ManuscriptsTaking Stock of the “First-Century Mark” Saga What can we learn from the overzealous excitement about the earliest known copy of our earliest Gospel? Elijah HixsonKey figures from the “First-Century Mark” story. Illustration by Josh Koch. WikipediaJanuary 25, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint The “First-Century Mark” saga is an unfortunate series of events surrounding an early papyrus fragment of Mark’s Gospel that began publicly in late 2011 and, at the time of this writing, is still not fully resolved. The story begins with a tweet from Dr. Scott Carroll on December 1, 2011, “For over 100 years the earliest known text of the New Testament has been the so-call[ed] John Rylands Papyrus. Not any more. Stay tuned . . . .” At the time, Dr. Carroll was working for the Green family who owns Hobby Lobby, helping them to purchase the materials that would eventually form the basis of the Museum of the Bible’s collection. The news of Carroll’s “earliest known text” began to make headlines in February 2012, when Dan Wallace used a debate with Bart Ehrman to announce the existence of a fragment of Mark’s Gospel that an unnamed, world-class paleographer had dated to the first century. The announcement surprised Ehrman and the audience. Allegedly, this item was part of a private collection and was to be published shortly thereafter. Years came and went, and no first-century Mark fragment was ever published. Wallace could not give more information because he had signed a non-disclosure agreement that barred him from speaking about the manuscript until it had been published. Years came and went, and no first-century Mark fragment was ever published. It was not long before rumors about the fragment made their way to the popular level. Apologists and scholars (e.g., Dr. Craig Evans and Dr. Gary Habermas) saw it as powerful evidence for the reliability of the Christian message. After years of speculation and what seemed like leaked information, an early fragment of Mark was finally published in the Spring of 2018 in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series—a series of papyri owned by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES)—not a private collection. The EES collection was excavated over a century ago in modern-day Al-Bahnasa, Egypt. This meant the new fragment was not part of a private collection but one that had been known and studied for over 100 years. As I quickly put the pieces together, it became clear that this tiny manuscript, designated P.Oxy. 5345 (or P137), was the “First-Century Mark.” The earlier dating was simply incorrect, and there had been confusion as to who owned the manuscript and how it would be published. It was not owned by the Greens and it was not from the first century after all. A great deal of the speculation was simply wrong. P.Oxy. LXXXIII 5345 (or P137), containing Mark 1:7–9, 16–18, measures just 4.4 × 4 cm. Wikipedia Far from resolving the issue, the publication raised new and more serious questions. Most of these revolved around the fact that P137, according to some reports, had been offered for sale to a private collection (presumably the Greens’). The serious problem with this situation is that unpublished papyri in the Oxyrhynchus Collection cannot be sold. (Early on, some of the collection’s published papyri were given away to other institutions, but this was quite different.) The EES responded to the startling suggestions by issuing a statement saying that the fragment “has never been for sale, whatever claims may have been made arising from individual conversations in the past.” We now know this is not true. It has since come to light that P137 was indeed offered for sale to Hobby Lobby along with other papyri without authorization from the EES, allegedly by someone working for the EES who had access to the manuscripts. The excavations at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt around 1900 uncovered thousands of papyri, including the now infamous P137. Wikipedia As of November 2019, the EES had “identified around 120 pieces which appear to be missing,” and in February 2021, they reported that “The police investigation in the UK is continuing into the unauthorised removal of texts from the EES collection and their sale to Hobby Lobby and others.” Someone had been trying to pawn the EES’s papyri from right under their noses. The prime suspect is none other than Wallace’s world-class paleographer. The matter has not been resolved, and a police investigation is ongoing so we are limited as to what more we could say. At the time of writing, Obbink has been living in a houseboat in England and avoiding authorities. Although the story is still not fully resolved, now is a good time to step back and consider lessons learned from the “First-Century Mark” saga. Here are four suggestions. 1. If something sounds too good to be true, it might be. Assume it is until there is an informed scholarly consensus. A consensus can be wrong, but it is the purpose and nature of scholarship to find and eliminate weak points in the argument. As the external examiner at my own PhD examination said to me as we began, “It is my job to shake this thesis as hard as I can and see if I can get any bits of it to fall out.” Such is the nature of good scholarship, and a consensus is almost always on firmer grounds than a lone objector—especially in the context of arguing a position. P137 was not the first manuscript claimed to be from the first century,1See Peter J. Gurry and Elijah Hixson, “Introduction” in Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity (2019), 14–20. and none of the others claimed first-century New Testament papyri has proven to be so. However, it’s worth mentioning that the descriptions of the person who dated the manuscript left little to the imagination with regard to his identity. There was never much doubt that the unnamed paleographer was probably Dirk Obbink, and these suspicions turned out to be correct. At the time, Obbink was among the most respected and influential papyrologists alive. Recently, I spoke to another papyrologist who described Obbink as being the LeBron James of papyrology. Dr. Dirk Obbink was a professor at Oxford and one of the world’s foremost experts on ancient papyri. (Photo) Simply put, in 2011, Dirk Obbink’s word was gospel when it came to dating papyrus manuscripts, and it would have been reasonable to take Obbink at his word. Still, good practice is to wait for a consensus. Years later, when P137 was published, the date that was always traced back to a single specialist had changed—by the same specialist. 