The Oldest Known Gospel

On January 18, 2015, Live Science reported that a mummy mask may reveal the oldest known gospel, the gospel of Mark. (The discovery was subsequently reported by major news outlets, including CNN, Fox News, and the Smithsonian Magazine).

Here’s what the scientific journal reported: “A text that may be the oldest copy of a gospel known to exist — a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that was written during the first century, before the year 90 — is set to be published. At present, the oldest surviving copies of the gospel texts date to the second century (the years 101 to 200). This first-century gospel fragment was written on a sheet of papyrus that was later reused to create a mask that was worn by a mummy. Although the mummies of Egyptian Pharoahs wore masks made of gold, ordinary people had to settle for masks made out of papyrus (or linen), paint and glue. Given how expensive papyrus was, people often had to reuse sheets that already had writing on them. In recent years scientists have developed a technique that allows the glue of mummy masks to be undone without harming the ink on the paper. The text on the sheets can then be read.”

“The first-century gospel is one of hundreds of new texts that a team of about three-dozen scientists and scholars is working to uncover, and analyze, by using this technique of ungluing the masks,” said Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. “We're recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries. Not just Christian documents, not just biblical documents, but classical Greek texts, business papers, various mundane papers, personal letters," Evans told Live Science. The documents include philosophical texts and copies of stories by the Greek poet Homer. The business and personal letters sometimes have dates on them, he said. When the glue was dissolved, the researchers dated the first-century gospel in part by analyzing the other documents found in the same mask.

This discovery is consistent with other archeological finds that authenticate the reliability of the New Testament documents. The early dating of these manuscripts attests to their validity. The biblical manuscripts are very early compared to other ancient writings which we readily accept as authentic. Not only that, but the number of the biblical manuscripts is vastly larger than other writings commonly accepted by scholars.

This latest discovery confirms that when we read the gospel of Mark, we are reading materials that were written within a few years of the life of Jesus. No archeological discovery has ever disproved any biblical record or writing. The reason for this is clear: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16)