Earliest Manuscript of the Gospel of Mark Validates Earl Doherty

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by Neil Godfrey

Already the rumours are flying around the theologicobiblioblogosphere about what this will mean for mythicism.

A sensational new discovery of a first century manuscript of the Gospel of Mark has been quietly announced on a Blog (as is the way such rare and monumental finds are typically announced, of course).

We have as many as eighteen second-century manuscripts (six of which were recently discovered and not yet catalogued) and a first-century manuscript of Mark’s Gospel! Altogether, more than 43% of the 8000 or so verses in the NT are found in these papyri. Bart had explicitly said that our earliest copy of Mark was from c. 200 CE, but this is now incorrect. It’s from the first century. I mentioned these new manuscript finds and told the audience that a book will be published by E. J. Brill in about a year that gives all the data. (In the Q & A, Bart questioned the validity of the first-century Mark fragment. I noted that a world-class paleographer, a man who had no religious affiliation and thus was not biased toward an early date, was my source. Bart said that even so, we don’t have thousands of manuscripts from the first century! That kind of skepticism is incomprehensible to me.)

One thing is certain. Earl Doherty has steadfastly maintained that the Gospel of Mark must be dated squarely within the first century. (pp. 3, 400-404  of Jesus Neither God Nor Man and p. 196 of The Jesus Puzzle)

(Other mythicists — Drews, Wells, Price —  have given the Gospel of Mark a terminus a quo of 70 c.e.)

It is good to see the synaptic lights of Joel Watts, Has Mark’s (Near) Original Autograph Been Found?, and James McGrath, The Earliest Manuscript of Mark’s Gospel?, immediately grasping the profound significance of this for mythicism. They are keenly aware that there will be mythicists who will challenge the finding to test its veracity even though a first century date so patently supports Earl Doherty’s own arguments, thus demonstrating that no mythicist worth his or her salt would ever accept anything untested just because it initially appears to support their views.

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36 thoughts on “Earliest Manuscript of the Gospel of Mark Validates Earl Doherty”

  1. Neil, one only has to consider gMark against Antiquities (around 95 c.e.) to come to the idea that gMark was written prior to Antiquities. In gMark, Herodias is married to Philip. In Antiquities it is the daughter of Herodias, Salome, that is married to Philip. Likewise, Slavonic Josephus has Herodias married to Philip. gLuke drops the Herodias married to Philip account of gMark – indicating that it was written after Antiquities. The issue here relates to Josephus and his reconstruction of Hasmonean/Herodian history. Did he take liberties in his work? Liberties that would be par for the course by a prophetic historian intent upon his own agenda. Nikos Kokkinos has questioned Josephus in regard to Salome being married to Philip. Some of the problems involved are mentioned in an article by Ross S Kraemer:

    Implicating Herodias and Her Daughter in the Death of John the Baptizer: A (Christian) Theological Strategy? JBL Summer 2006

  2. Actually, the manuscript dating is worse that figured. A few recent books and papers suggest that we do not have grounds to date any extant fragments or manuscripts to the 2nd century (let alone the first).

    Nongbri, “The Use and Abuse of P52”, Harvard Theological Review 98, 1 (2005): 23-52 shows that the earliest fragment, P52 which is about the size of a credit card and has verses from the Gospel of John, cannot be dated to the early part of the 2nd century so confidently, and that a wider range into the late 2nd and early 3rd century must be allowed.

    Barker, “The Dating of New Testatment Papri”, New Testament Studies 57, 2 (2011): 571-82 similarly shows how none of the alleged New Testament fragments can be confidently dated to the 2nd century as seen in a number of individual studies such as Nongbri’s above.

    Bagnall, Early Christian Books in Egypt, pp. 2-24 points out from sociological studies that it is very unlikely that any Christian documents from the first two centuries are likely to be those found in Egypt. This is because the Christians made up such a small proportion of the population until the 3rd century or so, thus the likelihood of such works existing earlier is low. This coupled with the studies above and things look pretty bad.

    Bagnall gives 2nd century NT fragments existing today as low, and the assessments of Barker and Nongbri show that the evidence for particular scraps to be unlikely contrary to Bagnall’s assessment. This is obviously not a proof, but we have to adjust what Wallace said:
    “We have as many as eighteen second-century manuscripts (six of which were recently discovered and not yet catalogued [sic])…. and as few as zero.”

    1. Carsten Peter Thiede (1952-2004) believed the unidentified 7Q5 to be a first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark. This is just one example that people are hunting high and low and in every corner for some primary evidence that Christianity predates the second century CE. The lack of such evidence seems to be causing acute pain! The Jordanian “metal codices” from last year should have rendered us immune to sensationalist crap of this kind.

