Remember that dubious claim going around for years now that a first century manuscript of the Gospel of Mark had been found? Well, there’s news!
Last year I gave advice on how to vet suspicious claims about ancient Jesus literature before asking me about it (see From Lead Codices to Mummy Gospels). One of the claims I included as an example was the “Mummy Gospel of Mark,” the claim made by Christian apologists that a fragment of the Gospel of Mark had been recovered from mummy cartonnage. And so far, even still, there is no actual evidence any such fragment exists or dates to the first century. What it appears to be, is a huge series of confusions. Because Christian apologists are fools and don’t know how sources or evidence or reason work. Consequently they are easily duped by anything that sounds amazing that they like. And they have embraced no professional or critical thinking skills to fact-check such claims by. Consequently, they spin yarns. And just believe them. After all, that’s why they’re still Christians.
Every year since 2012 they’ve claimed that “next year” this fragment of Mark will be published under peer review. After five years, we were starting to get skeptical. Last year I remarked yet again, “They really mean it. There really will finally be a peer reviewed report on it published in 2017. Hold your breath everyone!” Well. It didn’t happen. It’s 2018. No publication.
But now at least some more news about it has leaked. It turns out nearly everything said about this fragment was wrong. Here is an update.
The Carroll Confession
Christian apologist James Snapp, who has been keeping a tight eye on this, has reported on a leaked video (and provided a transcript, which is well worth reading in its entirety) of a conversation on stage between two other Christian apologists (Scott Carroll, who is an actual expert in papyrology, and Josh McDowell, who isn’t). As Snapp says:
We already had the means to deduce—if one is willing to take the reports about the fragment at face value—that [that] papyrus fragment is very early (possibly from the first century), and that it probably contains text from Mark chapter 1, and that Dirk Obbink was probably involved in analyzing its contents, and that Scott Carroll had seen the fragment. Now some of the “probably” factor seems to be diminished.
It had been claimed that this fragment was in the Green collection (e.g. the Hobby Lobby family’s massive biblical antiquities cache). That’s false. It had been claimed this fragment was recovered from mummy cartonnage. That’s false. It had been claimed this fragment was dated to the first century because these mummy cartonnages date so. That’s false. It had been claimed this fragment was confidently dated to the first century. That’s false.
What apparently happened is that someone (it appears to have been Carroll himself) saw the fragment on Obbink’s pool table in 2012 surrounded by mummy masks (actually, it seems to have been December of 2011; and surprise, 2012 is when Dan Wallace first made the infamous false claims about this fragment in a debate with Bart Ehrman, beginning the legend). And so the mistaken claim began that that’s where it was recovered from. There is actually no evidence it comes from a mummy mask. And although the Green collection was trying to buy the fragment, someone else did instead; which got “telephone-gamed” into “the Green collection bought it.” They didn’t. Its owner remains anonymous. But the fragment itself is in academic custody for research at Oxford University. Obbink (a legit papyrologist) is working on it there.
Carroll says at one point “Dirk was wrestling with dating somewhere between 70 A.D. and 120, 110, 120.” He is vague about what that means…that Dirk was trying to ascertain whether he could claim so early a date? Or that he was seriously already concluding it dated that early? I suspect what really was going on was that there was a lot of pressure on Obbink to date it that early, and Obbink was doing his due diligence to make sure he could rule that out, or rule it in, before signing off on it, and that he hadn’t yet come to a conclusion. He was likely still checking comparable scribal hands and assessing the hand of the fragment and whether it could be confidently placed into a known period of lettering style. In other words, I doubt Obbink told Carroll the fragment dates “70-120 A.D.,” but rather, he was examining whether it could be so dated. Carroll more or less confirms this impression later on in the conversation.
Notably, “70-120” matches a standard 50-year range for dating scribal hands. Although we now know the accuracy of that method (the only method available to a papyrologist; Obbink himself would have no skill or means of carbon dating the papyrus) is often +/-50 years, not so often in fact +/-25 years (+/-50 is also the accuracy of carbon dating; so it’s not really any more reliable). See how this realization has changed the dating of the once-thought-to-be-earliest fragment of any Gospel, the Rylands Papyrus P52 (containing a bit of the Gospel of John): once thought to date to the late first or early second century (as is still often claimed by Christian apologists, who often use outdated scholarship and rarely check or mention recent developments, especially when they don’t go their way), it’s now most widely agreed to date to the late second or early third century. Thus it isn’t really all that early. Similar problems will plague dating this fragment of Mark. Hence Obbink no doubt is indeed “wrestling” with this. He doesn’t want to be blamed for making the same mistakes the first publisher of P52 did.
Some commenters at Snapp’s site were confused by Carroll’s statement that “Mark is one that the critics have always dated late,” mistaking him to be saying that the authoring of the Gospel of Mark is always dated late. Of course in fact Mark is almost always dated the earliest of the Gospels. To be written. The widest consensus holds out a date for it of the late 70s or early 80s A.D. No, what Carroll surely meant was, that we have no early manuscripts of Mark. The earliest we have dates mid-3rd century (and there is only one: the Chester Beatty Papyrus P45; the next earliest by date are all 4th century). He means, this fragment of Mark Obbink is working on, may be the earliest manuscript of Mark ever recovered. That’s certainly possible. It sounds like it may end up assigned a comparable date to P52, perhaps 100-200 A.D.
