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You may have noticed Dr. Craig Evans (and, at times, Apologetics Canada) being referenced in the media lately (for example, Washington Post and International Business Times). His comment on the first-century fragment of Mark’s Gospel, which was made during his lecture at the Apologetics Canada Conference last year, was picked up by the media. As you might expect from an issue like this, there have been some exaggeration and misinformation circulating. Dr. Evans issued several statements to correct this. Below is what he sent out to several media outlets, along with a set of frequently-asked questions:
I am part of the team that interprets the discoveries. I am not a papyrologist or technician, so I am not involved in the dismantling of the masks and cartonnage. The photo shown on the internet belongs to Scott Carroll. Here’s his contact info:
SCOTT CARROLL MANUSCRIPTS & RARE BOOKS, INC.
16893 Buchanan St Grand Haven, MI 49417
Last summer I gave a presentation on the number, age, and reliability of New Testament manuscripts. In this lecture I described the effort under way in recent years to recover manuscript fragments, including biblical manuscripts, from ancient cartonnage, including mummy masks. All of these materials are from Egypt. Just over three years ago a fragment of Mark was recovered, which those studying it think dates to the 80s. If they are correct, this will be the first New Testament manuscript that dates to the first century. The fragment is to be published later this year (by E. J. Brill). Someone video-recorded my lecture and posted it on YouTube. Last week a reporter, Owen Jarus, from Live Science contacted me and I gave him an interview. What he wrote was posted on Sunday 18 January 2015 and is accurate. However, other journalists have made use of his story and/or the video on YouTube and have misunderstood some aspects of it, claiming incorrectly that I was myself the discoverer of the fragment of Mark or that research on the papyri recovered from the mummy masks is going on here in Nova Scotia. Some have also posted a photo of a mummy mask giving me credit for the photo. The photo is not mine. I have directed reporters who inquired to the person to whom the photo does belong. Unfortunately, not all reporters inquired. The Live Science link is http://www.livescience.com/49489-oldest-known-gospel-mummy-mask.html.
1) Since it is believed the gospel of Mark was written in Rome, does it surprise you that a copy written so soon after the original would have made its way to an Egyptian mummy mask?
No. In the Roman Empire mail moved almost as quickly as it does today. A letter put aboard a packet in Ephesus (today’s Turkey) could be in Egypt within one week. Something written in Rome could be in Egypt being read within a few weeks. Mark was written in the late 60s, so finding a copy of Mark in Egypt dating to the 80s is not strange in the least.
2) Does dating indicate when the text was incorporated into the mummy mask?
There are four important dates: (1) the date of the papyrus, (2) the date when ink was applied to the papyrus, (3) the date when the writing went out of use, and (4) the date when the no-longer-used writing was dismantled and used for the making of a mummy mask or some other form of cartonnage. Because some of the papyrus used in these masks are letters or business papers, we sometimes find dates, which is a big help. The style of handwriting helps date the papyrus. Features of the mask (e.g., its design and artwork) can sometimes help date it. A date in the tomb or in the sarcophagus can be very helpful. Carbon-14 can be helpful. All of these methods can potentially come into play in attempting to date the mask and then the earlier dates of the various papyri that were used later in making the mask.
3) How many such masks are currently in the possession of scientists?
I do not know. There are several thousand of them, many hundreds on display in museums. Many in private collections. Many of them are of poor quality. These are the ones that are being taken apart, in order to recover written text.
4) If the original owners retain possession of the texts after they have been analyzed what will likely happen to them?
Hard to say. We hope they will be placed on exhibit in museums.
5) Since we don’t really hear much about first century evangelistic endeavors in Egypt, does it surprise you that so many texts are being found in mummy masks?
Not at all. The ancient world was far more literate than we moderns realize. Some 500,000 pages of papyrus have been recovered from Oxyrhynchus alone and it was not an especially important or cultured city. We have this enormous amount of material simply because the arid climate made preservation possible. There would have been millions of documents in other cities like Ephesus, Alexandria, Rome, Rhodes, and the like.
6) The article posted by NBC News said you believe the original writings of the gospels were in circulation for as long as 200 years. What leads you to believe that is true?
For two reasons: (1) Church fathers, writing 150 to 200 years after the originals were written, refer to the autographs as still available in their time. (2) Several libraries and book collections have been recovered which provide compelling evidence. For example, a collection is found in a layer of the Oxyrhynchus landfill that is dated to the fourth century C.E., yet the books that are recovered were produced in the first and second century C.E. This shows that the library was in use for at least 200 years before being retired. Many books, including old Christian Bibles, have been found to have been read, corrected, repaired for more than 500 years. Several Bible scrolls from Qumran (i.e., the Dead Sea Scrolls) were at least 200 years old before the Qumran community was destroyed by the Romans in the first century C.E.