A first century fragment of Mark’s gospel? Some thoughts by an outsider

An article in Live Science two days ago:

Mummy Mask May Reveal Oldest Known Gospel

A text that may be the oldest copy of a gospel known to exist — a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that was written during the first century, before the year 90 — is set to be published. …

This first-century gospel fragment was written on a sheet of papyrus that was later reused to create a mask that was worn by a mummy.

Some sensible words of caution are here; and here at ETC, where it is suggested that the article at Live Science may be entirely derived from some public presentations.  There has also been some curious snarking from one or two papyrologists, who are not involved in the discovery, presumably out of sour grapes.

Is this a genuine discovery?  Who knows?  But I have some concerns about all this, even based on the story as we have it.

Mark’s gospel was completed ca. 70 AD, in Alexandria, according to the ancient literary sources, and to me there seems no pressing reason to suppose that they are wrong.  So it is possible, in principle, that a piece of an early copy could be found in waste papyrus in Egypt.  There’s no real reason why not.

But … surely it is somewhat improbable that one of the few copies of this text in existence at that date should happen to turn up in the limited amount of mummy cartonnage that has so far been dismantled?  Isn’t it?  Consider the vast output of papyrus made every year in ancient Egypt, of which a certain proportion ended up as waste papyrus.  What, statistically, are the chances of a 1st century copy of Mark being in that proportion?  They must be slim.

We’re told that portions of Homer have turned up, and this is not a surprise.  Likewise that documentary texts are found: this too does not surprise.  But something that must always have been a very rare item?

Of course probability is just that; a calculation based on averages.  All the same, it’s troubling.

In general, when a discovery is made which bears on matters of current interest or controversy (rather than something which was controversial in antiquity), it is wise to consider the possibility of forgery.   In the renaissance people forged stone monuments supposedly from well-known figures of classical antiquity, in order to make money.  Forgeries of papyri are not at all unknown.

There is a fingerprint for forgery, noted by Stephen C. Carlson.  By its very nature, a forgery must be of something which is exciting to people in the period in which it is “discovered”.   That’s where the money is.  Nobody is going to forge something that nobody is interested in.  But it is often the case that this modern excitement is over something that would not have been exciting in antiquity.  It is this dichotomy that marks out a forgery.

So any “discovery” that is of current interest, that fits squarely into a matter of current agitation, or fits the political or religious views of the discoverer particularly well, must be scrutinised with rational but exceptional caution.  Otherwise we will all be hoodwinked by those enterprising gentlemen in Turkey and Palestine whose attempts at forgery regularly attract interest from specialists.

A discovery of a first century fragment of a gospel fits that profile squarely.  A first century gospel could not have been of special interest in antiquity, when they were composed, but it would be very interesting today!

It is, therefore, of the utmost importance to do things right; to establish the provenance of the item, to look for signs of forgery, to get a range of experts involved, and, above all, to shed as much light as possible on the item.

When P52 was identified in the 1930s, the discoverer, Colin Roberts, proceeded with extreme care.  He did not publish, nor did he announce his find, until it had been examined by all the leading paleographers of the day, and a consensus reached.  The wisdom of his approach is evident: his result has not been seriously questioned in 80 years, even though it contradicted the established wisdom of biblical studies at the time, and reinforced the fondest wishes of Christians.

By contrast the way in which this supposed first century fragment is being made known raises in me the worst suspicions.

The papyrus trade is a secretive one, partly because of the foolishness of the Egyptian government in declaring all finds the property of state officials, and partly because of the stupidity of western activists, who harass those involved in the black market that has inevitably arisen.  It is, therefore, entirely understandable that nothing should be announced until everything is ready.  And if that silence is used, as Colin Roberts did, to determine the facts and build consensus, then well and good.  That’s one way to publish.

The alternative is better.  It is to shine a bright light on everything.  Publish the fragments now, without any very firm attributions, as soon as possible, with the provenance, and crowd-source an examination of every element of it.  The truth will out, and a consensus will come into being rather rapidly, as it did for the forgery known as the “gospel of Jesus’ wife”.

Either approach is acceptable.  But we seem to have neither.  Instead we have the worst of both worlds.

On the one hand we have a drip-drip of non-academic reportage, excitedly making all sorts of claims, possibly based on no more than a video by somebody who may (or may not) be involved in the project at all.  This feeds the fever of speculation; which, of course, increases the price that may be asked for publication, and generally increases the commercial value of the property.  It seems to benefit nobody in any other way that I can see.

On the other hand, we have an entire silence on all the matters that would allow professionals to form a judgement.

It is reminiscent of some of the hype around the Coptic Gospel of Judas.  That was a genuine text, and this mixture of whispers and real information is what we tended to get.  I suppose, in fairness, that this may be how Americans do things, for all I know.

But it is also reminiscent of how forgers operate: people whose sole aim is to boost the value of their merchandise and make a quick buck while the going is good.  For all I know, there is some Turkish forger at work, using some clever Swiss lawyer (or whatever) to control the whole process via “confidentiality agreements”, and manipulating the scholars at the far end who seek merely to recover knowledge.

If the discovery is genuine, then it is wonderful.  Any recovery of lost texts from antiquity is a joy, and any very early witness to any important text is to be treasured.

But is it genuine?  We cannot say.  But the manner in which it is becoming known to the public does nothing to give me confidence.

So I think we need to hold our horses, and await proper publication.  To me, all this is too good to be true.  But let’s hope not.

9 thoughts on “A first century fragment of Mark’s gospel? Some thoughts by an outsider

  1. Who’s Juda’s wife?

    So far, many words, but no hard facts about the fragment, and a philologist whould not look for miracles, but for evidence.

  2. I know … sorry about that … Wieland Wilker told me the same earlier.

    You’re right. What we want is data. I’m not seeing any, though.

  3. What we need is an all-out assault on cartonnage by professional papyrologists.

    Right now the art-historian specialists are complaining about how it’s too destructive. I could kind of see that, where physicists salivate over using lead ingots retrieved from shipwrecks (which ingots are now very pure) for their (nonarchaeological) experiments. But mummy cartonnage is, sorry, kind of cheap and ugly. And there’s a lot of it. Art-historians can take photos and leave the rest to the rest of us.

  4. I agree.

    The complaining about the destruction of a few nondescript mummy masks is very odd, considering the treasures at stake. Dismantling cartonnage has been done for ages. After some thought, I have concluded that the objections have been made as a wrecking tactic, presumably motivated by envy and spite. They make no sense in any other context. And papyrology is a funny business, and some of those involved in it are very petty.

  5. I wish there was a non-destructive method at least to determine if something worth-while was there before a mask is destroyed. Having said that, it’s a bit odd that some of the same bloggers crying the loudest about reclaiming texts are either silent or apologists with respect to the major screw up relating to the iconic Gold Tut Mummy Mask and Egypt’s generally poor stewardship of what it has.

  6. Yes, I noticed that curious difference in response! But I think the masks do have very little value, and the objection is really mendacious.

    I read your blog regularly btw: thank you.

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