The complex world of ancient biblical manuscripts
MORGAN LEE| JULY 4, 2019
Last week, CT published a piece about the “First Century Mark Saga.” It’s a complicated, nearly decade-old situation that reveals much about the world of ancient biblical manuscripts.
Many Christians may be inclined to primarily connect biblical manuscripts with apologetics or Bible translations, but the ecosystem they inhabit is far more complex, says Christian Askeland, a former Museum of the Bible employee and professor of Christian origins.
“With the Gospel of Mark controversy, there’s a lot of stuff going on there,” said Askeland. “There is the paleography issue—the New Testament was written in the first century, so just the basic idea that we could have a first century manuscript, that one of those would survive and we would have it. Then there’s the issue of acquiring the artifact—what museums have the right to buy this kind of ancient material culture. And then there’s the scholarly issue—how do professionals, specifically Christian scholars look when they are trying to buy this manuscript.”
Askeland joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli this week on Quick to Listen to discuss what’s at stake in the ‘First-Century Mark’ saga and illuminate the larger world of ancient biblical manuscripts.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by Promise Keepers. The Christian men’s ministry that filled stadiums across America is, once again, calling on men to stand up and be counted. For more information, go to promisekeepers.org.
Highlights from Quick To Listen: Episode 168
Last year the Egypt Exploration Society published a Greek papyrus. According to their judgment, this fragment of the Gospel of Mark could be dated between A.D. 150 and 250. But while this document was extremely old, this timestamp disappointed a number of people, many of whom had hoped that it could be traced to the 1st century. Last week Christianity Today published a piece about this First-Century Mark saga, a story that has now played out for about eight years and running. One of the key figures in this saga is Jerry Pattengale, a professor at Indiana Wesleyan and until recently the Director of Religious Education at Museum of the Bible. He was deeply involved and wrote about his experience for CT, saying:
“Over the last eight years, we learned that much was not as it seemed. There seemed to be a manuscript fragment of a gospel dating to the first decades of the church. Not quite. The manuscript seemed to be for sale. It wasn’t, really. Now the world knows there were four early gospel fragments “for sale,” and at the helm was an esteemed professor, transitioning these days into a sort of Sir Leigh Teabing of Da Vinci Code lore.”
So today on Quick To Listen, we wanted to give a summary of what’s at stake in this First-Century Mark saga, and also illuminate the larger world of ancient biblical manuscripts. Our guest today is Christian Askeland, assistant research professor of Christian origins at Indiana Wesleyan University. He has also held many positions with the Museum of the Bible. His research concerns the origins and diversity of early Christianity, principally the movements from which they’re relevant texts and manuscripts arose.
Can you describe the work that goes into studying ancient Biblical manuscripts and determining their authenticity?
Christian Askeland: Let’s start with paleography, which is an extremely controversial subject in academic societies and scholars get really angry arguing over these things. it’s complicated because there are different kinds of manuscripts. Cursive manuscripts from later on in the medieval period will often have a scribe who has identified themselves and will state when and where they’ve written the manuscript. In those cases people were using a minuscule manuscript, which is usually written on parchment In a certain cursive handwriting that looks a bit like what we think of the lowercase Greek characters that modern texts are transcribed into and printing presses use. If you’re using those type of manuscripts, it’s a pretty reliable science because we have so many manuscripts with a secure date that you can date undated manuscripts with the secure manuscripts.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have manuscripts that are written with capital letters that tend to be earlier. They tend to be from either the Roman period or shortly after the Roman period. Often those don’t have the same notations to identify the scribe or the date and you have a very, very small number of securely dated examples—maybe only four or five examples—that you can really rely on, and they tend to look exactly the same for centuries. So when you assign a date range to those, it very likely may be a four-century date range or more.
Now when we get to papyri, which tend to be your earliest manuscripts we have, we have very, very few securely dated manuscripts. And actually when people are dating papyri, what they’re usually doing is they’re using other manuscripts that have been basically dated on a cycle of non-securely dated manuscripts. So the science here isn’t really much of a science at all, it’s just a small group of paleographers telling you what their stomach feels like. They may be listing other manuscripts—as in the case of this Mark manuscript—they’re listing manuscripts that have no secure date themselves. This is true for both Biblical papyri and other literary papyri.
Some of this is based on a presupposition of manuscript style and the way the handwriting looks. Handwriting that is quite simple and less complicated is usually considered to come from earlier stages in history, while more formalized, more decadent handwriting is considered to come from later stages. But there’s nothing scientific about that. There are days when anyone’s handwriting might be poor, but we wouldn’t necessarily date that to an early period of your life. It could be because you’re stressed, or you had too much coffee. So when we do this with manuscripts, we’re doing it based on the way ancient empires were thought of and what we expect from them, but it’s not an exact science.
How does the issue of cultural heritage relate to manuscript controversies? And do museums help provide some legitimacy?
Christian Askeland: For a lot of people, I think we think about biblical manuscripts and connect it to apologetics or faith and how secure our own Bible translation is. Is this really what Jesus or the Apostle Paul or the author of whatever text actually said? But we’re in an interesting period of time where several cultural institutions and cultural sites—especially in the Middle East but in other places in the world—are under attack. They’re literally being destroyed sometimes simply because groups like ISIS want to erase non-Muslim portions of the cultural history of the site. In other cases, they’re actually taking things from the site or stealing things from museums, and then selling them for profit to fund their activities. So anything that shows up in the antiquities market and gets sold, you can’t prove what site or source it came from, so it immediately comes under suspicion. People are also paranoid that things have not come from a good place, and that purchasing them is funding people who aren’t good people and who aren’t actually protecting cultural heritage.
