Sources have recently reported that a late-1st century copy of Mark’s Gospel on papyrus has been discovered in secondary use as mummy wrapping. The dating is said to be ca. AD 90 or earlier, making it the earliest known copy of a New Testament book.
An ancient mummy mask made from papyrus sheets. This is similar to the mask alleged to contain a portion of Mark’s gospel. (Photo posted on LiveScience.com)
But is this really true? Archaeological reports in popular media should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution. Rumors and tidbits of what *might* be are often presented as established facts. News articles are written by journalists who are, at best, trying to manage information beyond their personal level of expertise.
A CNN article co-authored by professors Joel Baden and Candida Moss asks some very good questions about the Mark Mummy Papyrus. It is worth reading the full piece, which you can do here.
Whenever we learn of some new archaeological discovery from any media outlet, we should first ask:
- Where, specifically, was the artifact found? If unknown, be wary.
- Who discovered it, and under what circumstances? Was it in a controlled, legal excavation? If not, be wary.
- Who specifically has studied/analyzed it? Specialists are usually required but they don’t always get the microphone.
- Do the simple facts of the discovery really support the conclusion being presented? People sometimes s-t-r-e-t-c-h interpretation.
- Is the discovery actually new? If so, be patient and let scholars/specialists separate the wheat from the chaff. If not new, there may be more solid information available from scholarly sources.
The Mark Mummy Papyrus may be genuine, but we don’t really know yet. Nothing has been published at this point beyond the news rumors. Substantive details will hopefully come out soon, giving us a better idea of whether it is such an early text.
BTW, Todd Bolen has a nice checklist for managing Sensational Stories from Archaeology.
Update: Here is a short message noting errors in the LiveScience article linked at the top of this post. The message comments are also quite illuminating. After reading them, note again the paragraph in this post that begins with, “But is this really true?”.
HT: Prof. Ulrich Wendel, Todd Bolen)