Saturday, March 14, 2015

Update on the New Mark Manuscript

Earlier, back in January, I reported on initial news stories about a new fragment of Mark that has been discovered. Craig Evans has been visiting BYU the last couple of days and I have both heard presentations that he has given that deal with this fragment and been able to talk with him about it. With his permission I can give the following corrections to the news reports.

  • To begin with, I know that Evans is a better scholar than would appear from the news reports. (He did not earn a three star rating on the book list for nothing.) I should have realized that he was not being correctly understood by the news reporters. I am sorry if I misrepresented him based on garbled reports.

  • The papyrus with Mark did come from cartonnage but apparently did not come from the mummy mask. (He showed images of the extraction of the papyrus from the mummy mask, which he was not involved with. As an Egyptologist specializing the the Greco-Roman period I found the original mask a lovely object and cringed to see the photographs of the extraction even as I understand why it was done. I value both the object and the texts.)

  • The work was not done at Acadia University. Apparently Evans is the only link between Acadia University and the papyrus.

  • The texts in the collection include fragments of Septuagint, classical texts and many business documents.

  • At least one good papyrologist has looked at the text and has had some input on the dating. The team publishing the papyrus has claimed to Evans that they have good reason for dating the papyrus to the 80s but the dating is not Evans's. Evans was unable to say what the reasons behind the date were (whether that is because he is contractually obligated not to divulge that information before the publication or because he does not know is immaterial to me; he has said what he can and has the integrity not to speak beyond what he can).
Now given this information I would speculate the following:

Paleographic dating of non-literary texts (that is texts in business hands where the date is missing) is  no more accurate than to the nearest half century. Paleographic dating of literary hands closer than the nearest century is dubious. Since this is known by the papyrologist working on the team, either there is good reason for the more narrow date or the papyrologist was not involved in assigning the date. In the latter case the date should be ignored but I will assume that the former is the case. There must be something on the papyrus that indicates a date. The three most reasonable scenarios that suggest themselves involve the reuse of business documents either through (1) a palimpsest, (2) a business document on the back of a literary texts, or (3) a literary text on the back of a business text.

Evans showed photographs of other texts in the collection that were about half a page and implied that the Mark text was like them (but I might just be reading that into what he said). If that is the case, I would expect that there would be no more than ten verses per side. Under scenarios 2 and 3 we would have only about ten verses of Mark, where we might have twice as much if we had both sides.

Scenario 2 provides the best chance of a date that might actually be in the 80s or 90s. But what would it say about the value of Mark if it was already being reused (and thus deemed worthless) in the 90s?

The most exciting scenario would be if the half page of Mark came from the last chapter. In that case the I would expect that the first page would establish that the text actually belonged to Mark but that the verso would contain a very different (and likely correct) version of Mark's resurrection narrative. I think this scenario is highly unlikely (if one were to pick a page at random from the gospel of Mark, the odds that it would be the sixteenth chapter are only about 6%).

Given that early second century quotations of the New Testament tend to be very different from the later established New Testament text, a very early copy of the text should differ significantly from the standard text. The closer the papyrus reads to the standard text, the more it is likely third century or later.

For all of this we await the formal publication which looks like it will be 2017 at the earliest. When it does come out I expect that at least half of my speculation will be based on false assumptions and be wrong.