Tuesday, January 20, 2015

On Reports of a New Gospel of Mark Fragment

There are reports (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) about a new fragment of the Gospel of Mark dated to AD 90. Sifting through the initial reports, I have a few initial reactions.
  1. The dating to AD 90 is far too precise for paleography. Business hands are found on legal documents with precise dates and they are only datable to the nearest half century. Literary hands are harder to date and any date given that is more precise than the nearest century should be viewed with skepticism.

  2. The papyrus was found with others in cartonnage. This means that we should expect the fragment to be small. I would not expect that it will have much in the way of textual variants because the size of the piece will probably preclude it from having a lot of text. 

  3. On the other hand, if it is really early, I would expect the text not to match the standard text very closely.

  4. The style of the cartonnage should provide us with another dating criterion. Unfortunately, the photographs of mummy masks do not seem to be of the mask from which the papyrus was taken.

  5. Papyrologists and archaeologists have different views of the objects that contain writing, and different views on issues associated with those objects. One of these issues is the ethical issue of extracting papyrus from cartonnage. Basically, imagine making a paper-mache object out of old newspapers. Hundreds of years later historians and art-historians will have different views about whether or not to destroy the paper-mache object to look at the historical newspapers. The difference in view comes from which object the scholar thinks is important. If you think the texts are more important, you will favor extracting them. If you think the crafted object is more important then you will favor not extracting the texts. There are advantages and disadvantages to both positions and what to do with an archaeological object sometimes involves certain trade-offs. Before they get on their high-horse, archaeologists should remember that archaeology involves systematic destruction.

  6. Recently a couple of very good papyrologists assigned new dates to most of the New Testament papyri. Many of them dated much later than New Testament scholars have dated them. The theological dating of papyri tends to assign them much earlier than they should be. This looks like a case of theological dating. Craig Evans is a good and insightful New Testament scholar but he is not a papyrologist.

  7. I would be somewhat surprised if the conditions existed in Egypt in the first century for a copy of the New Testament from that time period to be preserved. To make an argument for the existence of such a text also implies an argument for the state of Christianity in Egypt.

  8. We will have to wait for the publication to appear before we can comment on more than probabilities. The publication is supposed to come out from Brill, but I cannot locate anything that looks like it on their list of forthcoming publications.