Destroying Mummy Masks and the Oldest Known Copy of the Gospel of Mark?

Update: Article by Candida Moss and Joel Baden for CNN that nicely  summarizes more of the facts here.

The first any of us heard of a new discovery of the fragment of the New Testament Gospel of Mark dating to the late 1st century C.E. was in 2012. Bart Ehrman of UNC and Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary were engaged in a debate in Chapel Hill on the question “Is the Original New Testament Lost?”  Wallace simply asserted his “bombshell” claim without giving any details. The debate is available on Youtube here. Our earliest physical manuscript of any part of the N.T.  is a tiny papyrus fragment (3.5 x 2 inches, seven lines, front and back) from the Gospel of John known as Rylands P52, now on display in the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, UK. It is usually dated, with some controversy, between 117-150 C.E.


Following Wallace’s “leak” lots of blog posts appeared, including this more recent one by Brice C. Jones who alarmingly reported the involvement of evangelical Christian apologist Josh McDowell, who has no academic credentials. Here he unabashedly and gloatingly defends this destruction of antiquities, see video here (See at timemark 24:23 where Josh scoffs at the destructive process: “Scholars die when they hear this but we own them.”). Another evangelical defender of the process wrote just this week that “archaeology is inherently destructive,” as if artifacts themselves are destroyed rather than carefully preserved by responsible archaeologists.

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We can now assume, based on headline stories breaking this week, that Prof. Wallace was referring to a fragment of the Gospel of Mark recovered by the controversial destruction of Egyptian Mummy masks:

A text that may be the oldest copy of a gospel known to exist — a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that was written during the first century, before the year 90 — is set to be published.

At present, the oldest surviving copies of the gospel texts date to the second century (the years 101 to 200).

This first-century gospel fragment was written on a sheet of papyrus that was later reused to create a mask that was worn by a mummy. Although the mummies of Egyptian pharaohs wore masks made of gold, ordinary people had to settle for masks made out of papyrus (or linen), paint and glue. Given how expensive papyrus was, people often had to reuse sheets that already had writing on them.




Prof. Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia has been quoted in all the news reports. Craig is a friend and he and his students dig with us at Mt. Zion. He and I certainly have our differences and we have often dialogued on opposite sides over the history and interpretation of the “Jesus” tombs in Talpiot. Yesterday he sent me an e-mail clarifying the discovery from his perspective. He believes his role in the discovery has been somewhat misrepresented. Here is his response which I include here with his permission:

I am part of the team that interprets the discoveries. I am not a papyrologist or technician, so I am not involved in the dismantling of the masks and cartonnage. The photo belongs to Scott Carroll. Here’s his contact info:

SCOTT CARROLL MANUSCRIPTS & RARE BOOKS, INC. 16893 Buchanan St Grand Haven, MI 49417, 616-847-4009

Last summer I gave a presentation on the number, age, and reliability of New Testament manuscripts. In this lecture I described the effort under way in recent  years to recover manuscript fragments, including biblical manuscripts, from ancient cartonnage, including mummy masks. All of these materials are from Egypt. Just over three years ago a fragment of Mark was recovered, which those studying it think dates to the 80s. If they are correct, this will be the first New Testament manuscript that dates to the first century. The fragment is to be published later this year (by E. J. Brill). Someone video-recorded my lecture and posted it on YouTube. Last week a reporter, Owen Jarus, from Live Science contacted me and I gave him an interview. What he wrote was posted on Sunday 18 January 2015 and is accurate. However, other journalists have made use of his story and/or the video on YouTube and have misunderstood some aspects of it, claiming incorrectly that I was myself the discoverer of the fragment of Mark or that research on the papyri recovered from the mummy masks is going on here in Nova Scotia. Some have also posted a photo of a mummy mask giving me credit for the photo. The photo is not mine. I have directed reporters who inquired to the person to whom the photo does belong. Unfortunately, not all reporters inquired. The Live Science link is

Here are also some answers I have provided to commonly-asked questions:

1) Since it is believed the gospel of Mark was written in Rome, does it surprise you that a copy written so soon after the original would have made its way to an Egyptian mummy mask? No. In the Roman Empire mail moved almost as quickly as it does today. A letter put aboard a packet in Ephesus (today’s Turkey) could be in Egypt within one week. Something written in Rome could be in Egypt being read within a few weeks. Mark was written in the late 60s, so finding a copy of Mark in Egypt dating to the 80s is not strange in the least. 

