Why I’d Be Thrilled If A First-Century Manuscript Appeared

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reblogged from Bart’s blog

In several posts I have been emphasizing – possibly over-emphasizing – that if a first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark does ever get published, and if it is in *fact* from the first century (which, I should stress, will be almost *impossible* to demonstrate conclusively), that it is very hard indeed to imagine that it will be any kind of game-changer, that it will tell us something different from what we already think.   The reason I have been emphasizing this is because the evangelical Christian scholars who are making the headlines with their declarations about the discovery will almost certainly, once it is published, if it ever gets published, claim that it is evidence for their view that we can know what the original text says.  See!  We have a FIRST-CENTURY MANUSCRIPT!!!

So, consider these posts of mine as a kind of prophylaxis against future claims.   I don’t want to hear later that I’m just offering sour grapes when I say the same thing (that it is telling us nothing new) later,after the manuscript is published.   And if it DOES tell us something new – Wow!  Even better!

As a side note, one of the leading evangelical Christian textual scholars in the world, Peter William (he is an affiliated lecturer at Cambridge, in the UK, is Chair of the International Greek New Testament Project and is a member of the Translation Committee of the English Standard Version of the Bible), in a blog post yesterday http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/has-anyone-seen-first-century-mark.html , says that

(a) he has learned that Craig Evans, the spokesperson / scholar who has been talking most about these mummy masks and the first-century copy of Mark has never actually *seen*, let alone examined, this so-called first-century copy of Mark;

(b) he doubts whether Dan Wallace, who first made the spectacular announcement of a first-century copy of Mark, during a public debate with me in Chapel Hill in 2012, had actually seen, let alone examined, the copy before the debate (he doesn’t know if Dan has seen it since; as I’ve pointed out, Dan is not a paleographer, and so would not be an expert who could date the copy even if he did examine it);

(c) he personally doubts whether anyone who is saying that it is a first-century copy of Mark has any basis for saying so.  He doubts if the thing exists.  (Well, something probably exists, but for him, it seems unlikely that it is a first-century copy of Mark.  He thinks we’re likely dealing with rumor and hearsay.)

But let’s say it does exist and that it can be dated to, say, the year 100 plus or minus 25 years.   I want to correct the misimpression some of the readers of this blog.   I am EMPHATICALLY not saying that I would be less than enthusiastic if such a thing showed up.  I would be down-right thrilled, in every way.  This would be a great event.

It would NOT be because it would force us to rethink anything.  But it would be precisely because it almost certainly would confirm with hard evidence what we already think on the basis of less hard evidence.   I’ve already indicated why it’s difficult to believe that a small scrap of a manuscript from around 100 would change anything, or that it would confirm what a group of wide-eyed fundamentalists might think about the Bible, or what a group of hard-nosed atheists might think about the Bible, or what a group of anyone in between might think about the Bible.

But historians who work with texts are passionate about their texts.  At least this one (yours truly) is.   And any early manuscript of any early text is an absolute treasure, to be cherished above nearly all things textual.  If this thing turns up, it will be another piece in the puzzle.   One new piece is not going to change the appearance of the puzzle.  But who, working a jigsaw puzzle that is missing most of its pieces, is not elated when a new piece is discovered that fits in with everything else?  That makes it possible – and conceivable – that more pieces will turn up.  And if a LOT of new pieces start turning up, then it is in fact possible that the overall picture that is emerging from the assemblage of those pieces will start to change.

You cannot have LOTS of pieces – our ultimate desire as textual historians – until you get the FIRST piece.  Of course, this piece – if it shows up – will not be the first piece of our puzzle or the first newly discovered piece.   We already have over 115 (fragmentary) papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament, dating, roughly from the second to the seventh centuries, almost all of them discovered over the course of the past century.  But this, if living up to the hype, would be one of the two earliest, if not the earliest.  So it would be a significant piece, and, arguably, the first to be dated this early (P52 is usually dated to 125 CE, plus or minus 25 years – although recent reexaminations suggest that this date may be too early, possibly by a 80-100 years!).  And about that, every textual scholar on the planet, of whatever persuasion, would be thrilled.

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Categories: Bible

2 replies

  1. Did anyone notice this passing comment about P52 in Bart Erhman’s post above?

    ‘So it would be a significant piece, and, arguably, the first to be dated this early (P52 is usually dated to 125 CE, plus or minus 25 years – although recent reexaminations suggest that this date may be too early, possibly by a 80-100 years!). And about that, every textual scholar on the planet, of whatever persuasion, would be thrilled.’

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  1. P52 – shocking news | Blogging Theology

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