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Why Are Evangelical Scholars So Interested in Finding a First-Century Manuscript?

I have thought of a couple of scenarios that would make the discovery of a first -entury papyrus copy – even a small fragment of Mark – VERY interesting, for all of us, not just for evangelical Christian scholars intent on destroying antiquities in order to get their hands on it.   (Well, I’ve thought of these scenarios as others have suggested them….)   I’ll give the scenarios at the end of this post.  But first, assuming, as it is *relatively*, but not absolutely probable that we should, that the fragment in question is simply of a few verses in the middle of Mark’s Gospel that do not vary significantly from what we already have, I’m still obsessing with the question of why evangelical scholars would be so bound and determined to get their hands on it.   I’ll deal with that question first.

It may not be obvious why it is a puzzle.  Here is why.

As a rule (a rule to which I do not know a single exception), evangelical scholars of the New Testament who are either slightly or deeply knowledgeable about the manuscript tradition of the NT (the thousands of manuscripts that survive and the hundreds of thousands of variants that they contain), are absolutely convinced – or at least they claim they are – that…

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Why I’d Be Thrilled If A First-Century Manuscript Appeared
How Accurate Are our Earliest NT Manuscripts?



  1. Avatar
    doug  January 27, 2015

    I can’t help but wonder what an evangelical scholar would do if he/she found a late 1st century gospel fragment that said something that was clearly against their beliefs.

    As for their criticism of you – if you get to hell before I do, please save me a good seat!

    • Avatar
      toejam  January 28, 2015

      I suspect they would claim that it a rogue manuscript because it is so different from the rest of the attestation.

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  January 27, 2015

    From a post today on Facebook’s New Testament Textual Criticism group Craig Evans shows the fragment is Secret Mark! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmG6pz6Imr0 (seriously though, seems like he’d be more concerned about the worries over deconstruction / conservation instead of making spoof videos). Larry Hurtado has responded also, but I haven’t read his blog yet.

  3. Avatar
    nmatzke  January 27, 2015

    Surely this is much closer to the primary reason conservative evangelicals are oh-so-interested in an alleged early fragment of Mark:

    Nick Laarakkers on January 27, 2015 at 6:21 pm said:

    Being a Christian myself, I don’t approve destroying mummy masks. It’s not up to McDowell or any other zealot to decide whether a mummy mask can be destroyed or not. The real thing is that McDowell wants to prove that the Gospel of Mark was written prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 AD), so that there is evidence that Christ predicted the destruction. So if this fragment from the Gospel (or proto-Gospel) of Mark could be dated prior to the destruction the evangelical and fundamentalist lobby finally have their precious “evidence”. But I don’t see any reason to become a fundy because of their evidence. There are plenty scholars that date the Gospel of Mark in the 60s and are not fundamentalist.

    That, and they have a general overall desire for the Gospels to be dated as early as possible, so as to increase the plausibility that they are close to eyewitness sources and decrease the plausibility that the miraculous stories, the resurrection appearances, etc., are legends that grew in the telling and retelling.

    So it’s basically pretty simple.

    • Avatar
      BrianUlrich  January 28, 2015

      It has never been clear to me why someone could not predict the destruction of the Temple shortly before it happened. If Judea was fairly quiescent in Jesus’s day, it might be a stretch for him,. but surely someone in the 60’s could foresee the course of events and predict it in Mark.

      • Bart
        Bart  January 29, 2015

        Yes, I’ve always thought the predictions of the destruction of the temple go back to Jesus himself.

        • Avatar
          gavm  February 4, 2015

          what do you think jesus was thinking when he predicted it? was he thinking destruction from God/ romans/ some pagan attack?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 4, 2015

            Predicted the coming destruction? I think he believed God would be behind it, possibly through the son of man.

  4. Avatar
    Stephen  January 27, 2015

    Or 16.8 followed by a completely different ending than the ones we have.

    But if we’re making a wish list… The next time a sheepherder climbing a ridge after a lost lamb stumbles into a cave and finds some mysterious jars stuffed full of manuscripts. let them include..

    A primitive Q

    A primitive collection of authentic Pauline epistles including the 7 we already have plus say 5 more including the one where Paul describes in detail his meeting with James and Peter.

    An eyewitness account of the Jerusalem Council written by someone on James’ side of the argument.

    A primitive “gospel” account of the life and ministry of John the Baptist with a reference to Jesus and some of his disciples written from the point of view of a disciple of John.

    “Primitive” in all cases meaning mid-first century.

    Hey they’re buried out there somewhere!

