The Gospel of Mark has been discovered written on a tiny fragment of ancient papyrus, found within a mummy mask. During the era when the mask was created, papyrus was expensive, and the religious text was reused to create the decorative wear for the mummy.
This discovery could represent the oldest gospel text ever found by archaeologists. The oldest samples of Christian scripture date from the Second Century of the Common Era.
Pharaohs and wealthy individuals were often adorned with mummy masks made of gold and precious materials. Masks for people from lower economic classes were often manufactured from papyrus, glue, and paint.
Researchers have recently developed a method of disassembling these masks without destroying text written on fragments of papyrus. Hundreds of fragments and accompanying text have been recovered using the new technique, and are being analyzed by a team of around three dozen researchers. Copies of texts of Homer, philosophical works and other fragments have been found in the specimens.
"We're recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries. Not just Christian documents, not just biblical documents, but classical Greek texts, business papers, various mundane papers, personal letters," Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia said.
Business records, personal records, and other scraps of writing often contain dates, allowing archaeologists the ability to determine ages of other fragments found alongside the letters. Researchers also utilize carbon-14 dating, as well as handwriting analysis, to help date the remnants. This sample is thought to date from before the year C.E. 90.
Archaeologists and other researchers are debating whether or not the new examination method should be carried out on additional artifacts, since the masks are destroyed during the process. Evans and his team believe the destruction is warranted, since the artifacts consumed are not museum-quality, and are often low quality funerary masks called cartonnage. The texts appear to be fairly common in such masks of the common people.
"From a single mask, it's not strange to recover a couple dozen or even more. We're going to end up with many hundreds of papyri when the work is done, if not thousands," Evans stated in a press release.
This early text was discovered a couple years ago, and researchers reached a non-disclosure pact, promising not to reveal details of the finding. Part of the reason for this is to protect the privacy of owners of the masks, who retain ownership after the fragments are separated. One person involved in the project leaked some information about the finding, and Evans stated he is not currently revealing anything which was not exposed in the 2012 revelations.