HomeHistoryEarliest manuscript of Mark’s Gospel published
May 31, 2018
Earliest manuscript of Mark’s Gospel published
The Egypt Exploration Society recently published what is believed to be our earliest manuscript of the Gospel According to Mark, dated by handwriting analysis to 150—250 A.D. What does this newly published manuscript tell us about the New Testament text?
The manuscript is one of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, a collection of hundreds of thousands of manuscript fragments excavated from an ancient Egyptian rubbish dump between 1896 and 1906. As is often the case with such ‘bulk finds,’ the collection consists of a mixture of religious texts and very, very mundane texts such as tax receipts. In spite of the excavations’ taking place over a hundred years ago, much of the collection is still to be published.
The New Testament is by far the most well-attested document or document collection of antiquity: we have around 5,300 Greek manuscripts of it, of various sizes and dates.
However, within this set of manuscripts the attestation of different New Testament documents varies. Two of the most well-attested New Testament books are the Gospels of Matthew and of John. Matthew’s Gospel was enormously popular in the earliest centuries of the Church, as is evidenced by the large number of quotations from it in writers such as Clement of Rome (1st century), Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus and Irenaeus of Lyons (all 2nd century). Our earliest surviving New Testament manuscript is believed to be the famous Rylands Library Papyrus P52, a fragment of chapter 18 of John’s Gospel housed at the John Rylands Library in Manchester which is believed to date from around 125-175 A.D.
The attestation of Mark’s Gospel in ancient manuscripts is weaker, because the huge majority of the text of Mark’s Gospel is incorporated into Matthew’s Gospel. In the days when copying out a Gospel was a laborious and expensive enterprise, people would therefore naturally make a choice and copy out the more popular Matthew’s Gospel in preference to Mark’s. Hence, prior to the publication of P137 we only had one copy of Mark’s Gospel produced prior to the 300’s A.D.
The newly published manuscript itself is only a tiny fragment: a few letters from verses 7-9 and from verses 16-18 of Mark chapter 1.
I suspect it would have generated a great deal more widespread media interest than it has, if it had bolstered one of the many conspiracy theories about early Christianity that swell the shelves of popular literature. For example, if it had John the Baptist saying at verse 7, “After me comes he who is a mere man such as I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (thus implying the non-divinity of Jesus).
No such luck, conspiracy theorists. The text agrees with the texts of Mark 1:7-9,16-18 that we have in our existing copies; it isn’t going to rewrite our Greek New Testaments for us.
And this is wonderful. In this small fragment we have yet further evidence that the Gospels haven’t significantly changed over time; the more or less complete New Testament copies which we have in fourth- and fifth-century manuscripts such as Codex Vaticanus and Codex Alexandrinus are substantially the same text that was written down by the Gospel writers in the first century.
The preservation of the New Testament in ancient manuscripts is of a standard quite unlike any other document of antiquity. As Christians, discoveries such as P137 give us yet more confidence that when we pick up the pages of the New Testament, we are reading just what the Evangelists or Paul or Peter wanted to say about Jesus.
And [John] preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Mark 1:7-9
Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.