      Thanks to “gilgamesh42” for mentioning Bagnall’s excellent book. Bagnall writes, “It is time to let go of the idea that Christian literature is somehow underrepresented in the papyri before the later third century. If the early dates attributed to Christian texts are accepted, they are actually grossly overrepresented” (Bagnall, Early Christian Books in Egypt, p. 21). Bagnall does not suggest that Christianity started in the second century, but his conclusions are certainly compatible with such a suggestion.

  3. This is obviously not a proof, but we have to adjust what Wallace said: “We have as many as eighteen second-century manuscripts (six of which were recently discovered and not yet catalogued [sic])…. and as few as zero.”

    Bingo! Wallace is usually careful to leave himself that kind of out. I am surprised (and disappointed) that he would make such an unequivocal assertion about a first century fragment of Mark based on an unpublished (and unscrutinized) claim.

  4. I’m a bit puzzled (and amused) that we have, on the one hand, first a trumpet-call reference to “a first-century manuscript of Mark” and a little later, almost in a mumble, a reference to something called a “fragment”, with no indication of how big, or what it contains, or what the basis is for confidently dating this fragment to the first century.

    Another tempest in a teapot a la Carston Thiede and Jose O’Callaghan?

      1. There are a few things I can think of that would make radiometric dating methods less than useful. C14 has larger error bars that paleography usually does. C14 also would only tell us the age of the papyrus rather than the date of composition. If the scroll was made decades earlier, that would further upset the date of composition, especially if the argument is if it was written in the late first or early second century. Lastly, given we don’t know the size of this document, there may not be enough of it to test.

        C14 would be useful for figuring a given century or so, as was done for the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I think its utility would be minimal here.

        1. If it dated to 4th century by C14, that would be very useful. You don’t know what the results are until you test. Paleography can be wrong when a writer is consciously imitating an older style or is trained in an older style, which would be more common in conservative, religious training. Therefore, its utility here seems less valid than C14 to me. If this sample has as much of Mark as stated above, it seems there should be plenty to C14 test.

          1. Your idea about the Christians being more conservative in retaining writing styles rests on at least one doubtful premise. Before the Middle Ages when Christians were the scribes and intellectuals, the education system of the Roman Empire was not under such control. The training of scribes would have been done by a variety of instructors, not all of which are likely to have been Christians until much later when the number of Christians was higher. Moreover, because much of the growth of Christians came from the lower classes of society there is even less of a portion of scribal schools that would have had such conservatism you allege.

            Also, your points if they had merit would actively be realized by modern paleographers and would adjust their error bars accordingly. I am not an expert in these things so I cannot say how common it was to actively used more ancient writing styles, and for what reason I have trouble fathoming. Nonetheless, if a consensus of paleographers can exist on some manuscript or fragment, it probably doesn’t need C14 for verification, especially if the issue is to distinguish a document in time on the order of decades or even a couple of centuries.

            However, this new alleged manuscript (or fragment) of gMark hasn’t yet been published and its paleographical analysis has not been made for consumption. That means there isn’t a consensus as of yet, and considering the magnitude of the claim it will be criticized. Let’s not propose tests to try to get the answers we want. (Besides, C14 dating can also be complicated, so if paleography and radiometric dating disagree it is possible for the former to be wrong.)

        2. What are you talking about? C14 colud never be used for dating anything. It’s just a weapon for strange agendas.

          A freshly killed seal, dated using Carbon-14, showed it had died 1300 years ago. Living mollusk shells were dated at up to 2,300 years old. Some very unusual evidence is that living snails’ shells showed that they had died 27,000 years ago. (Ham, Snelling, & Wieland)

          “The troubles of the radiocarbon dating method are undeniably deep and serious … It should be no surprise, then, that fully half of the dates are rejected. The wonder is, surely, that the remaining half come to be accepted.”

          (Lee, R. E.,
          Radiocarbon, “Ages in Error”, Anthropological Journal of Canada, 1981, vol. 19, No. 3, p. 9)” (Ham, Snelling, & Wieland)


          1. Can you kindly provide me with a copy of the R.E. Lee article cited, “Radiocarbon ages in error”? Presumably you have access to it and have checked the sources used by Ham et al for yourself and don’t just repeat on faith what you are told some scientist says. Don’t misunderstand. I do not doubt the quoted words are accurate enough (though I have been surprised before by the gall of some authors) but I very much would like to see the context.

          2. C14 is useful for dating carbon acquired from living things from the atmosphere. C14 in water varies from place to place depending on the source of the water as underground springs will have a lot of dissolved calcium carbonate from long, long ago. So dating clams, snails, and seals that feed on aquatic food would show either incompetence or malevolence.

