Wednesday, 21 January 2015

New Gospel of Mark Fragment: 'No Story here except of Cultural Vandalism'

Increasing doubts are now emerging about the secrecy surrounding the back story of a piece of newly-surfaced papyrus of the Gospel of Mark being handled by private collectors in the US (Joel Baden and Candida Moss, 'Was oldest gospel really found in a mummy mask?' CNN January 21, 2015). The recent public presentation of  Craig Evans (professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia) has led to the raising again of the issues surrounding its "surfacing".
News of the fragment first came to light in 2012 when its existence was (perhaps inadvertently) announced by Daniel Wallace, founder of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts at Dallas Theological Seminary. No one saw the text then, and no one has seen it now; though it has been mentioned repeatedly by a select group of people who evidently have been given access to it, its planned date of publication has been consistently pushed back, from an original plan of 2013 to 2015 and now, just this week, all the way to 2017. 
The authors (Joel Baden is professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale University. Candida Moss is professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame) say that it is important to take a step back and consider what is actually being revealed here.
Some people are saying they have this really old and important thing, and they will show it to all the rest of us in a few years. (Essentially, this papyrus is the scholarly equivalent of "my girlfriend who lives in Canada.") [...] The most important established fact about this papyrus, at this point, is that it has not yet been published [....] These questions are not necessarily challenges to the authenticity of the text. They are, rather, a recognition that, until the scholarly world has been granted access to this papyrus, the public statements made about it are no more revelatory than if we announced that we had found Moses' private copy of Genesis in a hummus container, and we'll show it to you later.

The authors list five key, unanswered questions. Nobody knows what the actual text on the papyrus is. Can one really date the handwriting to a decade (quoting Brice Jones, a papyrologist at Concordia University that there are few papyrologists who would date a literary papryus to within a decade on the basis of paleography - which seems to have been what was done here). The third question concerns the other scientific tests which are supposed to have been done, such as the dubious reference to radiocarbon dating.   
4. Who owns the papyrus, or the mask from which it was taken, and from whom was it purchased, and when?
The time and place of a text's discovery, known as its provenance, are crucial for verifying its authenticity, especially in a period of extensive looting of archaeological sites and museum theft. According to international law, if the mask was taken out of Egypt after 1970, it is officially "unprovenanced," and is effectively prohibited from being sold or published. Evans told us "I do not know the specifics" about the provenance of this mask.
5. Who has seen the text, who has verified it, and who has studied it?
Evans is not a trained papyrologist, but is rather a scholar of the New Testament. To this point, none of the papyrologists, text critics or other highly specialized experts, who must have worked on this text before these claims could be made about it, have been identified or spoken publicly about it [or where it came from].
The article then turns to the assertion that the freshly-surfaced trophy artefact was not dug up in a document dump, but had been obtained by destroying an ancient Egyptian mummy mask. The authors discuss the scandalous statement by Professor Evans that the cartonnage destruction was acceptable because "we're not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece" (I have discussed that myself here).
We are, however, talking about the destruction of 2,000-year-old Egyptian antiquities: funeral masks, painted with representations of people who lived and died and were commemorated by their families. We might wonder, at the very least, who it is that gets to determine which masks are worth preserving and which aren't. Evans told us that such decisions "are based on expert opinion," but as to who exactly makes that determination, he said, "I do not know specifically." Evans has said, "We dug underneath somebody's face, and there it was." He has since clarified that he was not personally involved in the destruction of the mask. But it is unclear precisely which individuals did the dirty work
Douglas Boin, a professor of history at St. Louis University, is quoted here about the difference between legitimate research and special-interest cultyural vandalism:
"We have to ask ourselves, do we value the cultural heritage of Egypt as something worth preserving in itself, or do we see it simply as vehicle for harvesting Christian texts?" 
They also point out that the arguments "for" this fall flat in the realisation that "the process is a crapshoot: If a mask contains no texts, then the equation changes, and even a relatively unimportant cultural piece has been destroyed for nothing". The methodology (I use the term loosely) employed by these amateur researchers in the videos joyfully released into the public domain leaves a lot to be desired by modern standards. Roberta  Mazza is quoted:
"you do not need to completely destroy masks for getting out texts if you use methods developed and improved by papyrologists since 1980." If a mask is to be destroyed, surely that process should be documented thoroughly, with constant photography and annotation, rather than undertaken as a classroom project with undergraduates using a bottle of Palmolive and a little elbow grease. It is possible that the earliest text of the Gospel of Mark has been discovered. But until the world is given access to the papyrus through its publication, there is no story here, except that ancient Egyptian mummy masks are being destroyed in the ongoing search for Christian relics.


LizMarlowe said...

Thanks for drawing your readers' attention to this article. It is great; but it's worth pointing out that their answer to their question 4 is pretty garbled. Provenance is a messy enough term to begin with without all these misuses of it.

Paul Barford said...

I get the feeling that papyrus-people are a bit befuddled about the whole issue of what the fuss is about. Their responses and attitudes give me the impression that they are taken by surprise that these questions are being asked and are not really all that well-equipped to discuss them. That includes the terminology to describe 'grounding' of their evidence.

The people who signed these confidentiality agreements and are secretly handling some of these pieces are, I would say, likely to face a firestorm the moment they are published.

Sam Ofnett said...

This is shocking.

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