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Would It Matter If It HAD BEEN a First-century Copy of Mark? A Surprising Answer in the Readers’ Mailbag

 

I received a lot of comments on my post about the academic fraud connected with an Oxford manuscript scholar, the Museum of the Bible, and certain enthusiastic evangelical Christians who are ironically willing to lie or distort the truth in order to prove their understanding of the truth.  One question I received several times: suppose the manuscript that started the whole thing off, the alleged “first-century copy of Mark” — which turns out to be a tiny scrap that is NOT from the first century — suppose it *had* been a manuscript of the first century.  Would that have revolutionized our understanding of Mark’s Gospel, the New Testament as whole, the historical accuracy of the Bible, or our views of the historical Jesus?  TERRIFIC question.  Here is how one reader asked it:

QUESTION:

For the sake of arguments let’s pretend for a moment that the fragment really existed and was precisely what it was claimed to be. That would surely be a stunning, miraculous find that all scholars would applaud. (And we can certainly understand why the Greens would want to acquire such a gem for their museum.)  But in what possible sense does any of this prove –or even significantly support– the primary claim that what we now possess represents the original text of the New Testament?

 

RESPONSE:

There are a lot of ways I could respond to this.  I was thinking hard about the issue even before the news broke and before we knew what this scrap of a manuscript actually is.  And I posted on the matter in 2015, three years after we first heard that “a first-century copy of Mark ” had been discovered and after evangelical scholars and representatives of the Museum of the Bible had lauded it as a major breakthrough that showed how liberal scholars are completely wrong about the accuracy of the Bible and would now have to admit they were wrong.

This, for example, was repeatedly claimed in public talks by Scott Carroll, head of acquisitions at the Museum of the Bible — naming me by name as the chief culprit.  His talks were recorded on video, and in them he asserts that I had views about Mark (that it dates from the second century) that I have never had and that he must have known I have never had; but by saying that I claimed Mark dated from the second century, he could “prove” I was completely wrong, since now we have a manuscript dated before that time.

Why would he claim I had views I’ve never had, that are in fact contrary to everything I’ve ever thought, said, taught, and written for over forty years?  Well, it’s not too hard to figure out why….

In any event, I wrote the post in 2015, a couple of years before any of us (except Scott Carroll and a couple of others) actually knew what the manuscript was.  In it I tried to show why the manuscript was highly unlikely to change a solitary thing about what we think about Mark’s Gospel, let alone about anything else connected with the New Testament or the historical Jesus.

 

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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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Did Judas Really Betray Jesus? Readers’ Mailbag

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Ficino  May 29, 2020

    Were evangelicals excited about the fragment, when they thought (from Obbink?) that it could be from c. 80 CE, because they thought they could argue that Mark was written BEFORE the fall of Jerusalem? Did they want to argue, “a period of time must have elapsed between the act of authorship and the point where copies of gMark got carried down to a backwater like Oxyrhynchus? So any reasonable line of transmission from the fragment to the autograph must also have a time line of X decades backwards from 80 or so? So Mark must have been writing at least a generation earlier? Ten years isn’t enough time for copies to get to outlying places like Oxyrhynchus.” Was this the evangelicals’ hoped-for takeaway, a pre-70 date of authorship of gMark? Then they’d get Jesus’ words about the temple etc as bona-fide prophecies, the reliability of the stories as eyewitness testimony would seem to rise, and so on.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2020

      Yes, it was supposed to provide evidence for an earlier date of Mark and therefore evidence of the reliability of his acccount. But it’s important to note: the date of the manuscript has no bearing on the date of when it appeared in the place in which it was later discvoered. It could have been brought there a year later, a decade later, a century later, etc. so it’s appearance in Oxyrhynchus doesn’t affect the question of the date of its writing.

  2. Avatar
    Nichrob  May 29, 2020

    “…who are ironically willing to lie or distort the truth in order to prove their understanding of the truth.” (What a great sentence Bart…!!)