            Living snails were carbon-14 dated at 2,300 and 27,000 years old, showing that the dating method is invalid.

            It reminds me of Steve Austin planned and raised money to collected inclusions in lava flows in the Grand Canyon after reading that when lava erupts, it will contains rocks of the layers it travels through, and that one should not date the inclusions for the date of the eruption in using radioisotopes from dating rocks. So when Austin was showing the inconsistent dates for the lava flows they were taken from but were consistent with the ages of the layers the later lava flows passed through.

            A Criticism of the ICR’s Grand Canyon Dating Project

            That’s why you should never, ever trust a creationist.

    1. Well well, look how it concludes:

      Second, regarding attitude, I find it disturbing that many conservatives have been so uncritically eager to accept the O’Callaghan hypothesis. 7Q5 does not, as one conservative put it, mean “that seven tons of German scholarship may now be consigned to the flames.” On the other hand, I find it equally disturbing that many liberal scholars have uncritically rejected O’Callaghan’s proposal without even examining the evidence. Higher criticism must of course have a say in this discussion; but it must not preclude discussion. Both attitudes, in their most extreme forms, betray an arrogance, an unwillingness to learn, a fear of truth while clinging to tradition, a fortress mentality—none of which is in the spirit of genuine biblical scholarship. When the next sensational archaeological find is made, should not conservatives and liberals alike ask the question: Will we fairly examine the evidence, or will we hold the party line at all costs?

      Is Dan Wallace actually suggesting that historical Jesus scholars have a problem accepting new evidence critically if it appears to challenge their presumptions??? But that’s how Dr James McGrath said “mythicists” would respond, not historical Jesus scholars! I’m confused.

      What would be at stake for most historical Jesus scholars? They would have to all turn around and praise Maurice Casey and James Crossley for being right all along for dating the initial composition of the Gospel of Mark to the late 30’s!!!!!

      Why all the furor? What is at stake? A number of things: (1) If this identification is correct, it would be the earliest NT MS by some 50-100 years;8 (2) on paleographical grounds, since the upper limit of its date is 50 CE, this would put Mark in the 40’s at the latest

      Now if I were a mythicist and not an HJ scholar, I would think this would establish the case for mythicism, actually. It would mean that we have a narrative that his highly mythologized about an event supposedly only a fingerful of years earlier. The story could not be a historical memory or a historical report because it tells us that the disciples simply did not believe all the things that the narrator says about Jesus. This is not a case of another Alexander the Great who encouraged his followers to believe he was divine. Quite the opposite. So the story is clearly a fiction and not only fiction, but all that scholarship that demonstrates parabolic functions to its parts must be vindicated since they explain the reason the story was created.

      Otherwise the historical Jesus view has to explain how within 5 years of Jesus death those who did not believe in Jesus came to believe he was Christ and walked on water etc.

      Remember the Hopi.

      But of course there is always the “possibility” that Jesus really did appear to his disciples in Galilee later and showed them his miraculous resurrection and made them believe everything that was written down by Mark. But I don’t know if Crossley and Casey would like that conclusion, either.

      1. Neil, dating gMark early – as early as James Crossley is suggestion, late 30’s, is only of consequence if any ahistoricists/mythicists are putting all their eggs in a Pauline basket. Dating gMark early has nothing to contribute in the historicist/ahistoricst debate. An early date does not provide evidence for historicity or evidence against it. All it does is suggest that the Jesus story was available, in written form, at that time. Yes, perhaps a hard pill to swallow for some ahistoricist/mythicists – but hey – are not the historicists getting flack for, seemingly, wanting to toe their party line? The ahistoricist/mythicists, of all people, should not be seen to be having a “fortress mentality”.

        1. A naive question: what is “gMark” as opposed to “Mark”? Is there a “kMark” too?
          Why burden your prose with the cumbersome “ahistoricists/mythicists” expression instead of the simpler “mythicists”?

          1. On the Marcion blog post, Neil provided this explanation of gMark:

            “G = Gospel, so gLuke or GLuke = Gospel of Luke, GMark = Gospel of Mark, etc. It’s a handy one to use if it is thought a good idea to avoid confusion over whether one is talking about the presumed author or the Gospel itself that is known by that author’s name.”

            Regarding the use of ahistoricists/mythicists. The two terms are not interchangable. One can be an ahistoricists without being a mythicist. All the ahistoricist position maintains is that the gospel JC figure is not historical. A mythicist position endeavours to explain the gospel JC figure – a position open to various interpretations.

    2. Nice summary: “A scrap of papyrus smaller than a man’s thumb with only one unambiguous word–kai [meaning, and].”

      One word: “And.” Of course, it has to be Mark!

      Thiede should have chosen a career as a sitcom writer.

