What is “First Century Mark”?


There’s a lot of conflicting information on this subject, so please forgive me if I get some details wrong.

The Players

This whole story is convoluted, so a “cast of characters” (and organizations) may help, and I’ll be using some below.

  • Egypt Exploration Society (ESS) – The organization that owns and curates the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. Based in London, England.
  • Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) – Digitally photographs Greek New Testament manuscripts to provide access to scholars.
  • Green Collection (GC) – One of the largest private collections of rare Biblical manuscripts and artifacts in the world, funded by the Green family.
  • Green family (GF) – Owners of Hobby Lobby and the Green Collection, and founders of Museum of the Bible.
  • Green Scholar Initiative (GSI) – Organization founded to provide scholars research access to the artifacts in the Green Collection. Now called Museum of the Bible Scholar Initiative.
  • Hobby Lobby (HL) – Chain of stores owned by the Green family. Prior to the establishment of Museum of the Bible, Hobby Lobby purchased manuscripts for the Green Collection.
  • Museum of the Bible (MotB) – Museum in Washington, DC, that displays manuscripts and artifacts from the Green Collection (and items on loan from other institutions). Founded by Steve Green, funded by Green Family.
  • Museum of the Bible Scholar Initiative (MotBSI) – Organization founded to provide scholars research access to the artifacts owned by the Green Collection. Formerly called Green Scholar Initiative.
  • Dr. Scott Carroll – Former Director of the Green Collection.
  • Steve Green – President of Hobby Lobby, patron of the Green Collection and founder of Museum of the Bible
  • Dr. Dirk Obbink – World-renowned specialist and formerly director of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri project; formerly employed by Egypt Exploration Society.
  • Dr. Jerry Pattengale – Former Executive Director of the Green Scholar Initiative.
  • Dr. Daniel B. Wallace – Executive Director of The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM).

Opening Curtain

In 1903, a fragment of the Gospel of Mark was uncovered at the archaeological dig at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, where over 500,000 fragments of papyri have been discovered. It wasn’t until 2018 (115 years after it was dug up) that the fragment was officially published, in¬†The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 83, by the Egypt Exploration Society1. The official name of the fragment is Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 5345 (P.Oxy 83.5345 / P.Oxy LXXXIII 5345 / GA ūĚĒď137), but it has been called by some people “First Century Mark”. This tiny fragment of a manuscript contains parts of Mark 1:7-92 on one side and Mark 1:16-183 on the other side.

P.Oxy. 83.5345, Mark 1:7-9, 16-18 (Wikimedia Commons)
P.Oxy. 83.5345, Mark 1:7-9, 16-18 (Wikimedia Commons)

The oldest known fragment of the New Testament is papyrus ūĚĒď52, containing John 18:31-334 and 37-385, dated between A.D. 125-175. Not a single manuscript is known to exist from the time of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’s resurrection. If a first century manuscript of the New Testament were found, it would be exciting news, indeed! I’m going to give you the bad news here: “First Century Mark”, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 5345, isn’t from the first century.¬†

Act 1

Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, Executive Director of The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, announced on February 1, 2012, at a debate with agnostic Bart Ehrman6, that a small fragment of the Gospel of Mark had been found that may date to the first century. He had been encouraged to make the announcement by Scott Carroll (GSI). At the time of the announcement, Dr. Wallace (CSNTM) was under the impression the P.Oxy 83.5345 had been recently studied and dated by the world-renowned papyrologist Dr. Dirk Obbink (ESS). Jerry Pattengale (GSI) later confirmed Dr. Obbink claimed in 2011 the fragment was from the first century7. During the debate, Dr. Wallace (CSNTM) said,

The oldest manuscript of the new testament is now a fragment from Mark’s gospel that is from the first century. How accurate is the dating? Well, my source is a papyrologist who worked on this manuscript, a man whose reputation is unimpeachable. Many consider him to be the best papyrologist on the planet. His reputation is on the line with this dating, and he knows it; but he is certain that this manuscript was from the first century.8

Egypt Exploration Society later released a press statement that Dr. Revel A. Coles (EES) cataloged the fragment in the early 1980s and proposed the date to be first or second century9. I’m not sure when Dr. Obbink (EES) initially dated it to the first century, but shortly before the Wallace-Ehrman debate, Dr. Obbink (EES) reevaluated the dating of P.Oxy 83.5345 and decided it was from the second or third century. Dr. Carroll (GSI) was apparently unaware of this change of opinion, and passed the first century date on to Dr. Wallace (CSNTM). The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 83, (published six years after the debate) confirms this fragment is from the late second century or early third century.

Dr. Wallace (CSNTM) has publicly apologized for his part in the debacle.

Intermission

Actually, misdating the fragment isn’t the most interesting part of the P.Oxy 83.5345 (formerly called “First Century Mark”) scandal. More serious questions remain: Was it for sale? Was it sold? Was it stolen?

