Beware New Artifacts, or How “First”-Century Mark Fits a Pattern

Recently, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 5345 was finally published. I know, we’ll all go out for drinks later to celebrate… Rumors have been circulating about this manuscript for about 6 years with the idea that it is a fragment of the Gospel of Mark dating from the first century CE, so within a few decades of when Mark was written. Given that there is only one other manuscript of Mark dated before the fourth century, and that a first century manuscript would be the oldest manuscript of any New Testament text, this would be a huge deal. Unfortunately, the editors have now dated it to the 2nd to 3rd century, which is more typical and means it is not even the oldest manuscript of Mark. Daniel Wallace has since owned up to his role in spreading what turned out to be false information – false information he was prevented from correcting by a non-disclosure agreement until now.

For more on “First-Century Mark,” see here, here, and here.

I have no reason to doubt Wallace’s integrity, so it is unfortunate that he has gotten wrapped up in this. To an extent, however, it fits a pattern in the handling of newly discovered archaeological artifacts related to the Bible that has played out multiple times, a few in just the last couple of decades.

Step 1: Find an object – or if you can’t find one, forge one – that fits a well-established narrative.

In 2002, an ossuary (a bone box, long story) was discovered with the inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” This seemed to belong to James, Jesus’s brother and writer of the epistle of James in the NT. That would mostly just be neat, except the inscription called him out as “brother of Jesus,” not a common way of naming someone unless his brother were highly notable. It would be very early physical evidence for the importance of Jesus. Granted, these are three of the top 11 most popular names in Palestine at the time according to Tal Ilan’s Lexicon, so it’s not crazy to find this configuration, but one presumes it is still rare.

In 2007, a Hebrew apocalypse called Hazon Gabriel came to light. HG is written in ink on stone (so difficult to date), and its provenance is unknown – which raises some questions. On paleographic and linguistic grounds, it has been dated before the NT, perhaps before Jesus. The text has the angel Gabriel delivering a message to someone associated with David (I argued it was the prophet Nathan [cf. 2 Samuel 7] in an article I wrote a few years back), in which the angel commands (in the initial translation), “In three days, live!” If accurate, it would seem (to some) to undermine the originality of Jesus’s resurrection.

In 2012, a fragment of a text labeled “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was announced. Although a small fragment (about as small as “First-Century Mark”), it appears to have Jesus refer to “my wife,” which has obvious resonance with speculations of the Da Vinci Code variety. Since it was thought to be a 4th century Coptic text, there was little value to studying the historical Jesus, but some thought it would be evidence for Gnostic or some alternative understanding of Christ as married.

Also in 2012, we have the announcement of a “First Century Mark.”

Step 2: Get a scholar who already supports the intended narrative to legitimize the object before proper study has been done.

The inscription on the James ossuary was dated to the first century by epigrapher (he studies inscriptions) André Lemaire. Lemaire is Director of Studies at the École pratique des hautes études and well-respected in the field. However, he also dated an ivory pomegranate to King Solomon’s temple based on an inscription, while the inscription was later questioned. In other words, Lemaire may have been a good mark to legitimize an inscription added to an object as long as the handwriting looked good.

With Hazon Gabriel, Israel Knohl went in whole hog. Again, Knohl is a well-published, senior scholar. He had already written books advancing the theory that the “Messiah son of Joseph” (the patriarch, not carpenter from Nazareth) had been developed by the first century. The Messiah ben Joseph had to die for the Davidic Messiah to arrive. Knohl speculated that the “catastrophic messianism” of Jesus (a son of [a] Joseph, although by all accounts descended from Judah) was based on this tradition. In Knohl’s reading of HG, a figure called Ephraim (also a son of the OG Joseph) is told to live (rise from the dead?) in three days. Knohl wrote multiple articles and a commentary on the text within two years.

Harvard professor Karen King announced the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” King had previously written about Gnostic Christianity, specifically about how their attitudes toward women and sex differed from the mainline church. King was always upfront about the fact that such a text says nothing about whether Jesus himself was married (conventionally, not to the Church as in Revelation 21), only that it might say something about the Gnostics.

As to “First Century Mark,” Wallace brought it up six years prior to publication for a specific purpose: to counter claims made in a debate with Bart Ehrman that we cannot be certain of the reliability of the NT since we have so few early manuscripts (2nd century?), and no truly early texts (i.e. 1st century). Wallace busts in with a first century copy of Mark that mostly matches later copies, (minor) evidence that the text was largely consistent. In fact, according to Wallace, the editors of “First Century Mark,” although already aware of evidence that the text was later, encouraged him to name-drop their manuscript during this debate! As he now admits, he did so without checking the data himself out of trust, but one suspects also because their interpretation fit what he wanted to be true. Had they told him they had a first century copy of Mark that had “follow me and I will make you just the best male prostitutes,” or that began, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus, son of Mary,” Wallace would have asked to inspect the thing more closely before he made any announcements.