Ironically, when Carroll was asked when we can expect the peer reviewed publication of this fragment, “I would say, in this next year, all right.” That was 2015. It’s been three years. No publication. Surely it will indeed come out eventually. But why so much delay, is hard to explain. Obbink has been working on it since before 2012, and that’s a bizarre length of time for so small a fragment, of such great public interest. When it does come out, Carroll says “textbooks will change with this discovery,” and that may be true, albeit only trivially. Being a mere fragment, it won’t likely be terribly informative, and we already know the Gospel was circulating for fifty to a hundred years beforehand, so having a fragment of it wouldn’t mean much. It would just lead to a minor update on papyri lists.
The Nongbri Revelation
A weird coincidence has also transpired recently. Larry Hurtado for a moment thought the Obbink papyrus might instead be a crank piece of work, which has been uncovered by Brent Nongbri as basically an early academic fraud. Though Nongbri confirmed it’s not the same thing. Yet, it’s another “first century papyrus of Mark,” and indeed one recovered from mummy cartonnage! That seems a strange coincidence indeed. And one wonders if somehow the tales of these two papyri became confused in fundamentalist circles. But regardless, I should cover this one, too, just to be thorough.
You can get the full story from Brent Nongbri himself: see A First-Century Papyrus of Mark (Probably Not the One You Think) (along with his follow-up discoveries in Some Answers). But if you just want a summary, here’s what happened. Supposedly famed papyrologist Anton Fackelmann published a fragment of the passion narrative of Mark (claiming even that it was a pre-Markan passion narrative) in the 1980s. But the publication is inexplicably riddled with incompetent errors. It appears to have been published fraudulently (as in, without proper peer review, but simply at the behest, we suspect, of a Christian fundamentalist crank on the editorial board of the journal, Jose O’Callaghan, the same guy who tried claiming the Gospels were attested in the Dead Sea Scrolls).
Nongbri subsequently confirmed that this bogus article was not written by Fackelmann the papyrologist, but by his son, a doctor with no credentials in ancient languages or texts. And indeed the work is as crank as (and frankly, quite reminiscent of) the Jerry Vardaman fiasco. That’s the archaeologist who went insane late in life and started claiming to find hidden messages on ancient coins confirming all kinds of weird things about early Christianity (which Lee Strobel published in the original Case for Christ, p. 136, gullibly believing every word of it, right from the mouth of the equally foolish John McCray). There is a good article on the Vardaman case at Bad Archaeology, but it suffers from not mentioning the research I published on these coins years before in The Skeptical Inquirer, which I have reproduced in Hitler Homer Bible Christ, including actual photographs and my own examination of one of the coins (the Bad Archaeology article also sounds a lot like a rip-off of my research, but I’ll charitably assume the author, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, simply did the same research I did and came to the same conclusions, and hadn’t actually checked my publications on it).
Back to the Fackelmann fraud, Nongbri confirmed the following of the mummy papyrus claimed to contain a first century fragment of Mark:
So, the papyrus was still in Münster in 2007, and scholars in Münster have identified the uppermost text of the papyrus as Ptolemaic in date, thus making impossible any Christian associations for any of the under-text (if there even is any under-text at all). Thus, Fackelmann’s article would seem to be either a case of extraordinarily wishful thinking or a deliberate hoax.
While the papyrus has remained on display in Münster, its ownership was transferred to the Norwegian bibliophile Martin Schøyen in the 1990s, and it became MS 2630 in his collection. Of course, knowing that some items in The Schøyen Collection were bought by the Green family around 2012 (such as this parchment scrap of Romans), I wondered if the Fackelmann papyrus might be one and the same with the “first century Mark” that first hit the rumor-mill in early 2012 with some kind of connection to the Green Collection. But that turns out not to be the case. Martin Schøyen was kind enough to confirm that the manuscript remains part of The Schøyen Collection and is in storage.
Moreover, the fragment mistaken to have been in the Green collection, now at Oxford, and currently being studied by Obbink, contains text from Mark 1; the Fackelmann fragment allegedly contained text from Mark 15. So they are definitely not the same papyrus. It’s just a weird coincidence that this one came from mummy cartonnage. And the Obbink papyrus, probably didn’t. And as Nongbri says, the hidden layer of text the fake Fackelmann article claims is a text of Mark, is below text written prior to the first century. So even if there is a hidden layer, it predates even that. It therefore cannot be any Christian text at all. That Nongbri couldn’t discern any actual traces of the text of Mark in the images provided, and the rest of the article’s reconstruction is bizarrely incompetent and incomprehensible, it’s almost certainly the case no such text exists there. It was just imagined out of the crazy head of the younder Fackelmann, just like Vardaman’s magic coin letters.
A Missing Third Fragment!?
