October 24, 2019

The Gospel Truth? How the laundering of papyri washes away its provenance sins

Archived Facebook Screenshot
The Castle Folio Page
Image Credit: ARCA
Earlier on this blog we reported on an entry published on the Obbink/Elder's Castle Folio Facebook page.  That post made reference to the alleged first-century Gospel of Mark fragment, now known correctly as P.Oxy LXXXIII 5345, in which the writer of the entry stated that an important text had been recovered thanks to the dismantling of a mummy's cartonnage mask.

In that Facebook entry, the excited company promoter stated:

"A print of the ancient Gospel of Mark has been discovered inside of an ancient Egyptian mummy mask that had been fashioned with recycled papyri.

Researchers have dated this fragment to be from before the year 90 A.D., making this fragment the oldest known copy of the Gospel of Mark!"  

Clicking on the Facebook link embedded with this social media post, one arrives to a dead page link on the Obbink/Elder Castle Folio website.  An archived image of that missing page, written by an unknown author with access to the hosted company website wrote on January 28, 2015 that a piece of the ancient Gospel of Mark had been discovered inside of an ancient Egyptian mummy mask that had been fashioned out of recycled papyri. The writer of the article then used the significance of the purported find as a defense for the controversial text fragment recovery method, as the process of extracting papyri ultimately destroys the mummy masks.  More on that extraction method and its total disregard for the sanctity of surviving antiquities later.

Archived Website Screenshot - Castle Folio Website
Image Credit: ARCA
The same image found on the Castel Folio Facebook page was likewise published, with the same Castle Folio website link on the same day on the company's Twitter feed.

Archived Twitter Screenshot
- @thecastlefolio Profile
Image Credit: ARCA
The gospel (truth) according to...

But the Mark papyrus fragment was already in the public limelight, without mention of any association with mummy cartonnage as far back as February 01, 2012.  Back then Dan Wallace, an American professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) mysteriously reported (apparently at the urging of others) on the fact that scholars had likely found a probable first-century copy of the Gospel of Mark. 

This purported "discovery" was mentioned during a lengthy public debate with Bart Ehrman held in Memorial Hall at UNC Chapel Hill which can still be viewed here.   At around 1hr and 13 mins into the video, Wallace stated that the fragment was being studied by "a papyrologist who has worked on this manuscript, a man whose reputation is unimpeachable" and whom "many consider (him) to be the best papyrologist on the planet."

Much later, Wallace would state that after that Feb 01, 2012 talk, he signed a Non Disclosure Agreement (he doesn't indicate with whom) requiring him "not to speak about when it would be published or whether it even exists. The termination of this agreement would come when it was published."  This type of NDA requirement is similar, if not identical to, ones signed by other scholars, who had access to ancient material from the Green Collection.

Just six days later, on February 7, 2012, during a Atlanta lecture series ex Green Collection buyer Scott Carroll also talked up the purported earliest fragment with no mention of mummy cartonnage, admitting he was at the Chapel Hill event and saying the fragment first came to his attention in January 2012.  As first noted by Brent Nongbri in June earlier this year Carroll Stated:

“I was with Dan, ah, five days ago, ah, prior to an important debate he had, ah, in North Carolina with a scholar by the name of Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the New Testament and New Testament manuscript evidence.  

In our collection, we have a wonderful collection of unpublished papyri.  We have a number of New Testament papyri. And the New Testament papyri consist of the earliest text of the Gospel of Matthew, the second earliest text of the Gospel of John, the earliest text of Romans, the earliest text of Paul’s writings altogether, and also the earliest text of 1 Corinthians. And, ah, some others within our research scope, including the earliest text of the Gospel of Mark and the earliest text of the Gospel of Luke.  

The earliest text of the Gospel of Mark, ah, came to my attention a month ago with a colleague, scholar, friend of ours Dirk Obbink from Oxford, and it is certainly, absolutely–dated by a person that has no agenda whatsoever–the earliest New Testament document in the world, and it is a first-century text of the Gospel of Matt–of Mark. That’s remarkable to know. And so there are many things like that that are coming up in our research and discovery, and it’s an absolute thrill to be a part of it.”

Carroll's statement in Atlanta contradicts his own earlier statement on a now deleted Facebook post where he implied having seen a fragment that was earlier than the earliest-known text of the NT, the so-called John Rylands papyrus.

The first provenance story and photo referring to the Mummy mask origin mentioned by Castel Folio in 2015 occurred during the 2014 Apologetics Canada Conference in Vancouver, BC Canada.  Speaking at the event was Craig Evans, professor of New Testament at the Divinity School of Acadia University.  Evans was the first individual (that I have found) who publicly stated that the "discovery" of the probable first-century copy of the Gospel of Mark was attributed to a papyrus fragment taken from the Egyptian cartonnage mummy mask.


On January 18, 2015 Owen Jarus, for Live Science also interviewed Evans who again reiterated his earlier statement that the purported 1st century Mark fragment was from a sheet of papyrus reused to create a mummy mask.  Unapologetically, he went on to say "we’re not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece."

