Oldest gospel found in a mummy mask
Media outlets have been abuzz this week with the news that the oldest fragment of a New Testament gospel — and thus the earliest witness of Jesus’ life and ministry — had been discovered hidden inside an Egyptian mummy mask and was going to be published.
The announcement of the papyrus’ discovery and impending publication was made by Craig Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Evans described the papyrus as a fragment of the Gospel of Mark. The discovery of a small papyrus fragment containing words from the Book of Mark could end up being the earliest copy of a Christian gospel on record, according to experts. The biblical text, which came from Egypt, was reportedly placed on a sheet of papyrus before the document was recycled and used to create a mummy mask.
Centuries later, researchers found it after carefully dismantling that mask. They used carbon-14 dating, studied the handwriting and analyzed related documents, dating the text to the first century. Perhaps most interestingly, scientists found a way to undo the glue on the mask without damaging the centuries-old ink, allowing the text to be read, though the masks that go through this process are essentially destroyed — a fact that leaves some experts more than uncomfortable with the tactic.
“We’re recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries,” New Testament professor Craig Evans said. “Not just Christian documents, not just biblical documents, but classical Greek texts, business papers, various mundane papers, personal letters.” Evans, a professor at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, told the outlet that one mask could yield up to 12 possible texts, offering up a fascinating lens into the past.
1. What is the actual text on the papyrus?
We are told that it is from Mark, but, after all, no one has seen it. Which part of Mark?
2. Is the handwriting consistent with the supposed dating?
Brice Jones, a papyrologist at Concordia University, told us that dating a text by handwriting, or paleography, “is not a precise science, and I know of no papyrologist who would date a literary papryus to within a decade on the basis of paleography alone.”
3. Is the ink or papyrus itself consistent with the supposed dating?
According to Jones, if paleography is inexact, “radiocarbon dating is equally (and perhaps more) problematic, since one must allow for a time gap of a century or more.” They say that these lab tests have all been done, but as no one has actually seen the reports, they are less than confirmatory.
4. Who owns the papyrus, or the mask from which it was taken, and from whom was it purchased, and when?
The time and place of a text’s discovery, known as its provenance, are crucial for verifying its authenticity, especially in a period of extensive looting of archaeological sites and museum theft. According to international law, if the mask was taken out of Egypt after 1970, it is officially “unprovenanced,” and is effectively prohibited from being sold or published. Evans told us “I do not know the specifics” about the provenance of this mask.