There is actually a third claim of a first century fragment of Mark, this time a piece of Mark 5. Many have again been assuming it was the same thing. It isn’t. In my original remarks on this story long ago, I included an image many were claiming was the Mummy Gospel fragment, replicated to the right here. There were stories going around that confused this with the others. Christian crank Gary Shogren started this one. Claiming he found this image by “Googling” it two years before he published his claims about it in 2015. He doesn’t say where he found it (“I Googled it” is not an answer to the question “where did you get the image”; reverse image searches turn up no extant source for the image but Shogren; some accounts credit a now-missing Facebook page as the source).
This little piece of papyrus is an amazing find, and it looks like it’s now regarded as authentic. It is a scrap of the gospel of Mark, hand-copie[d] in the 80s AD at the very latest. It comes from Egypt and was dated by its handwriting style, by Carbon-14, and by other texts found near it.
There is no evidence any papyrus of Mark has ever been carbon dated. Least of all this one. Or that “other texts found near it” were dated. That claim appears to be another confusion. The only source he gives is some other crank Christian news article about the mummy gospel, in which no image is given, nor any mention of the fragment there discussed being of Mark 5. It is instead just an article repeating the falsehoods promulgated by Dan Wallace. The original mummy gospel claim. Which can only have meant the Obbink papyrus, which is of Mark 1, not Mark 5, has no known association with mummies, and isn’t being dated by any known means other than scribal hand.
That article cites as its only source, another article written at LiveScience, which appears to be full of false information relayed by none other than Christian apologist Craig Evans. Who seems to have been confused about a lot of things. There is no known “mummy mask” Gospel fragment; the Green family has been deconstructing mummy masks, and Evans evidently observed that, but we now know no Gospel fragment was recovered in that process that we can tell. The only actual Gospel fragment proposed by anyone to have a first century date is the Obbink papyrus. Which is not owned by the Green family at all. And therefore cannot have been recovered from the Green family mummy masks.
Evans told LiveScience that “the only reason he can talk about the first-century gospel before it is published is because a member of the team leaked some of the information in 2012.” But that can’t have been the mummy mask research team. Evans evidently confused different sources. He must mean Carroll (either directly or via Wallace), who were not actually talking about a mummy gospel, but clearly mistakenly thought they were at the time. Thus explaining how Evans conflated two completely different things, the Green family mummy mask research, and the actual papyrus of Mark, which is wholly unconnected with that. Hence when “Evans says that the text was dated through a combination of carbon-14 dating, studying the handwriting on the fragment and studying the other documents found along with the gospel,” he meant the mummy mask finds, not the Gospel of Mark. He apparently confused the two. And thus the legend of a carbon-14 dated first-century Gospel of Mark began.
But this still leaves a mystery. What is the fragment shown in the picture!? There are only three known papyrus fragments of Mark. And only one contains any part of Mark 5 (the Chester Beatty P45 I mentioned earlier, which has bits of Mark 5:15-26). But check out the photos of that. Clearly different. In fact, clearly authentic. Notice how much the image Shogren provides looks like a fake. It’s weirdly childish in its hand and lettering, it’s weirdly crisp and neat, it’s weirdly young looking. In fact, if I were to guess from looking at the photo alone, it’s not even papyrus. It looks like torn parchment. So I decided to look at lists of Uncials (the often-parchment codexes of New Testament books, all of which date after the 3rd century). Only one comes close: Uncial 0107 (7th century) is on record as containing a mere fragment of Mark 5:14-23, which would almost fit to the image. But I can’t find a photo of it to compare. Odds are more likely it’s a forgery someone made on a lark, though. As it appears to have been produced by a “friend of a friend” on Facebook.
(Oh, and BTW, in case you run into it while looking into this Markan Gospel fiasco, no, we have not found an early Hebrew manuscript of Q, either. That article is a prank. The alleged manuscript is being translated by Dr. R.U. Shure. I hardly need say more.)
Basically, nearly everything said about this mysterious fragment of Mark has been garbled and false. Christian apologists tend to be bumbling fools, and this saga is more evidence of that. Even Craig Evans himself enters the clown car on this one. There is no evidence any Gospel has been recovered from mummy cartonnage. There is no evidence any fragment of the Gospel of Mark has been carbon dated, much less to the first century; or dated by any means at all other than the comparative stylistics of the handwriting. And the only Gospel that actually exists that anyone has claimed a possible first century date for, is not owned by the Green family, and likely doesn’t date to the first century (though it might date to the second, which would still be interesting, though not even remotely as interesting as apologists have been claiming).
The image of a fragment of Mark 5 linked in to all this, is wholly unrelated, and is either an awful forgery or a medieval parchment; it is not in the Green collection nor being translated by Dirk Obbink. And the only fragment connected to any of this that actually came from mummy cartonnage, never contained any part of the Gospel of Mark; that was the delusion of a crank. And again, that isn’t the fragment Wallace or Evans or anyone else has been referring to these past five years. That’s the manuscript being studied by Dirk Obbink. Which is of a different part of Mark; isn’t owned by the Greens; doesn’t come from a mummy; hasn’t been carbon dated; and when that does get published (which will be “any day now!”…which I’m guessing is code for “shortly after the second coming of Jesus”), it’s doubtful it will be dated any earlier than the second century.