by Acharya S
19 February 2012
from FreeThoughtNation Website


The New Testament blogosphere is all abuzz with news of a purported papyrus discovery that comprises fragments of some 19 or more different Bible manuscripts, including a small piece of the Gospel of Mark.


A Christian professor relates that "one of the world's leading paleographers" has dated the Mark fragment to the first century, making it the earliest extant biblical text so far known. According to the professor, Dr. Daniel Wallace, this discovery will be published by the academic press E.J. Brill sometime within the coming year.

First of all, we must remain cautious about such declarations because we have ample precedent of overly enthusiastic interpretations of supposed biblically relevant artifacts and texts. One such artifact that immediately comes to mind is the Dead Sea scroll fragment 7Q5 touted by scholars Josep O'Callaghan Martínez and Carsten Thiede as another fragment from the Gospel of Mark, also enthusiastically dated to the first century.


That effort fell flat, as it was not accepted by the mainstream scholarly community.


Moreover, we have seen numerous examples of other hyped artifacts such as the so-called Jesus Family Tomb, James Ossuary and Tomb of Peter, etc., et al., all left in the dustbin of "pious fraud" or just plain fraud.



Paleography is not an exact science

Secondly, it should be kept in mind that paleography is an imprecise science, especially when it comes to this era, so if this thesis relies only on a fragment dated by one paleographer, we shouldn't become too excited.


The emphasis by some on the paleographer in this case not being a Christian - and therefore less likely to be biased - is immaterial if he nevertheless follows the mainstream timeline of Christian history and is attempting to push the date back as early as possible to make it fit that timeline.


The reality is that, similar to carbon-14 dating, paleography has a + or - factor of about 25 to 50 (or more) years, meaning that even if the paleographer placed the papyrus at the end of the first century, it could in fact date to the middle of the second or even later.


As New Testament scholar Dr. Larry Hurtado remarks:

..because paleographical dating can rarely be more precise than +/- 25 to 50 years, the proposed dating of many manuscripts will lie across two centuries...

About this particular discovery, Hurtado has already weigh in, likewise advising caution:

The identification and palaeographical dating of manuscripts requires huge expertise specific to the period and texts in question. Let’s wait and see whose judgment lies behind the claims.

Palaeographical dating can ever only be approximate, perhaps as narrow as 50 yrs plus or minus.


Expert palaeographers often disagree over a given item by as much as a century or more. It’s never wise to rest much upon one judgment, and confidence will be enhanced only when various experts have been given full access to the items.

It is particularly difficult to make a palaeographical dating of a fragment, the smaller it is the more difficult. For such dating requires as many characters of the alphabet as possible and as many instances of them in the copy as possible to form a good judgment about the “hand”.

Although it ratchets up potential sales of a publication to make large claims and posit sensational inferences about items, it doesn't help the sober scholarly work involved. It also doesn't actually accrue any credit or greater credibility for the items or those involved in handling them.

I would be surprised if Brill publishes such an endeavor, if the conclusions are based only on one paleographic assessment.


Other factors must be included, such as possible anachronisms, as well as the provenance, first appearance in the literary record, comparative literature, etc.



The Gospel of Mark papyrus fragment

On our forum, an image was posted (below) that is claimed to be the fragment in question, which contains parts of several words from Mark 5:15-18.



Let's look at Mark 5:15-18, first in English, followed by the original Greek (textus receptus):

And they came to Jesus, and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine. And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their neighborhood. And as he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him.

Ancient Greek was originally written "as the ox plows" or in boustrophedon, which means back and forth from line to line, with no spaces or punctuation between words. In the Codex Sinaiticus (c. 330-360), one of the earliest extant Bible manuscripts, the writing is left to right, but it still has no punctuation and no spaces between the words.


The lines are divided not at the end of words but according to syllables.

I have cropped the purported image of the Mark fragment and added its visible letters, along with a comparable passage from the Codex Sinaiticus, in which I have highlighted in red the fragment letters.

