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Would a First-Century Fragment of Mark Matter?

As you know, there is a good deal of discussion going on about the destruction of mummy masks in order to uncover New Testament papyri.   One point that I am not seeing discussed strikes me as the most important of all, and I want to address that here.

But before doing so, I want to ask two questions, that maybe someone on the Blog can answer for me.   The first is actuallyseveral questions:  exactly how many masks are we talking about here?   How many have been destroyed?   And how many have been singled out for destruction?   Don’t we as a reading public have the right to know?

And second: am I right that the only way to know if a New Testament papyrus was used as part of the “paper mache” in the mask, that first the mask has to be destroyed?  That is to say, this one mask – or these many masks? – is/are being destroyed not because it / they are known to house NT papyri, but in the hopes that they are.  Right?  So I return to my first set of questions: what is the yield here?  How many masks are being obliterated from the earth before something of value emerges from them?

But now on to the point that I want to explore at length that seems to me to be the really important one.   I personally think that there are no shananigans 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 it is a small fragment with portions of some verses on it.  It will need at least to be that, because otherwise it would be impossible for the discoverers to have determined that it comes from Mark, as opposed, say, to Matthew or Luke (since they often have the same stories as Mark, often with the same wording).  There must be something characteristic of Mark’s Gospel – for example, a verse found only there, or the wording of a verse only there – that makes it clear that it comes from Mark.

Now, let’s say that scholars – once they are given the inestimable privilege of actually seeing the thing, in two years, or twenty years, or whenever – come to agree that it is from Mark and that it dates from, say, somewhere between 80-130 CE.   They will not be able to get any *closer* to that either by dating the manuscript on the basis of its handwriting or by Carbon 14.  You need at least a fifty year window.   But suppose that’s the window, and suppose the wording of the verses on the fragment are very close indeed to what we have already reconstructed based on other surviving evidence to be the oldest known form of the Gospel of Mark.   Let me stress that if the wording were widely *different* from what we already think was the oldest form of Mark that (a) these evangelical scholars would not be excited about the find but, just the contrary, would be upset about it and (b) they would in that case argue that it is in fact not from Mark but from some non-canonical Gospel!

So let’s suppose it is a small fragment with some verses that are virtually identical with the form of Mark as we already have constructed it.   What will it tell us, then, that we do not already know?

I can’t say, since I haven’t been allowed to see the thing, but if how I’m imagining the case to be is right, then so far as I can tell, when it comes to helping us know the “original” text of Mark, or anything else about the text of Mark, it wouldn’t actually help us a bit.  That’s because it would not be telling us anything that we don’t already know, or think we know.

Let me explain.   Just about every reasonably sentient and sober scholar of Mark’s Gospel thinks that it was written around 70 CE –maybe a few years before, or a few years after, but around then.  Moreover, every scholar on the face of the earth thinks that Mark’s Gospel was copied soon after it was first put in circulation.   Moreover, almost everyone agrees that some copies were better than others.  I think everyone would agree that some of the early copies were all in all reasonably accurate, with a few mistakes here and there on a given page or in a given passage.  Others may have changed a lot more things here and there, either by accident or on purpose.  Others may have been way off base.   I suppose you could argue that both Matthew and Luke produced “copies” of Mark – but theirs are really new editions with additional information added.   So on one end of the copying spectrum of you would have copies that are just about like the original, with mistakes here and there, and on the other end of the spectrum complete re-editions of Mark.

Suppose a fragment of a reasonably accurate copy of Mark showed up.   Suppose in fact that it contains, say, most of 3-5 verses, which are almost exactly like what we already think is the oldest form of Mark.  What would it tell us?  It would tell us we are right in how we imagine Mark was being copied.   But we already think we’re right.  So what is the breakthrough?  (As I will stress in a later post, I myself am ecstatic about the idea of a first-century copy of Mark showing up.  But NOT for the reasons people typically assume.  That is, it will NOT revolutionize our knowledge.  How could it do that??)

