Saturday, February 24, 2018

Gary Habermas on First-Century Mark

Yes, it seems that about every three months or so First-Century Mark reappears. I hate to keep adding fuel to the fire, but there is some value to keeping a record of these things.

This latest mention of the fragment came to me in my Twitter feed via Sean McDowell who posted this summary from Facebook about a talk Gary Habermas gave this week at Purdue University. (For those counting, we are now two social media platforms and two people away from the source.) The post is from Clark Bates who says, 
Gary Habermas spoke at Purdue University last night. During the talk he stated that he has permission to announce that the Mark fragment has been dated between 80–110 AD. He also said that this is all he or CSNTM will say about the matter so no more questions regarding it will be entertained.

As a side note, there will eventually be a lengthier critical analysis of the fragment but we in the apologetics community need to be cautious with how we handle this data. If the dating is accurate, this will become the oldest NT fragment in existence. However, paleography can’t really get a date accurately within about 100 years so there is always room for later dating.

Point being, no matter what the results, this fragment will go into the already immense amount of evidence for the New Testament and it’s early production and dissemination. Good information to have but not a nail in the coffin so to speak.

Blessings to you all!
I did a quick search and found the video of Habermas at Purdue. You can view it below (starting at the 22:10 mark) with my transcript below that. The main problem with Habermas’s claim is now old news to ETC readers and it is the specificity of the date. I don’t know how you date a papyrus to a thirty-year period like 80–110 A.D., especially if it is based on paleography (see the recent posts here by Malik and Orsini). Also, I didn’t hear Habermas mention CSNTM, so maybe that was a deduction by Bates. Unless I just missed it in the video. In any case, I appreciate his word of caution to fellow apologists.

Habermas mentions a paleographer who is not a Christian, a description we heard already in Dan Wallace’s original debate announcement. We have since identified this paleographer as Dirk Obbink of Oxford. What seems possibly new is that Habermas says he asked permission to share this and was told he could. But when did he ask and who granted such permission? He doesn’t say. There are further odd things said about provenance, but Habermas seems a bit fuzzy on that.

What I find curious at this stage in the First-Century Mark saga is how information about it keeps coming out in the context of Evangelical apologetics. I’m not sure what to make of that in terms of who owns this papyrus, but it is a consistent thread and I suspect one that will make more sense once we know for sure who the owner is.


Transcript (from 22:10)

But before I do that [make my preferred argument for the resurrection], let me just make one other point. Some of you may have heard about a fragment in Mark that’s been floating around. I see a few of you shake your head yes. We’ve been waiting for this for a long time. The dating on this hasn’t come out, there’s reasons the dating hasn’t come out. I won’t explain that; it’s a legal thing having to do with the provenance of the papyrus.

The previous earliest copy of a gospel book we have is the Rylands fragment of John at about 125. It’s very, very valuable because remember early is a key historical sign. Rylands only dates from about 25 or 30 years after the Gospel of John.

I dialogued with a guy—true story—I dialogued with a guy years ago who’s a classical theo—a classical scholar and he put the Gospels from 140–180 AD. Apparently, nobody told him that when he put John at 170 AD that we have a piece of John from fifty years earlier. That didn’t seem to bother him. [laughter]

Okay, so there’s been a piece of Mark that we’ve been concerned about for a long time. We hadn’t come out with dates for legal reasons that could land you—there’s a question about where this thing came from–not the provenance of it, not if it’s—it’s a good piece of papyri. But you got to be careful where you pick things up or you could be in jail because you have to register it with Middle Eastern antiquities authorities or they wonder what you stole that from.

Okay, but one paleographer—I don’t even think he’s a Christian—but you have to be very specialized to be able to date ancient writing by handwriting analysis, by the type of handwriting. And the date was just given. And I asked permission, “Could this be given?” I was told it could be. And the date of this little papyrus for Mark is 80–110 AD. It is earlier than Rylands for John.

So, if the fragment for Mark is about the time of John or earlier, now critics are saying, “We’re going to have to move the Gospel of Mark back before the year 50 AD.” What’s that do to early [...] witness? Plus, there are two agnostics, one of them just passed away before [...], but two agnostic scholars, neither one Christian, and they have recently—without reference to the fragment—have both dated Mark, one at 40 AD, one at 38–42 AD. This is good stuff.

But I don’t think it’s the best argument for the historicity of Jesus.

From this point on I’m going to use the second argument that some of you may know I call the minimal facts argument, I sometimes call the lowest common denominator. 


  1. I'm afraid the 1st Cent. Mark fragment is becoming to Evangelicals akin to UFO sightings. People swear that others have sighted it, but nobody vouches about it personally. (And the funny thing is that I still secretly hope it will someday appear for all of us to behold.)


    1. I don't know anyone who has claimed (at least to me) to have seen the first-century Mark, but I do happen to know a few people who claim to have seen UFO themselves. No abductees as yet, though.

    2. I talked with someone quite recently who claimed to have seen it. (Although I don't think he actually verified that it really was Mark.)

    3. Ask the Greens or mr Carroll to PUBLISH the thing now! A Brill 2013 volume was promised by Dan Wallace....

  2. Peter, I would agree with you that it is quite impossible, by paleographical means, to date a papyrus within a thirty-year period. I think I heard someone else offer this date-range (80-110), and perhaps Habermas is getting his information from that source. And CSNTM has nothing to do with this fragment.

    1. PG,
      In reference o a narrow date; Orsini in the comments to PM’s recent post dated P4+64+67 to 175-200, a really narrow date range like the one expressed above. Orsini also stated, that this was intended to convey the final part of the II century. Isn’t it possible that the 80-110 date range could also be intended to convey something similar?

