By Michael Foust
Much of the biblical scholarly world has been buzzing since Feb. 1, when a New Testament professor made a claim during a debate that was news to most everyone who heard it — a first-century fragment of Mark’s Gospel may have been found.
It would be the earliest-known fragment of the New Testament, placing it in the very century of Christ and the apostles.
The claim by Dallas Theological Seminary’s Daniel B. Wallace took place during a debate with University of North Carolina professor Bart Ehrman, an author whose popular books claim the New Testament cannot be trusted because the original manuscripts aren’t in existence.
The Mark fragment has yet to be made public, but Wallace provided a few more details on his website, saying information about the fragment would be published in the form of a book in “about a year.”
“It was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers,” Wallace wrote. “He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century.”
But if it is true that a first-century fragment has been found, it would be big news both in the scholarly world and in the larger Christian world.
Baptist Press asked Andreas Köstenberger, senior professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological in Wake Forest, N.C., to explain the significance of a possible first-century Mark fragment. Köstenberger attended the Wallace-Ehrman debate.
BAPTIST PRESS: If there is a first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark, what is the significance?
KOSTENBERGER: Currently, the earliest known available Gospel fragment is p52 (the John Rylands papyrus), which contains portions of John 18 and dates to around A.D. 125. So any find that gets us a quarter-century or so closer to the time the original Gospels were written would be highly significant, even sensational. Of course, in part the significance of the discovery depends on the size of the fragment, not to mention the verification of the date. There have been previous reports of discoveries of early Mark or other Gospel manuscripts that did not check out at closer scrutiny, so it is certainly appropriate to maintain scholarly caution until the full data are known and available to public scrutiny. For example, some scholars got burned when they prematurely accepted so-called “Secret Mark,” which turned out to be a forgery (see Stephen Carlson’s “The Gospel Hoax”).
BAPTIST PRESS: Any guess as to why an announcement is being held back? Why the secrecy?
KOSTENBERGER: Apparently, the publisher is E.J. Brill, one of the world’s leading publishers of high-quality academic work. Presumably, the volume, when it appears approximately one year from now, will contain not only the first-century fragment of Mark but several other early manuscripts that have been found (though not dating to the first century). The Brill volume will no doubt contain all the technical details as to verification of the date, circumstances of the find, and an assessment of its significance. It makes sense for the details of the find to be withheld until the publication of the volume so that this data can be fully vetted by the scholarly community at that time. Doubtless there will be skeptics who, recognizing the potential significance of the discovery, will attempt to challenge the authenticity and/or date of the fragment.
BAPTIST PRESS: Some readers may be wondering: If we don’t have the original copy of Mark’s Gospel, how can we trust that what we have is what Mark wrote?
KOSTENBERGER: The fact is that the earliest manuscripts of all or parts of Mark that we do have show remarkable consistency and stability. And none of the minor variations between different manuscripts affect any major doctrine of Christianity at all. Of course, there is no way to prove positively one way or another what might have happened during the period between the original writing of Mark and the first available copies. Knowing what we do know about the care with which ancient Jews as well as early Christians took to preserve the original wording of what they believed to be authoritative and sacred writings — in fact, the very words of God — inspires a high degree of confidence. First the apostles, and then those after them carefully guarded the reliability of the eyewitness testimony to Jesus contained in the four canonical Gospels. –Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press.