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Papyrus NT fragment dated to first century

08 March 2012

by Paul Wilkinson

Possibly older than Rylands Library Papyrus P52: the new St Mark papyrus find

Possibly older than Rylands Library Papyrus P52: the new St Mark papyrus find

A PAPYRUS FRAGMENT of St Mark’s Gospel has been discovered and dated to the first century, in which case it would be the earliest known manuscript fragment of the New Testament, written before the New Testament canon was completed.

The executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, at the Dallas Theological Seminary, Texas, Professor Daniel B. Wallace, said: “I believe that it will tend to confirm what scholars already believe about the text of the New Testament.”

He announced the new find during a debate last month at the University of North Carolina. “It will add very significant weight to the readings that it supports.”

The Gospel that is familiar today is based on a series of manuscripts, some dating back to the earliest days of Christianity. “New Testament scholarship is not entirely settled on exactly what the text of the autographs was,” Professor Wallace said. “Discoveries of new manuscripts and detailed examination of the ones already known have a way to change the text that is being translated into our modern Bibles.

“For example, just a few years ago the oldest fragment of Revelation 13 was discovered, and it says that the number of the Beast is 616, not 666. That is evidence that cannot be ignored, but must be wrestled with.”

Details of where and how the papyrus had been discovered were being kept secret until the publication, next year, of a multi-author book; but the Professor said that it had been dated by “one of the world’s leading palaeographers”, who was “certain” that it was from the first century.

“If this is true, it would be the oldest fragment of the New Testament known to exist,” Professor Wallace said. “Until now, no one has discovered any first-century manu­scripts of the New Testament.”

The current oldest New Testament text is a fragment of St John’s Gospel dated between 100 and 150, held at the John Rylands University Library in Manchester. It was found in Egypt in 1920.

The new find predates the oldest extant St Mark manuscript by 100 to 150 years, and has provoked a flurry of interest among academics. Many of them believe that it is a fragment of the story of the Gadarene swine, Mark 5.15-18, discovered last year by an American antiquities dealer, Steve Green, which had been used to make a papier-mâché-type mask for a mummy.

In all, 127 New Testament papyri have been found since the end of the 19th century, including 18 from the second century. “They function to confirm what New Testament scholars have already thought was the original wording, or, in some cases, to confirm an alternate reading — but one that is already found in the manuscripts,” Professor Wallace said.

“If this Mark fragment is confirmed as from the first century, what a thrill it will be to have a manuscript that is dated within the lifetime of some of the first generation of Christians.”

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