  3. Avatar
    Ficino  May 29, 2020

    adding: and if a copy of gMark was already in the garbage in Oxyrhynchus in c. 80, then evangelicals could argue that the spread of Christianity was wider and faster than is often admitted.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2020

      Only if they could show that it was in Oxyrhynchus in teh year 80. If a manuscript is discovered in city X and the mansucript was made in 80 CE, that doesn’t mean it was brought to city X in 80 CE. It could have been brought a year later, a decade later, a century later, etc. And often mss *did* move around like that.

  4. Avatar
    veritas  May 29, 2020

    Bart , I would ask if you would permit this post in remembrance of one of the greatest and humble Christian apologists I have ever heard, Ravi Zaccharias. He passed away on May 19,2020 of a short bout with cancer. This man was truly a game changer, never opposed or rebuked anyone for their disbelief rather he saw their views as a cry of the heart and kindness always permeated from his responses. I heard him speak twice and always felt penetrated by his message. I even dreamt of an event with Bart and Ravi speaking of their views. It would of been extraordinary to witness. Two great thinkers. Of Ravi’s special events, he was the first Evangelical Christian to speak at the Mormon Tabernacle in Utah. I f you asked Ravi in humility he would say he was the second. D.L. Moody was the first at the invitation of then second Church President, Brigham Young, back in 1871. He spoke in over seventy countries and up to two years ago, was speaking over 200 days/year. Wrote over 30 books, and was asked to formal dinners with numerous dignitaries around the world……..

  5. Avatar
    veritas  May 29, 2020

    …..He never debated anyone on belief,to my knowledge, but had formal meetings with many of different beliefs. I personally, met so many skeptics at his events that were uplifted by his words. He used the Bible not to offend in regards to issues we face today, violence, homosexuality, abortion, poverty, injustice, but rather bring people in communion with Christ through his love and grace for everyone. Mr. Zaccharias will be truly missed by the multitudes that have followed him for forty eight years of serving his life dream. A family man, his education, respect ,knowledge, humility, love, wisdom,honesty, integrity,generosity, kindness and gratitude for life were his trademarks and will not be forgotten by believers and non-believers alike. A man of meaning/purpose. If there is a Heaven, I have no doubt he will be there. Thanks so much Bart for allowing me to share this. As a skeptic myself, I never missed too many chances to listen to Ravi and envelope his message. He is a hero to many.

  6. Avatar
    birder1949  May 29, 2020

    There is a “gotcha” attitude among many evangelicals which stems, I think, from a profound sense of uncertainty about their literalist claims. I find this especially in conversations about evolution. There is a sense that they are an embattled righteous minority.

  7. Avatar
    fishician  May 29, 2020

    I could accept the 4 gospels we have as being exactly as written – and it would not answer any of my questions about the striking differences between the gospels, which to me is a much bigger issue. Question: if we find an early fragment, how do we know it’s from one of the gospels, rather than one of their sources? For example, if we found a fragment that contains Q material, how would we know if it is from Matthew, Luke, or Q?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2020

      Right! See today’s post! On the qeustion: if Matthew reproduced a passage from Q word for word and we found a fragment of the passage, right– there would be no way to know which it had come from.

  8. Avatar
    Jimmy  May 29, 2020

    I heard Craig Evans mention in an interview with Hank Hanegraaff that Tertullian believed there were autographs of Paul’s letters still in existence at that time . You can go to Rome to see Romans or Corinth to see the Corinthian letters.

    He also mentioned that a bishop in the beginning of the third century in reference to the original gospel of John , the bishop says it is at Ephesus and people go see it and it is venerated.

    Do you think autographs were still in existence at that time and how would they know that they were the originals ?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2020

      No, I don’t. Tertullian also said that in his day (around 200 CE) there were more Christians in the Roman empire than pagans. I wonder if Craig Evans thinks that that means there really were. And if so, how he would defend that view (since it is clearly and absolutely completely untrue)

  9. Avatar
    tom.hennell  May 29, 2020

    A serious thought experiment.

