the Israeli Antiquities Authority allows the scholarly community at large to examine it, there’s no consensus (as far as I’m aware of).

      • Avatar
        ntuser  April 25, 2012

        I don’t agree that this announcement is comparable to the Jesus Family Ossuary business. Dr. Wallace gave a date for the publication, and he can put some of his rep on the line if he wants because he has a reputation. Dr. Wallace’s crew actually finds, photographs, and seems to quickly publish photo documentation of manuscripts. I see some free on the net.
        I didn’t think he scored any points in the debate with mentioning this new discovery though since he really had nothing to show. It’s a nice thing to anticipate – it had better be good!
        The part I find most questionable is the first century dating – isn’t paleography only accurate to within an error of plus or minus 20-30 years? If so, then with a date of publication for Mark of 70 CE, and assuming it’s a copy, how can you say a papyrus fragment of Mark is first century at all with any confidence using only this technique?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  April 25, 2012

          Great question! I too am eager to hear the answer!

  8. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  April 20, 2012

    I also think that the comparison to the Dead Sea Scrolls is utterly inappropriate, for the reasons you’ve given. This book will probably be a severe letdown because what could it actuallyreally reveal? Also, how precisely can you date such a small fragment in the first place? And would you really rely on only one paleograph’s opinion? Not that it would matter much in this case anyway.

    On a different note: this blog and the concept behind it are great. Looking forward to the future posts!

  9. Avatar
    J.W. Peterson  April 20, 2012

    I feel as if the significance of this fragment is being bypassed by this blog and by the general commentators. Let’s just assume it is vetted and everything Wallace has stated is true. Bart, you have stated in multiple ways in the post that this fragment will change nothing about our thoughts of the text of Mark, as well as the historical Jesus and other related fields. That is exactly (I really wish I knew the code for italics, but alas am too lazy to bother) why it is so significant. Because it changes nothing is why it is important; and I can only assume is why Wallace referenced it in the debate. Your whole point in multiple debates with Wallace and books has been that we can’t know the early text of the various books because we do not know what changes were made early. If this fragment, with let’s say a portions of 6 verses, largely confirms the current critical editions in meaningful and viable readings, then there is evidence of an early, stable text at least in that portion. And if it is stable in that portion, the sensible response is to project that stability outward, not to assume this is the rare instance of stable copying in the midst of chaos for the rest of the book.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 20, 2012

      Thanks for your comments. I’m probably not being clear enough. I don’t mean to say that if it is a small fragment it will not change just my views of anything (as if I’m hard-headed and not about to change no matter what, thank you very much). I’m saying that if it’s a small fragment it won’t change *anyone’s* views, by its very nature.
      A small fragment the size of, say, P52 is too small to have a big impact. The reason: if it is similar to what other manuscripts have of Mark, then it tells us what we already thought: the verse as transmitted in these other manuscripts (the ones we have) is very ancient (no one thinks the text found in say, Vaticanus, is *radically* unlike *anything* from the end of the first century. It *may* be — we ultimately have no way of knowing — but no one has any evidence that it is). And that’s what I already think — that the surviving manuscripts we have can probably trace their lineage for the most part back to the first century. If we have a tiny fragment from one of the manuscripts that lay behind our (previously) surviving manuscripts — all to the good! But what does it tell us, other than that the manuscripts we are pretty sure once existed really did exist? (I.e., for the few verses, or parts of verses, that it attests.) On the other hand, if this fragment is radically dissimilar to what other manuscripts have, then scholars will claim that it is not a manuscript of Mark but of some other (no longer surviving) Gospel. So there’s no way that a scrap can prove that Mark was transmitted in a radically different form early on.
      I want to emphasize as strongly as I can: I hope it *is* a first-century fragment of Mark. I want more and more and more of these! But what I really want are extensive fragments — say twelve pages (!). Even this kind of finding will not tell us everything we want to know, however. If we found *more* copies of Mark from the first century, that were relatively complete, *then* we would have some things to talk about!

      • Avatar
        J.W. Peterson  April 22, 2012

        Dr. Ehrman,
        Thanks for the reply. I see your point and do understand why you make it and the grounds that lead to you making it. I disagree about the conclusion that it does not potentially gain us a better picture of the first century text and stable copying practices if it confirms our current critical editions, but I suppose that is because we have different presuppositions regarding the existence of other competing, or “Lost Christianities” that we just can’t possibly know about. Thanks again, I look forward to further interaction on future topics.

  10. Avatar
    Jfjoyner3  April 21, 2012

    Although I am not a fan of Dr. Ehrman’s mission to popular audiences I joined this site for three reasons: one, it has a charitable purpose; two, Dr. Ehrman is a highly gifted and competent scholar; and, three, if one reads carefully through Dr. Ehrman’s popular appeal to debunk Christian tradition one can still find sensible and competent analysis that ought to be addressed by faith communities.

