Mark Was Composed Long Before A.D. 70

by Michael Bumbulis, 1997


In the past, I have argued that the best evidence to date points to a pre-70 date for the synoptic Gospels. In making this argument, I drew primarily from the internal evidence that is present within Acts. Now, I would like to offer independent evidence that corroborates such an early date for the synoptics. Such evidence comes from the field of papyrology which is the study of ancient manuscript evidence on papyrus. Papyrologists study the contents and writing styles of ancient manuscripts, including fragments that might be no larger that the size of a typical commemorative postage stamp. While such a study is not an exact science, papyrology is akin to a specialized field in archaeology. It is one of the primary methods by which an unknown manuscript fragment is identified and dated. For example, papyrology was used to date the Johannine codex P66 to ca. 125 A.D. [1] Papyrology has also been extensively used to date the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the dates arrived at have been largely supported by radio-carbon dating [2]. In 1972, Spanish papyrologist Jose O'Callaghan (who is also editor of the Palau-Ribes papyrus collection) made an identification of the small manuscript fragment that shocked the academic world. The fragment in question is called 7Q5 and was found in Cave 7 among the Qumran caves. Cave 7 is very interesting in that the manuscripts found in this cave are all written exclusively in Greek. Furthermore, archaeological evidence exists so that there is a consensus among scholars that this cave was closed in A.D. 68. [3] Thus, anything found in this cave would unlikely to be dated later than this time. Yet in the case of 7Q5, a date of A.D. 68 would represent an upper-limit, as the text is written in the Herodian "decorated" script which dates between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50. But what manuscript is represented by 7Q5? At first glance, making an identification is no simple task. This fragment contains only 20 Greek consonants (whole or damaged) on five lines. The fragment itself is also very small, about 4 cm. X 3 cm. Furthermore, only one complete word can be read - the word kai (which means "and"). While these facts might seem to suggest that any attempt to identify this fragment is futile, it is not uncommon for papyrologists to identify fragments (from Virgil, for example) with evidence of this type. To see how this works, consider a simplified example. Let's say I wrote the following sentences on a piece of paper, copied it several times, and then deposited one copy in a cave. The Original: The boy ran to the store. When he got to the store, he found that it was closed. Then he ran home. Now, let's imagine a few hundred years go by such that some of the writing flakes off the paper. As a result, my sentences now look like this: After Time: b the a lose en m Let's further imagine that someone in the future discovers this flawed fragment and wants to identify it. If they possess copies of my original sentence that have been passed on through the years, the task would not be hard. They might start with the four letters that spell 'lose' and search a database that contains, among many other writings, a copy of my original sentence. Of course, the database-search would also detect all writings with the letters l,o,s,e in sequence in addition to my original sentence. The next step would be to start measuring the distance between letters and find which of these selected writings also has an "a" a specific distance before "lose" and an "en" a specific distance after "lose." My original sentence would probably be the only one detected and the identity of the fragment would be discovered. One could verify this claim by making more distance measurements and considering the line-placement of all the other letters. If they all "fit," a conclusive identification has been made. Then, one could draw upon archaeological considerations (concerning the place where the fragment was found) and a comparative analysis of writing styles of various documents to arrive at a date for this fragment. Again, papyrology is not an exact science (especially when it comes to dating), nevertheless, it reminds me of a common method employed by molecular biologists. Molecular biologists often work with gene fragments and the genes are represented as a linear sequence of molecules known as nucleotides (which are represented by the letters G, T, A, and C). A partial sequence of an unknown gene can be used to search a database of other genes and the same logic employed by papyrologists is used to determine if the unknown gene belongs to a class of known genes from other organisms. Put simply, a molecular biologist will tend to have great sympathy for the approach of the papyrologist. When this approach was applied to 7Q5, a revolutionary finding was uncovered. One of the five lines contains a rare combination of letters: n/n/e/s.[4] When this combination was used, along with the other known letters and their spacing and line-placement, to search an extensive database of Greek literature (including the Septuagint), the only good match was found from Mark 6:52-53 (where the n/n/e/s would correspond to Gennesaret)! The match was further strengthened by the larger than usual space that occurs before the only complete word on 7Q5, kai (translated as "and"). Such spaces were often used by ancient scribes to indicate a new "paragraph" or break in the narrative, and sure enough, Mark 6:53 begins with "And." Furthermore, 7Q5 also preserves the last letter of the last word before this space, an eta. Mark 6:52 ends with this same letter. As if this wasn't enough, the Greek letter "n" was identified in line two following the letters "t/o". This matches nicely with the Greek word "auton" (meaning "their") in verse 52 [5]. Given the revolutionary nature of this identification, it is not surprising that many New Testament scholars have raised objections and very few have agreed with the identification.. However, papyrologist Carsten Theide has marshalled some very powerful replies to these objections[6]. Since it is beyond the scope of this article to get bogged down in the details of this technical debate*, I will simply point out that the list of papyrologists who agree with the identification of 7Q5 as Mark 6:52-53 is growing. Apart from Thiede, who has championed this identification, the list includes Sergio Davis, honorary president of the International Papyrologist's Association and Orsolina Montevechhi, author of the standard introductory manual to papyrology[7]. Furthermore, Shemaryahu Talmon, one of the Jewish members of the editorial board of the Qumran scrolls also supports this identification.[8] All of this means that we do indeed possess independent evidence that corroborates a pre-60s date for the synoptic Gospels as indicated by my earlier analysis of Acts. This is significant as it clearly shows the belief in Jesus' resurrection cannot date after A.D. 60-65 and thus dates to a time when most of Jesus' contemporaries were still alive. In fact, since it is unlikely that the authors of Mark, Matthew, and Luke invented the resurrection claims, but instead were more likely to have incorporated older oral traditions into their Gospels, the resurrection belief is pushed back much earlier Any skeptical theory that depends on a late date for the resurrection belief is thus severely damaged. *I am willing to debate the technical details with those who deny 7Q5 is a fragment from Mark.