2) Does dating indicate when the text was incorporated into the mummy mask? There are four important dates: (1) the date of the papyrus, (2) the date when ink was applied to the papyrus, (3) the date when the writing went out of use, and (4) the date when the no-longer-used writing was dismantled and used for the making of a mummy mask or some other form of cartonnage. Because some of the papyrus used in these masks are letters or business papers, we sometimes find dates, which is a big help. The style of handwriting helps date the papyrus. Features of the mask (e.g., its design and artwork) can sometimes help date it. A date in the tomb or in the sarcophagus can be very helpful. Carbon-14 can be helpful. All of these methods can potentially come into play in attempting to date the mask and then the earlier dates of the various papyri that were used later in making the mask. 

3) How many such masks are currently in the possession of scientists? I do not know. There are several thousand of them, many hundreds on display in museums. Many in private collections. Many of them   are of poor quality. These are the ones that are being taken apart, in order to recover written text. 

4) If the original owners retain possession of the texts after they have been analyzed what will likely happen to them? Hard to say. We hope they will be placed on exhibit in museums. 

5) Since we don’t really hear much about first century evangelistic endeavors in Egypt, does it surprise you that so many texts are being found in mummy masks? Not at all. The ancient world was far more literate than we moderns realize. Some 500,000 pages of papyrus have been recovered from Oxyrhynchus alone and it was not an especially important or cultured city. We have this enormous amount of material simply because the arid climate made preservation possible. There would have been millions of documents in other cities like Ephesus, Alexandria, Rome, Rhodes, and the like. 

6) The article posted by NBC News said you believe the original writings of the gospels were in circulation for as long as 200 years. What leads you to believe that is true? For two reasons: (1) Church fathers, writing 150 to 200 years after the originals were written, refer to the autographs as still available in their time. (2) Several libraries and book collections have been recovered which provide compelling evidence. For example, a collection is found in a layer of the Oxyrhynchus landfill that is dated to the fourth century C.E., yet the books that are recovered were produced in the first and second century C.E. This shows that the library was in use for at least 200 years before being retired. Many books, including old Christian Bibles, have been found to have been read, corrected, repaired for more than 500 years. Several Bible scrolls from Qumran (i.e., the Dead Sea Scrolls) were at least 200 years old before the Qumran community was destroyed by the Romans in the first century C.E. 

Jesus as Illegitimate and the Talpiot Tomb: Some New Considerations

In the meantime, it is indeed interesting to note that this very practice of patronymy/paponymy/metronymy, by its repetitive nature, leaves the sample of names quite narrow and refutes in essence the argument of “very common names” put forward by a number scholars that the Talpiot tomb was not that of Jesus’ family.

—Prof. Claude Cohen-Matlofsky

I wanted to call my readers’ attention to a paper posted by Professor Claude Cohen-Matlofsky, “Jesus the Patriarch and Talpiot tomb A,” at Bible & Interpretation. Her article on this subject is included in the volume of 2008 Princeton Theological Seminar Jerusalem Symposium papers edited by James Charlesworth, The Tomb of Jesus and His Family (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

Cohen-Matlofsky’s academic focus is in late 2nd Temple Judaism (see her notable recent study Flavius Josèphe entre Hasmonéens et Hérodiens, les ambitions d’un homme, L’Harmattan, Paris) [1] but it is her distinguished work as a prosopographist that has new and overlooked relevance to a discussion of the Talpiot “Jesus” family tomb and its possible or probably relationship to Jesus of Nazareth and his family. Her work in this area stems from her broad and substantial study, Les Laïcs en Palestine d’Auguste à Hadrien: étude prosopographique (Paris, H. Champion, 2001).[2].

What Cohen-Matlofsky has undertaken is a much tighter chronological calculation (63 BCE to 70 CE.) of the occurrences of various Jewish names, both male and female, in the period, as well as a broader and more comprehensive sampling than just names on ossuaries. She points out, for example, that Tal Ilan’s most useful lexicon includes names from 330 BCE to 200 CE, which is a very broad chronological swath, and that is what many of us have relied upon.Although Tal Ilan includes other sources beyond ossuary inscriptions, Cohen-Matlofsky has been able to update, expand, and in some places correct, her tallies.