Act 2

Dr. Pattengale (GSI) and Dr. Carroll (GSI) both claim that in 2011, Dr. Obbink (ESS) offered to sell a fragment of the Gospel of Mark dated to the first century. When Dr. Wallace (CSNTM) made his startling announcement in 2012, he believed the fragment was already part of the Green Collection (probably a simple misunderstanding, since Dr. Carroll (GSI) asked him to announce it). Later in 2012, Dr. Wallace (CSNTM) learned the fragment was for sale, and Dr. Carroll (GSI) claims it was still for sale in 2013. Later, it was determined “First Century Mark” was actually P.Oxy 83.5345, and belonged to ESS. A spokesperson for ESS vehemently denies P.Oxy 83.5345 has ever been for sale10.

Dr. Wallace (CSNTM) hadn’t seen the papyrus at the time of his announcement, but later signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement with Dr. Pattengale (GSI), who was the Executive Director of Green Scholar Initiative, before seeing it in 2012. Why was there an Non-Disclosure Agreement with Green Scholar Initiative when they didn’t own the fragment? Hobby Lobby11 was interested in purchasing the fragment, but wanted outside authorities to authenticate the fragment prior to the sale; Dr. Wallace (CSNTM) was selected since he was already aware of it. It seems Dr. Obbink (ESS) claimed to be a broker acting on behalf of the seller, and claimed the seller insisted on an NDA; the NDA was set to expire when the fragment was formally published by EES.

It turns out there was a purchase agreement dated January 17, 2013, (signed on 4 Feb 2013 by Dr. Obbink (ESS)) between Hobby Lobby and Dr. Obbink (ESS) for the sale of¬† “Fragmentary Greek Manuscript of Mark, Egypt, circa 0100 AD, unbound manuscript on papyrus with handwritten ink, without covers” (along with some other New Testament fragments)12; the purchase price has not been disclosed. At that point, it seems Hobby Lobby believed they were the owners of “First Century Mark”, but allowed Dr. Obbink (ESS) to keep the fragment while he was studying it. There hasn’t been a public statement by any of the involved parties if money actually exchanged hands.

Obbink always denied that he had been trying to sell Oxyrhynchus items, as a later EES statement made clear. Nevertheless, an official of the society was sufficiently suspicious that he might have been at least trying to sell the Mark fragment that he decided to try to smoke him out ‚Äď by instructing him, in spring 2016, to publish the manuscript in the next volume, number 83, of the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus Series. That would get the fragment out in the public sphere. It would also mean it would have to be physically returned to the [Oxford University] Sackler classics library so that the editing could be checked by colleagues. In short, if Obbink were indeed trying to sell it, this move would stop him. Or so the EES official thought.13

It seems Dr. Obbink tried to sell manuscripts which he was responsible for, but didn’t own, and this isn’t the only one. In Dr. Obbink’s defense, it is possible P.Oxy 83.5345 was stolen from ESS after it was cataloged in the 1980s, and he thought he was acting as the broker for a sale of a New Testament fragment that was legally owned by the seller. However, Dr. Obbink hasn’t released the name of the person who supposedly hired him to broker the sale; releasing that name could help his reputation.

Closing Curtain

This tale isn’t quite as exciting as an Indiana Jones movie, but it does show studying ancient manuscripts can be a bit more interesting than one might expect. Egypt Exploration Society is currently in possession of P.Oxy 83.5345. This whole drama has lasted about 8 years, but nothing has changed for Christian beliefs.

P.Oxy 83.5345 doesn’t contain a new reading for the Gospel of Mark. No theology has changed because of it, regardless of when it was written. This small piece of papyrus confirms what Christians have believed for almost 2,000 years: the message the Apostles wrote has been faithfully transmitted to us.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. Only about 1% of the papyri from Oxyrhynchus have been published.
  2. And he preached, saying,¬†“After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but¬†he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus¬†came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. (Mark 1:7-9 ESV)
  3. Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them,¬†“Follow me, and I will make you become¬†fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Mark 1:16-18 ESV)
  4. Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die. So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:31-33 ESV)
  5. Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world–to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. (John 18:37-38 ESV)
  6. Ehrman has since announced he has changed from being an agnostic to an atheist.
  7. Pattengale, Jerry. The ‚ÄėFirst-Century Mark‚Äô Saga from Inside the Room: My reflections after eight years of silence (Christianity Today, June 28, 2019) Accessed 22-Feb-2020.
  8. Wallace, Daniel. Debate with Bart Ehrman (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: February 1, 2012). Accessed 15-Feb-2020. (YouTube)
  9. Egypt Exploration Society. P.Oxy LXXXIII 5345 (Egypt Exploration Society: 4th June, 2018) Accessed 15-Feb-2020.
  10. None of the Oxyrhynchus papyrus owned by EES have ever been offered for sale. (Egypt Exploration Society. P.Oxy LXXXIII 5345 (Egypt Exploration Society: 4th June, 2018) Accessed 15-Feb-2020.)
  11. The Green family owns Hobby Lobby, the Green Collection and founded Museum of the Bible. Hobby Lobby purchased Biblical manuscripts and artifacts for the Green family prior to the establishment of Museum of the Bible.
  12. Book, Art and Collectables Purchase Agreement between Dr. Dirk Obbibk and Hobby Lobby Stores, January 17, 2012. Accessed 22-Feb-2020.
  13. Higgins, Charlotte. A scandal in Oxford: the curious case of the stolen gospel (The Guardian, 9-Jan-2020) Accessed 22-Feb-2020.

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