What archaeologists believe may be the oldest copy of a gospel in existence was found inside the funeral mask of an ancient Egyptian mummy. The scriptural fragment, from the Gospel of Mark, was inscribed on a piece of papyrus used in the mask’s construction and dates back to the first century A.D., according to a team of researchers from Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada.
The mask and text were discovered several years ago, but the publication of the team’s findings was delayed and won’t be available until sometime this year, although it’s unclear exactly when. Researchers have said the text could provide historians with an idea of how the Gospel of Mark changed over time. The discovery was trending on social media sites this week.
How the gospel fragment ended up in an Egyptian funeral mask has everything to do with class distinctions in ancient Nile Delta society. Pharaohs and the wealthy elite could afford to have their masks made out of gold and jewels. Those on the lower rungs of the social order, however, made their masks from paper mache containing papyrus fragments. “Paper was expensive … so you don’t take brand new papyrus … and make a paper mache mask out of brand new paper. You use used paper,” which often had writing on it, Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College, said during a conference on Christian apologetics in British Columbia last summer. “If you were a pagan and had no respect for the Christians, then you used their writing as trash and made paper mache masks out of their stuff. And their stuff includes the Greek New Testament,” he explained.
Researchers used a combination of carbon-14 dating, handwriting analysis and text comparison to date the fragment, according to Live Science. They found that the papyrus containing part of the Gospel of Mark dated to around the year A.D. 80.
It’s not just biblical texts contained within ancient mummy masks. “We’re recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries,” Evans told Live Science. “Not just Christian documents, not just biblical documents, but classical Greek texts, business papers, various mundane papers, personal letters.”
Getting to the ancient papyrus documents involves separating the paper mache by dissolving the glue that holds them together. However, not everyone is okay with pulling apart 2,000-year-old mummy masks. Some scholars have criticized Evans’ work, saying there’s a religious agenda behind the mummy mask studies. "Apologists' speeches are not only misinformed, but can even encourage more people to buy mummy masks on the antiquities market and dissolve them in Palmolive soap” to loosen the glue, Roberta Mazza, a lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Manchester in England, wrote in her blog. "These people are not doing any good service to the public and to our cultural heritage patrimony.”
Evans defended the practice of ungluing mummy masks by pointing out that the masks are not “museum-quality.”
Prior to Evans’ work, the oldest known gospel document was thought to be the so-called St. John’s fragment, or Rylands Library Papyrus P52, a 3.5 inch by 2.5 inch papyrus housed at the John Rylands University Library in Manchester. The papyrus was dated to between A.D. 117 and 138, according to Ancient Origins.