She has previously published some of her results in connection to  names in the Talpiot tomb at Bible & Interpretation here and here, but this latest contribution adds a new dimension to the consideration of the six names in the tomb–namely how the cluster of relationships reflected in the names sheds light on the family as a whole. For example, taking the three names with patronymic relationships in the Talpiot “Jesus” family, namely:

Jesus son of Joseph
Judah son of Jesus

Theoretically we would have six possible combinations of linear descent from grandfather to grandson, namely:


What is striking is that only the first, that is Joseph-Jesus-Judah would potentially have a fit with a hypothetical “Jesus of Nazareth” family tomb, making the sequence in the tomb much more unique than one might initially think.

The tomb of Jesus is an atypical, fatherless tomb: Jesus, the eldest son, became the patriarch by “replacing” the “husband” of his adulteress mother.

Cohen-Matlofsky takes seriously the likelihood that Jesus was most likely born illegitimate (Hebrew term mamzer)–that is not the biological son of Joseph, her betrothed.[3] I have written extensively about this in a series of posts on this blog, see, for example, see, “Who Was Jesus Father?– Imagining the Best,” and “Joining the Slanderers,” as well as my five-part series on “The Birth of Jesus.” Whatever the circumstances of her pregnancy by another man, which we have no way of determining given our lack of evidence, Jesus’ legal status as a mamzer in Jewish law, becomes an important factor in assessing the implied relationships reflected in the Talpiot tomb. I recommend a careful reading of Prof. Cohen-Matlofsky’s latest important contribution.


  1. See her contribution on Josephus in Bible & Interpretation []
  2. This study consists in a list of 715 names found in the various sources with statistical charts including male and female distribution []
  3. See the references in Prof. Cohen-Matlofsky’s paper in her footnote here. []

Remembering James Olof Ribb (1946-2006)

In my more resigned moments I figure this thing is going to get me sooner or later — it wasn’t exactly caught in the early stages–but all I really want is what I’ve always wanted even before this happened: some good days (without pain) and the opportunity to put things in order, providing for a minimum of fuss after I’m gone. If I can have that, I’ll be happy. It’s quality, not quantity.

Olof James Ribb died nine years ago today on January 16, 2006 of a very aggressive form of bone cancer. Olof was one of those rare friends of a lifetime that some of us are fortunate enough to have. He was one of the truest people I have ever known, a “man in whom there was no guile,” and one of the most brilliant and honest human beings I have ever known. When I think of sterling impeccable character I think of Olof. All who knew him say the same. He had some rare combination of intelligence, brutal honesty, kindness, keen insight, a quest for truth, and a passionate sense of justice. I miss him immensely and think of him every day.

