1st Century Mark - fragments and figments of our imagination

Nearly ten years ago rumors started to circulate of a Bible manuscript that had been discovered having been dated to the first century. The News first appeared during a debate with Bart Ehrman of UNC Chapel Hill and Dan Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary (and CSNTM) back in 2012. In the course of the back-and-forth between the two scholars, Dr. Wallace made remarks regarding a yet unpublished manuscript of Mark that had been dated by a world-class paleographer to the first century.

Until recently, our earliest extant manuscript of the Gospel of mark was manuscript P45, a third century codex that contained all four Gospels and Acts.

Until recently, our earliest extant manuscript of the Gospel of mark was manuscript P45, a third century codex that contained all four Gospels and Acts.

Since then the rumor mill has churned with pieces of information that no one has been able to truly verify. The academic community has largely been confused, the evangelical apologetics world has been buzzing with excitement, and the people seemingly “in the know” have been bizarrely covert. This all came to a head, however, in June of 2018, when the Egypt Exploration Society announced a re-date update to P137 (P.Oxy. 83.5345), a two sided papyrus fragment of Mark discovered in 1903. In this announcement it was confirmed that P137 was in fact the manuscript purported to be the mysterious “first century Mark” manuscript that everyone was talking about. And that the document in question was not in fact first century, but late second or early third century.

This announcement would have normally been momentous, as it would push P137 into the space of our earliest surviving copy of Mark’s Gospel. But, due to all the hype over an alleged date from the first century, this news was completely overshadowed by more than a little confusion and unanswered questions. The Egypt Exploration Society seemed to share in everyone’s bewilderment concerning the facts, as the manuscript had been in their collection for over a hundred years. The EES likewise has claimed that this papyrus fragment had never been for sale or been passed around within the communities who were making subtle statements about said document.

Manuscript P137 (P.Oxy. 83.5345), courtesy of Egypt Exploration Society

Manuscript P137 (P.Oxy. 83.5345), courtesy of Egypt Exploration Society

The saga of the first century Mark fragment has been a bewildering one, and if for nothing else, a good example of being cautious and not jumping to conclusions. I personally have been skeptical from the beginning, as an unpublished manuscript find, redating, or discovery, might as well be non-existent. However, the whole debacle just does not seem to want to subside, leaving lingering questions in its wake as new evidence continues to trickle into the public sphere.

What follows is my attempt at summarizing the story so far:

In the Beginning

As previously mentioned, it all started during Dr. Dan Wallace’s comments in the debate between himself and Bart Ehrman at UNC Chapel Hill on February 1st, 2012. Wallace announced that there was a yet to be published manuscript of Mark’s Gospel that had been redated to the first century by a reputable source, and that this information would be published by E. J. Brill the following year (2013). If true, this meant that there would be a new manuscript in town to be named the earliest New Testament evidence to date.

Shortly after the debate Dr. Wallace wrote a short blog where he stated:

I mentioned that seven New Testament papyri had recently been discovered — six of them probably from the second century and one of them probably from the first. These fragments will be published in about a year.

These fragments now increase our holdings as follows: we have as many as eighteen New Testament manuscripts from the second century and one from the first. Altogether, more than 43% of all New Testament verses are found in these manuscripts. But the most interesting thing is the first-century fragment.

It was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century.

These assertions from Wallace came with their fair share of skepticism from the academic community. Larry Hurtado, Mark Goodacre, and Peter J. Williams, all weighing in with a good dose of apprehension and hesitancy. But nothing could be said one way or the other until something was published for open scrutiny and examination. And so the scholars held a collective breath to see what would come in the following year.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?