2. Overhyped expectations can result in undervaluing the actual evidence. Once the cat was out of the bag, the popular-level response to “First-Century Mark” led to unjustified expectations from several sources. P137 is still an amazing discovery! It is probably the oldest manuscript of Mark in existence. It is almost certainly the oldest manuscript of Mark 1:7–9, 16–18. Nevertheless, because the expectation was for a first-century manuscript, some were disappointed. When we raise our expectations higher than what the facts allow, we set ourselves up to be disappointed. For example, when we teach that the Rylands fragment (or P52), which is our earliest New Testament manuscript, was written “around 125” or even “as early as AD 100,” we are setting people up to be disappointed when they find out that manuscript dating cannot be so specific. The more accurate date is the full range of the second century. Even a date in the 190s is still remarkably early, relatively speaking. But, when the expectation is significantly earlier, even a remarkably good piece of evidence backfires and leaves people feeling empty and let down. Related Does the Woman Caught in Adultery Belong in the Bible?Tommy WassermanThe Gospel of Jesus’ Wife FiascoChristian AskelandWhy There Are Just Four Gospels in the BibleC. E. Hill 3. Don’t cite unpublished research. A significant problem with “First-Century Mark” was that it was unpublished for so long. Without publication, it was impossible to verify or challenge, not only the date, but also the contents, the quality of the text, and even the very existence of the fragment itself. It is true that some unpublished expertise can be extremely valuable (especially if it comes from a source with Obbink’s authority on manuscript dating), and it is also true that mere publication does not prove a theory or mean that an article is correct—and this is especially relevant in the world of self-publishing. Still, any academic publisher worth its paper and ink will have sent the research to at least one other competent set of eyes to look for holes in the arguments, to verify claims, and to see if the argument holds up under scrutiny. 4. Show integrity at earliest possible opportunity. Although he has been rightly criticized for announcing the unpublished and unverifiable “First-Century Mark” at a debate, Wallace was right to admit his mistake once the fragment was published and he was no longer bound by the non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Wallace apologized for his actions, both to Ehrman “and to everyone else for giving misleading information about this discovery.” The Museum of the Bible has also owned its mistakes and expedited the process of returning items known to be acquired for their collection under the seller’s pretense. Claims that P137 had been offered for sale were not initially taken seriously by the EES (and not without reason). It wasn’t until Michael Holmes, acting on behalf of the Museum of the Bible, shared with them the purchase agreement for some papyri and a handwritten list describing their contents in June 2019 (first publicized by Brent Nongbri on his blog) that these claims were taken seriously. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: The EES quickly confirmed that the fragments described in the handwritten list were indeed P137 and other Oxyrhynchus Papyri in their collection. Once a representative from the Museum released evidence that there was something shady going on, an investigation was undertaken. One of the results is that thirty-four papyri in the Museum collection were identified as having been “taken without authorisation from the EES” and were returned to the EES. Should the Green Collection/Museum of the Bible have been more diligent to determine legal provenance before purchasing the papyri? Absolutely. However, regardless of what other criticisms one might have for the Museum of the Bible, this is one way they did the right thing. They had items that they suspected had been stolen, and they worked to make it right. Not every institution is willing to give back stolen artifacts, but in this case, the Museum was not only willing to do so, but they also had to convince the EES that the papyri had been stolen in the first place. Would that we also would have such a zeal for the right thing that we would pursue it even when it costs us to do so. In neither case did the offending party try to quietly put away their wrongs. They didn’t silently delete evidence of their wrongs or give a quiet, half-hearted apology and move on—they publicly took responsibility for their wrongs and did what they could to make them right as much as possible. That’s a good lesson for all of us. Elijah Hixson Elijah Hixson (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and, before that, was a Research Associate in Greek manuscripts at Tyndale House, Cambridge. He is the author of Scribal Habits in Sixth-Century Greek Purple Codices and editor of Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. View all posts Notes1See Peter J. Gurry and Elijah Hixson, “Introduction” in Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity (2019), 14–20.