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Papyrus may be oldest Gospel copy

30 January 2015

iSTOCK

Multi-purpose: papyrus, as used in ancient Egypt

Multi-purpose: papyrus, as used in ancient Egypt

ARCHAEOLOGISTS at a Baptist theological college in Canada believe that they have uncovered the oldest known copy of a Gospel - inscribed on a fragment of papyrus used to make an Ancient Egyptian mummy mask.

The discovery was made by a team at the Acadia Divinity College, Wolfville, in Nova Scotia. The papyrus fragment contains a text from the Gospel of St Mark, and appears to have been written in the first century AD - at least ten years older than the earliest surviving copies of the Gospel.

The mummy masks of pharaohs were usually fashioned out of gold, but those worn by ordinary people were made of papyrus or linen, and glue. People usually reused sheets because papyrus was expensive. Scientists have recently developed a way to dissolve the glue, allowing them to separate sheets of papyrus.

"We're recovering ancient documents from the first, second, and third centuries. Not just Christian documents, not just biblical documents, but . . . personal letters," Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College, told the website Live Science.

The researchers are analysing the texts to discover how biblical texts were copied, and whether there were any alterations to the Gospel of St Mark over time. "We have every reason to believe that the original writings and their earliest copies would have been in circulation for a hundred years in most cases; in some cases, much longer," Professor Evans said.

The fragment of the Gospel of St Mark in question was dated through a combination of carbon-14 dating, a study of the handwriting, and an analysis of the documents found in the same mask. This led researchers to conclude that the fragment was created before the year AD 90.

Some scholars question whether or not the destruction of the mummy masks is worth the recovery of the documents used to make them. Professor Evans argues that the masks are not "museum-quality" pieces, and some are simply pieces of cartonnage.

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