A Staggering Discovery That Might Not Matter That Much

New Testament scholar Dan Wallace touched off quite the buzz a few days back when he mentioned in passing, while debating Bart Ehrman, that among a set of new manuscript discoveries was found a small fragment of the Gospel of Mark. He went on to point out that “[i]t was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century.”

This would, indeed, be a staggering discovery. Up until this point the oldest fragment of any New Testament text was P52, a small piece of the Gospel of John that has been dated to the first half of the second century. The only other first-century candidate I'm aware of is a tiny scrap of papyrus called 7Q5, discovered in the Qumran caves (the source of the Dead Sea Scrolls), which dates from around 50 AD and which some have claimed to be a copy of Mark 6:52-53. While P52 is widely accepted, serious questions have been raised regarding 7Q5; the dating is pretty much certain but the identification with Mark is less so.

Aside from debunking some very liberal scholars’ theories on Gospel dating and composition, what is the practical value of such a discovery for the Christian’s everyday life? Surprisingly little.

This is not to downplay its scholarly importance. It would be one of the most important finds since the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, as Wallace points out in his article, the fragment does not contain any new reading of Mark, but merely confirms what we already have. So for the Christian, it merely adds to the mountain of evidence already in existence for the Bible’s reliability. It does confirm that Mark was written earlier than many thought, but for the believer who already accepts the Bible as God’s inspired Word, it won’t make much of a difference in daily life.

Perhaps the most interesting element of this story is that this fragment is so old it could very well be a first-generation copy of the original. Or, unlike any other fragment we have, it probably isn’t completely beyond the realm of possibility that it could be Mark’s own handwriting, though that is still very unlikely.

That raises a question, though: what if it were Mark’s original? More broadly, what would be the implications if we were to stumble across a pretty much indisputable fragment of one of the autographs, the copy that the author himself wrote?

I have to say that as fascinating as that would be to me, I’m rather glad it hasn’t happened and is extremely unlikely to happen. Given the idolatrous heart of man, such an artifact would likely wind up an object of veneration or even worship. John Calvin once ruefully remarked that there were enough alleged fragments of the True Cross in existence in his time to fill a ship, which itself testifies to our innate and rebellious desire to substitute the worship of created things for that of our Creator. I’m sure Mark and the other biblical writers would have been horrified to see such a fate befall their works, designed as they were to point men to Christ.

It’s an academic question anyway, as it is most unlikely an autograph will ever be found. We will have to be content with the words themselves and not the actual papyrus and ink they were first written with. As if the value of the latter could ever compare with that of the former! So, God’s good providence I think the relative paucity of the oldest manuscripts is, generally, a good thing, not a reason for regret.