Daniel Wallace

Friday Five: Biblical bombshell (not), Joel Osteen deep dive, Onion-style real headlines and more

Friday Five: Biblical bombshell (not), Joel Osteen deep dive, Onion-style real headlines and more

I bring you an update today courtesy of The Religion Guy.

Those of you who are regular GetReligion readers know that The Guy is Richard N. Ostling, who was a longtime religion writer with The Associated Press and Time magazine and received the Religion News Association's lifetime achievement award in 2006. Here at GetReligion we call him the "patriarch."

Back in March, Ostling wrote about a manuscript fragment of the Gospel of Mark supposedly dating back to the 1st Century A.D. He put it this way:

A long-brewing story, largely ignored by the media, could be the biggest biblical bombshell since a lad accidentally stumbled upon the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Or not.

Here is the update from my esteemed colleague:

In case anyone is pursuing this story idea, it now appears that  “not” is the operative word. Brill has issued the long-delayed volume 83 of its Oxyrhynchus Papyri series and turns out Oxford paleography expert Dirk Obbink dates this text far later. It's still an important early find, but not the earth-shattering claim that was made by several evangelical exegetes. The so-called Papyrus 5345 fragment covers six verses, Mark 1:7-9, 16-18.

Daniel Wallace, who first announced the forthcoming bombshell in a 2012 debate with Bart Ehrman, explains what happened and apologizes to Ehrman and everyone else in a post on his blog. Also notable is this new posting by Elijah Hixson at a technical website about textual criticism. Hixson’s May 30 overview for Christianity Today shows there’s still a story the news media might explore.

         Good lessons here for journalists as well as biblical scholars. 

Now, let's dive into the Friday Five:

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Religion-news story of the year? Caution is wise with alleged biblical bombshells

Religion-news story of the year? Caution is wise with alleged biblical bombshells

The mass media often turn to scriptural stuff as the world’s Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus (on April 1 this year, or one week later for the Orthodox).

This Eastertide a long-brewing story, largely ignored by the media, could be the biggest biblical bombshell since a lad accidentally stumbled upon the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.

Or not.

Scholars are supposedly prepared to announce an astonishing discovery, a Greek manuscript of the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark written down in the 1st Century A.D. That would mean  Mark -- and implicitly other Gospels –- were compiled when numerous eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life would have been alive, thus buttressing authenticity.   

The Guy recommends caution, since sensational historical claims in recent times have flopped, or were misconstrued, and embarrassed proponents on both the religious right and left. With careful contexting, reporters should attempt to break this news  (see tips below) or at least be prepared to pounce when someone else does.  

The oldest Mark manuscript we currently know came some 150 years later than this. To date, the earliest surviving New Testament text is the celebrated Rylands Papyrus 52 (“P52”), at England’s University of Manchester, found in Egypt in 1920 and identified in 1934. Experts date P52 in the mid-2nd Century and perhaps as early as A.D. 125. This fragment of John 18:31-33, 37-38 confirmed scholars’ prior consensus that John’s Gospel originated in the late 1st Century.

Internet chatter about the Mark text comes mostly from biblical conservatives, who are understandably enthused. The first hint The Religion Guy unearthed was this opaque 2011 tweet from Scott Carroll, a professor at an online Christian school: “For over 100 years the earliest known text of the New Testament has been the so-called John Rylands Papyrus. Not any more. Stay tuned.”  Years later, Carroll said he had seen this actual Mark text two times.

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