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Why I’d Be Thrilled If A First-Century Manuscript Appeared

In several posts I have been emphasizing – possibly over-emphasizing – that if a first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark does ever get published, and if it is in *fact*from the first century (which, I should stress, will be almost *impossible* to demonstrate conclusively), that it is very hard indeed to imagine that it will be any kind of game-changer, that it will tell us something different from what we already think.   The reason I have been emphasizing this is because the evangelical Christian scholars who are making the headlines with their declarations about the discovery will almost certainly, once it is published, if it ever gets published, claim that it is evidence for their view that we can know what the original text says.  See!  We have a FIRST-CENTURY MANUSCRIPT!!!

So, consider these posts of mine as a kind of prophylaxis against future claims.   I don’t want to hear later that I’m just offering sour grapes when I say the same thing (that it is telling us nothing new) later, after the manuscript is published.   And if it DOES tell us something new – Wow!  Even better!

As a side note, one of the leading evangelical Christian textual scholars in the world, Peter William (he is an affiliated lecturer at Cambridge, in the UK, is Chair of the International Greek New Testament Project and is a member of the Translation Committee of the English Standard Version of the Bible), in a blog post yesterday http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/has-anyone-seen-first-century-mark.html , says that (a) he has learned that Craig Evans, the spokesperson / scholar who has been talking most about these mummy masks and the first-century copy of Mark has never actually *seen*, let alone examined, this so-called first-century copy of Mark; (b) he doubts whether Dan Wallace…

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Another (Final!) Insight into that Mummy Mask and Papyrus
Why Are Evangelical Scholars So Interested in Finding a First-Century Manuscript?



  1. Avatar
    achase79  January 29, 2015

    Just curious, which current reexaminations of the date of P52 are you referring to? I’d be interested to read them.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2015

      Brent Nongbri’s article in the Harvard Theological Review, 2005. Brent is on the blog.

  2. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  January 29, 2015


    I have noticed that you have devoted too much time about this first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark but when I went throgh your articles I found nothing about 1500 year-old ‘ Syriac ‘ Bible found in Ankara, Turkey . Are you aware of this discovery or is it just
    artefact relatively recent forgery, not a genuine ancient Bible manuscript. as christian apologists put it . I want to know your opinion because I trust you


    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2015

      It’s a forgery — so scholars are not dealing with it seriously.

  3. Avatar
    Tom  January 29, 2015

    Would this fragment be dated by C14 analysis?

    If so, wouldn’t it be contaminated with other components of the paper mache that went into the funerary mask?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2015

      Good question. I don’t know how contamination works in such cases. They apparently do claim to have submitted it to Carbon 14 dating, but I don’t know if they took other samples from the mask or not. Maybe they Carbon 14 dated the Palmolive!

  4. Avatar
    mimimw123  January 29, 2015

    Dear Bart

    I couldn’t help but notice your passing comment about P52:

    ‘So it would be a significant piece, and, arguably, the first to be dated this early ***(P52 is usually dated to 125 CE, plus or minus 25 years – although recent reexaminations suggest that this date may be too early, possibly by a 80-100 years!).*** And about that, every textual scholar on the planet, of whatever persuasion, would be thrilled.’

    This is major news indeed. Could you kindly tell me what lead researchers to this startling conclusion?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2015

      I’ll add it to my list to talk about!

      • Avatar
        nichael  January 30, 2015

        [[Sorry, I hit send too early]]
        I’m sure you’ll discuss this, but let ask my question any way:

        If I remember my history correctly, prior to the discovery of p52 John was commonly dated much later (possibly as late as about 160 CE). The discovery of p52 –and its subsequent dating– required that the dating of John be moved back (typically to around 90 CE).

        Were the dating of p52 assumed to be significantly later (as above) what effect would this have on the dating of John? (For example, is there now enough addition data to maintain the earlier dating of John?)

        • Bart
          Bart  February 1, 2015

          There were a few, vocal but very much in the small minority, of scholars who used to date John that late. P52 would squelch *that* particular theory. But most scholars have not put it that late. If P52 could be given a definite date, that would tell us when John had to be written *by*. The problem is that we can’t give it a definite date. Some scholars are leaning more toward something like 125-175. Others prefer still the early date.

          • Avatar
            Michele  December 3, 2018

            Dr. Ehrman,
            “If P52 could be given a definite date, that would tell us when John had to be written *by*”
            Why? I mean, obviously if anyone could prove that P52 was written at the beginning of the second century, this would confirm the dating that most scholars still hold today, 90-95 DC. But even if the dating of P52 was of the third century, this would not force anyone to postpone the dating of John. Simply more copies of copies could be passed between the original and P52. After all, are other the criteria that led to the dating of th Gospel of John towards the end of the first century. Or did I miss something?

            Thank you!

            Michele Fornelli

          • Bart
            Bart  December 4, 2018

            I think you’re getting my argument reversed. I’m not saying that if P52 were from the third century, then John could not have been written *earlier*. I’m saying if it was from the third century (or early second), John could not have been written *later*.

  5. Avatar
    Jana  January 29, 2015

    Yes and from what I’ve been reading from your blogs and your recently kindle downloaded books, that even if the treasured scrap of paper exists as touted, still awaits the interpretation … in which Christian school of thought it belongs (I’ve learned that there were many and all competing), whether it was a forgery HA!, whether the author truly had a good understanding of Greek or Aramaic etc. Aren’t you suspicious of anything this shrouded in secrecy?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2015

      Often I am, though in this case it makes sense if they did in fact have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, about which I’ll be saying a few things in a post soon, probably tomorrow.

