Mummy masks, papyri and the Gospel of Mark

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

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

Do we need to comment on the last articles about professor Craig Evans and the Gospel of Mark fragment? We do, it seems, from the many questions posed by readers of those articles, this blog and many others. But first, I wish to thank all the journalists who have given time and space to this topic and helped to raise questions on what is happening.


So here’s a re-cap with some explanations and a couple of new thoughts:

1) There is not a single New Testament or early Christian papyrus published so far coming from mummy cartonnage. Correct me if I am wrong, please. Mummy cartonnage = a sort of papier-mâché constituted by various materials sometimes including recycled papyri and used for fabricating masks and other covering panels for mummies.

2) According to current scholarship and archaeological finding, the use of recycling papyri for making mummy masks and panels ended in the early Augustan period, i.e. when Jesus was not even born or just a child. So what reported under point 1) is unsurprising. We have hundreds Ptolemaic papyri coming from mummy cartonnage, very few from the Roman period, and at the moment all dated inside this span of time. On the standard dates see e.g. D. Obbink, ‘P. Artemid.: The Artefact’, in: K. Brodersen, J. Elsner, Images and Texts on the “Arthemidorus Papyrus”, Stuttgart 2009.

Of course we would be very excited to learn that there is a massive shift in the current state of research, but without access to the evidence of this shift (images, data and publications) it is impossible to comment if this is really happening or not. These are not conditions in which a serious public debate on the topic can take place. These are perfect conditions, however, for the flourishing of ignorance and propaganda as a consequence.

3) Papyrologists have developed various methods for recovering papyri from cartonnage, which nowadays do not necessitate the complete dissolving or destroying of the masks or panels. If you pay attention to what Evans say in the video and interviews it seems clear that he does not know what he is talking about: he and the team he mentions are not experts on the matter since they apparently are not updated on the current methodology and need to destroy artifacts in order to get the fragments out (keep your cartonnage away from them!).

Although as I said technology is less invasive than it used to be, it still is at some extent. It is the case to remind the audience that any kind of intervention on ancient artifacts, even conservation, presents problems and before being performed teams of experts – in this case papyrologists, conservators, Egyptologists, etc. – evaluate pros and cons in order to decide if and how to proceed. Precise protocols are followed and the process is documented through imaging, recording and publishing. Nothing of this kind has happened yet in this case. We have not seen anything except slides with masks dating to the Ptolemaic – v. early Roman period as those previously shown in other videos – featuring Scott Carroll, director of the Green collection from 2009 to 2012, Josh McDowell and others – which we are carefully archiving since one year by now. Those slides and videos are very alarming: I will change my opinion on what has happened so far the day I will be given access to solid information not only on the process employed, but also on the legal acquisition circumstances of the cartonnage dissolved.

What is also alarming for someone who is supposed to teach and write on a history subject, is the way Evans approaches archaeological objects and their significance: he is reassuring us that “We’re not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece,” as if all the rest of our ancient evidence has no importance whatsoever. Do we need to comment further on this? I do not think so.

On mummy cartonnage dismounting and conservation I recommend J. Frösén “Conservation of ancient papyrus materials” written for the Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Check out also the webpage of Helsinki University dedicated to the topic:

4) Why this obsession for cartonnage? This is indeed a fascinating question on which I am pondering since a while. For sure this is a means through which speakers (e.g. Christian apologists and academics) may evoke a sense of mystery and adventure that appeals so much to the media and the public. The oldest fragment of the Bible, new lines of famous classical authors, the expertise of the team…have you got a pale idea of everyday life in a papyrus collection? What we mainly recover are tax receipts, accounts and letters of people who ask to send donkeys up and down the Nile and then attach greetings for the entire village: and I mean name by name, and the names are odd. It is super cool, but it would hardly have any media coverage, right? Even more dramatically, academics are far from cool, trust me: badly dressed, usually unfit and clumsy, always exhausted. They spend most of their time in small untidy offices dealing with bureaucracy with the mirage to sit in a dusty library or a museum. There are the archaeologists, true, but I am mostly told unedifying stories of insects, diarrhea, and bad sweat smell. Yes, we are miles away from Indiana Jones…

Anyway, dealers should be quite happy about all the recent cartonnage advertisement. The Christian papyri stories, and the Sappho fragments news too, must have increased the appeal of cartonnage on the market: I am very curious to keep an eye on prices in auction catalogues, eBay and elsewhere. Taking aside nice masks and decorated panels, these materials are not very attractive for the average collector: the promise of hidden gems could be a good way to pack them nicely for sale.

Finally, I start thinking that cartonnage may represent a very convenient way for collections and collectors to do some papyri laundry. Let’s consider this scenario: you are a collector who buys mummy cartonnage and other Egyptian antiquities on the market with solid acquisition history and records. For instance, you go to a London auction and purchase a collection of mummy panels or other cartonnage (book-coverings and similar), with legal acquisition records (e.g. documents attesting that the pieces were already in a European collection in 1950). You do buy a lot of this stuff because you love Egypt, the mummies, the paintings on the panels, and papyri of all sorts, or maybe you are planning to open a museum or a library. Then you or someone working for you find some dodgy papyri on sale let’s say in Egypt, Turkey, or on eBay, and since you have some training in papyrology or you have an expert on your payroll, you do realize that these are fragments from a Gospel or from a famous classical author. (And they are a bargain in comparison to those sold by auction houses, or London and New York antiquities shops). Surely, for these you will never get good acquisition circumstances records. But as long as all of those involved in the transaction will keep their mouth closed, you could always pretend that those dodgy papyri come from the cartonnage you bought in London and later dismounted with your staff. You can even be so lucky to have made the regular purchase from a dealer who does not keep images or records of the pieces on sale, especially when they appear in the shape of insignificant papyri glued together (book coverings and other recycled papyri) or small pieces of mummy panels. We have learnt that even a big auction house like Christie’s happens not to keep images and records of pieces of this kind in some cases.