With museums, there’s the controversy around who actual owns the artifacts. There are different international conventions and laws, but if you think about manuscripts we have in America or Europe, one might argue that it was stolen from the Middle East. Especially if you don’t consider cultural heritage as something you can own. So if you have parts of the Parthenon sitting in the British Museum, the Greeks can say, “Hey, you may have bought this from somebody and have certificates, but it’s is a key part of the cultural heritage of Greece and doesn’t belong in London.” Or say you’re a Christian institution that comes into the possession of a Torah scroll used in the Jewish worship. Well, then you have the issue of sacred heritage, which is a bit different from cultural heritage. You’re a Christian institution with the Jewish sacred object. What are the ethical ramifications of you having that?
Are these complications part of why there’s so much controversy with this alleged fragment of the Gospel of Mark? And if not, what’s driving the controversy?
Christian Askeland: Different scholarly societies have adopted standards on cultural heritage and what would even be permitted within the scholarly society. And this has become a huge issue the last 10 years. It’s typical for museums not to purchase items on their own, a lot of times they’ll have a donor purchase the item and then the donor will donate it and there can be tax benefits to that.
With the Gospel of Mark controversy, there’s a lot of stuff going on there. There is the paleography issue—the New Testament was written in the first century, so just the basic idea that we could have a first century manuscript, that one of those would survive and we would have it. Then there’s the issue of acquiring the artifact—what museums have the right to buy this kind of ancient material culture. And then there’s the scholarly issue—how do professionals, specifically Christian scholars look when they are trying to buy this manuscript.
If you think about how many people were living in the Roman Empire during Bible times, there were maybe 65 million people. And in the first century BC, you didn’t have any Christians because there’s like no Jesus. And then Jesus comes, but you still don’t have any Christians because they’re not called Christians till Antioch. But you have this movement that starts, and it’s a very small segment of those 65 million people. By the end of the fourth Century, you have a Christian Empire and Christianity grows in between those two points. So you would expect to have more manuscripts when you have more Christians, right? Our total count for papyri manuscripts right now is around 139—and not just from the 4th Century when Christianity was at its highest peak, but as a total count. So, the statistical odds of finding a first-century papyrus is so unlikely that anyone who claims to have found one would be assumed crazy. Simply because statistically we would expect to find more manuscripts when we have more Christians, we have a limited amount of papyri, and we would expect to start finding them from the third or fourth Century onward. So, the news was explosive for apologetic reasons, but also for scholarly reasons.
Where are these ancient biblical manuscripts coming from? And what happens after they are found?
Christian Askeland: Most of our papyri come from Egypt. Partially because papyri grow in Egypt, but also the conditions in Egypt or so favorable for conserving things. People tended to bury things and as long as the Nile didn’t flood, they were kept intact. So in Egypt, we have a few small caches that show up with essentially perfectly preserved papyrus manuscripts with every page intact. What we’re talking about today though are things that have been dug up after, they come from the “rubbish heap.” They are discarded papyri or papyri that maybe wadded up in the bowl. But they are still important because they’ve led to new discoveries.
Before these discoveries, we had Wycliffe who was translating the Bible from Latin because that’s all he had. And then during Martin Luther’s time, there was access to Greek manuscripts, and you get a whole new era of translations that are from the original languages. And now we’re starting to get these papyri, and it’s like moving back a thousand years. And then you have other manuscripts that are coming in from ancient monasteries like Mount Sinai, and various other monasteries in Egypt, that bring in all different kinds of translations as well as Greek manuscripts from the first millennium.
The Egyptian Excavation Society, for instance, has a massive trove of about half a million papyri that have been excavated from Egypt around the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. And their stuff is housed at the University of Oxford for scholars and researchers to go and study.
So with First-Century Mark, who made this claim? And where do they fit into the antiquity world?
Christian Askeland: With the First-Century Mark, there were a lot of people saying this is insane and personally myself, I’ve always just said that it’s not a real possibility that we would have this. The fact that somebody would say this without putting forward the evidence shows there probably is no evidence. It wouldn’t just not a reasonable thing to do.
There’s nobody’s really wanting to take responsibility for making that claim. There was a Twitter mention that goes back to December 2011 and another scholar mentioned it in a debate a while later. At one point, before people knew it was Mark, someone marked it and written a note that said 1st/2nd Century. So there was an argument from someone who didn’t realize they were dating a Biblical manuscript dating it to that period of time. Now that’s not a crazy time period of date something to for the Greco-Roman period because this is what we call the Pax Romana, it was the period of greatest prosperity in the Roman Empire, so statistically we get more from this period than from any other period in papyrology in Egypt. And then in 2016, the Egyptian Excavation Society indicate that they realized that they had First-Century Mark and wanted to publish it at that point.
What questions should a typical viewer of manuscripts at a museum or through a special exhibit have as they enter into that experience?
Christian Askeland: Speaking to a Christian audience, I would want to say that if something is done, well, it should help you understand that the world is a more complicated place than you previously thought it would be in. This is part of what we that we’re never going to understand everything, We’re going to see we’re going to see things dimly. And so going to one of these institutions shouldn’t necessarily answer all your questions, but you should come to a place where you understand that the things related to your faith—but even just things related to the broader world—are very complicated and that’s okay. There are no easy answers.
You should always allow yourself to be surprised, to be challenged, to be fascinated with how complicated the world is and not see that as a threat. Use it as a reminder that our own culture isn’t the only one that exists, and that a lot of the reasons that we have things from other countries is because we took them, or we paid for them from people who are just desperate for even a small amount of money.
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