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Why Would It Matter If There Were a First-Century Copy of Mark?

After making my post yesterday about the bogus apologetic claims being made about the existence of a copy of Mark from the first century, I remembered I had posted on the matter some years ago on the blog.  I looked it up, and found a set of reflections on a closely related topic: what difference *would* a first century copy of Mark make, if it doesn’t make the difference these breathless apologists are making?   Here is what I said at the time, at the beginning of 2015 (I’ve edited the post slightly here for its new context).

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I personally think that there are no shenanigans going on when Dan Wallace and Craig Evans tell us that a fragment of the Gospel of Mark has been found and that it can, with reasonable certainty, be dated to the late first century.   I’m not saying that I know they are right.  Far from it.   In fact, one of the most disconcerting things about this claim is that they are not making the papyrus available so real experts can study it and let us know what it really is and to what period it can be dated.   But let’s suppose that once it is published – now the date is no longer 2012, as originally stated, or 2015 as stated last week, but 2017 or later, for reasons no one will explain – it turns out to be a very early fragment of the Gospel of Mark.  The question no one seems to be asking is:  What difference will it make?

There seems to be a widely held sense that it will be one of the greatest finds of modern times and will somehow revolutionize our understanding of the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.    Will it?

My sense from everything that has been said is that …

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A Different First-Century Mark? An Interesting Piece of Sleuth Work
Bogus Christian Apologetics and a First-Century Fragment of Mark

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  May 9, 2018

    Bart, a question that might shed some light on this odd behavior:

    Who do Evans and Wallace believe ‘Mark’ to have been?

    There are several Marks referred to in early Christian writings, one of whom was a disciple of Jesus, another traveled with Peter, they are often confused with each other. But it was certainly one of them the Mark gospel was traditionally ascribed to, even though almost certainly none of them wrote it.

    Only what if you could prove that wasn’t true? That the first gospel was written by someone who knew Jesus, or at least Peter–who might have been witness to some of the events described in that gospel, or at least was close to those events in time and place, and had extensive conversations with those who went through them?

    This would be the evangelical Holy Grail, would it not? (Just like Carrier’s would be a first century document saying “I made Jesus up as a prank, April Fool!”)

    Now there is no way any fragment could prove that, and I fail to see how even a complete gospel could. Carbon dating, as you say, has a fifty year window–but that works to their advantage, doesn’t it, if they want to BACKdate the fragment? Say it was written sooner than scholars believe?

    And symbolically, for them to possess the earliest known fragment of the earliest known gospel, gives them a measure of authority in their circles.

    As long as people believe they have it. And while I share your desire not to impugn their honesty, let’s be really honest–if they were sure what they had, they wouldn’t be keeping it under wraps. They’re looking for absolute undeniable proof that their religious beliefs are factually true. They don’t want to know the Word of God–they want to possess it.

    Which means they have failed both as scholars and as men of faith. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe.”

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      They think he was John Mark, the companion of Peter.

      • Avatar
        godspell  May 11, 2018

        “And who do YOU say that I am, Bart Ehrman?” 😉

        It’s just kind of funny that the Mark gospel is written as a mystery relating to Jesus’ true identity–the solution to which is that Jesus is the promised messiah–and we can’t even agree on the identity of its author.

        I would hope that John Mark would have been a lot more informative than Gospel Mark. Because as a tell-all, that gospel sucks. As a work of religious literature–or literature, period–it’s pretty damn great.

        You are diplomatically terse in your response–but I think you’ve confirmed at least part of my guess. They want to prove John Mark was ‘Mark’. They want to backdate it. No fundamentalist would want to believe the first gospel was written at least thirty years after Jesus died, by somebody who never met him, or any of the real disciples. Nor would they be happy with the fact that we don’t have a single 1st Century copy. So the motivation to come up with one would be awfully strong.