As everyone waited to see resulting fruit from Dr. Wallace’s announcement the upcoming date of its publication came and went with silence. However, there seemed to be some aspect of a connection with the newly formed Green Scholars Initiative, a project which endeavored to publish and display antiquities as part of the Green family’s (owners of Hobby Lobby) personal collection, now on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

This project was directed by antiquities scholar Scott Carroll, who announced in a lecture on archeology and the Bible, that a first century manuscript of Mark had been found and “dates between 70 and 100 (AD/CE).” This immediately set up red flags for many as such a narrow window of dating is highly improbable if the evaluation had been done based on paleographic evidence alone, which is what had been alluded to by Wallace and others. In this lecture Dr. Carroll also mentions a process of manuscript extraction where manuscripts are discovered by dissolving papier-mache Egyptian mummy masks (a process which is highly controversial as it results in the destruction of one ancient artifact to retrieve another).

Earlier that same year at the Apologetics Canada conference in Abbotsford, BC, Craig Evans of Houston Baptist University, gave a presentation where he made a connection between the alleged first century manuscript of Mark and papyri being pulled from Egyptian mummy masks. That same year well known Christian apologist Josh McDowell gave a talk entitled The Bible: Fact, Fiction, or Fable where he described participation in this process of extracting manuscripts from Egyptian funerary masks. In minute 16 of the video, McDowell makes reference to the first century manuscript of Mark’s Gospel and says it came from one of these mummy masks. Going on to say that the manuscript should have been published the year previous.

As 2013 came and went nothing was published. Some new information did come to light however, on the papyri discovered from the mummy masks. A video appeared from 2012 which shows a crowd of individuals going through with the mummy dissolving. Dr. Carroll can be seen at the beginning of the video describing some of the process and saying that he believed that first and second century biblical documents could very well be uncovered.

A slide Dr. Craig Evans used in his presentation that states a date for both the manuscript of Mark and its forthcoming publication.

A slide Dr. Craig Evans used in his presentation that states a date for both the manuscript of Mark and its forthcoming publication.

The sound of silence

In 2015 Live Science published an article explaining the approach taken by scholars who do seek to extract ancient manuscripts from Egyptian funerary masks, the article explicitly mentioning the first century Mark “discovery.” The article included an interview with Dr. Evans where he states that the manuscript publication had been delayed and should surface at the end of 2015. However, by the end of the year there was still no scholarly publication or positive identification of the manuscript. At a National Apologetics Conference in October of 2015, Josh McDowell interviewed Scott Carroll, asking about the Mark manuscript. Dr. Caroll names Dr. Dirk Obbink, of Oxford University, as the papyrologist who made the official dating.

Doctor, doctor, please - Oh, the mess I’m in


Dr. Obbink, the papyrologist named by Dr. Carroll in 2015, during the Q&A section of a presentation on the Ancient Lives Project, makes the statement in context to a question about the importance of smaller manuscript fragments:

But the collection has juxtaposed very large fragments with very small fragments because even a small fragment can confirm or disconfirm a disputed reading in one of the Synoptic Gospels, for example, and provide the earliest manuscript witness to it.

Although not an explicit mention of the Mark manuscript, many take this to be an illusion. However, this brings up questions for many as to the nature of ownership of the document. Dr. Obbink in this talk is specifically talking about the Oxyfhynchus papyri, a particular grouping of manuscripts discovered in the early twentieth century in Oxyfhynchus Egypt. Until that point all information trickling out about the first century Mark manuscript implied that it was owned by a private collection, such as the Green collection. If not owned privately, the inclusion of so much discussion of mummy masks in context to its mentioning pointed to it, at the very least, being part of a larger project involving such exploration techniques.

Manuscript P52 (John Rylands 457), remains our oldest extant evidence for the biblical New Testament. This fragment measures 3.5 by 2.5 inches, containing writing on both sides and is dated to bet ween 125-175 AD/CE.

Manuscript P52 (John Rylands 457), remains our oldest extant evidence for the biblical New Testament. This fragment measures 3.5 by 2.5 inches, containing writing on both sides and is dated to bet ween 125-175 AD/CE.

It’s the final countdown

Dr. Gary Habermas of Liberty University, gives at lecture at Purdue University in February, where he mentions the first century fragment of Mark. Habermas, once again, repeats the slightly problematic 80-110 AD window as an off handed comment.