    I have one general point to raise while this BLOG is in its start-up phase: I hope Dr. Ehrman will not let this BLOG site deteriorate into a Christian-bashing, fundamentalist-bashing or evangelical-bashing site. Already some who commented quickly moved towards that theme. Assuming Dr. Ehrman is a decent guy, why would he waste time enabling the bashing of misguided, under-informed persons-of-faith when he has such a great opportunity to influence them and instruct them? So what if they are hard of hearing and stubborn? Of course, not every person-of-faith who disagrees with Ehrman is misguided and under-informed (e.g., Dan Wallace, Jim Charlesworth, Gerd Thiessen, etc.).

    Moving back to the immediate topic of this post, I listened to recordings of the debates between Ehrman and Wallace and it seems to me Wallace’s point at the time of the announcement of a new Mark-fragment, has been all along and continues to be, was that there will be more manuscripts to be found and more to learn about textual transmission. I get Ehrman’s point that we cannot know how much change occurred after the very earliest versions of Mark, and I also get Wallace’s argument that major differences (like what we see with Jeremiah) are not likely for Mark because of both Jewish and Greco-Roman scribal habits which are conservative. It seems Wallace has just tagged-on this dramatic announcement of a new fragment as an anecdote to his main point, a point with which Ehrman does not agree, but still a reasonable point. I just have to believe Ehrman would consider Wallace’s claim to be plausible even if he does not agree, else he would find a different debate partner.

    The secret about the paleographer is frustrating to everyone who is interested in this discovery, but what if it turned out to be Roger Bagnall? How would that change the reaction to the first century dating?

    And, the fragment is too small to matter much? I guess that depends upon one’s perspective. The Samaritan community thought it was a big deal when a fragment with Deut 27:4-6 demonstrated that Hasmonean scribes had substituted “Gerizim” with “Ebal,” bequeathing to us an awkward reading of Deuteronomy 27. I recognize this announcement demonstrates intentional editing while Wallace is proposing a small fragment will sustain his (opposite) view of conservative transmission; I am just pointing out that small fragments can sometimes have important consequences, that’s all. We shall see what happens!

  11. Avatar
    Jonas  April 22, 2012

    I just have to say that I learned as much from the comments as from the blog. This gives some perspective that I did not have when I first heard the news from Dan Wallace.

    I am happy I choose to be a member and I really hope this blog will continue this way.

    All the best


  12. Avatar
    comsciphi  April 23, 2012

    Good luck with the paid Blog concept. I hope it is successful. It would be great it was obvious to subscribers exactly how to submit a new question. I cannot find that option. Can you help?

    • Avatar
      RonaldTaska  June 3, 2012

      Comsciphi: I did it by just scrolling down and writing the question in the “Add a Comment” section. In other words, just ask your question under “Add a Comment” maybe trying to add it to a discussion topic that is somewhat related.

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    bryarusher  May 1, 2012

    I am a bit behind on this post, sorry. But is this a reference to the postage stamp” sized fragment of Mark found in cave seven of the dead sea scrolls? Wasn’t there some issue about a decade ago regarding an old papyrus fragment of Matthew dated mid first century by handwriting comparison to the dead sea scrolls, particularly a reported scroll fragment of Mark? Or is this altogether new and I am behind the time?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 1, 2012

      Yes, you’re behind the time! Dan Wallace was referring to a recently discovered (scrap?) fragment of a manuscript, which he claims dates to the first century.

  14. Avatar
    kidron  August 5, 2012

    I can speculate that this scrap if authenticated could make a significant difference if it bridged the last recognized verse of Mark with what has been determined by scholars to be the added resurrection verses.

  15. Avatar
    TheCaseGuy  October 20, 2012

    A new member here, and this is my first response. Part of me thinks that I should read everything in this blog, before making any comment, but that would seemingly take forever. My primary concern, about this particular subject, is wondering if this will indeed prove that the written gospel, now known as Mark, did actually exist before the turn of the century. Being that reference to, or quotes from, our gospels, by other early Christian writers, did not exist until mid-way through the second century; that fact throws a mysterious cloud over the accepted theory that the gospels were written in the 70s, 80s and 90s of the first century. Nonetheless, I do agree with Bart that this does little to advance any meaningful data towards accurately knowing the historical Jesus.

  16. Avatar
    Cephas_Phileleutherus  November 14, 2012

    What I’ve taken out of Dan Wallace’s “announcement” (which is what it was) is the terrible risk that the fundy press will go (has gone?) nuts over it.

    I’m only now catching up on my reading here, so this may already have been “done to death”… My apologies if so!

    What I see, as a passionate and reasonably erudite ‘outsider’, is that the wider the dissemination, the more marvellous the artefact becomes. And unfortunately, in the evangelical community there is enormous pressure to fit any new discovery, no matter how technically “meaningless”, into the preconceived framework.

    I’m not bashing fundies here – sadly the facts about how previous discoveries or finds were anticipated and then presented stand for themselves. Hell, I used to do the same thing : it was my ‘job’ as an evangelical writer and apologist for our local communion to select what news or information could be claimed for us, and reject any story or concept, however minor, that brought any shadow of doubt on the validity of our faith – not only with respect to the secular world, but also against other branches of christianity

    I’m reminded of the excellent cartoon comparing secular scientists with creationists, where the scientists are depicted saying “Here are the facts. What conclusion can we draw from them?” while the creationist method was “Here is our conclusion. What facts can we find to support it?”

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