      Of course, all of this remains moot until this mysterious papyrus is made available😎


    2. +Daniel B. Wallace
      Is the fragment that Habermas is talking about different than the 1st century mark fragment you mentioned in your 2012 debate with Bart?

      If so do you have any updates on the 1st century Mark fragment you were referencing?

      Also, do you know anything about the fragment Habermas is talking about?

    3. Dan, but is Habermas not possibly implicating Obbink in the date range offered?
      The longer we wait for this papyri to be published the more embarrassing it becomes for those who decided to make bold claims during apologetics debated.
      Evangelical scholarship is getting a bad name in the process

  3. Alan Bunning2/25/2018 2:19 am

    As I posted on the New Testament Textual Criticism Facebook group, I did not think that the dating was particularly interesting news since I have heard numbers like that thrown out before. What I thought was the interesting news here was the legal questions surrounding it.

  4. There is a way that this fragment could have a narrower date assigned to it on palaeographical grounds, and that is if the fragment has been copied in a documentary hand. When a MS is copied in a bilinear bookhand then palaeographicaly assigned dates are 100 years or more. However, if the fragment was copied in a unique style of cursive documentary hand, then perhaps a narrower range is possible. Just a thought.

    1. I'm really not sure about this suggestion, Tim.

  5. Is this the manuscript found inside of an Egyptian death mask around 2012-13? I remember discussing something like this with a seminary professor who was torn (himself being an archaeologist) about what to do with the paper mache death masks which we dig up that could offer great insight into what is considered "garbage" and therefore ample material for making these masks.

    Maybe I am confusing historical notes, but I do remember a fragment being discussed, but it also came inside of a greater discussion on how to handle items which must be destroyed.

    1. I'm fairly certain that no first-century Mark fragment has ever been found in a mummy mask. There were claims of a first-century Mark manuscript. And there were claims of manuscripts found in mummy masks. I think enough people just assumed that the two were the same and it stuck.

    2. It seems pretty clear that Craig Evans claimed exactly that: Gospel according to Mark, found in mummy mask, dated "before the year 90" (Live Science, January 18, 2015).

    3. Thanks Brent. I had forgotten about this article.

      "Evans said that the only reason he can talk about the first-century gospel before it is published is because a member of the team leaked some of the information in 2012. Evans was careful to say that he is not telling Live Science anything about the first-century gospel that hasn't already been leaked online."

      I will correct what I said: I think Josh McDowell claimed that they are the same, but I am hesitant to believe him. Evans seems only to be repeating what others have said. I haven't found anyone yet who attended the "Day of Discovery" events who could confirm that the fragments brought out and claimed to be from the masks were actually taken from the masks. Nobody I've spoken to saw where the fragments came from. They saw the masks destroyed, then later, people brought out papyrus. Seems a bit to me like "I'm going to do a magic trick. Ok, now close your eyes...." I never attended one of those events myself, but I've had several friends who did (and even friends who worked at them), and from their descriptions, it sounds like the papyri that the attendees looked at were 'prepared' beforehand. One friend described the 'recovered' papyri as "mysteriously perfectly dry and flat already". That makes me question whether they actually did come from mummy masks, or if the destruction of the masks was just part of the show.

  6. Fortunately for evangelicals, Karin King’s and Harvard’s Jesus’ Wife fragment is slightly more embarrassing while at yhe same time Harvard Divinity School keeps on being rewarded as the no 1 theological institution in the world!?

  7. Well - now we know - the Mark fragment is not first century; and despite Habermus's claim of "permission", apparently the paleographer had shed doubt on this first century claim early on:

  8. There seems to be something strange going on with this whole situation

  9. Yes this is interesting. Do any of these new manuscripts contradict the old ones?

  10. When asked for evidence to support the foundational claim of Christianity—the bodily resurrection of Jesus—conservative Christian apologists will frequently point to The Twelve Minimal Facts Argument formulated by evangelical Christian theologian Gary Habermas. Are these “facts” convincing? I don’t think so, but maybe I’m biased.

    Let’s use the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) to see if these facts really are strong evidence for a bodily resurrection, or, do only Christians find these facts convincing simply because these facts are about the founder of their religion. What will happen if we substitute the name of the founder of a different world religion in the place of Jesus’ name in these “facts”? Let’s see how many Christians will find these “facts” convincing for the supernatural claim of a bodily resurrection when the facts involve some other religion’s founder. We could substitute “Mohammad” or “Joseph Smith” for this exercise but let’s use the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as, the Buddha.

    1. The Buddha died by crucifixion.
    2. The Buddha was buried.
    3. The Buddha’s death caused his disciples to despair and lose hope.
    4. The Buddha’s tomb was found empty.
    5. The Buddha’s disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Buddha.
    6. The Buddha’s disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers.
    7. The resurrection of the Buddha was the central message of this new religious belief system.
    8. The disciples of the Buddha preached the message of the Buddha’s resurrection in the largest city in India.
    9. Buddhism was born and grew.
    10. Devout Vedics (the dominant religion in India at that time) changed their primary day of worship.
    11. The brother of the Buddha converted to Buddhism when he saw the resurrected Buddha (The brother was a family skeptic).
    12. A Jewish scribe and elder converted to Buddhism. (He was an outsider skeptic).

    Dear Christian: Would these facts convince you that a man living in India thousands of years ago really did come back from the dead? I doubt it. So why do you believe the same weak claims about Jesus of Nazareth??

    Abandon ancient superstitions. Embrace reason and science!