    • Avatar
      gavm  February 4, 2015

      an autobiography of JC would be a nice find to

  5. Avatar
    Ini  January 27, 2015

    Thank you Bart for this piece, my first question is about the language, wouldn’t any thing that is found and written in any other language than that spoken by Jesus and people around him automatically fail the criteria of a very first? The second question is on a slightly different aspect, an article I read recently highlighted that Jesus was either hiding or disguised and this is why it required effort by Judas to identify him. Do you know if any view points suggest that Jesus may have been hiding, ? For if he was such a miracle worker why would he need to hide? Thanks in advance

    • Bart
      Bart  January 28, 2015

      Mark was certainly written in Greek, so a first-century manuscript would almost have to be in Greek. On Jesus in disguise: that’s just something someone made up. The Gospels themselves are explicit that he was daily making public appearances in the temple.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  January 30, 2015

        In Josephus’ autobiography, there is a Justus of Tiberias (Tiberias, Galilee), a contemporary of Jesus son of Sapphias/Shaphat. Justus of Tiberias learned Greek so he could write history. This may set the expectation that no firsthand accounts of the biblical Jesus would have been written in Aramaic or would have been written in Hebrew. Greek, even in Galilee, was the preferred language for history.

  6. Avatar
    Adam0685  January 27, 2015

    They are probably pumped up because it’s the oldest NT manuscript.

    In 2012 Dan Wallace said shortly after he mentioned the discovery in your debate with him (the I added the CAPS as emphasis. The last sentence is most telling why he is pumped up about the discovery, which I think you will find interesting given your current research on oral traditions and eyewitness testimony)

    “I mentioned that seven New Testament papyri had recently been discovered—six of them probably from the second century and one of them probably from the first […] It was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century. If this is true, it would be the OLDEST fragment of the New Testament known to exist. Up until now, no one has discovered any FIRST-CENTURY manuscripts of the New Testament […] Before the discovery of this fragment, the OLDEST manuscript that had Mark in it was P45, from the early third century (c. AD 200–250). This new fragment would predate that by 100 to 150 years.

    HOW DO THESE MANUSCRIPTS CHANGE WHAT WE BELIEVE THE ORIGINAL NEW TESTAMENT TO SAY? We will have to wait until they are published next year, but for now we can most likely say this: As with all the previously published New Testament papyri (127 of them, published in the last 116 years), NOT A SINGLE NEW READING HAS COMMENDED ITSELF AS AUTHENTIC. Instead, the papyri function to CONFIRM what New Testament scholars have ALREADY thought was the original wording or, in some cases, to confirm an alternate reading—but one that is already found in the manuscripts. As an illustration: Suppose a papyrus had the word “the Lord” in one verse while all other manuscripts had the word “Jesus.” New Testament scholars would not adopt, and have not adopted, such a reading as authentic, precisely because we have such abundant evidence for the original wording in other manuscripts. But if an early papyrus had in another place “Simon” instead of “Peter,” and “Simon” was also found in other early and reliable manuscripts, it might persuade scholars that “Simon” is the authentic reading. In other words, the papyri have confirmed various readings as authentic in the past 116 years, but have NOT introduced new authentic readings. The ORIGINAL New Testament text is found somewhere in the manuscripts that have been known for quite some time.

    THESE NEW PAPYRI WILL NO DOUBT CONTINUE THAT TREND. But, if this Mark fragment is confirmed as from the first century, what a thrill it will be to have A MANUSCRIPT THAT IS DATED WITHIN THE LIFETIME OF MANY OF THE EYEWITNESSES TO JESUS’ RESURRECTION!”


    • Avatar
      Adam0685  January 27, 2015

      Also, in an interview he said:

      “On February 1, 2012, I made the announcement in a debate with Dr. Bart Ehrman at UNC Chapel Hill, that as many as six more second-century papyri had recently been discovered. ALL OF THEM ARE FRAGMENTARY, HAVING ONLY ONE LEAF OR PART OF A LEAF. One of them rivals the date of P52, a fragment from Luke’s Gospel. But the most significant find was a fragment from Mark’s Gospel….

      What makes this so astounding is that no manuscripts of Mark even from the second century has surfaced. But here we may have a document written while some of the first-generation Christians were still alive and before the NT was even completed.”


  7. Avatar
    nichael  January 28, 2015

    Just wondering:

    I realize that the fragment hasn’t been published yet, so we don’t know much about the details. But given all that, how certain can we be at this time that this actually _is_ a fragment of Mark?

    I guess what I’m asking is this: What does the “rumor mill” say about this? Is there any chance that this is going to turn out to be anything like 7Q5 (i.e. the Qumran fragment which a couple of folks claimed was a very early fragment of Mark based on its handful of Greek letter, a claim universally rejected today)?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 28, 2015

      My hunch is that it must have a passage (or the wording of a passage) found only in Mark.

