Archaeology's Coolest Discoveries|
Mark's Gospel in Mummy Mask
How is it possible that a first-century or early second-century fragment from Mark's Gospel could find its way into a mummy mask from Egypt? Answer: Paper Mache arts and crafts.
How we got here…
Most of us are familiar with rudimentary facts about the reliability of the New Testament books. For example, Luke mentions that there were already writings circulating about the life of Jesus when he wrote his introductory chapter to his gospel account (Luke 1:1-4) . Scholars think that Luke may have used portions of Mark and a source called "Q" as part of his source materials (Muncaster 2000, 14).
By around 95 A.D. Clement of Rome had already referenced New Testament books as "Scripture" including quotes from Matthew, Luke, Hebrews, Romans, Corinthians, 1 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter and Ephesians. His life was contemporaneous with John of Patmos which likely explains why Clement doesn't quote from Revelation, the apostle John's last book.
Unbroken Line of Authority
At any rate, it is clear that there was an unbroken line of authority from the apostles through the early Church Fathers. Sadly, by ignoring the writings of our early church fathers, Protestants may have lost this sense of unity and continuity. Therefore, it is important for all Christians to understand what we mean by "unbroken authority."
A quick overview:
- The Apostles lived and wrote from about A.D. 33 to A.D. 100.
- Overlapping the Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers lived and wrote from around A.D. 95-150.
- Overlapping with some of the Apostolic Fathers, the Apologists and Polemicists defend their biblical teachings and beliefs from about A.D. 150-325.
(House 1992, 43).
In other words, it is clear that the New Testament didn't just evolve hundreds of years after the fact. The Apostolic Fathers, Apologists and Polemicists were all quoting from the New Testament between 95-325 A.D. The New Testament existed by this time and was clearly their source. So we have huge portions of the New Testament quoted early on. In fact, if we had no copies of the original New Testament writings we could still assemble much of the New Testament just from quotes by the Apostolic Father and Apologists alone.
Copies of Copies of Copies
Unbelieving critics often state that we only have copies of copies of copies of copies of the New Testament. But, thank goodness we do! (And we have so much more than that). In fact, consider that there are only 10 copies of Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars written 1000 years later, 7 copies of Pliny the Younger's Historical Works written 750 years after the original, and around 643 copies of Homer's Iliad written 500 years later (Muncaster 2000, 27).
In contrast we have well over 5,000 Greek texts written early on supporting the New Testament writings. And it doesn't include the thousands of supporting manuscripts in other languages adding up to over 24,000. This makes the New Testament the most backed-up and attested of all ancient literature in existence!
Valuable New Testament Fragments
In addition to that we have a few surprises tucked away in museum archives that "blow us away." For example, the Rylands Papyrus is dated around A.D. 115-125 and demonstrates John's authorship. The Bodmer Papyri is dated to around A.D. 150-200 and gives us other portions of Luke and John. The Chester Beatty Papyri dates between A.D. 100-300 and attests to all major parts of the New Testament (2000, 30).
Tax Collector Took Shorthand
Most surprising of all is a portion from Matthew's gospel. We know that Matthew was a tax collector who had to know shorthand to do his job for the Romans. So he was qualified to take down word-for-word the Sermon on the Mount and other speeches of our Lord. In 1994 we learned that the oldest fragment from Matthew's gospel is now dated by a scanning laser microscope to be an eyewitness account written by contemporaries of Christ before 66 A.D.! (The Times, London, 12-24-94; Missler 2001).
Middle Class Egyptians Used Paper Mache Masks
But, now we are hearing about more manuscript evidence from a new source. In first-century Egypt, middle-class workers couldn't afford to make their mummy's masks out of gold or other precious materials as did their rulers. Instead, they made something like Paper Mache masks painted with brilliant colors. Unmarked papyrus was expensive. So these early Egyptians purchased used sheets with writings already on them, an early example of recyclables.
Recently, archaeologists have developed a technique that renders the glue ineffective on mummy masks without harming the ink underneath. The writings can then be read. They have since found biblical documents, various papers, personal letters, records and so on within these mummy masks. Most exciting is that many of these writings are dated.
Your Shopping Receipt Dates Your New Testament Book
The dating of some of these documents is key. That is because scholars found a small fragment of Mark's gospel in a mask which means that archaeologists may be able to date the gospel far, far earlier than thought - possibly early first century.
Just think. If the records and lists from the mummy mask are marked by a date, then the fragment from Mark can be dated at approximately the same time as the other dated materials. Put another way, your dated shopping receipt from Home Depot could tell me the approximate year that your New Testament book was published because they were both locked inside the same storage unit between the years 1960 through 2015 - no additions or subtractions to enclosed items. Therefore, all books from that storage unit had to be published before 1960. It's that kind of logic.
At any rate, the finding and news is pending and is expected to be released soon. Watch for it. Fantastic discovery! It is one that biblical scholars worldwide are eagerly anticipating. Stay tuned…
D'Ancona and Thiede, Carsten Peter. 1994. The Times, London, UK. 24 Dec. "A papyrus believed to be the oldest extant fragment of the New Testament has been found…"
Elwart, Steve. 2015. Gospel of Mark may be hidden in mummy mask. Koinonia Institute Strategic Research Center. KI Research eNews for January 26, 2015. firstname.lastname@example.org.
House, Wayne H. 1992. Charts of Christian theology&doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Missler, Chuck. 2001. The Magdalen Papyrus. www.khouse.org.
Muncaster, Ralph O. 2000. Can you trust the Bible? Eugene, OR: Harvest House.
Author Valorie Mays Emilio holds an MA in history from UCLA focusing upon Christian origins.