The Oldest New Testament Manuscripts

Until recently the oldest New Testament Manuscript was a fragment of John's Gospel found in the Fayyum in Egypt and preserved in the Rylands Library in Manchester. However, new discoveries have produced even earlier manuscript fragments.

The Magdalen Fragment

This is three fragments of the Gospel of Matthew which was found in Egypt in the last century. It was recently examined by a paleographer and dated at 65 AD 15 years. This means that it is probably from before 70 AD. There are several other fragments known to be similar to this one, so it is possible that other, even earlier, manuscripts will be found in the world's museums or libraries. It is the oldest fragment in the world to mention the name of Jesus.


This is one of a set of fragments of New Testament documents found in Cave Seven of the Dead Sea Scrolls caves. It only contains a few letters, but a search of known ancient documents shows that it can only credibly be identified as coming from Mark 652-53. As the Dead Sea finds were buried during 68 AD as the Romans occupied the area in the Jewish War, it is clear that the fragments are from before this time. Paleographical analysis (comparison of the style of writing with other documents) suggests that the document was written no later than 50 AD. Various fragments of other New Testament books were found in the same cave; the set had been kept together in the same jar, fragments of which were also found. Together there were nine fragments representing six different books of the New Testament (Mark, Acts, Romans, 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, James).

These manuscript finds confirm something that was worked out by Bible scholars in the 1970s: the whole of the Bible must have been completed before 70 AD. This means that the events it describes were written in the lifetimes of the people who took part in them. Some of the people who saw Jesus preach were among those who read the first gospels. This means that there is little scope for errors of fact or outright invention to have worked their way into the gospels.



This is a story of the identification of some papyrus fragments dating from the time of Jesus to some of the New Testament books themselves! The article is written by a layman, not a papyrus expert. However, sometimes the obvious is overlooked by the educated and observed by the simple. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself once said, 'Let him hear who has ears to hear.'

In their controversial 1978 book The First New Testament,, (Nashville, TN.:Thomas Nelson, Inc.) Professor David Estrada and linguist William White, Jr., have described in a popular format the evidence to believe that papyrus manuscripts found in Cave 7 at Qumran include several New Testament manuscripts. Their thesis is controversial because long before the identification was attempted, scholars agreed that the script on them was written between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50! Therefore, if they contain New Testament texts either the scholarly community has been seriously wrong in its dating, or the New Testament was begun to be written not long after the time that Jesus of Nazareth died. Obviously, contemporary documents deserve much greater credence than documents written generations after the events they describe because eyewitnesses can refute them if in error or substantiate them if accurate.

The most important of these papyrus fragments had Greek letters equivalent to the following English ones, in all probability:


The identification of some of these letters is disputed by scholars, but the disagreements are not as great as might be expected. Practically all of the letters were identified long before the suggested identification of the document was made. If the Greek words with which these letters have been identified were translated into English, and a similar fragmentary record remained only of the English words, the fragment might appear as follows:


Estrada and White have reconstructed in English what the Greek words of the papyrus might be, and have shown which portions of the words would remain if the text had been in English:


This is fragment 5 and appears to be a part of Mark 6:52, 53. The first person to identify this fragment with that passage was a Jesuit scholar at the University of Barcelona, Father Jose O'Callaghan. Father O'Callaghan was a well respected scholar of Greek papyrus documents, and the story of his identification of 7Q5 is remarkable.

O'Callaghan one day in 1971 was routinely reading books about the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered about 1947-48. He noticed one set of unidentified papyrus documents with Greek letters and, among them, was 7Q5. He saw that the combination with double letter 'NNES' on the next to the last line seemed the sort of combination which could be identified. What Greek words have a double N followed by ES? It had been suggested by earlier scholars that the word originally had been EGENNESEN, which means to beget. However, O'Callaghan could find no known Greek texts (or translations of Hebrew texts into Greek) with the word EGENNESEN and other words surrounding it which would fit into the context of fragment 5 from Cave 7.