  8. Avatar
    Lee Palo  January 28, 2015

    I grew up in a nominally Wesleyan Evangelical church/denomination that probably leaned closer toward fundamentalism than away from it. I remember the mindset where you felt skepticism (and Satan) had your back to the wall, so you had to defend the Bible. I’m really glad I got past that. I’m still a Christian, but now in a Mainline Wesleyan church/denomination. I still combat a tacit understanding of many of my fellow Christians that the Bible is sort of like the fourth member of the Trinity. Sure doctrine is derived from the Bible, and it has a place of importance in the life of the church, but it isn’t God. I don’t need to have faith in the accuracy of the NT to the “autographs.” Having gone to Seminary I developed a great deal of interest in the *interpretation* of the Bible. There are a LOT of ways one can construct theology with the text we have (I’d love to see what would happen if you forced a Fundamentalist to read Wes Howard-Brook’s book “Come Out My People”). Even if we had the “autographs,” what difference would that make regarding doctrine? There would still be thousands of different independent churches and denominations! The pursuit of textual certainty by Fundamentalist Evangelicals is like a pursuit for the Holy Grail (a la Monty Python). …It isn’t going to happen.

    I like to remember the wisdom of the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Huineng: “Wisdom has never been a tree, the bright mirror [of the mind] has no stand, there has never been anything, so where can dust land [eg. it won’t accumulate on the “mirror” of the mind]?”

    To me “faith” is the choice to live and act in accord with one’s understanding of the messiness of reality, not deny that the messiness exists [yes, I like William James].

  9. Avatar
    Scott  January 28, 2015

    Does it even make sense to claim both that we have the original text AND that none of the differences affect any major Christan doctrine? It can’t both be accurate to the original and have differences. They never seem to acknowledge that a difference is even a difference at the same instant they are claiming that those differences (which they just said don’t exist) are of no consequence

    • Bart
      Bart  January 28, 2015

      The differences are in manuscripts that do *not* have the original reading. The original reading is the one we have determined is the oldest based on our best manuscripts.

  10. Avatar
    simonelli  January 28, 2015

    Bart, you know the difference between belief and knowledge: belief is based on faith, knowledge is based on experience. Furthermore, faith needs constant reinforcement, while experiences are real and they only need to be remembered; you rightly wrote, “If we already KNOW that we have the original text of the New Testament, that new discoveries are not going to change what we already know about this original, that our evidence is already fully sufficient to establish this original – if all that is true, WHY DOES IT MATTER IF NEW MANUSCRIPTS ARE DISCOVERED???”
    I can give you the answer to you question, you will be shocked how simple it is. Throughout the ages those who believe in God have been divided into two groups, the first group is formed by those who believe what they are told, they are religious people, but they have yet to meet or know God, among them we find the apostle Paul before his conversion. The second group was selected by God from the first group, there is why we also find Paul in the second group. Bart, God searches for the buds of Christ’s character in the heart of people in order to make his holy and eternal selection. It boils downs to this, we can all be religious, but the children of God are few. In conclusion those who searches history in the hope to find God are westing their time, for God is closer to us than we can aver imagine.

  11. Avatar
    Steefen  January 28, 2015

    Doesn’t Paul put a floor on the earliest gospel: if there were a Gospel of Mark before the traditional year of Paul death,” Paul would have referred to Mark more in his letters, or last letter.

    Or should we go with the alternative that Paul was so distant from the Jerusalem Church, he would not have obtained a copy of Mark.

    What is the tradition? Mark is written where? Wherever it was was written, we would need Paul to be in that city to read it?

    Would Mark have immediately sent a copy to The Libraries of the Forum in Rome or The Libraries of Alexandria in Egypt as is done with authors/publishers depositing copies at the Library of Congress, U.S.?

    Since Paul was a big letter writer, would his Letter to the Roman have been sent to the Libraries of the Forum in Rome or an ancient Library in Ephesus or the Library of Alexandria as a posterity copy?

    Were copies numbered, say the way artwork today is numbered (like if you buy a famous fine art photography print that was only printed 20 times)?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 28, 2015

      The tradition is that Mark was written in Rome (a city Paul had not visited before the writing of his letters). Wherever Mark wrote it (and whoever he actually was), putting it in circulation simply meant having a copy made and taken somewhere. there was no equivalent of the Library of Congress in antiquity. Copies were not numbered.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  January 28, 2015

        Why is Mark dated to AD 70? With Matthew and Luke dating to 80-85, why would there be a 10 year period before other writers (Matthew and Luke)? What would be your and scholars major objection to dating Mark 75-79, giving at least one year for Matthew and Luke to study Mark and use the parts they wanted to retain from Mark?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 29, 2015

          It’s complicated. Maybe I’ll devote some posts to this.

