According to historical estimation, the Gospel of Mark was written during the 1st century (at least before 90 AD). To put things into perspective, this period is more than a decade earlier than the oldest extant gospel (dating from 2nd century AD). But now researchers have been able to salvage a fragment of the so-called Gospel of Mark, which was found as a part of a papyrus-made mummy mask. The use of such makeshift masks was a prevalent practice among the common Egyptian citizens who didn’t have the means or resources to opt for more grandiose varieties of tomb objects (unlike the Pharaohs).
In other words, the expensive nature of papyrus forced people to reuse the material even in its written form. To that end, the researchers have been able to devise a method that allows the detaching of the papyrus from the mummy’s visage, without affecting the ink-work on it – and this process entails dissolving the ancient glue originally used for the makeshift mask. According to Craig Evans, a professor at Nova Scotia’s Acadia Divinity College, the findings however were not only related to Christianity-oriented specimens; they also included some other potentially important documents, like philosophical writings and copies of stories by Homer. This is what he had to say (to Live Science) –
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.
But the ‘ungluing’ process itself is somewhat controversial, because the method ultimately leads to the destruction (or rather unmaking) of the ancient mummy masks. In this regard, a few other historians, namely archaeologist Paul Barford and lecturer (at University of Manchester) Roberta Mazza, have severely criticized the said procedure of the researchers. According to a disapproving remark made by Barford (in his blogpost) –
Here’s a guy getting so excited about finding a first century manuscript of a first century text that he’s totally oblivious to the destruction of archaeological material (“hundreds of low-end mummy masks”) it entails. They date the fragment “to the eighties” – what was the dating of the cartonnage, and was that dating from context or style/guesswork? By the way they generally did not accompany sarcophagi. Getting the mask off the wrapping was usually accompanied by the destruction of the whole mummy. Now these guys with their atrocious accents and patronising attitudes are destroying what’s left to get their hands on trophy exhibits.
On the other hand, Evans has specified that these mummy masks didn’t have much historical relevance to begin with – since the objects were not of ‘museum quality’. He has also talked about the analyzing scope of the papyrus fragment, with the claimed use of carbon-14 dating, along with detailed studying of other related documents. But Evans has declined to comment further on the actual content of the ‘oldest gospel’, due to a current nondisclosure agreement made with the owner of the papyrus-made masks.
However, the researchers are still looking forth to publish the textual finds (including the gospel fragment content, along with additional details) later in 2015. And the results may very well shed some crucial light into the evolution and alteration of the gospels over time.
Top Image Credit: Prof. Craig Evans