By Aaron Earls
Digging through centuries-old garbage is not the most glamorous of jobs, but it could lead to historic finds—including the earliest portion of Mark’s gospel.
Two young archaeologists unearthed some of the most significant archaeological finds ever by searching through an ancient Egyptian dump.
In 1896, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt found a treasure trove of ancient manuscripts. Their finds include some of the earliest fragments of the New Testament and other early Christian writings.
Scholars have been publishing and poring over the documents ever since.
Recently, the Egyptian Exploration Society announced a new document pulled from the garbage pile—a fragment from the Gospel of Mark dating from A.D. 150-250.
This would be the earliest portion of Mark found to date.
But the news has come as a disappointment to some evangelicals who had hoped the fragment could be dated as early as the first century.
Rumors began swirling in 2011 and 2012 of a first-century copy of Mark. In 2011, manuscript expert Scott Carroll tweeted that the “John Rylands Papyrus” was no longer the earliest known text of the New Testament.
For over 100 years the earliest known text of the New Testament has been the so-call John Rylands Papyrus. Not any more. Stay tuned . . . .
— Dr. Scott Carroll (@DrScottCarroll) December 1, 2011
The Rylands Library Papyrus P52 is a fragment of the Gospel of John that dates as early as A.D. 100.
After Carroll made his claim, others began making tantalizing comments about an early New Testament fragment.
During a debate with agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman in 2012, evangelical scholar Daniel Wallace claimed a first-century fragment of Mark had been discovered.
Other evangelical New Testament scholars began discussing the potentially earth-shattering fragment, while some remained skeptical.
These rumors led the Egyptian Exploration Society to take the unprecedented step of releasing a statement on its publication of the Mark fragment.
The EES said comparison to other texts led the dating of this fragment to be “the late second to early third century A.D.” It also noted this was indeed the long-rumored piece of Mark’s gospel that had previously been publicly dated to the first century.
On his personal website, Daniel Wallace apologized for his role in spreading what turned out to be false information.
“A representative for who I understood was the owner of FCM [first-century Mark] urged me to make the announcement at the debate, which they realized would make this go viral,” wrote Wallace.
“However, the information I received and was assured to have been vetted was incorrect. It was my fault for being naïve enough to trust that the data I got was unquestionable, as it was presented to me.”
Despite the disappointment of many that the Mark fragment does not date back to the first century, it is still a significant biblical discovery.
At Evangelical Textual Criticism, Hixson wrote, “We have only one Greek manuscript of Mark earlier than the 4th century.”
This recently published fragment of Mark, known as P137, is the second manuscript in that time frame and the earliest known piece.
“Rather than disappointment that P137 is not quite as early as once thought, the publication of P137 is cause to celebrate,” wrote Hixson at Christianity Today.
EES has made its publication and images of the fragment available to the public for free here.
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AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.