  6. Avatar
    toejam  January 29, 2015

    “P52 is usually dated to 125 CE, plus or minus 25 years – although recent reexaminations suggest that this date may be too early, possibly by a 80-100 years!”

    Makes me wonder just how exact a science the dating of ancient manuscripts is. A post on this recent reexamination would be appreciated (add it to the list!)

  7. Avatar
    Jana  January 29, 2015

    I am completely ignorant of these processes but encountered this article today on Discovery Mag. Why wouldn’t this process work and preserve the Egyptian masks? (I understand this isn’t your field BUT!!)


  8. Avatar
    Jim  January 29, 2015

    A weird “theoretical if” question:

    A commenter on Denny Burk’s blog included a link to a pdf of a Josh McDowell sponsored “Discover the Evidence” event in December 2013:

    In this file there are a few pictures of early papyrus fragments and on pdf page number ten, there are pictures of six NT and one OT fragment (written in Coptic?). The fragment from Mark is apparently Mark 15:9.

    Agreeably it’s unfair (and definitely premature) at this time to suggest a link between this picture and the currently talked about FCM fragment, but “if” (and a very big “if”) this is the fragment being referred to, are there any interesting variants of this Markan verse? (Again, NOT trying to imply that this pdf pic is definitely the current FCM fragment … just trying to initiate a little bit of heresy 🙂 ).

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2015

      There is one important variant in the vierse. The final line “And they knelled down and worshiped him” is missing in some important manuscripts — though it is in only one manuscript in Greek, and is one that is often thought of as less reliable. It is found in our two oldest manuscripts of the verse, and in all other Greek manuscripts. So if a papyrus were found that had the line, that would confirm what we already think. If it lacked the line, that would be very interesting too, although there are technical reasons for thinking that the line was both present and absent from second century manuscripts. So again, it would confirm what we know.

  9. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  January 30, 2015


    If a first century manuscript were found, what characteristics about the manuscript and find would need to be present to verify its authenticity beyond a reasonable doubt?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2015

      Do you mean its authenticity as a first-century manuscript? It would need to be dated on the basis of hand writing, to establish that the scribe was almost certainly from the first century. If one went further, one could try a carbon-14 dating of the papyrus — but that would tell us when the papyrus was manufactured, not when something was written on it. So it’s always a judgment call. But not too many people these days have access to first-century papyrus and the means to imitate a first century hand writing….

      • Avatar
        Jon  February 1, 2015

        In the original LiveScience article, Evans stated, “We’re going to end up with many hundreds of papyri when the work is done, if not thousands.” (regarding the deconstruction of mummy cartonnage). Now that the technique and (alleged) prevalence of this source of first-century papyrus (and possibly even writing samples) has been widely publicized, should scholars be more concerned about the possibility of forgeries turning up? How difficult (or easy) is it for people to get their hands on these mummy masks?

  10. Avatar
    reillyjj  January 30, 2015

    Hi Bart. Great post. I have one quick question. Who actually dictates who is granted access to this alleged manuscript? I went to a small Christian fundamentalist school from grades K-8 and have literally spent the last decade just pulling myself out of the ideological chains that bound me. I am new and ignorant to this scholarly world of Christianity, but eager to learn and would be honored to get a response from you. Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2015

      I’m afraid the owner of the manuscript (or the mask that holds it) can make the decision — since s/he is the owner. One big question, though, will be whether it is owned legally, or if it has been illegally removed from Egypt.

  11. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  January 30, 2015

    This whole story seems very fishy. Why would the owners hide it and create so much secrecy around it? Is such behavior normal for serious scientific research?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2015

      Because they want to make a huge SPLASH when the thing gets published, after so much expectation and discussion!

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  January 30, 2015

        So it’s more about marketing than scientific research?

        And given what is known so far I’m betting on a huge disappointment for those with high expectations 😀

    • Avatar
      Kevin  January 30, 2015

      I speculate that they may have just wanted to keep the price of the ancient Egyptian masks and cartonage down until they could secure as much as they could.

  12. Avatar
    Rosekeister  February 1, 2015

    Conservative Christians have the idea that if you can find 1st century manuscripts you can prove that the NT is very close to the original documents and that this in turn will somehow make the stories more likely to be true. In reality, if you found a pristine copy of Mark including a sketch of Paul with his arm on Mark’s shoulder saying, “You big lug you, remember back in the day?” signed by Mark himself, the manuscript would still be very late (70-80), from a different country and culture and in a different language.

    NT gospels are past when Galilean villagers first began to hear of the itinerant healer’s death,
    past when those villagers telling stories of what he said and did,
    past the point where other itinerants began speaking of Jesus,
    past when James and Peter went to Jerusalem to begin speaking of Jesus as Messiah,
    past the point where small groups began to form,
    past the point where urban groupings began to form,
    past the point where literate followers began making lists of sayings and miracles,
    and so on and on.

    Professor Ehrman, is part of your planned book on the oral tradition going to address just what was involved in in the long winding process that eventually reached the stage of narrative gospels?

  13. Avatar
    walid  February 4, 2015

    Professor Ehrman makes what is apparently a hard task, such an easy thing.
    love the eloquence.

  14. Avatar
    cchen326  February 6, 2015

    is this the article you are referring to on the dating of p52 ?


    I want to confirm before reading through all of it as its very detailed.

  15. Avatar
    bensonian  September 8, 2017

    Follow up question 2.5 years later, did this thing ever show up? This is regarding “Why I’d Be Thrilled If A First-Century Manuscript Appeared” blog on January 29th, 2015.

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