Fragment from Gospel of Mark is not from the First Century

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


6 thoughts on “Fragment from Gospel of Mark is not from the First Century

  1. Even if the original autographs of the Gospels were discovered, what would it prove? The overwhelming majority of NT scholars do NOT believe that eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels. Even scholar NT Wright has said, “I don’t know who the authors of the Gospels were and neither does anyone else”. Therefore, we do not know if the stories told in the Gospels are historical facts or literary embellishments, embellishments perfectly acceptable in the genre in which they were written—Greco-Roman biographies.

    The days of Christians using the Gospels as primary source documents to support Christianity’s supernatural claims are over. The discovery of first century fragments of copies of the Gospels will not change that.

  2. Gary, I don’t think that’s the point trying to be made at all… The hype surrounding Mark’s fragment is that it can potentially shed some new light on the field of textual criticism. It might just confirm the reliable transmission of the Biblical text, in spite of the ever-increasing hyperskeptism. There are of course, other “consequences” of a 1st-century manuscript (such as the date of composition), but that’s is the jist of it.

    While it’s indeed true that generally, most scholars don’t accept the traditional authorship for all the Gospels, I still believe a very good case can be made for their authenticity… and that it’s actually the most reasonable position by far.
    Have a blessed day

  3. He even admits when Muslims got it right, so I have to at least give him credit for that:

    Daniel Wallace mentions the following :

    I’m embarrassed to say that sometimes there are Muslim apologists who have done really decent research on the nature of the New Testament or on the transmission of the text or things along those lines, and they have cleared up kind of an apocryphal story that Christians believed in.

    There was one example: a number of scholars have passed on saying someone had pointed out that in the first three centuries of Christianity, only eleven verses of the entire New Testament had not been able to be found in those Church Fathers’ writings. Well, that was a garbled story that went back to the early 1800s, and it was a third-hand story of a fellow by the name of David Dalrymple. He was the one who actually was doing the research, and somebody heard about this at a party and not directly from Dalrymple but from somebody else, and then put into a book, and it’s been stated for the last 200 years as though it was Gospel fact.

    What Dalrymple actually said was in the first two centuries of the Christian faith through A.D. 300, that all but eleven verses of John’s Gospel had been found in the Church Fathers’ writings [Wallace said that Dalrymple found all but 11 verses of the Gospel of John in the Ante-Nicene fathers, but Dalrymple’s notes do not bear this out]. He wasn’t talking about the whole New Testament, so this got communicated in such a way that said it was the whole New Testament that’s been found. That’s just irresponsible and not at all helpful. It was Muslim apologists who discovered the error, and it’s been quoted by apologists, even text critical scholars, and it was the Muslims who (……. 58:18) [did the] research and said sorry that’s not the case.

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