Earlier this year, the oldest known fragment of the Gospel of Mark was finally published, some 115 years since it was unearthed in a long-forgotten Egyptian rubbish dump in what was once the city of Oxyrhynchus. The small scrap of papyrus was discovered by two British archaeologists in about 1903, along with half a million other bits and pieces chucked out in ancient times, including receipts, private letters, shopping lists, tax returns, poems and pages from books. Scholars have been working ever since, for over a century, to identify and publish this mountain of ancient texts.
The fragment of Mark’s Gospel, known as Papyrus 137 (or P137), has something of a notorious modern history. In 2012, it became famous when a scholar sensationally claimed that Papyrus 137 had been written in the 1st century CE, which would have made it the earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament ever discovered. However, the claim was mistaken, and experts have now dated the writing of the papyrus to somewhere between 150 and 250 CE. This makes it the oldest known witness to Mark’s Gospel, which marks it as a very important find in itself.
Papyrus 137 is only 4 centimetres square, and has writing on both sides, which means that it was once part of a book, rather than a scroll. Both sides contain verses from Mark chapter 1, with no change to the text as we already know it from other ancient manuscripts. ‘The fact that the text presents us with no new variants is partially a reflection of the overall stability of the New Testament text over time,’ says a report from Christianity Today. The report continues:
It should be stated, however, that we have no shortage of New Testament manuscripts. There are about 5,300 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament of various sizes and dates. Such an “embarrassment of riches,” as they have been called, allows us to reconstruct the original text of the New Testament with a high degree of confidence. As exciting as they are, textually speaking, new manuscript discoveries tend to confirm or at most fine-tune our Greek New Testament editions.
The first side of Papyrus 137 has the following words from Mark 1:7-9 (in Bart Ehrman’s translation):
... of his sandals. I baptize you in water but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit. And it happened in those days…
The second side has this from Mark 1:16-18:
... in the sea, for they were fishers. And he said to them, come after me and I will make you fishers of people. And immediately, leaving their nets…
The Egypt Exploration Society, which has published Papyrus 137 alongside several other fragments, including papyri from Luke’s Gospel and St Paul’s Letter to Philemon, has made its article on the Mark fragment available online. The article includes a photograph of the papyrus, which we are not allowed to reproduce here.
Photo: Statue of a citizen of Oxyrhynchus by Paul Robert Lloyd under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0