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Papyrus Found in a Mummy Mask May Be the Oldest Known Copy of a Gospel

Questions surround the reported discovery of an ancient scrap of the Gospel of Mark

A fragment from a copy of the Gospel of John, circa 200AD, is displayed at Sotheby's auctioneers in London. Researchers now claim to have found a gospel text that is over 100 years older. (SUZANNE PLUNKETT/Reuters/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

When most of us think of ancient mummies, we tend to imagine them decked out in jewels and crowned with masks of gold. But such finery was reserved for those who died wealthy; the mummy masks of ordinary people were typically made only of more humble mediums like papyrus, glue and paint. Even then, the expense of papyrus meant that the material destined for the grave was often recycled from previous uses.

Now, as Live Science reports, one team of researchers believes that they may have found the oldest-known copy of a gospel within the papyrus-wrapped mask of one of these less well-off mummies. The writing on the scrap is thought to be a part of the Gospel of Mark and date back to around 90 A.D.—decades earlier than any other previously discovered gospel text.

The text hasn't been published yet; after much delay, a volume containing the gospel text and other documents pulled by the team from masks and cartonnage is set to be published later this year. These discoveries were made possible by a technique that removes the glue from papyrus or linen but keeps any writing in tact.

Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and one of the scientists and scholars working on the project, told Live Science that gospel text isn’t the only writing they’re finding:

"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," Evans told Live Science. The documents include philosophical texts and copies of stories by the Greek poet Homer.

Evans said that the team was able to zero in on the approximate date of the gospel text by using these other documents (some of which were dated), handwriting analysis and carbon dating.

The technique they used to obtain the text is controversial, though, because extracting the papyrus ultimately destroys the mummy masks. Some scholars and archaeologists argue that the team is wantonly ruining historical artifacts. And since the texts haven't been published yet, there are also questions about how valuable these texts really are. Though one researcher first spoke about the gospel text back in 2012, confidentiality restrictions have prevented more open discussion. If, as the researchers promise, the texts are published this year, other scholars will finally have the chance to examine them and judge if destroying these masks was really justified.

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