Researchers have recovered the oldest known copy of a gospel, dating back to the 1st century AD, which they extracted from papyrus text that was originally used to create an Egyptian mummy mask. The team of scientists claim to have found the Gospel of Mark, written before 90 AD through a combination of carbon-14 dating, an analysis of the handwriting, plus studying the other documents that were plastered together in the same mask.
The first-century gospel is one of hundreds of texts that a team of three-dozen scientists and scholars is working to uncover to analyze, by using the technique of ungluing the masks, stated Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament Studies of Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
All the scientists and scholars who are working on this project are under a non-disclosure agreement, so while the information was supposed to remain completely under wraps until formal publication, a member of the team leaked the information 2 years ago.
The true death masks of pharaohs and elite members of society were actually made from gold, but the masks created for ordinary citizens were made with linen or discarded texts on papyrus.
How were they made?
Many layers of papyri were moistened, shaped into a mask, plastered, dried, and painted. Sometimes, up to 150 papyri fragments were used in the creation of just a single mask.
How do they take it apart then?
Here’s where the controversy starts. To extract the papyri, one must soak it in soapy water until the papyri fragments separate. This technique destroys the mask, but preserves the ink on the papyri.
The practice has actually become more popular in recent years, as researchers discovered that some of the texts used to make masks included funerary texts, letters in Coptic, in Greek, Coptic Gospel texts, and even fragments of classical writings by Greek authors.
But Craig Evans emphasized that the masks that are being destroyed to reveal the new texts are not high quality ones that would be displayed in a museum. Some are not masks at all but are simply pieces of cartonnage.
Evans said in an interview in a recent article by Live Science, “We’re not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece.”
Evans would not reveal any further details about the text until the papyrus is published.
Currently, until this finding, the oldest surviving copy of a gospel was generally accepted to be the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, or the St John’s fragment, (in photo above), which was from a papyrus codex, measuring only 3.5 by 2.5 inches and conserved with the Rylands Papyri at the John Rylands University Library Manchester, UK.
Even though it is generally accepted as the earliest record of a genuine New Testament text, the dating of the papyrus, which has been placed between 117 AD and 138 AD, is still a matter of debate, as is the method of retrieving the current oldest gospel from an ancient mummy mask.