Is There a First-Century Fragment of Mark’s Gospel? Apparently Not

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

May 24, 2018

Over the last several years, there has been much discussion in the blogosphere (and beyond) about the possibility that a fragment of Mark’s Gospel had been discovered which could reliably be dated to the first century.

Most notably, the fragment was alluded to by Dan Wallace in his 2012 debate with Bart Ehrman (though no details were offered due to Wallace having signed a non-disclosure agreement). But it has also been mentioned by Scott Carroll, Craig Evans, and Josh McDowell.  There was an even article about the fragment in Forbes.

Needless to say, many scholars were skeptical about the possibility of a first-century Mark for a number of reasons.  For one, we have no other NT manuscripts from the first century.  Our oldest is still the infamous P52, a fragment of John’s Gospel dated c. 125. Though, I think a good case could be made that P104 (P.Oxy. 4404), a second-century fragment of Matthew, is as early.

Second, we have very few early copies of Mark.  Other than the debated first-century Mark, the earliest copy of that gospel comes from P45, a codex of the four gospels dated to the third century.

And third, there has been some recent push back by scholars about the reliability of our current dating methods.  Brent Nongbri, for instance, has challenged the dating of many NT manuscripts (including P52), arguing that they should be dated later than has been typical.  Though it should be noted that other scholars, like Larry Hurtado, have pushed back against Nongbri.

Even so, there is little doubt that our methods of dating manuscripts have some imprecision. Palaeography (the analysis of handwriting) is the most common way manuscripts are dated, and it has some inevitable limitations.

Well, it turns out that the scholarly skepticism over a first-century Mark has proven to be warranted.  By now, most readers will have heard that this mysterious manuscript has finally been published in the latest edition of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Edited by scholars Dirk Obbink and Daniela Colomo, P.Oxy. 5345 is an early fragment of Mark 1:7-9, 16-18, and is dated not to the first century but to the late second or early third century.

So, how did a supposed first-century fragment suddenly become a second/third century fragment?  The answer is not all that clear.  But you can read recent articles by Elijah Hixson and Dan Wallace that try to fill in the details.  Others weighing in include Larry Hurtado, Michael Bird, Brice Jones, and Brent Nongbri.

For many who were excited about (finally) having a first-century manuscript of the New Testament, this is no doubt disappointing news.  But, I think there are both good and bad reasons for being disappointed.

From a historical/scholarly perspective, there are good reasons to be disappointed.  Any scholar of the Bible, no matter what their theological perspective, would love to have access to a first-century manuscript.  Who wouldn’t? It would take us one step closer to the autographs.

From a theological perspective, there is no reason to be disappointed.  I fear that many believers had vested too much importance in this supposed first-century copy of Mark.  As if, finally, it would prove the reliability of the New Testament text, and quell all the skeptics.

But, I don’t think it would have accomplished that at all.  Given how fragmentary it is, it is unlikely to have changed the debate over the reliability of the text in any meaningful way.

Besides, I think the current state of the textual evidence, apart from a first-century manuscript, already gives us good reasons to trust our text.  Put differently, we don’t need a first-century copy of Mark to have confidence the text has been reliably transmitted.

As a final thought, I suppose this whole affair is a good reminder about the nature of scholarship, particularly the study of ancient manuscripts.  Any study of the ancient world needs to be approached with caution and patience, but particularly the study of ancient texts.  A first impression of ancient manuscripts is just that, a first/preliminary impression.  And sometimes further study and reflection can lead to different results.  This fragment of Mark is case in point.

That said, now that this fragment is formally published, other scholars can offer their opinions about its date.  Perhaps some will argue for an earlier date.  No doubt others will argue for an even later date. But that is a good thing.  That is precisely how the scholarly world works.