Suppose the fragment has some differences from what we think is the oldest form of Mark.  What would that tell us?  It would tell us we are right – there were indeed copies with some variants early on in the transmission process.

Suppose it has lots and lots of differences.  What would that tell us?  It would again tell us we are right – there were indeed copies with lots of variants.  (Although, I repeat, if this fragment is like *that*, our evangelical friends who are interested in destroying masks would not be all that excited about the discovery and would insist it actually is not a copy of Mark but of some other Gospel).

So what will the fragment do, once it is allowed to be published in two years or two hundred years?   I am having trouble imagining a scenario other than the one that I have sketched out.  It will tell us we’re right.  (As I will stress in a later post, I myself am ecstatic about the idea of a first-century copy of Mark showing up.  But NOT for the reasons people typically assume.)

What would a first-century copy of Mark look like if it were to tell us we were *wrong*?   It would have to be a very long copy of Mark (say, a number of chapters instead of a few verses), it would have to be shown incontrovertibly to be Mark, and it would have to be either *exactly* word for word what we already think was in Mark (that would show that very early cribes were being precise over long stretches of text, which seems to us now, based on what we know now, to be implausible) OR it would have to be *really* different from what we already think was in Mark (that would show that scribes exercised more license than we currently think).

And so why are evangelical scholars so pumped by this find if it (as a small fragment instead of a reasonably full copy) almost certainly won’t tell us something we don’t already know?  I’ll pursue that question further in my next post.


How Accurate Are our Earliest NT Manuscripts?
An Expert Talks About Mummy Masks and Papyri



  1. stephena  January 24, 2015

    A pre-AD 70 date would imply STRONGLY that this is not “Mark” but in fact Q, or an early Sayings Gospel fragment. How on earth could that NOT be “revolutionary”? You seem extremely reticent to speculate that it might be such a find (i.e. Q) but you instead keep implying that it’s probably going to be identical to Mark, based on the alleged excitement of the conservative scholars behind the find.

    Again, they stonewalled you and others from 2012 until this scandal of the masks’ destruction brought it to light again. I could be wrong, and the lure of a book published in 2016 or later (and the need to fully and properly study the manuscript) may be the reason for the delay, but to discount an embarrassing find as a reason for delay seems speculative.

  2. sharding4  January 24, 2015

    Of course in the unlikely event that the fragment could be dated to the first century, and if it contained the reading kata Markon, that really would be a coup for evangelicals and overturn a scholarly consensus. (How about the long ending of Mark with the variant reading “I Mark write these things”!) While personally I can’t get too worked up emotionally about the destruction of various sources of cartonnage, I think your post today really highlights the vanity of the endeavor. On a cost benefit basis the cost is relatively high (if not arguably very high) while any actual, tangible benefit is incalculably improbable. The antiquities should be preserved and non-destructive methods found for their complete examination.

  3. whicks1  January 24, 2015

    Wouldn’t some of the most interesting things about this document be that it shows early circulation of Mark in Egypt, as opposed to Rome, or Syria AND to the degree that the document is considered common scrap that it can be used in a person’s mask (presumably some time after the copy’s creation/distribution) who is of lower(ish?) social standing?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2015

      The problem is that manuscripts *discovered* in Egypt were not necessarily produced there. Manuscripts traveled around a lot in the Roman world, over large distances.

    • Slydog1227  January 30, 2015

      I was going to pose the very same question as Whicks1! I find it at least slightly intriguing that it had to have….absorbed enough time through it’s travels; then reaching Egypt; and so on and so on to have become so insignificant as a holy religious object as to be cast off and recycled. I totally get that theory, but I don’t quite know what it might imply or how to wrap my mind around it’s significance. Surely something useful could be extrapolated from it? Reason would dictate, It had to have been around for a while to have decreased so much as a Holy religious work, assuming the recycler found it of great importance at a prior time, or even knew what it was. I think these are important questions to ask. Also other papyri or fragments found with it and related to each particular mask, as a collection itself, must be of consideration! Is there an effort to preserve the integrity of the whole collection, as a collection? Why was this found with that? What might that imply? There are many question, and many implications that should be studied and considered before just wantonly stripping them apart.