        I don’t claim the fragment is a forgery–or assume it’s precisely what they say it is, since after all, that’s for them to prove–but it is a fact that religious and literary forgery has not been restricted to the ancient world. If anything, it grew more common in the modern world.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 9, 2018

    I can’t help having this nasty little thought. It would be a hoot if someone were to discover a manuscript, in Aramaic, from as near the time of Jesus’s death as can be determined, that said something like this: “Jesus of Nazareth was crucified a year ago. Some of his disciples have been saying he’s appeared to them in their dreams – where he supposedly tells them that he’s, somehow, ‘still alive.’ Others have passed on just the claim of his being alive. I want to make it clear that there’s no basis for it beyond dreams!”

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 11, 2018

      I’d find that about exactly as credible as a document from near the time of Jesus’ death (and we’d know this how, since carbon dating has a fifty year window?) saying “I saw those mad Jesus followers at the tavern, still weeping in their wine over the crucified felon, who I was unfortunate enough to meet before his death–and suddenly he was there, talking with them! There were these holes in his hands and feet! What demonic sorcery is this! He lives! Was the crucifixion faked? Is Pilate in on it? Am I worshipping false gods?”

      Believe it or not, people didn’t always feel the need to write down everything that happened to them, let alone every waking thought. Even if every single written document from that era had survived, we’d still have very little information about Jesus. (And even less about some far more prominent figures of the day.)

      I mean, would this be a diary? The earliest diary we have, I believe, was written by Marcus Aurelius, and it wasn’t about who he met on a given day, or what he had for breakfast, or his opinions on current events–it was about his soul, and Stoic philosophy. Ordinary people writing diaries about what’s going on around them doesn’t seem to go back much further than Pepys. Correspondence didn’t tend to be that detailed, unless it was military dispatches.

      In many ways, people have not changed much in the last few millennia–but culture is always changing, and it was not a big part of the culture then to document things.

  3. Avatar
    ddorner  May 9, 2018

    I don’t see the apologetic significance. If someone told me he witnessed someone rise from the dead a decade ago is his account automatically more reliable than someone who says it happened 40 or 50 years ago? If you already have faith in miracles then why do you really need extra evidence?

    Suppose they found a first century gospel that was the life of Jesus but with no miracles and no resurrection. Would that convince them those events didn’t occur? No, they’d simply say the writer left those parts out.

    If I recall Licona made this very point in one of your debates. Saying something like he’d need a signed document by all the disciples found in a 1st century sarcophagus, along with the bones of Jesus, that admitted the whole thing was a lie, in order to stop believing.

  4. bnongbri
    bnongbri  May 9, 2018

    Hi Bart,
    I share your annoyance with this phenomenon. For those of us interested in having a fact-based discussion, it just creates noise. Incidentally, I thought I might have zeroed in on “first century Mark” a few months ago, but it turns out there was actually ANOTHER papyrus attributed to Mark, said to be from mummy cartonnage, and said to be securely dated to the first century. It was actually published in an obscure journal in the 1980s. I laid out the story in a few posts beginning here:
    https://brentnongbri.com/2017/07/21/a-first-century-papyrus-of-mark-probably-not-the-one-you-think/

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      Posted today!

    • NulliusInVerba
      NulliusInVerba  May 10, 2018

      Thank you for your scholarship and for permitting Professor Ehrman to share it with us.

  5. Avatar
    ddorner  May 9, 2018

    Is there significance in the use of specific writings in the creation of these masks? Are they generally made with writings of spiritual meaning or did they just use whatever paper they could find? And does it tell us anything about how significant these writings were to this particular mask maker. (Assuming of course it is what they say it is.)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      It appears they are simply made out of otherwise useless scrap paper (papyrus).

  6. Avatar
    mannix  May 9, 2018

    A lot of this “…history will need to be rewritten…” is just sensational rhetoric designed to grab attention. The next level might very well be an internet headline like “…what the atheists and apostate scholars don’t want you to know!” The actual content will be far from satisfying the come-on.

