The earliest manuscript (written copy) of the New Testament is the John Ryland fragment, sometimes called P52. Concerning manuscripts, there are no original documents (called “autographs”) of any book of the New Testament. In order to reproduce what was in the original you have to compare and contrast the varied manuscripts (copies). The more manuscripts you have the better you can reproduce the original autograph. (See #2 here for more on the manuscripts of the New Testament).
The Ryland fragment dates from the early second century (somewhere between 100-150 AD). We don’t have or are not aware of any manuscript for the New Testament from the first century. Here is a short video about the John Ryland fragment:
But, back in 2012 Dr. Daniel Wallace dropped a bombshell of an announcement in a debate with Dr. Bart Ehrman. In that debate Dr Wallace announced that a first century manuscript of the gospel of Mark had been discovered and it was to be published that year. (the relevant comment is at 1:12:00 through 1:15:00) This was very exciting news and a groundbreaking discovery given that the earliest manuscript that we have in our possession is the John Ryland fragment.
So, if this manuscript that Dr. Wallace referenced is correct, then this would be an incredible development in manuscript studies. We would have a first century manuscript when we only have a handful of second century manuscripts of the New Testament.
I even announced the discovery to my classes given the significance of such a find.
But then, all we heard was silence. I waited for the publication of the manuscript as it would take the world by storm. And I waited. And then I waited some more.
What was the hold up? Where was this manuscript found? What portion of Mark did it contain? Did it conform with our other manuscript readings of Mark or differ?
I didn’t hear anything for a long time. Then Dr. Craig Evans at the Apologetics Canada Conference in 2014 discussed this “discovery.” He provided a little more explanation of this supposed fragment. The video below is a clip of his presentation:
From the video we learn that:
- It apparently was recovered from a funeral mummy mask.
- It was made of papier-mache.
- It was made up of used paper.
- This fragment was used to make a funeral mask.
- They have to dissolve the mask in order to recover the fragment.
- This fragment apparently dates from the 80s of the first century.
- It was to be published later in 2014.
Here is a video of the process of dissolving a funeral mask in order to recover the fragmentary manuscripts.
Well, it is now 2018 and we have yet to see a publication of the first century fragment of Mark uncovered from a funeral mask.
Well, the issue is a bit more sticky. There has been complaints about the dissolving or deconstructing of funeral masks to recover these ancient manuscripts. Over at Faces and Voices Roberta Mazza, lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Manchester, complains that:
These people are not doing any good service to the public and to our cultural heritage patrimony. The audience who attend their talks are told fantasy stories on the retrieval of papyrus fragments and their date, and on the quest for Christian original texts; apologists’ speeches are not only misinformed, but can even encourage more people to buy mummy masks on the antiquities market and dissolve them in Palmolive soap – a method suggested publicly by one of them, Josh McDowell, close friend of the ex-director of the Green Collection, Scott Carroll. All this said, I must confess this pseudo-scholarship is procuring me endless, astonished entertainment…
Dr. Scott Carroll is the former director of the Green Collection which is one of the world’s largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts. The Green Collection is a collection assembled by the Green family, founders of national retail chain Hobby Lobby. It has 40,000 to 50,000 items. The Museum of the Bible, which opened in late 2017, displays many of these items. Scott Carroll was responsible for the acquisition of items in the Green Collection.
Since Dr. Carroll time with the Green Collection, we have seen him team up with Josh McDowell in dissolving funeral masks to produce ancient manuscripts.
In December of 2013, Josh McDowell held an exclusive event in which two funeral masks were dissolved by Carroll called “Discover the Evidence.” The website of the events describes that a “meeting of so many people participating in the extraction of ancient papyri had never been tried before. Everyone attending was able to see and touch ancient manuscripts few ever experience. We heard from top scholars and experts of our day on biblical manuscript discovery including the Dead Sea Scrolls. We watched as papyri were carefully extracted from ancient artifacts.”
The dissolving of the funeral masks by Scott Carroll can be seen in this video:
In the video you see Josh McDowell participating. It is a fascinating process, but not all are pleased. Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden over at The Christian Century have written a scathing piece titled “Why did the Museum of the Bible’s Scholars Destroy Ancient Egyptian Artifacts?” They write that
The possibility of recovering ancient texts from the cartonnage of Egyptian mummy masks came to the attention of evangelical collectors and apologists like McDowell primarily through the work of Scott Carroll. Trained in ancient languages and history at the University of Miami, Carroll has made a career acting as an agent for individual collectors, most recently for the Green family, which owns the Hobby Lobby company, possesses one of the world’s largest collections of biblical artifacts, and is the force behind the Museum of the Bible which opened in November  in Washington, D.C.
Moss and Baden complain that:
In the early 1980s, scholars developed a new method for extracting the papyrus cartonnage from its overlaid plaster, a method that avoided damaging the painted surface. Although relatively easy and inexpensive, the process is time-consuming, taking about a week from start to finish. This may not seem long, but it doesn’t allow for a one-day presentation of the sort led by McDowell and Carroll. For their purposes, a faster method was needed. They used an older method, developed in the 19th century.
Bart Ehrman, who was debating Wallace when Wallace announced the first century Mark fragment, over at his blog writes scathingly:
This complete disregard for the sanctity of surviving antiquities is, for many, many of us not just puzzling but flat-out distressing. It appears that the people behind and the people doing this destruction of antiquities are all conservative evangelical Christians, who care nothing about the preservation of the past – they care only about getting their paws on a small fragment of a manuscript. Can there be any question that with them we are not dealing with historians but Christian apologists?
Mary-Ann Russon writing for the International Business Time writes that “although Evans’ discovery is not insignificant, there are many scholars in the archaeology world who disagree with dismantling ancient mummy masks to access the papyrus texts.”
Why hasn’t scholars who have announced this find given more information? It has been since 2012 that the discovery was announced. It seems that Wallace and Evans have signed a non-disclosure agreement. It it unethical to deconstruct the funerary mask to uncover ancient manuscripts? These are hard questions. It seems that if there is a process to preserve the mask while still uncovering the manuscripts then that method should be preferred.
Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden are the authors of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby published by Princeton University Press. One review for the book on the Princeton Press website stated that “The Greens may well be the most sincere and most-frequently misguided activists in America.” The are disparaging about the Green Collection, the Museum of the Bible, and the Green Scholars Initiative as well as Scott Carroll and Josh McDowell. Moss and Baden in The Christian Century go on to claim that the reliability of the textual transmission in relation to the funeral masks is part of a “deep belief in the divine protection of the text of the Christian scriptures and in their inerrant transmission across the millennia.” They go on to assert that “those audiences are being misled about the meaning of the fragments and about their relevance to claims for inerrant transmission.”
Let me pause to comment briefly about Moss and Baden’s representation of these events.
I don’t know of any evangelical scholar or apologist who claims that the transmission was inerrant. This is a mis-representation of the position. Unless you are a King James Only advocate, this is just a straw-man argument against evangelical Christian scholars. In fact, if evangelical scholars and apologists believed the transmission was inerrant, there would be no need to recover manuscripts to determine what the originals said. In fact, the opposite is true: evangelicals DON’T believe the transmission was errorless, thus the desire to recover early manuscripts to determine the original wording of the autographs.
That being said, recently Peter Gurry, a PhD student at Cambridge in New Testament studies, posted at Evangelical Textual Criticism that Carroll was not the individual to discover the supposed first-century fragment of Mark, but that he had seen it twice. Carroll likewise mentions that he doesn’t believe it came from a funeral mask as well, but the owner wants to remain anonymous. Also, Gurry reports that Dr. Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist at Oxford University, appears to be the individual that dates the fragment to the first-century.
A helpful timeline of events for the supposed first-century fragment of Mark can be found here. I have provided an abbreviated timeline of this first-century fragment of Mark that we are waiting for publication:
- Dec 1, 2011 – Dr. Carroll tweets about an earlier fragment than the John Ryland fragment
- Feb 1, 2012 – Dr. Wallace announces the discovery of a first-century fragment of Mark at his debate with Dr. Ehrman
- Feb 15, 2012 – Dr Witherington writes about the possibility of the Mark fragment
- Sept 6, 2013 – Dr Carroll at a presentation of the University of the Nations announces the discovery of the earliest text of Mark (minute 37 and 38)
- Mar 7-8, 2014 – Dr. Evans lectures at Apologetics Canada Conference about the first century fragment of Mark and funeral masks.
- Oct 16-17, 2015 – Footage Carroll mentioning Dirk Obbink as the one studying the manuscript assigning a date between A. D. 70 and 120, that he has seen the manuscript twice, that the Green Collection does not own the manuscript
- Feb 23, 2018 – Dr. Gary Habermas at Purdue University mentions the “Mark fragment” (video can be seen below after UPDATE).
- Mar 23, 2018 – ETC website discusses publication of this fragment. (see UPDATE below]
- May 23, 2018 – Dr. Wallace affirms that the fragment is NOT first-century and explains why he mistakingly, but unknowingly, announced it at the debate with Dr. Ehrman in 2012.
- May 23, 2018 – Dr. Elijah Hixson publishes a post titled ” ‘First-Century Mark,’ Published at Last? [Updated]”
- May 26, 2018 – Dr Wallace is interviewed by Kurt Jaros on his podcast Veracity Hill about the Mark fragment.
- June 28, 2019 – Lengthy article at CT by Jerry Pattengale on an insider’s perspective on the “First-Century Mark” saga. Pattengale was one of the founding scholars of the Museum of the Bible and colleague of Scott Carroll who meet with Obbink.
Well, it is 2017 2018 and nothing has come to light about this supposed fragment yet. Nevertheless, we are still waiting for any publication of this first century manuscript of Mark. Brill announced the publication of the Green Scholars Initiative of rare unpublished papyri. Maybe that volume will contain this fragment as well as others that have been mentioned along with the first-century fragment. But we wait…and wait we must.
