The announcement of the papyrus' discovery and impending publication was made by Craig Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Evans described the papyrus as a fragment of the Gospel of Mark.
He added that a combination of handwriting analysis (paleography) and carbon dating led him and his team of researchers to conclude that the fragment was written before 90 A.D. This would make it at least a decade older than other early fragments of the New Testament and, thus, an invaluable resource for biblical scholars and object of considerable interest for Christians the world over.
The fragment, according to Evans, was discovered when an Egyptian mummy mask -- known as cartonnage -- was dismantled in a hunt for ancient documents. Mummy masks were an important part of ancient Egyptian burial practice, but only the very wealthy could afford examples made of gold.
The majority of mummy masks were made from scraps of linen and papyrus, which were glued together into a kind of ancient papier-maché. Dismantling these masks yields a trove of ancient documents. Evans claims that in addition to Christian texts, hundreds of classical Greek texts, records of business transactions, and personal letters have been acquired. In the process, the mask itself is destroyed.
Though it may be making headlines now, the claim that the "oldest known gospel" has been discovered is not new.
News of the fragment first came to light in 2012 when its existence was (perhaps inadvertently) announced by Daniel Wallace, founder of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts at Dallas Theological Seminary.
No one saw the text then, and no one has seen it now; though it has been mentioned repeatedly by a select group of people who evidently have been given access to it, its planned date of publication has been consistently pushed back, from an original plan of 2013 to 2015 and now, just this week, all the way to 2017.
Despite the seemingly explosive quality of the news, therefore, it is important to take a step back and consider what is actually being revealed here.
Some people are saying they have this really old and important thing, and they will show it to all the rest of us in a few years. (Essentially, this papyrus is the scholarly equivalent of "my girlfriend who lives in Canada.")
It is unclear why anyone would start talking about a text like this, a year, indeed now at least two years, in advance. The most important established fact about this papyrus, at this point, is that it has not yet been published—which is to say, only a small handful of individuals have seen the text and are able to say anything at all about it.
As Roberta Mazza, an ancient historian and papyrologist from the University of Manchester in England, told us, the academic community has not "been given access to firm information and images on the basis of which could eventually say something."
In other words, this sort of notice really serves mostly to remind us of just how little we know about this purported discovery. Here, for example, are five key, unanswered questions.
1. What is the actual text on the papyrus?
We are told that it is from Mark, but, after all, no one has seen it. Which part of Mark?
2. Is the handwriting consistent with the supposed dating?
Brice Jones, a papyrologist at Concordia University, told us that dating a text by handwriting, or paleography, "is not a precise science, and I know of no papyrologist who would date a literary papryus to within a decade on the basis of paleography alone."
3. Is the ink or papyrus itself consistent with the supposed dating?
According to Jones, if paleography is inexact, "radiocarbon dating is equally (and perhaps more) problematic, since one must allow for a time gap of a century or more."
They say that these lab tests have all been done, but as no one has actually seen the reports, they are less than confirmatory.
4. Who owns the papyrus, or the mask from which it was taken, and from whom was it purchased, and when?
The time and place of a text's discovery, known as its provenance, are crucial for verifying its authenticity, especially in a period of extensive looting of archaeological sites and museum theft.
According to international law, if the mask was taken out of Egypt after 1970, it is officially "unprovenanced," and is effectively prohibited from being sold or published. Evans told us "I do not know the specifics" about the provenance of this mask.
5. Who has seen the text, who has verified it, and who has studied it?