  7. Avatar
    Leovigild  May 9, 2018

    Yeah — if we had an incontrovertibly early copy of Mark, but say with an infancy narrative, or that lacked a Passion narrative — that would be really something. Maybe the evangelicals would be pleased if it had a line that said something like “I am God and I insist this is all correct I swear this is not the copyist talking please don’t delete this sentence whatever you do” somewhere in the middle. I don’t know.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      Good point.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 11, 2018

      Listen, we all get the vapors seeing an original copy of our Constitution, or Magna Carta (What’s an ‘original copy’ anyway, and how can there be more than one?)

      It would be thrilling to have any very early copy of Mark. But as Mark said, unless it diverged a lot from the copies we have, all it would prove is what we already know.

      • Avatar
        Gabe  May 12, 2018

        Mark said that?

        • Avatar
          godspell  May 16, 2018

          Arg. Bart. It’s usually in the morning when I post here.

  8. Avatar
    Hon Wai  May 9, 2018

    “every scholar on the face of the earth thinks that Mark’s Gospel was copied soon after it was first put in circulation.” What is the rationale for this scholarly consensus? Is it something distinctive about GMark, or the consensus applies to most books of the NT?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      Well, we have copies, and they came from *somewhere* — necessarily from earlier copies that came from earlier copies that came from earlier copies. Matthew and Luke both had copies, in different parts of the empire, so the book was necessarily in circulation.

  9. Avatar
    forthfading  May 9, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Hypothetically, if in the end, it came out that we had a fragment dated around 80, would that possibly push the dating of Mark back? Based on what experts may think regarding the origins of the fragment, could the writing date of Mark’s gospel be pushed into the 60s?

    This is the only hypothetical scenario I can think of that could be a game changer in the field of New Testament studies. And that would only be a game changer in the sense of what we say the possible date of Mark is.

    Best

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      No, I don’t think so. If Mark was composed around 70 CE, then there would have been multiple copies ten years later. If we found one of them, that would be great — but it wouldn’t mean Mark had been composed *more* than ten years earlier.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 24, 2018

        You always say “around 70 CE.” From all the evidence you have, isn’t it most likely that it was written after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE?

  10. Avatar
    Silver  May 9, 2018

    If the fragment really were early and it had Mark 16:8 followed by Mark 16.9 would that be of some importance?

  11. Avatar
    fishician  May 9, 2018

    Are all the early fragments in Greek? Are there any in Aramaic or Hebrew, or some other language the earliest Jewish Christians would have used? (Although Paul was Jewish, and wrote in Greek.) Seems to me a remarkable find would be something written by early Jewish Christians that reliably appeared to be the forerunner of one of the Gospels. That might suggest a source closer to Jesus, wouldn’t it? As your post points out, finding earlier Greek fragments doesn’t tell us anything new.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      No, we don’t have any Aramaic or Hebrew copies of any of the books of the NT until the middle ages (where we have a Hebrew version of Matthew that is a translation from the Greek)

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 11, 2018

      Given that Greek was the lingua franca of the day, the language people from different cultures used to do business (and remember, they’re on the Mediterrannean), there’s every reason to think some of the earliest Christians were conversant in it, even if their daily language was Aramaic. Paul was much more than conversant, being quite well educated by the standard of the time.

      It didn’t take long for Christianity to make gentile converts, and most gentiles didn’t know Hebrew. Aramaic was not spoken much outside Palestine, I’d assume. Greek was the logical language to use, if you wanted to spread the message as far and fast as possible, and there is nothing the early Christians wanted more.

  12. Avatar
    SkepticsRUs  May 9, 2018

    What do Dan Wallace and Craig Evans give as the provenance for this fragment of Mark? When and where was it found, by whom, under what circumstances, and what else was with it?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      I *think* they think it came from a mummy mask that was dissolved to reveal — voila — a first century copy of mark used as part of the cartonnage.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  May 10, 2018

        Could they be trying to protect the reputation of the person who destroyed the mask, since it’s been demonstrated that mss. can be recovered while preserving the mask? What seems to have been done reminds me of the 19rh century Egyptologists who dynamited a pharaoh’s tomb to get at the goodies inside, or even Howard Carter hacking at King Tut’s chest to remove the tiny steel dagger. Miles beyond unprofessional!

