When it comes to historical analysis of the Bible, everything is fodder for debate. But even in such a tendentious arena, there is one hypothesis that’s mostly agreed upon. The shortest gospel was also the earliest: Mark’s. Called the Marcan priority, the school of thought holds that the Gospel of Mark was a source for the later works of Matthew and Luke.
It has its shortcomings, however. Despite its historical proximity to Jesus, the Gospel of Mark is tantalizingly short on the details of Jesus’s life. It sidesteps his birth narrative and doesn’t elaborate on what happened after his death. It also differs in several pivotal places from other gospels, most notably in Jesus’s interactions with John the Baptist.
Now, a scholar named Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity College says he and a research team may have discovered a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that may be the oldest known copy of a gospel — and they found it in the most unusual of places. Dated to sometime before 90 A.D., it was recovered in a mummy’s mask, as first reported by Live Science. They say their findings will be published sometime this year.
“Where did we find it?” Evans once asked in a speech. “We dug underneath somebody’s face, and there it was. Let me explain what’s going on here; this is very exciting. Mummy masks if you were the pharaoh, were made out of pure gold. If you were a wealthy person, it would be neatly carved, and then perhaps covered with gold leaf and a few jewels. But if you weren’t wealthy … the mummy mask that covered your face would be made out of papier mache.”
But even that was expensive, he said. So many deployed used paper, almost how someone would wrap a present in newspaper. “And that’s the best kind, if you’re a scholar, because we want to find old paper with writing on it. … And if you’re a pagan with no respect for the Christians, you use their writings as trash and you make papier mache masks out of their stuff. And their new stuff includes the New Testament.”
From one of those masks, he explained, they recovered a Gospel of Mark dated before 90. “We could have a first century fragment of Mark for the first time ever,” he added.
Evan’s findings have neither been published nor subjected to the rigors of peer review. But if authentic, the find has the potential to alter the perspective with which scholars view the Gospel of Mark and perhaps bring the life and times of Jesus into clearer focus. Other scholars, who appear to be working with Evans, have also thrown their weight behind the discovery.
But much of the find is still murky. The lead scholars say they have signed a nondisclosure agreement to maintain their silence on the Gospel until their findings are published.
Still, thanks in large part to Live Science, more details of the discovery have begun to seep out. Stressing that he couldn’t elaborate too much due to the nondisclosure agreement, Evans said they were able to date the fragment through three methods: carbon dating, handwriting analysis, and studying the other documents found in the same mummy mask.
There’s still room for skepticism. Dating ancient manuscripts is a notoriously spotty business, and the margin of error can yawn across decades. And especially in the case of Mark, decades could mean the difference between heralding the oldest known Gospel, and just another ancient Biblical text. “As we have seen many, many times before, artifacts and manuscripts that surface with fantastic claims tend to much less than they are claimed to be,” wrote John Byron of the Ashland Theological Seminary.
One doubting scholar called the whole thing “pseudo scholarship.”
Evans, however, told Live Science this is the real deal. He expressed optimism that the fragment, though small, could elucidate how the Gospel of Mark changed over time — changes that may afford scholars insight into how the early Christian community massaged the story of Jesus.
Lending legitimacy to the purported discovery is the bevy of additional ancient texts the mummy-mask method has yielded. If the team has turned up loads of other ancient texts, why wouldn’t at least one of them be of biblical proportion?
‘We’re recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries,” Evans told Live Science. “Not just Christian documents, not just biblical documents, but classical Greek texts, business papers, various mundane papers, personal letters.” At times, he said, some of those documents were in circulation for hundreds of years before they were committed to the mummification process. “A scribe making a copy of a script in the third century could actually have at his disposal [the] first-century originals, or first-century copies, as well as second-century copies.”