          • Avatar
            Steefen  January 29, 2015

            I hope so, Dr. Ehrman.
            Thank you.

  12. Avatar
    steffi  January 28, 2015


    Not sure if you have seen this yet:


    It seems that you, like the conservatives, have an “agenda”. 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  January 28, 2015


      • Avatar
        steffi  January 28, 2015

        Ignoring that silly “agenda” thing….It’s not the first time he has made snide comments about your remuneration. I think it’s completely unbecoming for him to bring that up.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 29, 2015

          I completely agree.

        • Avatar
          Kevin  February 3, 2015

          I saw that Larry Hurtado apologized about the fee thing but I don’t remember even regitering this comment when I read his post. The post was about competing agendas and non-objectivity and he’s right. They can be well meaning agendas though!

          • Bart
            Bart  February 3, 2015

            Yes, the mistake, of course, would be to think that in pointing out that others have agendas (which of course everyone has — so there’s really not much point in pointing it out) he himself does *not* have one!

      • Avatar
        rbrtbaumgardner  January 29, 2015

        Of course, *Dr. Hurtado* doesn’t have an agenda because he didn’t feel any motivation to write his piece and give his opinion. It just appeared without volition, right? *Everyone* has an “agenda”–motives for their thoughts, acts, and feelings. The issue is how aware and transparent we are about our motives and if we are willing to consider other points of view. .

    • Avatar
      Adam0685  January 28, 2015

      “And, if colleagues such as Ehrman have no personal stake in the matter, why the repeated readiness to engage in those public debates? Simply the handsome fee involved? Maybe.” – Hurtado

      WOW – those who disagree with him are motivated by money???

      • Avatar
        Adam0685  January 31, 2015

        I see that he has apologized for this statement on his blog. However, I would disagree with his statement that “I don’t go out of my way to denigrate Bart (or, to my recollection, even to bring him into the discussion gratuitously,” based on some of his other previous statements:

        “Bart knows well just what gets up their nose, and now works it for all its worth (and it’s worth a LOT in royalties, speaking fees, and media attention). Bart is much more canny than Thiering ever was!”

        “Ehrman, who has now achieved what I’m told was his aim of becoming a celebrity-scholar, has done so essentially by writing popular-level books that comfort and reassure sceptics, and annoy or even infuriate a lot of those Christians with little exposure to scholarship and a “pre-critical” understanding of Christianity and the Bible […] Bart’s done some recognized and respected scholarly work too, but, clearly, it’s saying naughty things that antagonize fundamentalists, such as he says he was once, that gets you a literary agent and media attention.”


    • Avatar
      Kevin  January 29, 2015

      Larry Hurtado nailed it here I think. But I wish he commented on the antiquities destruction more.

  13. Avatar
    Mark  January 28, 2015

    Wouldn’t a first-century copy of a gospel put the squeeze on mythisicists who use the late date of our first copies as evidence of Jesus’ later fabrication? That would be interesting.
    Question about the picture of the texts in the video: it looked like the text (like all the other NT mss I’ve seen) had no spaces or punctuation. Would you expect that the autograph was written that way, or is that some scribal practice. Would a first-century shopping list read: milkjuicebreadeggs? Yikes.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 28, 2015

      Yeah, any mythicist who uses that argument is *really* grasping for straws…. And ancient writings all did use scriptio continua.

  14. Avatar
    Jason  January 28, 2015

    In some (most?) of your books, you point out that the period between the crucifixion and the writing of Mark would be comparable to a scenario in which the first histories of JFK or MLK Jr. were just now being recorded, and that such a period implies a level of unreliability. Wouldn’t you assume that at least some of the conservative evangelical fervor for a 1st century manuscript would be that it lessens the effects of the temporal span between the writing of the gospels and the events they describe?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 28, 2015

      Yes, that’s why an extensive copy of a NT book would be great ot have. But when I’ve talked about the span of time being 40-60 years, I was referring not to the timespan between the writing of the Gospels and our first copy but between the life of Jesus and the writing of our first Gospels

  15. Aleph82
    Aleph82  January 28, 2015

    “Every one of these evangelical scholars appears to be completely confident that you too can be completely confident that with complete confidence we can be confident that we have the original New Testament. ”

    Haha, do I detect the influence of Pauline style in this sentence?

