Bible Scholars Skeptical of 1st Century Gospel Fragment 'Discovery'

An exciting discovery was reported last week of what is believed to be the earliest New Testament artifact ever unearthed - first-century A.D. fragments from the Gospel of Mark, but a number of professors and researchers have since warned that the findings may not be what they seem.

Dallas Theological Seminary professor Daniel B. Wallace said earlier this month that the newly discovered fragments might have been from the time of eyewitnesses of Jesus' resurrection. Previously, the oldest manuscript that had Mark in it was Papyrus 45 (P45), from the early third century (c. AD 200–250.)

Wallace announced his findings at UNC Chapel Hill on Feb. 1, 2012, during a debate in front of 1,000 people, where he revealed that seven New Testament papyri had recently been discovered – six of them he said were probably from the second century, and one of them, the Gospel of Mark, probably from the first.

"It was dated by one of the world's leading paleographers," Wallace later wrote on his UNC webpage, although he did not name the expert in question. "He said he was 'certain' that it was from the first century," the professor added. The records will be published next year.

However, a number of professors have shared with The Christian Post that although such a fragment would be an incredible discovery if it were in fact the artifact is authentic, there are many questions that still need answering.

"I am skeptical about the discovery as described. First, there is the question [of] whether it is a genuinely ancient fragment. Many supposedly ancient artifacts that come on the market without a valid archaeological context may be forgeries," said Adela Collins, a Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School. 

"Second, there is the problem of dating, if it is indeed ancient. The article cites 'one of the world's leading paleographers.' Why isn't the person's name given? Third, I don't know of any reputable paleographer who would say that he or she is 'certain' about a date suggested by paleographical analysis," Collins added.

Others have warned about the complexities that come with carbon dating.

"Since the final reports on this fragment are not yet in, it would be hard to speculate. I can say that carbon dating is only approximate, and that dating a manuscript to a particular century is somewhat difficult with that technology," Hal Taussig, a professor of New Testament at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, explained to CP.

"Generally there is a range of about a century. Indeed more conservative examiners often will not risk an estimate of under two centuries. So I would be somewhat surprised at a manuscript being dated so exactly," Taussig said.

"What is interesting about the summary is that there is no mention of an assessment of the writing style, the other major factor in dating. Perhaps more to the point than trying to guarantee a first-century dating is the overall discovery of the fragment itself. Even if it is in the second century, it is an important find," he continued, offering that even if the fragment is newer than Wallace's report suggests, it would still be of interest.

"From a historical perspective, a first-century manuscript would be incredibly exciting," agreed J. R. Daniel Kirk, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. "Christianity depends on the telling of a first-century story, and a first-century manuscript would give us the sense of stepping closer to the source of the Christian faith." 

The Fuller professor suggested, however, that regardless of the Gospel of Mark fragments' dating, the discovery is unlikely to sway the opinions of believers or non-believers alike about the validity of the Bible.

"It is doubtful that many people's understandings of the reliability of the New Testament will be much influenced by this finding. People who believe that the Gospel is reliable will see this as further proof of the Bible's reliability. People who do not believe the texts we have are not likely to be persuaded by a new text that says the same thing," Kirk asserted.

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