Obviously, these are all fantasies. In the real world people are never too brilliant and would certainly commit many mistakes. So do not try to embark into a criminal career following these suggestions: you will go to jail soon or later, I bet…

5) To conclude: will this Mark fragment be ever published? Does it even exist? Good questions: who knows? Well some people do actually know, but will not speak because they have signed non-disclosure agreements (another recent innovation, unheard in our fields before all this started): for instance Evans and Daniel Wallace, who both apparently saw or were informed about the papyrus in question. But also the Green collection team should know something, at least if Evans is telling us lies when saying that the fragment will be published by Brill, the publisher of the Green papyri (has Brill anything to say on this?). Mike Holmes, director of the Green Scholars Initiative, has posted an elusive answer on his blog after I and others pressed him with questions.

The lack of information does not help. What a mess!

12 thoughts on “Mummy masks, papyri and the Gospel of Mark

  1. whenever there’s a sniff of cover-up or obfuscation you can look for the reason at the bank. you’re right, all this non-disclosure rubbish is just a way to safeguard profits. it’s unworthy of academics.

  2. It’s important to keep in mind new techniques of reading things like logs of burnt papyri, which we are just reading about, when considering the alleged destruction of artifacts like the mummy masks.

  3. “There is not a single New Testament or early Christian papyrus published so far coming from mummy cartonnage. Correct me if I am wrong, please”.

    You are possibly correct, but only if you exclude not only the Mark fragment under discussion, but also any other fragment found in the last 3 or so years of which there seem to be quite a few. Unfortunately the mentions are usually too brief to refer to the sources – mummy cartonnage, other cartonnage, or individual papyri – but where there is a mention of source it seems always to be mummy cartonnage. See for example the video “Hobby Lobby President’s Rare Collection”, at where at about 55 seconds into the video Steve Green shows one such fragment from the book of Romans, chapters 9 and 10


    Matthew Hamilton

    • Dear Matthew,

      you are certainly right: there seem to be. I haven’t seen any properly yet. What I have seen are screen shots, videos and slides of some papyrus fragments without any indication of their dates or provenance whatsoever (acquisition circumstances and their eventual first incarnation as mummy mask or any other kind of cartonnage). The labels and catalogue of the Rome exhibit are similarly scanty in this respect.
      I am not in the condition to say anything meaningful on the entire story besides what I have already said and written in many occasion this year.
      As for the papyrus in the hands of Mr Green, it may well be better dated to the fourth century AD as this slides shows: click here
      The poor Mr Green is reporting what Scott Carroll told him in 2012. Good luck with that: do we want to revise Carroll’s exploits once again? I do not think so.

      Thank You!

  4. While I certainly agree that, until Brill actually publishes these fragments, presumably with some more detailed account of the dating methods, we should be cautious and treat this ‘find’ with some skepticism, there are some things to consider:
    It’s believed that Christian manuscript copyists in the formative centuries of the religion were generally of a lower-class background, i.e. freedmen and slaves, who had work as record-keepers/accountants. From this, they would have the abilities necessary to copy manuscripts and access to materials. It’s thought that this may have led to the spread of the codex format, as opposed to the scroll. Before the early centuries of the AD period, codices were used for clerical purposes more frequently than for written works- the codex format being (relatively) cheaper to produce. If this new text does come from the 1st century AD, it shouldn’t be particularly surprising to find it among receipts and other ephemera. But again, that’s if it’s genuine, if it’s a text from Mark, if the Egyptian mask was from the 1st Century AD, etc. The ‘non-disclosure’ thing is really frustrating!

  5. Not being an academic in any of the areas of cartonnage or Egyptology, all I will speak to is faith, belief and the scriptures. Are those who look for “proof of existence” of people and places in the Bible doubters or believers? If they are believers why do they need more than God has provided for them? Holy scripture provides all that is necessary. It is His full and final Word.
    If they are otherwise, doubters, they will not find their answers in bits of paper/papyrus. Their answers are the same source as that of believers-Holy scripture. It and only, it is the bit of paper/papyrus that contains the answers they seek.
    Let them stop their digging. Let them open the Word. There, they will find their answers.
    Myra Dingle

  6. Surely, the attraction of this deconstructed mummy cartonnage as a source of literary papyrus fragments is precisely that it may potentially provide what have previously most missed; a dateble context. Were a papyrus gospel fragment to be glued into the same cartonnage as a dated receipt for donkeys, or a letter with greetings to identifiable persons whom we otherwise find in dated documents, then it would be reasonable to associate that dated context to the new Gospel fragment. The problem, or course, is that once cartonnage masks have been deconstructed, we have only the word of the deconstructer as to which papyrus fragments came from from which masks.

    • I agree with your conclusion, and I want to add again that as I tried to explain already, according to well established scholarship the use of recycling papyri for making mummy masks ended in the early Augustan era so the probability to find Gospels in such context is not existent (unless you want to re-date the life of Jesus and the entire history of Christianity after it). In fact none of the many Christian papyrus fragments published so far was retrieved from mummy cartonnage. I’d be happy to read in a peer-reviewed academic publication that mainstream scholarship on the topic has to be changed on the basis of solid research and data.
      In the meanwhile I remain skeptical and I hope that people will not be encouraged to buy and destroy mummy masks and cartonnage following the example of irresponsible “scholars” and their followers.

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