      • Bart
        Bart  January 30, 2015

        My sense is that early Christians, when they got a new copy of, say, Mark, saw no need to keep the old tattered copy, and so they simply discarded it! Would they could have taken some advice from *us*. The melange of texts in a mask would support the idea that a bunch of literary texts were simply discarded, or kept for scrap.

        • Maurices5000  October 30, 2015

          Hello Dr. Ehrman,

          First I want to thank you for your willingness to share your highly valued, scholarly knowledge with us for such a small donation. It would be great if others were so generous. This platform allows those of us who are interested in the topic to fill in gaps in our knowlege and hopefully help us to find resources to fill those gaps. For this, I am deeply grateful!

          My understanding is that the Early Christians might not so easily depart from a manuscript copy of sacred text due to the following reasons unless it was really old and in bad shape.

          1) Writing materials were hard to come by. Papyrus was not cheap.
          2) Not everyone could read and write.
          3) Christians were outcasts and were persecuted, so Christian writings would be hard to come by. They were new and not mainstream documents.

          With these conditions, I would think that Christians, to the extent possible, would hold on to these materials for very long periods of time. Given that these writings were viewed as sacred, even once they were very old, I would think they would not be so willing to dispose of them.

          Being that this is the case, I would propose that being able to date the mask might also be important. Just for the sake of argument, if the masks were dated at say 100 CE and the manuscripts were considered very old at that time, that would argue for a much earlier date for the original writings. If the masks can be dated to 300 CE and beyond, it might show that Christian manuscripts were in circulations for many decades after their original writings.

          If this is not of great value to scholars such as yourself, it might certainly shed some light for lay people who are interested in how these things work. We will likely get information from both sides enlightening out understanding of how thinks worked in the ancient world.

          Thanks again!

  4. gmatthews
    gmatthews  January 24, 2015

    I don’t think it’s been revealed how many masks have been destroyed. For the past couple of weeks I’ve looked all over for more on this story and haven’t seen any mention of it. Given the back lash of the few days I can’t imagine them revealing that anytime soon unless their answer would be that the destroyed masks were EXTREMELY weathered and poor and broken examples (but wouldn’t that dig their hole even further?) Given Roberta Mazza’s comments that there are non-destructive ways to see what is on the mask papyri fragments I’m further concerned that they’ll try to keep the number or condition of the masks from us. Would that eventually be revealed when ever their data is released?

    As to the importance of the fragment of Mark, when I first heard what Dan Wallace had said in your debate with him my mind was filled with images of a complete codex or many pages at the very least! The first I heard of it was as a “copy of Mark”, not a fragment. Now that I know it’s a fragment and most likely just a torn strip or piece from a single page my opinion is rather ho hum about it. If there are only one or two verses or parts of a few lines exactly how much can we hope to learn from it?

    That said, the earliest of anything, whether it be Plato or Archimedes or Martial or Mark, excites me.

  5. Adam0685  January 24, 2015

    As a guess, one reason they are pumped up is it will reinforce the faith of many Christian laypeople. It will be employed by Christian apologists to argue that we can be confident we pretty much have the originals. Many evangelical Christian laypeople who don’t know any better will be reassured in their faith. These Christian apologists will then make generalizations about the copying of other books, suggesting that the Christian community preserved their texts perfectly.

  6. Kim  January 24, 2015

    I think you miss the big picture. It is all about marketing. Evangelicals will tell you that the earliest Greek manuscript is dated a few decades after it was written. They will not tell you that the earliest of Paul’s writings is 150 years after the death of Paul. With the fragment of Mark dating to the first century they can let the readers / hearers imagine the size of the manuscript.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2015

      Actually, yeah, I get the big picture!! (I used to live in that world…)

  7. Tom
    Tom  January 24, 2015

    A 1st century textual discovery is very inspiring nonetheless. -And I agree – having a scrap really doesn’t help scholars much. It’d be much more important if we happened to find a near-complete gospel … particularly one where the ending could be read and analyzed.
    Bart, I recall from your debate with Dr. Dan Wallace at Chapel Hill a couple years back, he mentioned a discovery that was “hush-hush” and am curious if this is “it?” What say you?