Step 3: The media goes crazy.

The James ossuary went on display at the Royal Ontario Museum almost immediately. There were write-ups in the New York Times, a Discovery Channel documentary, and the Biblical Archaeology Review threw their support behind the find. The Hazon Gabriel went on display in the Israel Museum, got a write-up in the New York Times and Time magazine, and got two documentaries, including one by National Geographic. The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was covered multiple times in The Atlantic and by the Smithsonian Channel. “First-Century Mark” wasn’t even published yet, but lots of rumors flew around about it, including that it came from the cartonnage of a mummy mask, a mask which was featured in The International Business Times while the world still waited to see the manuscript itself.

Step 4: Scholars finally get to examine the artifact.

When scholarship is allowed to actually do its job, the results don’t tend to support the initial headline-grabbing interpretations.

Årstein Justnes justifiably raised questions about the authenticity of the Hazon Gabriel, but his arguments for a forgery are unconvincing, or at least highly inconclusive. More damaging to Knohl’s controversial reading, however, were simply better photographs. The original transcription gave “In three days, live,” but “live” was spelled weirdly and the editors marked it with [?]. With clearer images, an alternative reading presented itself: “In three days, the sign,” with “the sign” spelled normally. A sign had already been mentioned in the text. No resurrection after three days, so no bearing on Jesus. Knohl continued to push his reading even while recognizing the new reading, but HG is probably just a typical Hebrew apocalypse.

“The brother of Jesus” on the James ossuary, meanwhile, was deemed a forgery by the Israel Antiquities Authority, and the artifact’s owner was tried on a few dozen counts of forgery and fraud, including the ossuary. The patina (the build-up of gunk on the stone over the course of the centuries) is absent on the part mentioning Jesus, and some claimed to have seen the ossuary without these words yet carved into it. The owner was eventually acquitted, though, and the ossuary still has its defenders. There’s a small chance it’s genuine, and if so, there’s a small chance it’s from the first century, and if so, there’s a small chance it is Jesus’s brother’s ossuary. That’s too many “if sos” for a headline.

Scholars quickly suspected the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was a forgery, although written on 4th century papyrus: the pen was weird, the handwriting was weird, and the content was too perfect for the sorts of headlines it got. Furthermore, the grammar was off, and specifically off in a way that matched typos in a lexicon for the Gospel of Thomas! The definitive verdict did not come from scholarly analysis but from journalism: Ariel Sabar at The Atlantic wrote a fascinating piece on the forgery simply by tracking down the forger.

There’s little doubt the papyrus of Mark is authentic, it’s just that it dates from centuries after Mark was written, not decades. Brice Jones has raised some suspicion that the owners were trying to drum up the price in order to sell it, and there is certainly more discussion of the 83rd volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri than previous volumes. At $147.50, Amazon has only 10 copies left, and the first review mentions “First-Century Mark.” Since the Greens (of Hobby Lobby fame), who are sponsoring a new Museum of the Bible, are apparently involved, rumors of a first-century Mark would fit their ideology and boost the museum’s profile had it panned out.

The lesson here is to not get too wrapped up in newly discovered artifacts, especially ones associated with the Bible, until they can be adequately evaluated by scholars. Moreover, it seems scholars should be particularly wary of interacting with the media regarding artifacts that just so happen to fit narratives they’re already pushing before they can do the legwork necessary to validate those claims. That being said, if anyone needs an endorsement for their artifact depicting a fat, hairy Jesus, I’m your man no questions asked.

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2 thoughts on “Beware New Artifacts, or How “First”-Century Mark Fits a Pattern

  1. A first century fragment of a copy of one of the Gospels will not prove that the gospels contain eyewitness testimony. The overwhelming majority of scholars believe that neither eyewitnesses nor associates of eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels. It is time that evangelicals and fundamentalist Protestants recognize this fact and stop pretending that the Gospels are primary source eyewitness documents.

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    • I agree, but I think this is a different issue than what was being discussed in the debate (unless I’m misremembering it), which was the reliability of the text. Ehrman’s model is that the text changed dramatically in the early centuries; Wallace’s is that the text was mostly stable. A first-century manuscript with the expected text (barring the omission of ho iesous, which some take as due to the use of the nomen sacrum — a remarkable thing in the first century if it were the case) would support Wallace’s model (to a very minor extent). As you say, a stable text says nothing about its accuracy or its closeness to eyewitnesses, but I imagine there’s also issues of normative faith in the inspired nature of the text of the “autographs” at play, and the more stable the text, the closer it probably is to the autographs. My point is that Wallace trusted the sellers in part because the text said what he would want it to say; if it had said something radically different than we’d expect, the sellers 1) would not be trying to sell it to the Greens, and 2) would perhaps approach someone like Ehrman instead since it fits his narrative better.

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