    Suppose that the fragment P137 were established by reputable paleographers to have been written in the range 80-130 CE; and suppose it presented the text, not of Mark 1 but of Mark 16: 9, and 16:19?. Would not that cause considerable embarrassment amongst New Testament textual scholars (not least of whom might be Dan Wallace himself)?

    Might this not result in many of the much-loved principles of New Testament textual criticism back-firing? Our methods and critical tools would have proved to be spectacularly wrong in rejecting from the original Gospel, verses we would now have strong reasons to think authentic. Would that not mean we would need to reassess those critical tools, and perhaps abandon some. And if so, would that not imply that a wide range of other variant texts, rejected in accordance with those (now problematic) tools, would arguably merit reinstatement?

    I think that could have been a very big deal indeed within narrow scholarly circles; and the ramifications could have been wide ranging.

    Just entertain the possibility for a moment.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2020

      I’m not sure what you’re thinking would be embarassing? Suppose that it is indeed a copy of Mark made 10 or 50 years after the original, and it had the longer ending. What would be embarassing about that? It would simply show that a scribe added the ending earlier than usually thought, no?

      • Avatar
        tom.hennell  May 31, 2020

        Not so quick Bart; that looks like begging the question. The earliest direct evidence we have for Mark’s gospel stopping at verse 8 is 4th century (Vaticanus and the Eusebian canons). Otherwise, for the most part, we rely on noting the absence of 9-20 in quotations from various earlier fathers; but these are arguments from silence; hence for conscientious scholarship, not arguments at all.

        The substantial argument for the ‘short’ ending; is that Matthew and Luke; who both follow the earlier verses of Mark 16, diverge radically at this point. So, it is argued, the text of Mark that was in circulation when Luke and Matthew used it for their gospels, most likely stopped at verse 8.

        But now; let us assume finding a fragment of Mark made 10 years or so after the original (maybe for our thought experIment, our paleographer dates the ‘hand’ in the range is 40 to 90 CE). We now know that our assumption about Luke and Mark was false; a text in circulation in the late first century did have verses 9 to 20. Luke and Matthew had these words, but excluded them.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 1, 2020

          Yeah, that’s not an argument I use for the shorter version of Mark (at least to my recollection I never have in the 40 years that I’ve been convinced that the shorter ending was the shorter ending). But yes, I suppose anyone who does make that particular argument would certainly have to revise it!

  10. Avatar
    Leovigild  May 29, 2020

    I think it might be important if the language was clearly Mark’s, and it was early, but there were a few key things that were different.

    I mean, imagine we got something like:

    “..nge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to h…..t us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and appeared to breathe his last. And the cu……..ple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he seemed to have breathed his last, though it was not so, he said, “Truly this m..”

    And it were the earliest attested Gospel fragment, well, I think it might make a few waves!!

  11. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  May 29, 2020

    Skeptics of traditional Christian belief always work to move the development and transmission of New Testament texts to as late a period as possible and to open up the possibilities of textual corruption as happening as early as possible. They do this, not because it proves a blessed thing but to create a climate and academic atmosphere of doubt and skepticism. It absolutely is part of their agenda. Honest scholars would/should admit it.

    Conversely, those who adhere to traditional Christian belief want to establish early dates and without transmission errors for the opposite reasons.

    Neither group is being unbiased.

    The date of the origin of the text is not as important as the INTIMACY that the author of the text had with the events, persons etc. being recounted. I could do a biography today about Dr. Ehrman and his wife could do one in 30 years. My account would not be more credible in any way, shape or form that his wife’s would be.

    Most people are really just looking for confirmation for their own beliefs or doubts rather than trying to get to the truth of the matter.

  12. Avatar
    Stephen  May 29, 2020

    Sorry if you’ve answered this before but what hypothetical manuscript discovery would YOU like to see? When you submit your own personal wish list to the gods of palaeography what is the first item on your list?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2020

      Jesus’ handwritten autobiography. 🙂 Or if there never was such a thing, I don’t know. Q I suppose.