Two years ago I posted the draft of a manuscript he finished in 1994 but never published: Excerpts: A Collection of Thoughts, Quotations, and Observations.[1] Olof was exceedingly modest about this work and during his lifetime only shared it with a few friends, though he and I talked about publishing it someday and he seemed quite willing but said it would “need a lot of work.” I invite my readers to delve into this rather remarkable collection of random observations on “People, Books and Ideas, Death, Tradition, Politics, Reason and the Mind, Women, Gender, Sex, Morality, and Superstition,” as well as to browse the web site for the many photos, tributes, and memories of Olof Ribb–especially by his students. The section on “Olof’s Thoughts” is particularly fascinating. Olof was preeminently a linguist, a reader, a thinker–but most of all a teacherpar excellence. He was reluctant to write much formally given his conviction that most of what needed to be said about la condition humaine had already been said far better than he felt he could express things–hence the many quotations in his little book. He was a high school teacher of German and Latin much beloved of students, family, and friends. He could have easily had a Ph.D. and taught at the university level but he felt strongly that high school was the best and most critical place to serve in our culture so he was content with his M.A. in German and Latin. When he won the “Teacher of the Year” award at Western Alamance High School in Burlington, NC, where he was teaching when he died, he commented to a friend who congratulated him, “Thanks, Joy, for your card and congratulations. I certainly bamboozled them!” Olof lived in Greensboro, not far from the UNC campus and spent much time at Chapel Hill as well, both in the libraries and taking post-graduate classes in philosophy, literature, and Classics. Beginning in January, 1973 Olof and I exchanged letters in the good old-fashioned way, three to five page typed single-spaced, mailed back and forth every week to ten days for over 20 years. The last decade or so we turned to e-mail. I have copies of all our correspondence filling several storage boxes.  Those files are among my most precious possessions, next to family pictures and movies. Someday I hope to publish excerpts–mostly his not mine–as this weekly record of his intellectual and spiritual development over the 33 years of our friendship is truly an impressive legacy. Olof made a profound difference in countless thousands of lives over the years. German was Olof’s main academic expertise, though he had learned Italian and Spanish quite well, and was a master of Latin. His great loves were history, philosophy, religion, and literature, though he maintained a curiosity about almost everything, including the latest in science. He had read the complete works of Nietzsche and dozens of others German philosophers and writers, not to mention his deep love of Classics.  Because of his family “roots” he plunged into Swedish with a special passion the last decades of his life. I remember asking him once, since I knew his Germany was so fluent, if his Swedish would compare, and he answered simply “Yes.”  He had become over 20 years as comfortable in Swedish as in English or German. I don’t know of anyone inside or outside my academic field who had followed my work and research on the historical Jesus more avidly than Olof. But he was much more of a dialog partner and a critic than a fan. He had studied the Bible line-by-line in his youth and I have his old worn copy with markings and notations on every page–no exaggeration here. Over the years he read and thought himself “out of Christianity,” and in the end even the more Hebraic “process theism” that I find appealing failed to grip him. In the oddest way his “skepticism” and even “agnosticism” seemed to have more integrity to it than the creedal statements of so many. He was neither contentious nor pretentious, and was perfectly willing to patiently listen to my own expositions but just found himself unconvinced of what he considered to be the naive assumptions of “certainty” in any sort of biblically oriented faith.  I benefited immensely from his input and we differed sharply on some of these issues. Olof read every word of my Jesus Dynasty manuscript along the way and gave me helpful feedback on nearly every page. I still have his MS Word “markup” copies of each chapter, filled with his notes.  He traveled with me to Germany when I was doing the Pantera research in October, 2005, just a few months before he died. We had no idea he was even sick but he complained on that trip of a pain in his shoulder that turned out to be a malignant bone tumor. I mention him in the Acknowledgments of that book that was published in April of 2006. Olof never lived to hold a printed copy of the book in his hands but I flew up to Minneapolis the weekend before he died and showed him the final page proofs which pleased him immensely.

I hope all of you will both enjoy and be stimulated by Olof’s thoughts on this anniversary of his death.

  1. I want to thank our dear and mutual friend of Olof–Stephen Estes–for scanning and preparing this original manuscript for posting and Olof’s nephew Erick Mortensen who maintains the web site []

Killing Heretics: Now and Then

Islamic violence must be called Islamic. To say that Islam owns it, produced it, and has to solve it is not saying that all Muslims agree with the tactics of ISIL, contract killers in Paris, or child killers in Pakistan.



The notion of killing “unbelievers” or heretics, whether in the past, the present, or even in the future, is historically part and parcel of the three Abrahamic Faiths. Worshipping gods other than Yahweh brings a death penalty in the Torah (Deuteronomy 13:10-12). Paul declares a fatwah-like “death decree” (“destruction of the flesh”) on the man living with his father’s wife at Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:5).  Christ returns, according to Paul, to burn those who “know not God and obey not the Gospel” (presumably everyone but the Christians) with flaming fire and eternal punishment (2 Thessalonians 1:7-10). Christian history, unfortunately, is–among many other things–a long tale of torture, murder, and “holy wars,” as as the late great Karlheinz Deschner so meticulously documented in his monumental 10 volume work, Die Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums. The Qu’ran commands the killing of all unbelievers, including those “People of the book” (Jews and Christians), who do not submit to Muslim Shari’a and take the status of Zimmis–forbidding all public practice of faith (just read through Surahs 8-9).

In the aftermath of the murders in Paris this week we are assured “these are acts of terrorism and are not part of the Islamic religion.” We are told constantly, “this is not Islam,” these are just thugs wanting power. That is like saying the Roman Catholic Inquisitioners who killed “heretics” or the Reformers who slaughtered Catholics were not “really Christian.” From a moral point of view, perhaps not, but in terms of religious identity such disavowals are nonsense. Let’s call extreme views of ALL traditions “bad” forms of the religion, fine, but to deny that such violence and evil is perpetrated by “devoted” religious fanatics who take their faith seriously misses the power that such evil forces draw upon. They have convinced themselves they are doing God’s work and God is on their side–a sad and ubiquitous aspect of the violent history of ALL religious traditions.The issues are much more complex and I recommend these successive blog posts of Joseph Hoffmann as providing some clear thinking on what we are facing in our times when it comes to the new waves of Islamic violence:

Sex, Salvation, and Violence in Islam

Religion begins in violence. Its archetypes and myths are saturated in blood–the predations of Ishtar, the cannibalism of the Greek Titans, the binding of Isaac, the crucifixion of Jesus. Its holy books are full of violence.

