For a few years now there have been rumors of a fragment from the Gospel of Mark that dates to the first century. Work on the fragment (which contains Mark 1:7-9, 16-18) has finally been published (by Dirk Obbink and Daniela Colomo) and the fragment is dated to the late second or early third century. Nonetheless, Larry Hurtado notes that this doubles “the number of manuscript witnesses to GMark from before 300 CE (the only other one being the Chester Beatty Gospels codex, P45).”
Daniel B. Wallace, who mentioned the fragment in a debate with Bart Ehrman on February 1, 2012, offers an apology:
In my debate with Bart, I mentioned that I had it on good authority that this was definitely a first-century fragment of Mark. A representative for who I understood was the owner of FCM urged me to make the announcement at the debate, which they realized would make this go viral. 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. So, I must first apologize to Bart Ehrman, and to everyone else, for giving misleading information about this discovery. While I am sorry for publicly announcing inaccurate facts, at no time in the public statements (either in the debate or on my blogsite) did I knowingly do this. But I should have been more careful about trusting any sources without my personal verification, a lesson I have since learned.
Michael J. Kruger makes some comments about how important a first-century manuscript would really be:
From a historical/scholarly perspective, there are good reasons to be disappointed. Any scholar of the Bible, no matter what their theological perspective, would love to have access to a first-century manuscript. Who wouldn’t? It would take us one step closer to the autographs.
From a theological perspective, there is no reason to be disappointed. I fear that many believers had vested too much importance in this supposed first-century copy of Mark. As if, finally, it would prove the reliability of the New Testament text, and quell all the skeptics.
But, I don’t think it would have accomplished that at all. Given how fragmentary it is, it is unlikely to have changed the debate over the reliability of the text in any meaningful way.
Besides, I think the current state of the textual evidence, apart from a first-century manuscript, already gives us good reasons to trust our text. Put differently, we don’t need a first-century copy of Mark to have confidence the text has been reliably transmitted.
As a final thought, I suppose this whole affair is a good reminder about the nature of scholarship, particularly the study of ancient manuscripts. Any study of the ancient world needs to be approached with caution and patience, but particularly the study of ancient texts. A first impression of ancient manuscripts is just that, a first/preliminary impression. And sometimes further study and reflection can lead to different results. This fragment of Mark is case in point.
Updates on 2018-06-11
- ‘First-Century’ Mark Fragment: Second Update by Daniel Wallace
- Update on P137 (P.Oxy. 83.5345) by Elijah Hixson