  13. Avatar
    skalland  May 30, 2020

    Do scholars have any guess as to how many total manuscripts of Mark were in existence in the first century? For example, if Matthew and Luke were written ~85 CE, and if Matthew and Luke used Mark, then at least two copies of Mark existed in 85 CE (assuming Matthew and Luke didn’t work from the same copy). But how many total copies were there in 85 CE? Five? Fifty? Five hundred? How about in 100 CE?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2020

      There’s no way to know for sure, but I’d say there’s no way there were 500,and 50 is probably too many — but who knows? One very important factor to consider is that there were probably about 8000 Xns in the entire world in 100 CE (I give the arguments in Triumph of Christianity); if each church was, say, 20 people, then there would have been 400 communities or so. Most of these almost certainly had never heard of Mark’s Gospel. But one could guess from there.

  14. Avatar
    Matt2239  May 30, 2020

    Everyone has an “agenda.”

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2020

      And look out for those who say they don’t. The question is always whether the agenda might somehow affect the outcome of the investigation. It is one thing to have an agenda of wanting to know what happened inthe past, another to have one that wants to affirm one thing instead of another as having happened.

  15. Avatar
    Mike_Burtner  May 30, 2020

    Would it be any more or less significant if this fragment were from the much-disputed verses at the end of our version of Mark, that detail what happened after the women found the empty tomb? I don’t find it very controversial myself – confirming supernatural aspects to the story of Jesus’ martyrdom don’t change what I get from his words.
    I wonder if there Christian theologians and academics who feel a mandate to validate the canonical ending of Mark with ever-newer evidence.

  16. Avatar
    anthonygale  May 30, 2020

    Hypothetically speaking, suppose a large first century fragment of Mark was found that was identical, or nearly identical, to one of the best early manuscripts (which I realize might be unlikely, at least for an identical fragment). Say it was identical to Codex Vaticanus or Sinaiticus. Would that not be significant? It wouldn’t change the thought that the best copies, despite not being identical, are likely close to the original. But to anyone who doubts that, it would be huge. It seems like it would be a huge blow to the mega skeptics (e.g. mythicists) and a comfort to the fundamentalists (or anyone who holds the Bible dear).

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2020

      Yup, it would be hugely significant. But not for reasons people would almost certainly say. It would not at all be a blow to anyone who doubts this historical accuracy of the Gospels, e.g.. See today’s post.

  17. Avatar
    doug  May 30, 2020

    The fact that the parts of Mark that are used by Matthew and Luke have differences in them, both from the earliest Mark and between Matthew and Luke, shows that first century Christians were not shy about changing what was written about Jesus.

  18. Avatar
    brenmcg  May 30, 2020

    Matthew, Mark and John all have the story of the woman anointing Jesus at bethany with the below differing versions of one verse, Mark with extra words than Matthew or John.

    Matthew 26:11 “the poor you will always have with you, me however you will not always have.”

    Mark 14:7 “the poor you will always have with you, and you can show them kindness whenever you wish, me however you will not always have.”

    John 12:8 “the poor you will always have with you, me however you will not always have.”

    On a first glance, doesn’t it look like Mark is the editor here?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2020

      Nope. Most scholars think just the opposite.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  May 31, 2020

        But just this particular verse, if

        Gospel A and B say “the poor you will always have with you, me however you will not always have” and Gospel C says “the poor you will always have with you, and you can show them kindness whenever you wish, me however you will not always have”

        doesn’t gospel C look like the edited version?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 1, 2020

          Nope. It looks like redactors found the longer version problematic.

  19. Avatar
    tadmania  May 30, 2020

    And in doing so, these modern believers are very likely just as those past. How much narrative invention and historical deceit comprises the serving texts? Is any of it true? Are there rivals to the most ancient writings awaiting discovery? If we find contemporary artifacts (even one) indicating that the entire NT enterprise is a farce, would we believe it? Probably not.

  20. Avatar
    DODea  May 30, 2020

    I’m a newbie on this forum and just today I started using it on my smartphone. My phone is smart, but apparently I am not!!

    tried to rate this with 5 star, but for some reason it ended up being rated 4.5 – and I cannot figure out how to change my rating.

    My apologies!!!

    Darrell

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