Earliest Gospel of Mark manuscript fragment discovered

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Last week, the Oxford-based Egypt Exploration Society published the most recent volume of their Oxyrhynchus Papyri series, making public a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Mark dating from the late second or early third century AD, the earliest known fragment of that book.   Although this discovery is significant in the fields of New Testament studies and Biblical archaeology, it comes after six years of rumors over the fragment’s existence suggested that it originated even earlier, likely sometime in the the first century.

While the news of the fragment, called P137, carries some disappointment for scholars who hoped it was an earlier artifact, it is still a major discovery.  Christianity Today writes:

“Even though it is not quite so early as many hoped, P137 is still a significant find. Its date range makes it likely the earliest copy of Mark’s gospel. The fact that the text presents us with no new variants is partially a reflection of the overall stability of the New Testament text over time. “

In addition to its age, the fragment is also notable because it comes from a codex or book rather than a scroll, a helpful revelation to scholars tracing the evolution of the book format

The papyrus fragment was one of thousands excavated from an Oxyrhynchus, Egypt garbage dump between 1896-1906; scholars believe this particular fragment was excavated in 1903.  The collection, held at the University of Oxford, includes fragments of biblical texts, tax receipts, and a variety of other non-biblical writings and only a small portion of the collection has been published at this time.

Yet the controversy surrounding P137 isn’t only related to its origin. The years of rumors surrounding the fragment have also raised questions about who has held it, who has accessed it, and if it was ever for sale.

In a recent published article for The Daily Beast, Biblical scholars Candida Moss and Joel Baden explain some of this controversy, saying:

“Despite its publication having just been announced this is not the first time that scholars have heard about the existence of this early copy of Mark. Rumors of this fragment have circulated since February 2012 when, in a debate with well-known agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman, evangelical text critic Dan Wallace announced that he had seen a “first-century Mark fragment.” Wallace indicated that his source for the dating of the manuscript was “a high ranking papyrologist.” Given that almost all (if not all) our other New Testament papyri date to the second century or later, this would be a huge discovery. Naturally, other scholars wanted to see the text, but Wallace was unable to comment further, stating shortly after the debate that he had signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Over the following years other evangelical scholars would occasionally mention this text, always with the first-century date and almost always with the caveat that they too were unable to discuss it further. At one point it was suggested by the scholar Craig Evans, again in the context of an evangelical conference, that the papyrus had been extracted from the cartonnage (papier-mache filling) of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask. This claim was eventually walked back, and many scholars, in the evangelical community and beyond, came to believe that either the first-century Mark was grossly misdated or, perhaps, did not really exist at all.”

Several of the scholars with pre-publication access to the fragment are known to have worked for or been associated with the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby and founders of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.; in recent years, the Greens have also been under public scrutiny for purchasing smuggled Iraqi artifacts, a case they settled for $3 million dollars.

Despite being an exciting discovery for Biblical scholars, many are even more eager to learn further details about the history of P137 and hope the Egypt Exploration Society will be forthcoming with more information about the fragment, who has accessed the fragment, and how that access was obtained.

The newly published P137 is available for viewing online at the Egypt Exploration Society website.

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