Some days later, as O'Callaghan himself tells it, as he relaxed after a busy day, his mind ranged over the day's activities and he thought again of the tiny fragment. Suddenly, as if from heaven itself, he thought of the word GENNESARET which had the same letter combination as EGENNESEN. As soon as he thought of the word, however, he realized that such a word could not occur in this fragment since it is a place name found in the New Testament, not the Old Testament. However, on a hunch he began to search the New Testament occurences of the word GENNESARET.

Lo, and behold, O'Callaghan discovered that the word GENNESARET in fact occurred in a place in the Gospel of Mark where the surrounding letters in the fragment from Qumran would fit! This seemed like an extraordinary coincidence, since the mathematical likelihood that 15 or 20 letters and spaces in a set order would occur at more than one place in classical Greek literature was extremely remote.

The only way to be sure that the identification was correct would be to look at the other fragments in Cave 7. What if others could also be identified as New Testament fragments? Although this seemed even more remote than identifying fragment 5, O'Callaghan set out as any good scholar to examine the remote possibility. After all, there was no one who could suggest any alternative identification.

In February, 1972, O'Callaghan anounced his identification at a public talk given in Barcelona. Soon thereafter he began work at the Pontifical Institute at Vatican City in Rome, and there he worked with Carlo M. Martini, Rector of that Institute and one of the top half-dozen text critics in the world. After many hours of discussion and critical challenge, Martini himself was convinced that 7Q5 in fact represents a fragment from the Gospel of Mark.

O'Callaghan soon was able to marshall compelling scholarly arguments that 2 or 3 of the other fragments were from New Testament documents, and that another half dozen might be from other New Testament books! One was from I Timothy 3 and 4, one was from James 1, and others possible from Acts, Romans, and II Peter! The scholarly world fell into an uproar. This 'discovery', if it might be called that, would be revolutionary to the dating of the New Testament documents. It would have the effect of establishing a date of origin generations before scholars were willing to admit that the books had been written.

It is important to note that of all the many documents found in the Qumran region of the Dead Sea, the Cave 7 documents included writing in the Greek language. Documents in most of the caves are in a script of Hebrew. Further, of all the ancient Greek texts which have been preserved through the ages, no scholar has been able to identify any ancient Greek text with any other passage which could fit into the letters of fragment 5 in cave 7.

Establishment scholars, by and large, continue to be skeptical of the identification of fragment 5 with the Gospel of Mark. However, it was the scholarly community which taught for many years that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch because, so they said, writing had not yet been invented in his day. We know now that long before Moses lived there was writing in Egypt and other places around the world.

Scholars long disputed that characters in the Bible, like Pontius Pilate, were true historical figures. However, when an ancient stone monument was found in 1961 with the name Pontius Pilate engraved upon it, the doubts as to his existence quickly were forgotten

Here is an experiment you can perform to convince yourself that the identification is correct, and, therefore, that papyrus fragment 7Q5 probably is from a copy of the Gospel of Mark written shortly after the Lord Jesus Christ died. Open any Bible at random. Put your finger on one letter or space. Then write it down on a piece of paper. Copy the letters or spaces to the left and right, so now three letters or spaces are written. (For purposes of this exercise, ignore periods and commas since ancient Greek had no such punctuation.)

Follow the same procedure for the letters or spaces above and below the first letter, so the combination is in the shape of a cross. Then copy the four other letters to the right and left of the upper and lower character. When you are finished, you should have nine space/letters written on the paper.

Now, here is the tell-tale part. Open your Bible elsewhere and look for the same nine letter/space combination! Before you find it, you will be convinced that fragment 7Q5 from Qumran is part of the gospel of Mark. The odds of finding the same combination of letters/spaces in any other ancient document are astronomical. If you think about it, you will realize that for the first letter there were 27 possibilities (26 letters or a space). For each of the others, there were the same 27 possibilities.

The way to determine the odds of a nine letter/space combination would be to multiply 27 by itself eight times! The product would be 1 in more than 7.5 trillion! Granted, some letter combinations are impossible, such as zcd or ywq in English. However, even eliminating the impossible letter combinations, the likelihood that fragment 7Q5 from Qumran is anything else but a New Testament document is extremely remote.

What does this mean? The meaning depends on the dating. However, as previously noted, long before anyone suspected the fragment was part of the New Testament, scholars who date documents from the form of the letters, the type of writing materials used, and similar things, had estimated that the latest this document was written was within 20 years after the death of Christ Jesus! Because of margins on some of the manuscripts, these seem to be only copies, too, not the originals. Therefore, they were already being circulated in duplicate form, at such an early date!