        • Bart
          Bart  May 11, 2018

          It’s an interesting idea, but I kinda doubt it. The “problem” with destroying mummy masks only started to appear later; it wasn’t seen as problematic at first till there was an uproar about it.

      • Avatar
        stevenpounders  May 10, 2018

        But first they had to soak it in water and palm olive, then separate the fragments with their bare hands … at least according to McDowell.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 11, 2018

          Yes, that great expert in papyrology and all things ancient….

  13. Avatar
    ardeare  May 9, 2018

    My sense is that they don’t want any Non-Christian academics involved in it, even if it would speed things up by a decade. This would make sense, particularly if one feels inspiration played a role in discovering it and finding it’s way to them. Another real consideration is money. Why share something with the public too early when it can be neatly packaged within a book and sold? I’m not even suggesting that’s a bad thing. Many scholars have blogs where you can pay between $20 and several hundred dollars to read a 30-page essay on a particular subject. That’s fine. They, like everyone else, have to make a living and most will never do it through trade books. Alas, there’s the ambiquitous world of the internet. Wikipedia can be kind and cruel. Maybe they’re in it too deep now?

    My gut instinct is that this is going to have a bad ending. That somewhere in this puzzle is an unscrupulous individual (middleman) looking for a payday, hence the secrecy. The practice of forgeries and fakes is so prevalent and ancient that the Smithsonian Institute has an entire section dedicated to forgeries and fakes, once believed to be true.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 11, 2018

      You realize that to them, “Non-Christian” could mean “Anybody who isn’t Christian in precisely the same way I am”? Not that they’d make a practice of saying this in mixed company, but that is how a lot of evangelicals feel. They talk about becoming a Christian in early adulthood, even though they were raised as one. So what were the people who raised them? There’s a certain exclusivity to this brand of Christianity.

      There are some pretty amazing scholars out there who are Catholic priests, you know. Or Episcopalians. I’m guessing the Mormons have some pretty good people (perhaps still looking for the golden disks?) The notion that there aren’t scores (hundreds?) of gifted scholars relating to this type of document who believe Jesus was God is nonsense. That’s not the problem here. The problem is that they want to keep tight control over this fragment. Which either means they don’t trust anyone else to properly evaluate it–or they don’t trust the fragment itself.

      • Avatar
        ardeare  May 11, 2018

        Nah, the Mormons are looking for just about everything else to lend credibility to The Book of Mormon, but not the golden plates. They believe an angel named Moroni took them to heaven after Joseph Smith completed his translation. That very same angel, Moroni, is prominently displayed atop every Mormon temple, blowing his horn, a symbolic gesture representing the true church is again upon the earth and awaiting the triumphant return of Jesus.

        As for your other points, they are well taken and gladly received. BTW, I consider Mormons, Catholics, Jehovahs Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, etc. to be Christians. In short, if someone has an authentic claim to Christianity, I believe them. No litmus test. A little off topic, but this came back to me after reading Dr. Ehrmans most recent book. Remember Prop 8 in Californian in 2008? Mormons donated tens of millions of dollars to eliminate the rights of gay couples to marry. For a while, it silenced the evangelical attacks and their omnipresent use of the word, “cult.” Politics make strange bedfellows.

        • Avatar
          godspell  May 13, 2018

          Oh, in the most general sense, anybody who believes in the divinity of Jesus is a Christian. Muslims believe he was holy and exalted, but less so than Muhammad, who is still only a man.

          In the most specific sense, I’d say you’re a Christian if you live as Jesus advised, but that really cuts into the membership stats. 😉

  14. Avatar
    mikezamjara  May 9, 2018

    What about if the manuscript said in the first verses: “I am Mark, disciple of Jesus and this gospel was really written by me”

    • Avatar
      mikezamjara  May 10, 2018

      sorry Mark was peter disciple

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      Then we’d have a bona fide forgery, instead of an anonymous work.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 11, 2018

      Suppose we had a document from a later time period, saying “I am John Miller, publicist to Donald Trump, and I’m definitely not just an alias he used to brag about himself over the phone”?

