Was oldest gospel really found in a mummy mask?

Media outlets have been abuzz this week with the news that the oldest fragment of a New Testament gospel -- and thus the earliest witness of Jesus' life and ministry -- had been discovered hidden inside an Egyptian mummy mask and was going to be published.

The announcement of the papyrus' discovery and impending publication was made by Craig Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Evans described the papyrus as a fragment of the Gospel of Mark.

He added that a combination of handwriting analysis (paleography) and carbon dating led him and his team of researchers to conclude that the fragment was written before 90 A.D. This would make it at least a decade older than other early fragments of the New Testament and, thus, an invaluable resource for biblical scholars and object of considerable interest for Christians the world over.

The fragment, according to Evans, was discovered when an Egyptian mummy mask -- known as cartonnage -- was dismantled in a hunt for ancient documents. Mummy masks were an important part of ancient Egyptian burial practice, but only the very wealthy could afford examples made of gold.

The majority of mummy masks were made from scraps of linen and papyrus, which were glued together into a kind of ancient papier-maché. Dismantling these masks yields a trove of ancient documents. Evans claims that in addition to Christian texts, hundreds of classical Greek texts, records of business transactions, and personal letters have been acquired. In the process, the mask itself is destroyed.

Though it may be making headlines now, the claim that the "oldest known gospel" has been discovered is not new.

News of the fragment first came to light in 2012 when its existence was (perhaps inadvertently) announced by Daniel Wallace, founder of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts at Dallas Theological Seminary.

No one saw the text then, and no one has seen it now; though it has been mentioned repeatedly by a select group of people who evidently have been given access to it, its planned date of publication has been consistently pushed back, from an original plan of 2013 to 2015 and now, just this week, all the way to 2017.

Despite the seemingly explosive quality of the news, therefore, it is important to take a step back and consider what is actually being revealed here.

Some people are saying they have this really old and important thing, and they will show it to all the rest of us in a few years. (Essentially, this papyrus is the scholarly equivalent of "my girlfriend who lives in Canada.")

It is unclear why anyone would start talking about a text like this, a year, indeed now at least two years, in advance. The most important established fact about this papyrus, at this point, is that it has not yet been published—which is to say, only a small handful of individuals have seen the text and are able to say anything at all about it.

As Roberta Mazza, an ancient historian and papyrologist from the University of Manchester in England, told us, the academic community has not "been given access to firm information and images on the basis of which could eventually say something."

In other words, this sort of notice really serves mostly to remind us of just how little we know about this purported discovery. Here, for example, are five key, unanswered questions.

1. What is the actual text on the papyrus?

We are told that it is from Mark, but, after all, no one has seen it. Which part of Mark?

2. Is the handwriting consistent with the supposed dating?

Brice Jones, a papyrologist at Concordia University, told us that dating a text by handwriting, or paleography, "is not a precise science, and I know of no papyrologist who would date a literary papryus to within a decade on the basis of paleography alone."

3. Is the ink or papyrus itself consistent with the supposed dating?

According to Jones, if paleography is inexact, "radiocarbon dating is equally (and perhaps more) problematic, since one must allow for a time gap of a century or more."

They say that these lab tests have all been done, but as no one has actually seen the reports, they are less than confirmatory.

4. Who owns the papyrus, or the mask from which it was taken, and from whom was it purchased, and when?

The time and place of a text's discovery, known as its provenance, are crucial for verifying its authenticity, especially in a period of extensive looting of archaeological sites and museum theft.

According to international law, if the mask was taken out of Egypt after 1970, it is officially "unprovenanced," and is effectively prohibited from being sold or published. Evans told us "I do not know the specifics" about the provenance of this mask.

5. Who has seen the text, who has verified it, and who has studied it?

Evans is not a trained papyrologist, but is rather a scholar of the New Testament. To this point, none of the papyrologists, text critics or other highly specialized experts, who must have worked on this text before these claims could be made about it, have been identified or spoken publicly about it.

These questions are not necessarily challenges to the authenticity of the text. They are, rather, a recognition that, until the scholarly world has been granted access to this papyrus, the public statements made about it are no more revelatory than if we announced that we had found Moses' private copy of Genesis in a hummus container, and we'll show it to you later.

There is, however, one bit of information about this text and its discovery that can be discussed now, without having even seen it: the fact that it was uncovered by destroying an ancient Egyptian mummy mask.

Evans said the cartonnage destruction was acceptable because "we're not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece."

We are, however, talking about the destruction of 2,000-year-old Egyptian antiquities: funeral masks, painted with representations of people who lived and died and were commemorated by their families.

We might wonder, at the very least, who it is that gets to determine which masks are worth preserving and which aren't. Evans told us that such decisions "are based on expert opinion," but as to who exactly makes that determination, he said, "I do not know specifically."

Evans has said, "We dug underneath somebody's face, and there it was."

He has since clarified that he was not personally involved in the destruction of the mask. But it is unclear precisely which individuals did the dirty work.

Evans' language of "digging" makes the dissolving of mummy masks sound like archaeology, but some would characterize it, and some have, as cultural vandalism.

There is an implicit sense that the discovery of a rare Christian piece outweighs the preservation of a relatively common Egyptian artifact. And this may be so, but surely the optics would be better if this were announced by someone from, say, the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities.

"The destruction of mummy masks, though legal, falls into an ethically gray area right now because of the difficult choices scientists have to make in the lab when working with them," said Douglas Boin, a professor of history at St. Louis University.

"We have to ask ourselves, do we value the cultural heritage of Egypt as something worth preserving in itself, or do we see it simply as vehicle for harvesting Christian texts?"

Even if one agrees that these masks can be taken apart — archaeology is, by its very nature, a destructive process — it should be remembered that the process is a crapshoot: If a mask contains no texts, then the equation changes, and even a relatively unimportant cultural piece has been destroyed for nothing.

Mazza also reminded us that "you do not need to completely destroy masks for getting out texts if you use methods developed and improved by papyrologists since 1980."

If a mask is to be destroyed, surely that process should be documented thoroughly, with constant photography and annotation, rather than undertaken as a classroom project with undergraduates using a bottle of Palmolive and a little elbow grease.

It is possible that the earliest text of the Gospel of Mark has been discovered. But until the world is given access to the papyrus through its publication, there is no story here, except that ancient Egyptian mummy masks are being destroyed in the ongoing search for Christian relics.