Mark strikes back: Mummy cartonnage and Christian apologetics, again…

Slide commented by C. Evans, screen shot from YouTube video

Slide commented by C. Evans, screen shot from YouTube video

I am just back from the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting and planning to report about the interesting discussion we had on issues of provenance. But before that I should report on the resurfacing of the sadly famous papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Mark from mummy mask cartonnage. In a YouTube video published on 24 July 2014 (below), Craig Evans, professor of New Testament at the Divinity School of Acadia University, reports on a fragment of Mark, allegedly dating to the 80s of the first century AD and in course of publication, retrieved from a mummy mask. In the PowerPoint slide he is commenting on, you can see a mummy mask, although we are not told if the above mentioned papyrus comes from that specific one; any other useful information on the papyrus location and the owner (a private collector?) are as well lacking. This seems to be the same fragment mentioned in the past by Daniel B. Wallace, professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, although we cannot be 100% sure because nobody answers questions with any clarity. (Sometimes I feel I am talking to members of a gnostic sect rather than Protestant scholars…). In February 2012 the fragment was called into question during a debate between Wallace and Bart Ehrmann; one month later, Wallace posted information on the papyrus as to be published by Brill in his blog. I wrote emails to Wallace in order to know the name of the collection holding the fragment; Brill is the publisher of the Green papyri, but so far I have not been able to understand if this papyrus is in that collection or another one. Dan Wallace has always kindly answered to my emails, but without adding details because, he says, “ I have signed a nondisclosure agreement about the Mark fragment”. Craig Evans’ talk took place at the 2014 Apologetics Canada Conference (7-8 March, Vancouver). It is clear that papyri have officially entered into the rhetoric of apologists as the means through which they sell the idea that we can recover the original texts of the Gospels. These people are not doing any good service to the public and to our cultural heritage patrimony. The audience who attend their talks are told fantasy stories on the retrieval of papyrus fragments and their date, and on the quest for Christian original texts; 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 – a method suggested publicly by one of them, Josh McDowell, close friend of the ex-director of the Green Collection, Scott Carroll. All this said, I must confess this pseudo-scholarship is procuring me endless, astonished entertainment…

UPDATE 26 November: Professor Evans has kindly informed me via email that this is the same fragment mentioned by Daniel Wallace and it is his understanding that the fragment will be published by Brill in 2015. He cannot answer other questions I posed on the dismounting of the mask “because of various confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements”.

UPDATE 21 January: my last post on the subject with answers to further questions is this:


20 thoughts on “Mark strikes back: Mummy cartonnage and Christian apologetics, again…

  1. “In February 2012 the fragment was called into question during a debate between Wallace and Bart Ehrman; one month later”

    A little bit of a polishing of the history. Daniel Wallace tried to ambush Bart Ehrman with a new claim, of no scholarship, right in the midst of a debate. It was a tacky maneuver at the time and contributed to the later confusion and difficulties.

    Steven Avery

    • I’m not defending Wallace one bit but what about all of the “tacky” books that Bart Ehrman has been writing and publishing? Ehrman has his own agenda and unfortunately others have used questionable tactics because of the harm done by scholars like Ehrman.

      • I do not think this is the appropriate place where to debate on the Ehrmann versus Wallace debate because it is not the topic of my post. Thank You!

  2. Thinking about a couple of questions would be amusing, too. When did the Egyptians stop making mummies? When was the Gospel of Mark written?

    It would seem self-evident that this planting was done much, much, much later than the dates of either artifact.

    Can’t imagine biblical scholars or archaeologists not knowing that, so it raises the question of who was dumb enough to publish this piece.

    • @Robert Chapman
      Please check your facts; mummification did not die out in Egypt by the Roman Empire; in fact, we have a literary and archaeological evidence for a small number of people mummified in Rome itself. For the latter, see Derek B. Counts “Regum Externorum Consuetudine: The Nature and Function of Embalming in Rome.” Classical Antiquity 15 (1996), 189-202. For the former, go to any major museum with more than a few mummies and look around.

      The mask shown here is of a Roman-period type, not unlike those published from the “Valley of the golden Mummies.”

      That said, Dr. Evans’ mentioning “Pharaohs” with “gold masks” is completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand, and may have led some to misunderstand.

      • Please don’t take my comments as indications that I am betting this is authentic before I see the publication; I am withholding judgment. But there is nothing wrong with Roman-period cartonnage masks.

  3. This is interesting, but some of these complaints seem a bit spurious. I don’t know of any apologists or New Testament scholars who think we are actually going to find the original MSS, nor do I know any who give the public that impression.

    Unless, of course, by ‘[recovering] the original texts’ you just mean ‘recovering the content of the original texts’. But if that’s the case, there’s nothing obviously problematic about aiming to do so to a fairly high degree of accuracy!

  4. Dear Calum, yes maybe recovering the content of the original text is the correct phrasing; sorry but I really wrote this post a while ago out of rage for the incredible level of ignorance of what I saw and heard in the video. I believe that some Christian apologists and self-defining scholars who are talking of papyri in public events (e.g. Evans, Josh McDowell, and Scott Carroll) are certainly not in a position to achieve a degree of accuracy whatsoever. As I have already tried to explain in past blog-posts 1. the masks they are usually showing seem Ptolemaic/early Roman (do we want to re-date even Jesus date of birth?), 2. there is not a single example of New Testament papyrus coming from mummy cartonnage so far, 3. the use of recycled papyrus for making mummy cartonnage ends in the Augustan era according to current scholarship and findings, 4. there is methodology developed in the 1980 that allows the extraction of fragments with minimal damages to the mummy cartonnage: this is in any case a procedure which should be performed by experts, after discussing pros and cons, following established protocols including the recording of images and so forth so on. Evans is talking nonsense and his behaviour risks to fool people to buy mummy masks and cartonnage on the antiquities market (legal and illegal) for destroying it in order to find who knows what. This by the way will inflate mummy cartonnage request on the legal and illegal market and as a consequence also prices for the joy of some dealers and the dismay of those academics, experts and people who believe we have to protect our cultural patrimony.