  15. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  May 9, 2018

    I don’t care for this sort of thing. I especially don’t agree with the last paragraph.

  16. Avatar
    Stephen  May 9, 2018

    Wouldn’t the pool of paleographers qualified to give an authoritative opinion be exclusive enough so that it would be well nigh impossible to keep secret if one of these folks had been approached?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      The claim is that they signed a non-disclosure agreement.

    • Avatar
      Tobit  May 11, 2018

      I believe Dirk Obbink has been narrowed down as the papyrologist who worked on it. But if he’s signed a non-discolure agreement, he won’t say so.

  17. Avatar
    Pattylt  May 9, 2018

    Do you think the delay may be due to some line or 2 being different enough that they are now trying to figure out some damage control? I agree that a minor variation or misspelling wouldn’t rattle their cages much and could be “explained” but say one line is very different? Remember, these guys claim it’s the word of God and we have the correct words in the Greek! It makes me very suspicious.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      No, if there were huge differences like that they would simply say it was a different Gospel that was similar in ways to Mark. The delay is almost certainly because they know, or at least think, that maybe it’s not authentic.

  18. Avatar
    rburos  May 9, 2018

    I’m really confused about the whole issue–the Four-source Hypothesis requires early written sources so I don’t understand what they think they could gain. Could we gain if it ended up being a variant copy more suited to what either Matthew or Luke used (but not both)?

    What are the chances they discovered it to be a forgery so are now burying it?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      Sorry — I’m not sure whom you’re talking about or what you’re asking.

      • Avatar
        rburos  May 10, 2018

        I’m sorry. I was just thinking about things like claims of finding diaries of Hitler, Mussolini, or Jack the Ripper, which though claimed to huge fanfare and purchase prices in the millions turned out to be forgeries. I would expect more from Wallace, though. It’s another thing which frustrates me during your debates, several of which I have simply fast forwarded through the other side’s polemics (though I still had to listen to them while watching the section where you question each other).

        Stein posited the possibility that Matthew and Luke could have had variant mss of Mark, possibly explaining “some” differentiation. Of course I’ll never be qualified to fully understand the intricacies.

        • Avatar
          rburos  May 10, 2018

          I would pay a lot to watch you and Crossan debate whether or not Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher, even on video.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 11, 2018

          I don’t think there was any subterfuge on Wallace’s part. He genuinely thought a first-century fragment of Mark had turned up.

          • Avatar
            rburos  May 11, 2018

            I owe him an apology, as I took a general feeling and focused it unfairly on one individual. Thanks.

  19. Avatar
    DavidNeale  May 10, 2018

    Off-topic: what evidence is there, if any, supporting the traditional Catholic claim that Peter was the first bishop of Rome and was martyred there in 64 AD? I gather some scholars argue that this is not the case.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 10, 2018

      He may have been martryed on 64, but he was almost certainly not the “first bishop” (= pope). I give a full discussoin in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.

      • Avatar
        DavidNeale  May 10, 2018

        Ah, one of the few of your trade books I haven’t read. I’ll buy it this weekend!

  20. Avatar
    bensonian  May 11, 2018

    How can we know what it (the alleged Mark fragment) would prove or disprove if we haven’t even seen it? Isn’t this speculative, on both sides of the fence? For example; what if it contained the original ending of Mark? 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2018

      Yes, I’m just trying to imagine what there could *possibly* be in a such a fragment (based, for example, on our experience with hundreds of other fragments) that could be a game changer, and I can’t come up with anything. We wouldn’t know if it contained the original ending of Mark unless (a) we already knew what the original ending of Mark was (to compare it with) or (b) it itself was the original copy of Mark.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 16, 2018

      How do we know it exists at all, if we haven’t seen it?

      This isn’t how proper scholarship is done. Nobody’s asking them to put it on public display (though I’m sure they’ve thought about that, maybe build a museum around it), but they should be excited and happy to share it with the most qualified people, regardless of religious background.

      If they weren’t sure what they had, they shouldn’t have been talking about it in public until they were.

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