While the death masks of pharaohs and elite members of society were made from gold, the masks created for ordinary citizens were made with linen or discarded texts on papyrus. Many layers of papyri were moistened, shaped into a mask, plastered, dried, and then painted. Sometimes, up to 150 papyri fragments were used in the creation of a single mask.
The controversial practice of extracting the papyri involves soaking the mask in soapy water until the papyri fragments separate, a technique that destroys the mask but preserves the ink on the papyri. The practice has become increasingly popular in recent years, as researchers have discovered that some of the texts used to make masks included funerary texts, letters in Coptic and in Greek, Coptic Gospel texts, and fragments of classical writings by Greek authors. Now a team of scientists claim to have found the oldest known Gospel fragment – the Gospel of Mark, written before the year 90 AD.
Example of Egyptian mask made from papyri and linen. Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, Creative Commons.
Live Science reports that a team of about three-dozen scientists and scholars, all of whom remain anonymous under a non-disclosure agreement, had been using the technique on a series of masks when they recovered a fragment of papyrus with text from the Gospel of Mark. While the information was supposed to remain under wraps until formal publication, a member of the team leaked the information in 2012.
According to Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the Gospel text was dated to before 90 AD through a combination of carbon-14 dating, an analysis of the handwriting, and studying the other documents found plastered together in the same mask. However, with the non-disclosure agreement in place, Evans would not reveal any further details about the text until the papyrus is published.
“Although the first-century gospel fragment is small, the text will provide clues as to whether the Gospel of Mark changed over time,” Evans told Live Science.
Until now, the oldest surviving copy of a gospel is generally accepted to be the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St John’s fragment, a fragment from a papyrus codex, measuring only 3.5 by 2.5 inches (8.9 by 6 cm) at its widest; and conserved with the Rylands Papyri at the John Rylands University Library Manchester, UK. Although it is generally accepted as the earliest extant record of a canonical New Testament text, the dating of the papyrus, which has been placed between 117 AD and 138 AD, is still a matter of debate.
Rylands Library Papyrus P52 (St John’s fragment). (Wikipedia)
The practice of destroying mummy masks to retrieve ancient texts has been the subject of much controversy. While Evans claims that the masks being destroyed are not high quality ones, and the results can be significant with dozens of fragments extracted from each mask, others have argued that the ends do not justify the means.
John McDowell, a Christian evangelical apologist and one of the main persons involved in taking apart mummy masks, has perhaps attracted the most scathing criticisms. In a video in which McDowell is filmed talking to an audience, he presents slides of the work he has done to extract papyri from mummy masks. He exclaims:
Now, what you do, you take this mask [chuckles]…Scholars die when they hear it, but we own them so you can do it….
You start pulling it apart….Most scholars they’ve never touched a manuscript, you have to have gloves on and everything [laughs], we just wash them and hold them in our hands, we don’t even make you wash your hands before.
Slide John McDowell presents showing him pulling apart fragments of precious papyri. Screenshot from Josh McDowell video.
According to Craig Evans, the full report outlining the discovery of the gospel text, as well as other papyri texts, will be published later this year.
Featured image: Extracting papyri from a Greco-Roman mummy mask, in hopes that early Biblical texts might be found. Screenshot from Josh McDowell video.