Why the alleged discovery of a 1st century Gospel of Mark fragment may be very significant

21 May

An interesting hush has occurred over the field of NT textual critical scholarship. Textual criticism is the science of trying to ascertain what original manuscripts in the NT (or any ancient manuscript for that matter) actually said initially (when it left the pen of the author). There are some scholars how are skeptical that we can accurately retrieve the original wording of the NT (Bart Ehrman is a scholar of this sort, but also a popular speaker/author promoting NT skepticism). It must be said, however, that most textual critical scholars are not skeptical or at least not as skeptical as Ehrman. One such non-skeptic NT scholar is Dr. Dan Wallace, handles these manuscripts on a regular basis and believes that they contain the original wording and that NT textual critics like himself can retrieve it with relative ease. After all, less than 1% of ‘textual variants’ (instances where a passage/word in one ancient manuscript disagrees with that of another) fit the description of being ‘meaningful and viable’ (meaningful means that that the meaning of the passage would change depending upon which copy/manuscript is used for the translation; viable refers to the difficulty of ascertaining the original wording). Yet Ehrman insists that this fact does not fundamentally challenge his overall thesis, which is that without 1st century manuscripts, the copying process simply can’t be trusted to deliver to us the original wording. Well, Wallace and Ehrman had a public debate about this in 2012. In that debate, Wallace disclosed information about the discovery of a 1st century manuscript from the gospel of Mark. He said that that the details of it would be published in 2013, but for reasons not yet known, the publisher has only this year moved forward with the publication (should be out by the end of 2015). In the meantime, it sets up for an interesting wait-and-see situation. If the manuscript is in fact as old as Wallace says the first paleographers have said (1st) and if it contains enough passages to make for a good comparison, then the situation is looks like this: if Ehrman is right about the copying process, then this manuscript should look significantly different than later copies (earliest we currently have of Mark is late 2nd century). If Wallace is right, then it should significantly duplicate later copies. What does that matter for you? Your bibles are translations of copies of manuscripts from antiquity (if you use the KJV, then the copies used were relatively young, like 9th and 11th century or so; if you use a modern english translation, like the NIV or ESV, then they are based on much older manuscripts discovered after the King James translators did their work). In a word, the discovery will either add confidence to one’s reliability of the NT or detract from that confidence. We will see… Some of the information about the discovery has been allegedly leaked online and Dr. Craig Evans (another NT scholar) speaks to it here.

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