  8. Jim  January 24, 2015

    Something that I wonder a bit about is how will the unique protocol (based on the Josh McDowell video) affect the carbon-14 dating result? I also wonder how this protocol might affect paleography, especially on small fragments where there are not many letters and where the “unique” processing might result in some distortion in the letters?

    Evans mentioned that Dirk Obbink heads up the papyrus work for the Green machine, and hopefully the McDowell video was just a re-enactment solely for entertainment purposes. Or has Obbink been added to the team sometime after the mask had already been subjected to the novel “hands on” procedure shown in the vimeo video?

    Is there a chance that dating accuracy will have been affected by the extraction process applied to retrieve this fragment?

  9. sashko123  January 24, 2015

    I’ve been thinking about this problem some.Although in principle I’m against the destruction of antiquities, it seems that a decision about how to handle a given antiquity should be based on a multi-pronged test of some kind, maybe including factors like the number of available samples, the extent of destruction, the value of the samples to be destroyed, the magnitude of the benefit to be gained by destruction, and the probability of finding the object of the search; maybe there are other factors of which I am unaware, since I am no expert. A concern which may be greater than the destruction of an antiquity may be the loss of value to research if it is not handled properly. If independent scientists cannot be certain of its chain of custody or of its provenance, what value will it ultimately be as evidence of anything? (I think also of an allosaurus donated to Ken Ham’s Creation Museum from a private donor, which probably has lost much scientific value, because nobody can be sure of where it came from and independent scientists are apparently not allowed to examine it).

  10. jbjbjbjbjb  January 24, 2015

    I was thinking along similar lines, started wondering just how much an identifiable yet fragmentary piece of Mark might be. My prayer(:)) is that this fragment lies over a significant location in terms of MSS variants. I think everyone would agree that in this case that WOULD matter, right? It would also be amazing if it was a bit longer, but then I guess the leaked information thus far might have hinted at that.


  11. Hon Wai  January 24, 2015

    How did scholars figure out that Mark’s Gospel was copied soon after it was first put in circulation?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2015

      It’s a guess. But Matthew and Luke both have access to it, in different localities, so it’s not a wild guess.

  12. dostonj  January 24, 2015

    If ever there is found a non-scriptural or secular textual item dating to c. 80 CE that makes direct and independent reference to a historical Jesus attested to in the NT (not merely a reference to Christians, but rather a discussion or even mention of the person Jesus of Nazareth), then you’ll have my attention.

  13. Stephen  January 25, 2015

    Prof Ehrman

    According to your schedule of appearances you should be on a BAS Caribbean cruise this week. I’m sorry if your plans fell through. If you are posting from this cruise I appreciate your diligence and admire your work ethic. I’m afraid I would be weaker than that.

  14. Kevin  January 25, 2015

    If a theory is not refutable it’s not a theory of science. I hope your textual theories are refutable with new data! Especially since there is precious little data from this period.

    I’m with you in being very skeptical until these things can be examined. What if it confirmed Secret Mark? That would be something! It just sucks that they aren’t sharing.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2015

      I’m afraid if it confirmed Secret Mark these particular scholars would not be very excited about it. At all!

  15. Jana  January 25, 2015

    Then circling back .. is the academic and or theological value of this fragment worth the destruction of a mask and quite possibly many more? btw: I appreciate reading your analytic processes .. it’s a thing of beauty.

  16. BrianUlrich  January 25, 2015

    It would be kind of cool if it were “Secret Mark” =)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2015

      Yes indeed. But then these scholars would not be excited about it.

      • Wilusa  January 26, 2015

        What *is* “Secret Mark”?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 27, 2015

          It is an additional couple of stories allegedly discovered by Morton Smith in 1958 in an ancient letter by a church father who claimed that they were in a different edition of Mark.