  5. @mcduff: Second, regarding attitude, I find it disturbing that many conservatives have been so uncritically eager to accept the O’Callaghan hypothesis. 7Q5 does not, as one conservative put it, mean “that seven tons of German scholarship may now be consigned to the flames.” On the other hand, I find it equally disturbing that many liberal scholars have uncritically rejected O’Callaghan’s proposal without even examining the evidence.

    Yes, I don’t like that “consigning to the flames” bit at all. And just rejecting O’Callaghan’s claim?

    Well if it turns out that gMark was originally writed BEFORE 26 CE, then ALL scholarship on the historical Jesus and the combined mythical-historical Jesus has been a 2,000-year waste of time. But we shouldn’t burn it. Where will future scholars get their laughs?

  6. Secular critics make the very same mistake as the Fundamentalists, however different the conclusions derived therefrom: the writings to the NT constitute our primary if not our sole source for knowledge of the man Jesus.
    Present historical methods and knowledge recognizes that none of the Jewish scriptures, the OT, is prophetic witness to Jesus, but also that none of the writings of the NT, the writings of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT are apostolic witness to Jesus as the early church mistook them to be. Thus they are not reliable sources for knowledge of Jesus. It further recognizes that Christianity which is based on the writings of the NT is not a reliable source for knowledge of Jesus. The real argument is: What is the real NT Scriprural source for knowledge of the man Jesus. We all need to at least get straight on what the question of the HJ is about.

  7. Oldest Manuscript has only 43% of today’ version. i.e., roughly two third are not matching.

    The so called oldest manuscript must be filmed and true version must be brought to Net at the earliest.

    The Variations between the so called early manuscripts must be brought to light immediately and see how a Jewish Fighter against Occupying Romans was man a God

  8. And “Reclaiming the Mind” is a Calvinist blog. And that guy used to overload my email with spam trying to sell me crap. I know Calvinists are all totally depraved liars…and I know this one in particular is a huxter because he’s trying to sell me snake oil in my email. So I know that he doesn’t really have a 1st century manuscript of Mark or any manuscript at all.

  9. “Earl Doherty has steadfastly maintained that the Gospel of Mark must be dated squarely within the first century.”

    With all due respect to my friend Earl, there simply is no scientific evidence at all for the existence of the canonical Mark as we have it in the first century. All the evidence points to the emergence of the canonical gospels as we have them at the end of the second century. In my review of Earl’s book, I comment on this uncharacteristically uncritical view regarding the gospel dates:


    In “The Pre-Nicene New Testament,” my colleague Robert Price has also discussed the middle to late second century as when the gospels appear in the historical record, and he endorses the view that Marcion’s New Testament published around 150 AD/CE was first and was utilized by the writer of Luke. This was also the view I took in my first book and have continued to demonstrate for the past 10+ in other books and in articles. See my review of Bob’s book here:


    For more information about the late dating of the gospels, see my article here:


    Also be sure to read my critical analysis of this Markan fragment, including images of the alleged papyrus:



    D.M. Murdock/Acharya S

    1. Whether it’s been by nature or design I think Earl has been wise to be as cautious and conservative on many areas of biblical scholarship as he has been. His views can stand quite apart from the dating of Mark and other gospels or the historicity of Paul, Q, etc. I can’t imagine his work gaining the attention it did if he appeared to be off the planet with respect to the whole she-bang.

      I can see others building on his work over time and that’s where we may find room for additional refinements.

      I recently posted on The Scientific Dating of the Gospels and I do think working through that method leads to a good case for a mid second century date for the Gospels.

  10. Well, what credible evidence exists that demonstrates that any of the gospels are from the first century? I’ve been doing this for many years and the claims that the gospels were written in the first century is based on a house of cards. In all my years I’ve seen nothing to make that case. It’s time to stop propping up such non-sense. A mid to late second century gospel creation makes far more sense as it fits the historical and literary records.

    1. Submitted on 2013/01/07 at 6:15 am | In reply to Mike.

      What difference does it make to a blinded atheist? Right! Even a blind hog can find an acorn now and then!


      Submitted on 2013/01/07 at 6:19 am | In reply to reyjacobs.

      Calvanists are all depraved liars? And you’re not biased or prejudiced. Even an unmitigated, brainwashed, electronically mindcontrolled atheist would blush at this.


      Submitted on 2013/01/07 at 6:33 am | In reply to D.M. Murdock.

      Perhaps you’ve found your calling as a critic. Now please go to Saudi Arabia and do your thing with the glorious Koran; the sana’a and other Yemeni manuscripts await your critical eye and steel trap intellect. We await your first first paper after you present it at the Kaaba during Ramadan. The balls in your hands so dribble.

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