Islam is no exception. It is the rule. It’s important to say however that no religion but Islam seems suicidally bent on making violence a permanent part of its contemporary world-view and operations manual. There seems to be no doubt that, at least as represented by its most visible adepts, Islam is the religion which brings us into closest contact with the religion of our vicious tribal past. Religions may begin in violence. But they usually do not survive through violence.

Owning Isis: Collective Responsibility and Personal Guilt

Islam, as I’ve argued here before, was never able to produce a coherent theological or “orthodox” tradition apart from its simple belief in the arkān al-Islām –the pillars of Islam. It did try, and once upon a time, in the storied Golden Age of Islam prior to the thirteenth century there were philosophers who offered a ray of light. Later on however that light was snuffed out by the likes of the imam Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī who taught (contra the much more learned Ibn Rushd) that philosophy and Islam had nothing to do with one another, and to the extent they did, the philosophers were heretics. The rigidity of that teaching deprived Islam of a Renaissance, a Reformation and an Enlightenment. Worse, it created a disconnect between Islam and modernity that still plagues a religion that–in some of its most visible manifestations–belongs to another time and place.

Charlie and Ahmed

It is not some sort of intrinsic desire to kill that makes them violent. It is a sort of pornographic idealism, supported by the worst possible reading of an ancient book, interpreted by the worst possible religious experts—many of them in their twenties and lacking any sort of educational qualifications to teach or preach fiqh.

We do Islam no favour by not asking it to take its share of the blame. We do it a distinct disservice by spreading the veil of the sacred, the untouchable, around it-closeting it off from critique, satire and serious discussion through the imposition of blasphemy and anti-defamation laws.



Join Us And Dig Mount Zion in 2015!


Announcing our 2015 Mt Zion Excavation Season

June 14 through July 10th 2015

Registration is now open for both student and non-student participation in our 2015 Mt Zion Excavation. UNC Charlotte is the only American university excavating in the historic Old City of Jerusalem and our site is rich with material remains from all periods of habitation–Iron Age, Herodian/Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, Crusader, and Ottoman. There is no excavation like it in all of Jerusalem.

We ask that applicants dig with us a minimum of two weeks but those who can stay longer are encouraged to do so. Many of our participants come for the entire four weeks. Participants of any age over 18 are welcome to apply with no previous experience or background required other than good health and an enthusiasm and willingness to take part. The Mount Zion excavation is run as a field school and all team members receive specialized training from the directors and area supervisors as part of their participation.

Photo courtesy of Joel Kramer

Photo courtesy of Joel Kramer

We have two tracks for registration and participation:

I. A University academic credit option for UNC Charlotte Students or students registered at any accredited U.S. University. This program includes a course taught by Dr. Tabor with 3 semester hours credit (transferable through UNC Charlotte) and runs two weeks, June 14 through 28. The program cost includes lodging at the Gloria Hotel (including breakfast and lunch), tuition, special lectures, and tours, but airfare is extra and arranged by the students themselves. It is administered through our UNC Charlotte Education Abroad office. Full information and links to register are here:

II. Non-student or non-credit option for any participants over age 18 and in good health. A “dig fee” of $250 per week (discounted to $200 for previous participants or those who stay four weeks), with a two week minimum stay. Lodging, airfare, and meals are arranged by each individual but we encourage our team members to stay at the Gloria Hotel where we have arranged special discounted group rates (single, double, and triple options), or a slightly cheaper option at the German Lutheran Hospice nearby. For details, questions, and an application form write our administrator Mareike Grosser at Prospective participants are also encouraged to interact with others on our Facebook group page (anyone can ask to join the group) to arrange roommates, ask questions of former participants, and gather details on the history of our operations:

You can also find more information on our dig, photos, and past discoveries at our official web site:

Mt of Olives Looking East

Mt of Olives Looking East, Mt Zion Site as it Appeared in 1880