A few days ago it was reported that a fragment of the Gospel of Mark, reportedly dated to the first century, is being studied and prepared for publication. This would be significant, as (to my recollection), the oldest fragment of the NT is P52 (“Papyrus 52”), a fragment from John’s Gospel that dates to roughly 100-150 A.D. (I’ve seen it dated to 130 A.D., early second century, in some sources). The presumed fragment of Mark would push evidence for that gospel back into the era of the apostles themselves.
In one sense, this actually isn’t news — rumors about this fragment have been circulating for a couple of years at academic society meetings (informally) and conversations within the biblical studies guild. I know two of the principles involved (Dan Wallace, Craig Evans), and they have been appropriately cautious (publicly and in private).
So why the sudden attention? The first two paragraphs of this essay provides us with the context:
It was reported yesterday [Jan. 19, 2015] that a three-dozen member team of scientists and scholars—apparently including the well-respected New Testament historian Craig Evans—is working on a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Mark, discovered as part of an ancient Egyptian funeral mask.
Due to the expense of securing clean papyri sheets in the ancient world, the papier-mâché of these masks was made from recycled papyri that already contained writing. Evans explains, “We’re recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries. Not just Christian documents, not just biblical documents, but classical Greek texts, business papers, various mundane papers, personal letters.”
The reaction to Evans’ more public comments (see the video in the above news story) has ranged from cautious to dubious. Part of the problem is the recurring sensationalistic claims in recent history (e.g., the “Jesus’ Wife” bogus fragment).
I recommend the essay linked above to readers as an introduction to the issue. I also recommend these essays as well. They raise important critical questions about method and coherence of the claims.
Michael Holmes on the Mark Fragment
For the record, though, as one of the essays goes after Craig Evans a bit, Craig is not a show-boater. I’d also disagree with the comment made in the same post that Michael Holmes’ reply was “elusive”; it sounded reasonable enough to me. While the questions being raised are good ones, we all have to be patient and let the research team do their thing.