Possible first-century copy of Mark’s Gospel discovered

In 2012, Dan Wallace dropped a bombshell during a debate with Bart Ehrman. Ehrman had pointed out that our earliest copy of Mark’s Gospel is dated 140 years after the gospel was first written. It’s a point often made by critics to show the unreliability of the New Testament. Wallace then revealed that he had knowledge that a first century copy of Mark’s Gospel had been discovered. He also revealed that the document would be published in a forthcoming volume by E. J. Brill.

It was all very cryptic at the time, and Ehrman later complained that Wallace should not have brought it up in the debate. Ehrman argued that bringing up this alleged discovery without providing any evidence for it was dirty pool. I disagree. It seems reasonable to mention forthcoming scholarly work with the understanding that independent verification can only come after publication of the find. In that sense, it’s only dirty pool if you are making outlandish claims. But a report out today says that a group of scholars are indeed planning to publish what they believe to be a first-century fragment of Mark’s Gospel.

LiveScience.com has a report today verifying Wallace’s claims about work being done on a fragment of Mark’s Gospel that appears to be from the late first century. There are also some more details about the nature of the discovery.

If this is verified, this would prove to be a momentous find. It turns out the papyrus fragment in question was a part of an ancient mummy mask discovered in Egypt. Through a complicated process, the manuscript fragment has been identified and dated to the latter part of the first century.

There are a number of masks that are currently being studied, and the masks in question could yield a treasure-trove of historical data. In a report for LiveScience.com, Craig Evans explains:

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 also explains why there has been so much secrecy about the discovery.

Of course, all of this is subject to the peer-review process. But if it all pans out, I can’t tell you how important this discovery would be. To have a first-century witness to the text of the New Testament is unprecedented. That a fragment of Mark was found in Egypt is even more astonishing. That would seem to require that the original was probably penned decades before. I will resist speculating further until the book comes out, but this really is a remarkable discovery. I am looking forward to the volume from Brill.


  1. Peter Williams is encouraging everyone to be skeptical about claims that this is a first century document. He says the LiveScience.com report is flawed, and he questions whether it even quotes Evans accurately. I think the video below indicates that the report does represent Evans’s views accurately. But of course that doesn’t mean that the issue is settled. Again, once the document is published, scholars will put it through the paces. Obviously, all judgments should be provisional until then.
  2. I have heard from Daniel Wallace privately, and he stands by his original claims from the debate with Ehrman. As for the suggestion that he hasn’t seen the fragment, he says those claims are uninformed. He is in a difficult position because many critics have judged his remarks negatively without having all the facts, yet he is not allowed to reveal them yet.
  3. Joe Carter has a nice summary of the issue on The Gospel Coalition website. Carter includes a video from Craig Evans that looks like it may be the source for the LiveScience.com report. See below:

17 Responses to Possible first-century copy of Mark’s Gospel discovered

  1. dr. james willingham January 19, 2015 at 6:15 pm #

    It looks like those who believe the Bible is historical have it over those who think it is mythological. C.S. Lewis who had studied mythological and legendary writings all of his life made a well known comment on the historicity of the Bible which I need not repeat here. However, I do want to add my 2 cents worth, namely, that as a historian (B.S. Ed., major in history, M.A. in American Social & Intellectual History, 18 hrs. toward a Ph.D. in history, 6 at the University of South Carolina and 12 hours at Columbia University where I wrote a Prospectus for a Doctoral Dissertation in Black History and delivered a lecture in an Afternoon Lecture Series on the subject, “The Stanley Elkins Thesis: A Critique,” taught a course on Senior Papers at Morehead, served as an Instructor in American History at South Carolina State University, elected to membership in Phi Alpha Theta – the International Honor Society of Historians, did church history research for six years, served as chairman of the historical committee of the Sandy Creek Assn. and as chairman of the historical committee of the Baptist State Convention, and took other courses in history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary while earning my theological degrees), I find the Bible to be a book to be reckoned with, when it comes to history. For truthfulness, I found nothing like it in all of my years of training and research in the historical fields. One area in which I looked was that of Intellectual History, that is, the study of ideas. We have yet to address that issue in our seminary training, especially as to how the ideas are designed to make a minister (and a believer) balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic.

    • James Compton January 21, 2015 at 2:17 am #

      Mr. Willingham, what are you trying to say?

  2. petermhead January 19, 2015 at 6:31 pm #

    Denny, nothing in that report vindicates Dan yet; no one has seen this manuscript (neither Dan nor Craig); my advice would be to take this post down until we actually see a publication.

    • Denny Burk January 19, 2015 at 9:01 pm #

      Thanks, Peter. I edited the post with qualifications. I don’t want to overclaim either. We all remember what happened with the ossuary.

      The report made it sound like Evans had firsthand knowledge of the project. But I take your word for it that he doesn’t.

      • petermhead January 21, 2015 at 6:45 am #

        Thanks for the up-date Denny. Of course we are all uninformed! How could anyone be otherwise in this situation. So Dan said he had seen it?

    • Paul Reed January 20, 2015 at 9:53 am #

      Agreed. And let’s look at the ethics of the people making this claim. One’s been asked for evidence, and yet he’s withholding it until he can write his book. And the other, the debater, tries to drop this as a “bomb” during a debate instead of notifying his opponent beforehand, so that both sides can equally have time to examine the evidence. I’m be very wary of throwing my hat in with these people.

  3. Matt Privett January 19, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

    I think the question on everyone’s mind is…

    How does it end? 🙂

  4. Greg Gibson January 19, 2015 at 10:56 pm #

    Denny, I’m no textual scholar. But I wonder if Jose O’Callahan’s Qumran mss discoveries are accurate?

    Text Fragment Approx. date
    Mark 4:28 7Q6 AD 50
    Mark 6:48 7Q15 AD ?
    Mark 6:52, 53 7Q5 AD 50
    Mark 12:17 7Q7 AD 50
    Acts 27:38 7Q6 AD 60+
    Romans 55:11, 12, 7Q9 AD 70+
    1 Timothy 3:16, 4:1-3, 7Q4 AD 70+
    2 Peter 1:15 7Q10 AD 70+
    James 1:23, 24, 7Q8 AD 70+

  5. Ted Weis (@TedWeis) January 20, 2015 at 2:33 am #

    Dr. Evans spoke of this same papyrus fragment in a YouTube video posted in July, 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kPgACbtRRs

    After Dr. Wallace first mentioned the Mark fragment in February, 2012, Josh McDowell sponsored an event in December, 2013 in Plano, Texas where Egyptian artifacts were “deconstructed” and found to contain several early papyrus fragments of the New Testament written in Coptic. McDowell claims he might possess the earliest material of Mark, a Coptic fragment of 15:9. McDowell’s website has a PDF with commentary on its acquisition process and brief descriptions of its numerous (tentative) discoveries. https://s3.amazonaws.com/jmm.us/PDFs-Downloadable/Discover+the+Evidence+-+Discover+a+Living+Treasure.pdf

  6. James Snapp, Jr. February 2, 2015 at 7:10 pm #

    There has been some confusion about the first-century fragment of Mark and its anticipated publication-date. To help everyone sort things out, I have prepared a timeline of events related to the fragment and its (eventual) publication. It is at
    http://www.thetextofthegospels.com/2015/01/the-first-century-fragment-of-mark-this.html .


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