Remember the discovery of the “Jesus tomb”? The “crucifixion nails”? Noah’s Ark? Each of these supposed finds was at the center of a brief but intense media frenzy in recent years. These discoveries, often suspiciously timed around major Christian holidays like Easter, might prompt interesting discussions about the historical reliability of the Bible, but rarely turn out to be legitimate archaeological finds.
Christianity Today is reporting on another recent (possible) discovery of special interest to Christians: an alleged early fragment of the Gospel of Mark. Daniel Wallace, the professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who earlier this year announced the find, claimed during a debate that the fragment is the earliest known New Testament text. (You can read Wallace’s account of the debate and the surprising announcement at the Parchment & Pen Blog.)
This would certainly be exciting news if it’s confirmed. However, the CT article describes the very cautious reaction this announcement has received from scholars:
Other New Testament scholars won’t get a chance to study this gospel portion until it is published in a book about a year from now. They are admittedly skeptical, since the alleged fragment would be almost two centuries older than the current oldest copy of Mark….
“I won’t believe it until I see it,” said Simon Gathercole, editor of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
Peter Head, a New Testament research fellow at Tyndale House, a British residential center for biblical research, is likewise eager to get a look at the fragment before rendering an opinion….
Biblical scholars are increasingly frustrated with sensational finds, often announced during the Christmas and Easter seasons. Magazines, book publishers, and cable channels seem more interested in pumping up sales and viewers than in assuring that discoveries stand up under scholarly scrutiny.
Healthy skepticism seems like a reasonable response to sensational claims—better to wait for a scholarly consensus before splashing the news across magazine covers. If the find is genuine, it could add significantly to our understanding of the New Testament and its formation… but let’s make sure it’s true before we get too excited.
This is a topic that we’ve discussed at times in the past—see our earlier post about how to respond to sensational archaeological claims. For more specific reactions to the Mark fragment announcement, see some helpful words of caution at The Biblical World.