A text that appears to be the oldest copy of a gospel known to exist has been found in the mask of a mummy.
The text is written on a sheet of papyrus, and contains a piece of the Gospel of Mark that was written during the first century, before the year 90 AD. Before the discovery, the oldest surviving copies of the gospel dates back to the second century.
The sheet of papyrus that the text was written on was used to create a mask for a mummy. Using papyrus or linen, along with paint and glue, to make masks for mummies was a common practice for ordinary Egyptians who could not afford the better-known masks of gold worn by Pharaohs. Given how expensive papyrus was, people often reused sheets of the material that had already been written on.
Recent scientific development has allowed scientists to use a technique that allows the glue on the mummy masks to be undone while still maintaining the integrity of the ink on the paper. The text on the sheets can then be read. The discovery of the oldest gospel known to exist is just one of hundreds of papers that a team of around three dozen scientists and scholars are working to recover and analyze, according to Craig Evans, professor of New Testament Studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
“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,” Evans told Live Science.
The documents include philosophical texts and copies of stories by the Greek poet Homer, as well as business and personal letters. The letters are often dated. When the glue on the mummy mask containing the gospel fragment was dissolved, researchers were able to date it in part by analyzing other documents found in the mask.
There has been some concern over the fact that, during the process of undoing the glue in order to read the texts on the sheets of papyrus, the mummy masks themselves are destroyed. And so some scholars are debating whether that particular method should be used to reveal the texts they contain.
But Evans thinks the reward is worth it, and emphasized that, although the masks are destroyed in order to reveal the texts, the masks are not the high-quality ones that would be displayed in a museum. Some are not even masks at all, but are just pieces of cartonnage.
“We’re not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece,” Evans said.
And the technique is revealing many new texts. “From a single mask, it’s not strange to recover a couple dozen or even more” new texts, Evans says. “We’re going to end up with many hundreds of papyri when the work is done, if not thousands.”
Evans said that the research team will publish the first volume of texts obtained through the mummy masks and cartonnage later this year. The volume will, of course, include the gospel fragment that the researchers believe dates back to the first century.
A text of an earlier Gospel of Mark, which most scholars agree was the first gospel written, could have significant implications for Christianity. Based on the generally accepted year of the crucifixion of Jesus as 33 AD, an earlier text of the gospel could mean that it was written within just 50 years of the death of Jesus, and, also significantly, that it was found in Egypt means it was already widely circulated.
There’s no doubt that mummies are fascinating, and that they often reveal major insights into what their world and culture was like during their time. Some people, though, take their love of mummies a little too far. Click here to read about the man who liked mummies so much, he exhumed the bodies of nearly 30 young girls in order to create his own private mummy exhibit in his apartment.
[Image via Live Science]