Archaeologists May Have Found the Oldest Copy of One of the Gospels

New technology that allows scientists to remove the glue from the masks of mummies without damaging the ink on the paper used to make the mask has yielded an exciting discovery: a piece of papyrus that may contain the oldest known copy of one of the gospels.

The finding, a fragment of the Gospel of Mark, which dates back to the year 90, is one of several fascinating texts that archaeologists are discovering in the masks of mummies.

This first-century gospel fragment was written on a sheet of papyrus that was later reused to create a mask that was worn by a mummy. Although the mummies of Egyptian pharaohs wore masks made of gold, ordinary people had to settle for masks made out of papyrus (or linen), paint and glue. Given how expensive papyrus was, people often had to reuse sheets that already had writing on them.

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The first-century gospel is one of hundreds of new texts that a team of about three-dozen scientists and scholars is working to uncover, and analyze, by using this technique of ungluing the masks, said Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

"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.

Lest you worry that scientists are destroying valuable antiquities, the discoveries in the papyrus fragments yield more thrilling finds than these particular mummies are worth.

Evans emphasized that the masks that are being destroyed to reveal the new texts are not high-quality ones that would be displayed in a museum. Some are not masks at all but are simply pieces of cartonnage.

Evans told Live Science, "We're not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece."

The technique is bringing many new texts to light, Evans noted. "From a single mask, it's not strange to recover a couple dozen or even more" new texts, he told Live Science. "We're going to end up with many hundreds of papyri when the work is done, if not thousands."

Naturally, Bart Ehrman, the leftist "Biblical scholar" that Kurt Eichenwald cited in his hit piece on the Bible in Newsweek, expressed his disdain for the find.

This complete disregard for the sanctity of surviving antiquities is, for many, many of us not just puzzling but flat-out distressing. It appears that the people behind and the people doing this destruction of antiquities are all conservative evangelical Christians, who care nothing about the preservation of the past – they care only about getting their paws on a small fragment of a manuscript. Can there be any question that with them we are not dealing with historians but Christian apologists?

Archaeologists are finding not just biblical texts, but fragments of writings by Homer and other Greek writers, as well as documents that capture slices of everyday life in that time period. The destruction of some masks that are less than museum quality is a small price to pay for such rich discoveries.

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock / Patryk Kosmider