Evans added that he was only allowed to discuss the fragment in general details because a member of the team had leaked some general information in 2012 and he was only repeating what others had already stated, given that he too, apparently, was subject to a Non Disclosure Agreement.  This statement is interesting because nothing "leaked" in 2012 made mention publically of a mummy cartonnage provenance connection.

On January 28, 2015 Evans went on to provided the International Business Times with the same image of the mummy masque from his earlier lecture Apologetics Canada Conference.

Image Credit: Craig Evans, Acadia Divinity College
 https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/mummy-mask-found-contain-oldest-known-gospel-first-century-ad-1484086
This was quickly followed up by the January 28, 2015, Castle Folio social media posts mentioned at the start of this article, which showed the same masks on a different background.  All of which served to fan the flames of the urban legend that was now spreading through the evangelical and textual criticism communities as the purported collection source for this rare biblical fragment, turning attention away from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri at the EES to which Obbink was then affiliated.

Scholars pressed for more information... 

  • Who owned the papyrus, or the mask from which it was taken? 
  • How extensive is the fragment? 
  • Could they see it?
  • Why did Wallace, Carroll and Evans believe that the fragment was from the first century? 
  • Who were the scholars who had examined it
  • What method was used to date it? 
As everyone was occupied with either the excitement of the purported find or with the controversial revelation that the fragment had been ripped from an ancient mummy mask, few reached deeper to question if the confessed provenance was truth or if it might be fabrication.  Instead most scholars focused on whether or not this yet unseen fragment, was in fact the oldest known fragment of the Gospel of Mark and debated the voracity of this claim in light of so little proof, while everyone held their breath and waited for the fragment to be published so they could understand more.

But in May 2018 the jinn was out of the bottle


The Egypt Exploration Society (EES) reported that a fragment published in their most recent edition of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (vol. 83), was, in fact, the aforementioned and much discussed NT Mark 1.  Identifying the fragment as P.Oxy. 83.5345; P137, the EES stated that this small butterfly shaped papyrus was not, as was long flaunted to be the case, from the first century.  Instead, it had been assigned to the late second/early third centuries by none other than Dirk Obbink.   Likewise the EES also made it clear that the fragment did not come from a mummy cartonnage, instead it was part of their Oxyrhynchus Papyri collection and had never been for sale.  They even open-sourced the pages in the new publication discussing P.Oxy. 83.5345 so that interested scholars could review their conclusions.

Upon hearing the official news that the much talked about, and no longer first century fragment of Mark had been published, and being no longer bound by any non disclosure agreements, Dan Wallace, issued an apology on his blog on May 23, 2018.  In this posting he stated "In my debate with Bart [Ehrman], I mentioned that I had it on good authority that this was definitely a first-century fragment of Mark. A representative for who I understood was the owner of FCM urged me to make the announcement at the debate, which they realized would make this go viral."

If Obbink "sold" the fragment to Hobby Lobby, as evidence in the case seems to indicate, was it Scott Carroll who Wallace perceived to be the owner when asked to talk up the fragment?  And who came up with the idea of saying that the fragment was discovered inside a cartonnage mummy mask instead of from within the EES archive?

Laundering mummy masks to launder stolen property

This leads me back to 2011 when Balor Magazine wrote about a "new" method for recovering ancient texts.  The article mentioned an extraction exercise conducted by Scott Carroll, then a research professor of manuscript studies and the biblical tradition at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, as well as the director of the Green Collection.  The event was witnessed and participated in by students and faculty from the Department of Classics and the Honors College at Baylor, as well as other guests.  Video recorded, Carroll is seen gently laundering of a third-century BCE Egyptian mummy mask in soapy water as if it were someone's lingerie.   After being doused, the ancient object was then broken apart gently to extract strips of papyri, some of which reportedly dated back to the fifth century.


Likewise, scholars at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia also took mummy cartonnage apart. For this involvement Craig Evans was interviewed by Live Science who confirmed  "We're recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries. Not just Christian documents, not just biblical documents, but classical Greek texts, business papers, various mundane papers, personal letters" 

Joslin "Josh" McDowell, an Evangelical Protestant Christian apologist also gave a video talk with slides documenting more images of papyri extraction through the dismounting of mummy masks.

"You shall know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free" (John 8:32).

In the end, soaking these ancient mummy masks and then claiming to have extracted X-Y-Z papyrus fragment from the siggy masks during the process has created a reasonable loophole for dealing with distasteful dodgy provenance.  As this method provides the actors involved with a reasonable defense for how they came by ancient texts which in reality are not legitimate to sell.  All that has to be done, is to say that the ancient papyrus came from a deconstructed object, provide valid proof of the legitimate purchase of that cartonnage and then destroy it, as American and in some other countries, the legal owner of an ancient object can dispose of it as he/she sees fit.

By claiming that the Gospel of Mark fragment was found inside mummy cartonnage which has ultimately been destroyed during their extraction process, the actors involved in its illegal sale tried to side step the next obvious question...where the fragments came from. 

That is until the invoices of the transaction come to light and the incriminating pages of the Castle Folio manuscript were not so successfully "scrubbed".

By:  Lynda Albertson

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