Gospel of Mark fragment, highlighted letters and Codex Sinaiticus
(I should note that the Greek letter
in the fragment "αρακα"

is the wackiest looking rho I've ever seen.)



Uncial script popular from 3rd to 8th centuries AD/CE

The Mark inscription appears to be in uncial script, which was used commonly from the 3rd to 8th centuries AD/CE. It seems impossible to pinpoint this fragment to the first century based solely on the paleography, especially since the inscription is in uncial.

Here are the Greek uncials:

(In this regard, it should be noted that the uncial lettering here is not all caps. The omega, for example, is lowercase, as is the alpha, after a fashion, and the lambda. In addition, the sigma is not the typical "s" shape but is a "c" in uncial.)


The demoniac and the swine

Let us take a look at the New Testament motif recorded in this fragment, for more clues as to its possible provenance and era:

And they came to Jesus, and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine. And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their neighborhood. And as he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him.

This chapter (5) of Mark concerns a man with an "unclean spirit" who "lived among the tombs" of a certain country and who possessed supernatural strength and could not be bound.


The possessed man wanders about forlornly until he sees Jesus, whom he worships and who rebukes the unclean spirit, which identifies itself as "Legion, for we are many."

Nearby is a "great herd of swine," and the legion beg Jesus to send them into the swine, which he does, driving the pigs into the sea, thus killing the demons as well.


After the townsfolk freak out, Jesus goes to leave in a boat, and the demoniac begs to go along.

Ancient Judea and Samaria,

with the Sea of Galilee, Gerasa and the Dead Sea


There are many reasons why this story cannot possibly be historical, not the least of which is the supernatural possession of a man by demons who identify themselves as "legion" and who are driven into swine and then somehow killed, even though they are already from the land of the dead.


In addition to that incredible aspect of the story, the locale of the tale is garbled, with the country's name, for example, recorded variously in different gospels and editions of the New Testament. Moreover, the only "seas" that could have received these swine are the Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee, dozens of miles away from where this area was purported to be, i.e., Gerasa.

Rather than representing implausible "history," this theme is highly suggestive of the myth of the Egyptian afterlife god Osiris in the Hall of Judgment, driving off the devilish swine when the deceased petitioner goes before him.


As related in Christ in Egypt (241), to quote W. Cooper:

Having quitted the boat of the river of Hades, the deceased is met by the god Anubis, who conducts him in safety through the devious windings of an intricate labyrinth, and leaves him at the threshold of the judgment-hall of Osiris, the hall of the Two Truths.

Osiris in the Hall of Judgment,

weighing the deceased and sending off in a boat a pig,

who represents Set or 'Satan' (Louvre, sarcophagus)


In the judgment hall, if the deceased is not sufficiently pure, he is changed into a pig and "reconveyed to earth by Anubis in a boat."


An impure or unclean spirit or deceased person wandering about the "tombs" of the afterlife is changed into a pig and sent into the abyss, so to speak, which is what the return to Earth would represent to the Egyptian faithful, a punishment whereby the deceased must continue on the path of purification.


In the gospel story, the "impure spirits" are basically changed into pigs by the god. The demoniac begging to go with the savior in the boat sounds like a change of heart by the purified deceased wishing to return to life on Earth.

It appears that, like so much else of the Christian effort, this demons-swine motif was borrowed from another religion/mythology, in this case the Egyptian.


The adoption of much Egyptian religion and mythology into Christianity began in earnest during the second century and continued for several centuries afterwards.




With all these factors, I suspect the provenance of this papyrus fragment is Egypt, possibly from or near St. Catherine's Monastery.


Again, I see no reason from a paleographical analysis of this small fragment alone to push its date into the first century, especially since it certainly could be from the second, third or later centuries and since there is no evidence that the canonical gospel of Mark as we have it existed at that time.


Indeed, none of the canonical gospels clearly emerges into the historical record until the end of the second century.