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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: