Today I would like to just briefly share a fascinating discovery made by a team of researchers that you may or may not have heard about on the news. The discovery centers on an ancient Egyptian mummy mask, or to be more precise, the contents within this particular mummy mask.
For some background, as many of you already know, in ancient Egypt it was customary for a “death mask” to be placed on the mummified remains of the dead during burial. While Pharaohs and other nobility in ancient Egypt were able to afford funeral masks made from gold, most ordinary people could only afford “paper mache” mummy masks. These laymen made mummy masks were formed with linin or papyrus, paint and glue. However, even this cost money, so most people used recycled sheets of linin or papyrus to then mold into the form of a mask.
With that in mind, a team of researchers and archaeologists have been meticulously taking apart several such mummy masks through a new special process. This technique allows the team to remove the glue on the masks while not harming the papyrus (paper) or the ink contained on the sheets of papyrus. Note, papyrus is simply a material used in the ancient world to create sheets for writing or painting. As you can imagine, the researchers have uncovered hundreds of ancient texts through this process. Some texts were personal letters, others tax documents and assessments while others included fragmented copies from Greek classics such as the works of Homer. However, the biggest surprise was a fragment of the Gospel of Mark. Why the surprise? Because many of the personal and business documents have dates on them, thus allowing the research team to date the texts to around the year 90 AD. If correct, this makes it the oldest fragment from the New Testament (NT) discovered to date. Currently our oldest copied manuscripts for the complete NT dates to the fourth century (325 AD), with manuscripts for most of the NT dating to the third century (250 AD) and several complete books dated even earlier to around the year 200 AD. There are also several fragmented copies and pieces dated to the second century, with the oldest to date being a fragment from the Gospel of John dated to 114 AD. Therefore, with this discovery, they have uncovered what appears to be the world’s oldest known copy of a Gospel in existence. All very fascinating!
However, the work of this team has not been without controversy. Why? Because the technique involved to retrieve and decipher the ancient texts requires the destruction of the mummy masks. But scholar Craig A. Evans, professor of NT studies at Acadia Divinity College, has defended the practice in various reports, saying:
“We’re not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece.”
He goes on to say:
“We’re recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries. Not just Christian documents, not just biblical documents, but classical Greek texts, business papers, various mundane papers, personal letters, … We’re going to end up with many hundreds of papyri when the work is done, if not thousands.”
All controversy aside, it is still all very fascinating. Of course, this discovery was made back in 2012, and since that time the research team has continued to meticulously move forward documenting their finds. But until they officially release and publish their findings for peer review, it cannot be said for certain if this newly discovered copy of Mark truly dates to the first century or not. But it’s still a fascinating discovery just the same.
Thank you for reading.