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: http://www.helsinki.fi/hum/kla/papupetra/papyrus/cartonnage.html.
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!