    • Any chance of a wait and see? Could we wait for the facts and peer review, or no?

      1) in my understanding the photos of masks are just to give an example, to help educate lay-folk who are interested in learning. You are reading way too much into it.
      2) ‘so far’ being the operative words. Besides, how many mummy cartonnage’s have been examined?
      3) ‘current scholarship’ being the operative words. If this is an earlier example then current scholarship will change. Viola, science!
      4) You are insinuating that these are not ‘experts’ and are not following the ‘procedure’ and ‘protocols’. Can you please cite evidence?

      I understand the concern for the desire for money causing a problem, and the losing of one artifact in order to gain another (or as it appears many others). But the black market problem is about human nature, not because of the work of these scholars, and will be around always. The problem with current scholarship is a lack of transparency and a dismissal of everyone not currently accepted as an ‘expert’ in the field. And one does not get to join that exclusive club until he accepts the so-far’s and ‘current scholarship’ as the gospel truth. Pun intended. It seems to me that is why (not towing the scholarly line) these men are treated as pseudo-scientists, uniformed and talking nonsense before they even have a chance to present evidence.

      • Dear groovyman67, I am not the one that should cite the evidence, Evans and all these people should: if they have made such fantastic discoveries why we haven’t seen a line, not even an image of the papyrus in question?
        Would you go to a surgeon without a degree and specialisation if you needed one? So why are you happy to let people without any expertise in the field working on world cultural heritage and are you ready to believe what they say without them having published a line on the topic? You seem the perfect audience for this type of performances: you just believe what people say they have done without having seen a single proof of what they are talking about.

    • About two years ago I attended the “Passages” exhibit of the collection of Steve Green/Hobby Lobby, who is creating the Bible museum in D.C. There was a video playing that showed Egyptian cartonnage masks being held under running water in order to free the papyrus documents they were made. I was horrified, and found it hard to believe that any reputable scholar would do this, even if they are rather inferior quality masks. Is Evan connected with Green in some way?

      • How interesting Jane, I will email the Green collection in order to be sent that video. I do not think Evans is connected with the Green collection, but I am not sure.

  5. Thanks, Roberta, for your careful update on this secretive situation. As someone who has actually succeeded in preserving the painted layer on a cartonnage piece (purchased on eBay from the Ferrini fiasco) while also separating the layers of papyrus beneath it, I applaud the criticism of the unnecessarily destructive approach taken in this situation. And as papyrologist and textual critic, I hope for a speedy release of digital images of the texts so that informed judgments can be made. (Sorry I missed you at the SBL meetings.)
    Bob Kraft, Emeritus Prof. of Religious Studies, UPenn

  6. Dear Dr. Mazza,

    Do you believe that if this discovery is true, that it would lower the importance of P52 and its home at the University of Manchester?

    • Dear Kurt,
      this is a very funny question! I made some jokes on the subject in an old post where I also said that I’d like to have our Gospel of Mary fragment in the exhibit instead of P52:
      The importance of our collection goes well beyond P52, as you can realise through the pages of the Catalogues. Moreover I do personally agree with the arguments of Brent Nongbri, a scholar who has written on the topic and was one of the speakers at a conference I organised here in Manchester last September.
      In the light of methodological considerations, Brent has shown that this papyrus could in fact be dated in a range of time which spans at least from the second well into the third century AD. So we may have lost that primacy already, although others are convinced that P52 should be dated to the half of the 2nd century (you can read this very good article freely available online:
      We are not worried about the primacy, on the contrary we are proud that scholars are studying our collection and we do our best to give the widest access possible to our published and unpublished material.
      More in general I am far away from the ranking mentality, which I find disturbing and unnecessary.

  7. Thanks for clarifying, Roberta. I’m sorry I didn’t see the date! For some reason there’s been a flurry of news stories about it in the last couple of days and some of them linked to this blog.

    I think the criticisms of this project seem to be of mixed quality. Some of the stuff Josh McDowell said was really concerning for anyone concerned about preserving relics from antiquity. If the stuff on Brice Jones’ blog is taken in context, then some of the attitudes displayed there are quite reprehensible. I also think this project is probably best done only within the scholarly community for the time being, and with scholars of various stripes. If the MSS do turn out to be legit, then it will only lend more credibility to their case if they’ve had other scholars on board too.

    That said, I’m not sure I find the sceptical position very convincing either. If we know so little about what’s going on, we don’t really have much good evidence suggesting the MSS aren’t 1st century. I can understand being sceptical until further details are published, but I can’t see that a really confident denial of the early dating is going to be justified. I’m also not sure whether you were intending to imply that Evans isn’t an actual scholar. McDowell certainly isn’t, and I’ve never heard of Scott Carroll before this, but I think Evans at least has at least enough academic credibility to be called a scholar.

    I guess I’m still partly a little confused about your remarks concerning the ‘quest for the original text’. I’m grateful that you clarified, but I’m not sure what you think the problem is here. Is it that you think we are nowhere near the original text and unlikely to get much closer at all, or is it that you think the extreme level of precision some evangelicals are aiming for is implausible?

    Thanks again!

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