In 1896, two young archaeologists, Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt, began to excavate the ancient garbage dump at Oxyrhynchus (modern Al-Bahnasa) in Egypt. Their task was not to dust off the columns of monuments, unearth pottery, or trace the layout of ruined building; but to look for papyri in ancient towns in a pile of refuse.
What might seem to be a rather demeaning task to Indiana Jones yielded one of the most significant and surprising finds in archaeological history: thousands of fragments of texts, including some of the oldest fragments of the New Testament and other early Christian writings. In fact, in the very first volume of Oxyrhynchus Papyri (1898), Grenfell and Hunt revealed the first fragment of a previously unknown collection of apocryphal sayings of Jesus (now known to be the Gospel of Thomas). Over the past century, scholars have been slowly combing through these fragments.
Yesterday, the Egyptian Exploration Society, the nonprofit organization that acts as curators of the Oxford-based Oxyrhynchus Society, announced a new discovery: a late second- or early third-century CE fragment of the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, just published in The Oxyrhynchus Papryi Volume 83 (2018), edited by distinguished Oxford academics Daniela Colomo and Dirk Obbink. In what must be the archetypical example of the expression “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” this pile of ancient refuse has produced one of the oldest fragments of the oldest Gospel story (Mark is believed by scholars to be the earliest Gospel.) This makes it a substantial and significant discovery for those interested in the history of Christianity, the evidence of the dating of the books of the Bible, and the history of book-making. But it also comes with a substantial mystery surrounding its origins, its dating, and its potential connection to the ubiquitous Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby and the founders of the Museum of the Bible.