In April, Dr. Elijah Hixson writes a post on the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog, indicating that the illusive manuscript could be part of the forthcoming Oxyrhynchus Papyri volume 83. Shortly after Dan Wallace broke his silence and confirmed that the dating of the Mark manuscript was P.Oxy. 5345 and in fact not first century, but late second or early third century. Wallace also issued an apology, stating that his announcement six years previous in his debate with Ehrman was done with the permission of the representatives of individual’s claiming to be the fragments owners.

Scott Carroll, in the comment section of the Evangelcial Textual Criticism blog said that:

D. Obbink offered a papyrus of Mark 1 for sale in late 2011 to the Greens and it was still in his possession and he was trying to sell it in 2013. On both occasions, he unequivocally said that the papyrus dated to the late first or early second century and detailed reasons for his dating. He gave no clear indication about its provenance. Without seeing the pictures, I can not confirm if P.Oxy LXXXIII 5345 is the same papyrus he was trying to sell but it seems certain.

The Egyptian Exploration Society, the owners of the manuscript in question, made a statement shortly after saying that:

In the latest volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, volume LXXXIII text 5345, Professor Obbink and Dr Colomo publish a fragment from a papyrus codex (book). The two sides of the papyrus each preserve brief traces of a passage, both of which come from the gospel of Mark. After rigorous comparison with other objectively dated texts, the hand of this papyrus is now assigned to the late second to early third century AD. This is the same text that Professor Obbink showed to some visitors to Oxford in 2011/12, which some of them reported in talks and on social media as possibly dating to the late first century AD on the basis of a provisional dating when the text was catalogued many years ago. Papyrus 5345 was excavated by Grenfell and Hunt, probably in 1903 (on the basis of its inventory number), and has never been for sale, whatever claims may have been made arising from individual conversations in the past. No other unpublished fragments of New Testament texts in the EES collection have been identified as earlier than the third century AD.

The University of Birmingham’s Candida Moss and Yale Divinity’s Joel Baden, in an article for The Daily Beast, highlight a number of contradictions in the stories of the different parties involved in the Markan manuscript saga. This only opened up more questions as Dr. Carroll insisted that the manuscript was put up for purchase to the Green family (who apparently never purchased it) with Dr. Obbink and the Egypt Exploration Society denying it was ever up for sale.

No time like the present

On June 23rd of 2019 Brent Nongbri, an Honorary Research Fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, posted on his blog the text from an email he received from Mike Holmes, a senior figure associated with the Museum of the Bible. This email includes information allegedly confirming an offer of sale by Dr. Obbink during his time as curator of the Oxyrhynchus collection.

Take aways?

This brings me back to the beginning — if we have learned anything throughout this misadventure thus far it is that caution should rule the day. This follows for any discoveries: claims by individuals to have found Noah’s Ark, Isaiah’s name inscribed in a signat ring, James the brother of Jesus’ tomb, or more Dead Sea Scroll fragments for that matter, all need to be vetted and verified by experts and specialists before we should be announcing anything definitive.

The existence of a manuscript, any manuscript, from the first century would be an exciting discovery indeed! And I do not blame those who did caught up in the sensationalism of the existence of something that had a slow trickle of perceived reputable individuals. Calmer heads prevail, and the debacle regarding the first century Mark fragment has been a good test case in that lesson.

At the end of the day, while it would have been momentous to have this Markan manuscript date to the first century, it would have done absolutely nothing to change the dating, text, or perception of Mark’s Gospel as we know it. The Gospel of Mark remains an ancient first century writing. An example of an early biography of Jesus drawn from — if the Early Church Fathers Papias, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, are to be trusted —the apostle Peter.

The document we call the Gospel of Mark that so many of us have the blessing to have in English translations in our hands today still remains a reliable source for the words, life, and events of Jesus of Nazereth two thousand years after it was penned. That fact we can rely on, and one more manuscript added to the pile will not change the truth of it.