A Well Thought Out Scream by James Riordan: OLDEST GOSPEL TEXT DISCOVERED
A fragment of the Gospel of Mark that was written during the first century was recently discovered. The text was written before the year 90 and prior to its discovery, the oldest gospel text discovered was written sometime between the years 101 and 200. The fragment was written on a sheet of papyrus that was later reused in creating a mummy mask. The masks that the mummies of the Egyptian pharaohs wore were made of gold, but most non-royalty had to settle for masks made out of papyrus (or linen), paint, and glue. Since papyrus was also expensive, many people had to reuse sheets that already had writing on them.
It has only been in recent years that scientists have developed a technique that dissolves the glue of mummy masks without harming the ink on the paper. The text on the sheets can then be read. The first-century gospel is one of hundreds of new texts that over thirty scientists and scholars have been working to uncover, and analyze, said Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. “We’re recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries. Not just Christian documents, not just biblical documents, but classical Greek texts, business papers, various mundane papers, personal letters,” Evans told Live Science. The documents include philosophical texts and copies of stories by the Greek poet Homer. [See Images of Early Christian Inscriptions and Artifacts]
Of course, a major downside is that the process destroys the mummy mask and scholars in the field are debating whether this particular method should be used to reveal the texts they contain. But Craig Evans emphasized that the masks that are being destroyed to reveal the new texts are not high-quality ones that would be displayed in a museum. Some are not masks at all but are simply pieces of cartonnage. Evans told Live Science, “We’re not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece.”
Even so, the destruction of the mummy masks has generated considerable debate. Archaeologist Paul Barford, who writes about collecting and heritage issues, wrote a scathing blog post criticizing the work on the gospel. Another opponent of the process, Roberta Mazza, a lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Manchester, has blogged her concerns about the text as has Brice Jones, a doctoral candidate in religion at Concordia University.
Scholars who work on the project have to sign a nondisclosure agreement that limits what they can say publicly. There are several reasons for this agreement. One is that some of the owners of these masks simply do not want their contributions to be made known, Evans said. “The scholars who are working on this project have to honor the request of the museums, universities, private owners, so forth.”
The owners of the mummy masks retain ownership of the papyrus sheets after the glue on them is dissolved. Evans said that the only reason he can discuss the first-century gospel before it is published is because a member of the team leaked some of the information in 2012. Evans was careful to say that he is not telling revealing anything that hasn’t already been leaked online.
Soon after the 2012 leak, speculation surrounded the methods that the scholars used to figure out the gospel’s age. The business and personal letters discovered through the process often have dates on them. When the glue was dissolved, the researchers dated the first-century gospel in part by analyzing the other documents found in the same mask. Evans reports that the text was dated through a combination of carbon-14 dating, studying the handwriting on the fragment and studying the other documents found along with the gospel. These considerations led the researchers to conclude that the fragment was written before the year 90. With the non-disclosure agreement in place, Evans said that he can’t say much more about the text’s date until the papyrus is published.
There is no question that the technique has brought many new texts to light. “From a single mask,” Evans noted, “it’s not strange to recover a couple dozen or even more new texts. We’re going to end up with many hundreds of papyri when the work is done if not thousands.”
When the texts are published the debate is likely to move beyond the blogosphere and into mainstream media and scholarly journals.
Although the first-century gospel fragment is small, the text will provide clues as to whether the Gospel of Mark changed over time, Evans said. His own research is focused on analyzing the mummy mask texts, to try to determine how long people held onto them before disposing or reusing them. This can yield valuable information about how biblical texts were copied over time.
“We have every reason to believe that the original writings and their earliest copies would have been in circulation for a hundred years in most cases — in some cases much longer, even 200 years,” he said.
This means that “a scribe making a copy of a script in the third century could actually have at his disposal (the) first-century originals, or first-century copies, as well as second-century copies.”
Evans said that the research team will publish the first volume of texts obtained through the mummy masks and cartonnage later this year. It will include the gospel fragment that the researchers believe dates back to the first century.
The team originally hoped the volume would be published in 2013 or 2014, but the date had to be moved back to 2015. Evans said he is uncertain why the book’s publication was delayed, but the team has made use of the extra time to conduct further studies into the first-century gospel. “The benefit of the delay is that when it comes out, there will be additional information about it and other related texts.”
James Riordan .is the author of thirty-three books, including Break On Through : The Life & Death of Jim Morrison (a New York Times Bestseller), Stone,: The Biography of Oliver Stone , The Coming of the Walrus and The Bishop of Rwanda. He has written for Rolling Stone, Circus, Cream, Crawdaddy and other national magazines and won nine national awards. He is also widely recognized for his ministry work with teenagers.