    “And if you don’t want to take simply his word for it, read any of the many responses to my book Misquoting Jesus by conservative evangelicals. There were three entire books written against it, showing that I didn’t know what I was talking about, or at least that I was seriously misleading in what I had to say; that is not to mention scores of comments in books and articles about the book. Every one of these evangelical scholars appears to be completely confident that you too can be completely confident that with complete confidence we can be confident that we have the original New Testament. We have so many manuscripts!! They are so early!! And so on.”

    Given that “Misquoting Jesus” stirred up such a hornet’s nest within the evangelical community (of which I estimate, after surveying everything from the book responses to the old Yahoo TC group, the sheer scale of this swarm would have given Moses cause to blush), do you feel indirectly responsible for the destruction of these mummy masks?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 28, 2015

      Ha, good question. No, I resolve myself of all responsibility for the destruction of antiquities!

  16. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 28, 2015

    If a copy of Q turns up they’ll be heros in my book!

    • Avatar
      Hank_Z  January 29, 2015

      Bart, if a fragment of Q did turn up, how could it possibly be identified as a fragment of Q?

      • Bart
        Bart  January 29, 2015

        Well, if it were a long list of sayings, also found in Matthew and Luke, without any narrative context and without any Matthean or Lukan distinctive material in it, that would be pretty good evidence.

    • Avatar
      Kevin  January 29, 2015

      Don’t hold you breath for Q. It’s a non-existent document – a purely modern synthesis. Read here for the skeptically minded:

  17. Avatar
    fishician  January 29, 2015

    I really don’t understand why people get so excited about scraps of NT passages. Obviously the gospels are taken from various sources that existed some time in the 1st century. If you find a scrap of a passage you don’t know if it’s part of a gospel or just a story that was in circulation that later was incorporated into a gospel. The only thing that would make a difference would be a 1st century copy of a large portion of a gospel, which we don’t have yet, and even then I’m not sure what that would prove.

  18. Avatar
    SWerdal  January 29, 2015

    And if “Q” turns out to be written by the Star Trek Next Generation mischief-maker of the same letter and he says, “Just kidding!”

  19. Rick
    Rick  January 30, 2015

    In reading the link Steffi provided to Dr. Hurtado’s blog I noted he made a big deal over the fragment being a random sample. Haphazard, accidental, or surviving are better words but random it is not unless every possible “sample element” had an equal chance of being selected… ie the one found. That obviously is not the case. In fact, would there not be some bias with respect to it being found in a mask and thus in Egypt?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2015

      Could you say some more about that? I never studied statistics!

      • Rick
        Rick  January 31, 2015

        Please bear with me here…
        Sampling allows us to make inferences about a group (a universe) by looking at less than the whole group (a sample) – for whatever reason. Looking at the whole may be impractical, unaffordable or whatever. If the sample is randomly drawn there are important things we already know about samples by grace of the central limit theorem. If the sample is random, and is large enough, all of the possible different sample results will make a normal (bell curve) distribution so from just the sample we can figure out the probability our sample result is close to the actual universe result for any given statistic. That closeness is the confidence interval (i.e. on the average the documents have errors at a rate of 12% +or- 3%) at a probability or “confidence level” of whatever (90%).
        There are two keys here to make it work. First is the random sample. That is, a sample where each and every possible combination of sample items has an equal probability of being drawn. For a sample of 1, that would mean each element of the universe being considered has an equal chance of being selected.. except, that isn’t done because a sample of 1 is too small.
        There is one reason that doesn’t fit in with those for doing sampling, and that would be because we do not have access to the whole universe of the things we are looking at. By definition, if we don’t have them, we cannot give them an equal probability of being selected. So, it doesn’t work with “finds” unless we have a really good reason to believe the lost group will behave exactly like the known group. That would be the case with carbon 14 dating I believe.
        Hope this is helpful… It’s been a while since I’ve tried to explain sampling.

  20. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  January 31, 2015

    I agree, the primary motivation is to find an EARLY sample of Mark (or any other gospel). The arguments for gospels as historical accounts are all plausibility arguments. If a gospel diarist was wrong about some details, surely there was someone in that greater Roman empire (wherever each particular author happened to be writing) who actually was with Jesus on earth and was still alive to dispute those details. And surely those disputes would be heeded and incorporated.

    Of course, if Jesus were pure myth, no one could possibly stand up to dispute it, therefore it must be true.

    If you can prove Mark was written before 70 CE, then a claim that the Olivet discourse was a specific prediction of that event (rather than typical apocalyptic preaching) is at least plausible.

    All this is why you’ll never see a Fundamentalist arguing for a later date.

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