Well, it looks like the wait is over and . . . . probably not first century (see UPDATE #2) below.
Dr. Gary Habermas, presenting at Purdue University, revealed that he had permission to announce the Mark fragment (here again, a mention, but no production or citation) that supposedly dates between 80-110 AD. The video can be viewed below starting at the 22 minute mark:
Elijah Hixson over at the blog site Evangelical Textual Criticism has some information that might reference the possible first century fragment of Mark in an article titled ” ‘First-Century Mark,’ Published at Last?”. A taste of the article:
It looks like we are finally getting that First-Century Mark (henceforth, FCM) fragment everyone has been talking about for years. (By the designation “FCM” I am not implying that it actually dates to the first century. I don’t know the date yet. I only mean that “FCM” is probably the actual papyrus that has been reported to be the first-century Mark fragment.)
Peter Gurry has accessed the edition and confirmed that this fragment has been dated to the “(later) second or (earlier) third century.” Either there are two early Mark fragments (highly unlikely), or the “First-Century Mark” is not first-century, after all.
Looks like it isn’t a first century fragment if this information is correct.
Dr. Daniel Wallace, who initiated the speculation of a first-century fragment of Mark at the the Bart Ehrman debate in 2012, has issued an update and an apology for being part of unknowingly spreading misinformation. You can read it at “First-Century Mark Fragment Update” on his blog. Some of the more pertinent information:
I [Daniel B. Wallace] signed a non-disclosure agreement about this manuscript in 2012 sometime after I made an announcement about it in my third debate with Bart Ehrman at North Carolina, Chapel Hill (February 1, 2012). I was told in the non-disclosure agreement not to speak about when it would be published or whether it even exists. The termination of this agreement would come when it was published. Consequently, I am now free to speak about it.
I had it on good authority that this was definitely a first-century fragment of Mark. A representative for who I understood was the owner of FCM urged me to make the announcement at the debate, which they realized would make this go viral. However, the information I received and was assured to have been vetted was incorrect. It was my fault for being naïve enough to trust that the data I got was unquestionable, as it was presented to me. So, I must first apologize to Bart Ehrman, and to everyone else, for giving misleading information about this discovery.
Hard lesson to learn. But, may we all learn from it.
An excellent article by Elijah Hixson at Christianity Today titled “Despite Disappointing Some, New Mark Manuscript Is Earliest Yet” provided an excellent summary of this issue concerning the fragment of Mark. While it is disappointing that it is not from the first century (it seems to date from A.D. 150-250), it is probably the earliest fragment of the gospel of Mark. The sensationalistic reporting that it was from the first century has overshadowed the importance of this fragment unfortunately. Images of P137 (has it is now designated) can be viewed here.
National Geographics December cover article has an nice piece on biblical manuscripts which mentions the fragment of the Gospel of Mark discussed in this post:
“Inside the Cloak-and-Dagger Search for Sacred Texts” by Robert Draper | National Geographic December 2018
An invoice for the sale of the alleged first century Mark fragment has been released by Michael Holmes to several New Testament MSS scholars such as Elijah Hixson. Hixson makes some interesting remarks concerning the invoice: Obbink was selling items without the knowledge or consent of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES), Wallace revealed that his non-disclosure agreement (NDA) was at the request of the seller (Obbink), it seems reasonable that that the buyers could trust someone of Obbink’s reputation, and most interestingly Hixson states that:
It looks like the evangelicals were telling the truth here. It seems to me that some of the people who suggested or otherwise accused the Greens, Scott Carroll, Dan Wallace, etc. of lying when compared to statements made by the EES and others might owe some apologies. Such reactions probably stem from the same cause of all this (if I’m right on point 4, above), that it is unthinkable that someone from the EES could be telling anything other that the truth. If anyone does need to apologise, I hope they have the integrity to do so.
Brent Nongbri, an Honorary Research Fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, has posted several pieces about this issue:
[UPDATE #6 – Final and Last Update]
“Why did the Museum of the Bible’s scholars destroy ancient Egyptian artifacts?” by Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden | The Christian Century November 29, 2017
“Mark strikes back: Mummy cartonnage and Christian apologetics, again…” by Roberta Mazza | Faces and Voices Nov 25, 2014
“First-century Mark: A Timeline” by James Snapp, Jr | The Text of the Gospels Jan 31, 2015
“New Details Emerge about ‘First Century Mark’ from Scott Carroll” by Peter Gurry | Evangelical Textual Criticism July 14, 2017
“First-Century Mark Fragment Update” by Daniel Wallace | DanielBWallace March 23, 2018
“Despite Disappointing Some, New Mark Manuscript Is Earliest Yet” by Elijah Hixson | Christianity Today March 30, 2018
“The ‘First-Century Mark’ Saga from Inside the Room” by Jerry Pattengale | June 28, 2019