Destroying Mummy Masks and the Oldest Known Copy of the Gospel of Mark?

Update: Article by Candida Moss and Joel Baden for CNN that nicely  summarizes more of the facts here.

The first any of us heard of a new discovery of the fragment of the New Testament Gospel of Mark dating to the late 1st century C.E. was in 2012. Bart Ehrman of UNC and Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary were engaged in a debate in Chapel Hill on the question “Is the Original New Testament Lost?”  Wallace simply asserted his “bombshell” claim without giving any details. The debate is available on Youtube here. Our earliest physical manuscript of any part of the N.T.  is a tiny papyrus fragment (3.5 x 2 inches, seven lines, front and back) from the Gospel of John known as Rylands P52, now on display in the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, UK. It is usually dated, with some controversy, between 117-150 C.E.


Following Wallace’s “leak” lots of blog posts appeared, including this more recent one by Brice C. Jones who alarmingly reported the involvement of evangelical Christian apologist Josh McDowell, who has no academic credentials. Here he unabashedly and gloatingly defends this destruction of antiquities, see video here (See at timemark 24:23 where Josh scoffs at the destructive process: “Scholars die when they hear this but we own them.”). Another evangelical defender of the process wrote just this week that “archaeology is inherently destructive,” as if artifacts themselves are destroyed rather than carefully preserved by responsible archaeologists.

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We can now assume, based on headline stories breaking this week, that Prof. Wallace was referring to a fragment of the Gospel of Mark recovered by the controversial destruction of Egyptian Mummy masks:

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.

At present, the oldest surviving copies of the gospel texts date to the second century (the years 101 to 200).

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. Although the mummies of Egyptian pharaohs wore masks made of gold, ordinary people had to settle for masks made out of papyrus (or linen), paint and glue. Given how expensive papyrus was, people often had to reuse sheets that already had writing on them.




Prof. Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia has been quoted in all the news reports. Craig is a friend and he and his students dig with us at Mt. Zion. He and I certainly have our differences and we have often dialogued on opposite sides over the history and interpretation of the “Jesus” tombs in Talpiot. Yesterday he sent me an e-mail clarifying the discovery from his perspective. He believes his role in the discovery has been somewhat misrepresented. Here is his response which I include here with his permission:

I am part of the team that interprets the discoveries. I am not a papyrologist or technician, so I am not involved in the dismantling of the masks and cartonnage. The photo belongs to Scott Carroll. Here’s his contact info:

SCOTT CARROLL MANUSCRIPTS & RARE BOOKS, INC. 16893 Buchanan St Grand Haven, MI 49417, 616-847-4009

Last summer I gave a presentation on the number, age, and reliability of New Testament manuscripts. In this lecture I described the effort under way in recent  years to recover manuscript fragments, including biblical manuscripts, from ancient cartonnage, including mummy masks. All of these materials are from Egypt. Just over three years ago a fragment of Mark was recovered, which those studying it think dates to the 80s. If they are correct, this will be the first New Testament manuscript that dates to the first century. The fragment is to be published later this year (by E. J. Brill). Someone video-recorded my lecture and posted it on YouTube. Last week a reporter, Owen Jarus, from Live Science contacted me and I gave him an interview. What he wrote was posted on Sunday 18 January 2015 and is accurate. However, other journalists have made use of his story and/or the video on YouTube and have misunderstood some aspects of it, claiming incorrectly that I was myself the discoverer of the fragment of Mark or that research on the papyri recovered from the mummy masks is going on here in Nova Scotia. Some have also posted a photo of a mummy mask giving me credit for the photo. The photo is not mine. I have directed reporters who inquired to the person to whom the photo does belong. Unfortunately, not all reporters inquired. The Live Science link is

Here are also some answers I have provided to commonly-asked questions:

1) Since it is believed the gospel of Mark was written in Rome, does it surprise you that a copy written so soon after the original would have made its way to an Egyptian mummy mask? No. In the Roman Empire mail moved almost as quickly as it does today. A letter put aboard a packet in Ephesus (today’s Turkey) could be in Egypt within one week. Something written in Rome could be in Egypt being read within a few weeks. Mark was written in the late 60s, so finding a copy of Mark in Egypt dating to the 80s is not strange in the least. 

2) Does dating indicate when the text was incorporated into the mummy mask? There are four important dates: (1) the date of the papyrus, (2) the date when ink was applied to the papyrus, (3) the date when the writing went out of use, and (4) the date when the no-longer-used writing was dismantled and used for the making of a mummy mask or some other form of cartonnage. Because some of the papyrus used in these masks are letters or business papers, we sometimes find dates, which is a big help. The style of handwriting helps date the papyrus. Features of the mask (e.g., its design and artwork) can sometimes help date it. A date in the tomb or in the sarcophagus can be very helpful. Carbon-14 can be helpful. All of these methods can potentially come into play in attempting to date the mask and then the earlier dates of the various papyri that were used later in making the mask. 

3) How many such masks are currently in the possession of scientists? I do not know. There are several thousand of them, many hundreds on display in museums. Many in private collections. Many of them   are of poor quality. These are the ones that are being taken apart, in order to recover written text. 

4) If the original owners retain possession of the texts after they have been analyzed what will likely happen to them? Hard to say. We hope they will be placed on exhibit in museums. 

5) Since we don’t really hear much about first century evangelistic endeavors in Egypt, does it surprise you that so many texts are being found in mummy masks? Not at all. The ancient world was far more literate than we moderns realize. Some 500,000 pages of papyrus have been recovered from Oxyrhynchus alone and it was not an especially important or cultured city. We have this enormous amount of material simply because the arid climate made preservation possible. There would have been millions of documents in other cities like Ephesus, Alexandria, Rome, Rhodes, and the like. 

6) The article posted by NBC News said you believe the original writings of the gospels were in circulation for as long as 200 years. What leads you to believe that is true? For two reasons: (1) Church fathers, writing 150 to 200 years after the originals were written, refer to the autographs as still available in their time. (2) Several libraries and book collections have been recovered which provide compelling evidence. For example, a collection is found in a layer of the Oxyrhynchus landfill that is dated to the fourth century C.E., yet the books that are recovered were produced in the first and second century C.E. This shows that the library was in use for at least 200 years before being retired. Many books, including old Christian Bibles, have been found to have been read, corrected, repaired for more than 500 years. Several Bible scrolls from Qumran (i.e., the Dead Sea Scrolls) were at least 200 years old before the Qumran community was destroyed by the Romans in the first century C.E.