Apologetics, Archaeology, Bible
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Oldest known Gospel fragment found inside a Mummy mask?


Mummy mask made of papyrus. Photo: mbudemer/foter/CC BY-NC-SA

Mummy mask made of papyrus. Photo: mbudemer/foter/CC BY-NC-SA

[by Dean Smith] For the average person in first century AD, mummy masks used to cover the face of the deceased were made from layers of papyri, glued together and shaped to look like the person’s face. Only the rich and famous could afford the finer plaster masks.

And with papyrus being pricey, previously used papyrus was the material of choice. Nothing was sacred. They would use everything from philosophical discussions to letters, business documents and apparently even Biblical texts.

Over the years, researchers have developed new techniques allowing them to dissolve the glue and pull these layers apart without harming the text. A mask can have upwards of 25 different documents or more and it is not uncommon to find fragments by famous writers of the day, such as Homer.

Because many of the letters, and particularly business documents, are dated, researchers can use this information to date the other writings in the mask as well.

In 2012, researchers pulling apart one mask found a fragment from the Gospel of Mark. Utilizing carbon dating and the mask’s other documents, they dated the Gospel fragment to sometime before 90 AD. This makes it the oldest known Gospel fragment — about 50 years after the death of Christ.

Up to this point, the earliest Gospel texts were dated between 101 AD to 200 AD.

We know there are even earlier writing than this. Matthew 8:19 tells us that some of the first disciples of Christ included scribes. Scribes were note takers and as well meticulously recopied Old Testament books of the Bible by hand. They would have instinctively written notes on what Jesus was saying as He traveled around Galilee. And others, such as Matthew, a levite and tax collector, were educated men.

Luke referred to some of these earlier writings as he authored his Gospel of the same name:

In as much as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. (Luke 1:1, 2 NASV).

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