  17. Rick
    Rick  January 25, 2015

    Along the line of what could the fragment be, that would do something other than confirm what we already … hold to be the state of knowledge in the field about Mark? From another viewpoint, that would warrant evangelical/conservative Christian excitement? Professor, what if it appeared to be something after Mark 16:8?

  18. Pawel  January 25, 2015

    My huntch is, there is something going on like alleged Mark in and 7Q5 papyrus story, a match based on wishful thinking…

  19. Steefen  January 25, 2015

    Dear Dr. Ehrman,
    If this is true:
    Mark was written 66-70.
    Matthew and Luke 80-85
    John 90-95
    Acts of the Apostles 62-150
    1. Mark has Jesus foretelling the destruction of the Temple before it happened?
    2. Mark is the only pre-Temple destruction gospel? If not, why even say Mark could have been written from year 66 to before the Temple’s destruction?
    3. Mark stood for 10 years before Matthew and Luke had to be written?
    4. Why would Acts be written before Luke?
    5. I don’t think the same author of Luke would be alive, say, after 120 and why even wait more than 5 years to write Acts after Luke or wait more than 5 years to write Luke if Luke came after Acts?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2015

      That’s the big question, whether Mark is before or after 70 CE. I am shifting to think that it is just after 70 (which is the more common view among critical scholars), rather than before.

      • Maurices5000  October 30, 2015

        If the manuscript can be dated to 80 CE, it is not hard to speculate that it might have been written before 70 CE. I can understand the desire of skeptics to stop at 70 CE but obviously that would start to look more and more arbitrary–only due their lack of belief in the supernatural. Ten years doesn’t look much different from 15 or 20 years.

        Christians will also have greater reason to sensationalize the find. It seems to be forgotten that Jesus was quoting Daniel the prophet, who obviously lived at least 200 years before Jesus. My point is: since Daniel already made a similar claim, it was not unknown, Jesus could definitely have made the claim before 70 CE. The closer we get to 70 CE (with manuscript evidence), the stronger the claim can be made that these words were both predicted and thus, inspired. What we are then looking at is the closest one can get in natural world to verifying the supernatural.

        Personally, Daniel the prophet has always been problematic for me. Given that Daniel obviously wrote at least 200 years before Jesus, is enough to convince me that Jesus may have said it before 70 CE and Christians did not make it up. (To me Daniel renders those who claim Christians just made it up almostly completely unfounded.) Given this new information, it seems to suggest that perhaps 2 prophets confirmed this event–Jesus, thus, highlighting it.

        And while there were scoundrels then as there are today, I find it a bit arbitrary to just assume that Christians were dishonest in reporting these statements. It is possible, but I find it a bit arbitrary.

        Thus, if the second century can indeed be ruled out, which i feel is probably unlikely, this could be a very strong apologetical tool for Christians.

  20. bnongbri  January 26, 2015

    Hi Bart,
    I agree with you that, in text critical terms, this fragment will probably not tell us too much that’s new. But I think whicks1 has a point–not so much that Mark may have been written in Egypt but rather the fact that Mark might have been circulating in the chora (where these masks are generally thought to originate). Unless you’re really convinced of the early second century dates sometimes ascribed to P52, P90, P104, etc., there really is no evidence for the existence of Christian communities in the Egyptian chora even in the second century. A first century papyrus of Mark floating around in the Fayum or elsewhere south of Alexandria would thus be pretty big news for the history of Christianity in Egypt, no? But whether the fragment is actually from the first century…well, we’ll just have to wait and see the evidence. As for the 2017 publication date, I don’t think it’s too cynical to posit a connection to the planned opening of the Bible Museum in D.C. in autumn 2017.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 27, 2015

      It would be interesting indeed — if the mask was made in the first century! (Is that what they’re saying?) If it was made much later, not so much. (Hey, what’s this I hear about P75?!?). Ah, right, 2+2 = 2017!!

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