Religion-news story of the year? Caution is wise with alleged biblical bombshells

The mass media often turn to scriptural stuff as the world’s Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus (on April 1 this year, or one week later for the Orthodox).

This Eastertide a long-brewing story, largely ignored by the media, could be the biggest biblical bombshell since a lad accidentally stumbled upon the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.

Or not.

Scholars are supposedly prepared to announce an astonishing discovery, a Greek manuscript of the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark written down in the 1st Century A.D. That would mean  Mark -- and implicitly other Gospels –- were compiled when numerous eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life would have been alive, thus buttressing authenticity.   

The Guy recommends caution, since sensational historical claims in recent times have flopped, or were misconstrued, and embarrassed proponents on both the religious right and left. With careful contexting, reporters should attempt to break this news  (see tips below) or at least be prepared to pounce when someone else does.  

The oldest Mark manuscript we currently know came some 150 years later than this. To date, the earliest surviving New Testament text is the celebrated Rylands Papyrus 52 (“P52”), at England’s University of Manchester, found in Egypt in 1920 and identified in 1934. Experts date P52 in the mid-2nd Century and perhaps as early as A.D. 125. This fragment of John 18:31-33, 37-38 confirmed scholars’ prior consensus that John’s Gospel originated in the late 1st Century.

Internet chatter about the Mark text comes mostly from biblical conservatives, who are understandably enthused. The first hint The Religion Guy unearthed was this opaque 2011 tweet from Scott Carroll, a professor at an online Christian school: “For over 100 years the earliest known text of the New Testament has been the so-called John Rylands Papyrus. Not any more. Stay tuned.”  Years later, Carroll said he had seen this actual Mark text two times.

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A bit of substance emerged during a 2012 campus debate between Daniel Wallace, director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts at Dallas Theological Seminary, and his longtime friend Bart Ehrman, New Testament professor at the University of North Carolina.

When Ehrman contended that the New Testament is historically unreliable, Wallace parried with news about a forthcoming Mark text. He said a renowned (but unnamed) expert in the science of ancient handwriting styles known as paleography had dated the writing back to the 1st Century. He also revealed that  E.J. Brill of The Netherlands, notably authoritative in technical publishing of such discoveries, would issue specifics in “about a year” (= 2013).

Ehrman thought it was dirty pool to cite the Mark claim in debate when the key information remained secret. He asked via blog, “Why not tell us where it was found, who found it, how extensive it is, who has examined it, what his grounds for dating it were, whether his views have been independently corroborated?” Wallace responded here.  

Stage two was a LiveScience.com interview in 2015 (by then the expected year for delayed Brill publication) with Craig Evans, now at Houston Baptist University. Evans said several dozen scholars bound by a non-disclosure agreement worked on newly discovered papyrus sheets that ancient Egyptians had written on and then reused to glue together and form mummy masks. A new technique removes glue so the sheets can be separated and the writings examined. Experts concluded the Mark copy “was written before the year 90,” Evans said, which would put the original composition earlier in the 1st Century. 

Stage three began last July 14 when a blog for specialists identified the mystery paleographer as the well-qualified Dirk Obbink at the University of Oxford.  Early this year, Gary Habermas of Liberty University announced that the paleographer involved (not named) gave him permission to say the dating falls between A.D. 80 and 110.

If The Guy were still toiling for Time or the Associated Press, phone call No. 1 would go to Brill’s U.S. office (617-263-2323) for Dutch contacts who’d know why the delay and when publication will occur. Contact #2 would be Obbink (01-865-276212 or dirk.obbink@chch.ox.ac.uk). Then he’d pump Wallace, Evans and Carroll, whose inside role in this intrigue remains unclear.  

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