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Mummy Mask May Contain Oldest Known Gospel

Jan 21, 2015 01:58 PM EST

A mummy mask dating back to ancient Egypt may contain the oldest known gospel - a text from the Gospel of Mark that was written during the first century AD, before the year 90, according to archaeologists.

The oldest surviving copies of the gospel date back to the second century (the years 101 to 200), which would make this new find at least 10 years older, and potentially change the religious history books.

Written on a sheet of papyrus, the first-century gospel was later reused to create a mask worn by a mummy. Although you would expect a mummy mask to be made out of gold (like the one pictured above), this lux metal was only reserved for elite Egyptian pharaohs. Ordinary citizens had to settle for ones made out of papyrus, paint and glue. And given that papyrus was pricey, Egyptians would often reuse sheets with writing on them.

Now, a team of archaeologists at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia is taking apart mummy masks using a special technique, which removes the glue without compromising the ink on the paper. Though, some people have called this method into question as it ends up destroying these ancient masks.

So far, they have uncovered ancient philosophical texts that include copies of stories by Homer, a famous Greek poet.

"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, a professor of New Testament studies, told Live Science.

The novel method involves a combination of carbon-14 dating, which put the writing of this gospel to before the year 90. However, due to a nondisclosure agreement "to honor the request of the museums, universities, private owners, so forth," the researchers cannot reveal any more about the gospel find.

Regardless, Evans and his colleagues hope this mummy mask clues as to whether the Gospel of Mark changed over time.

"We have every reason to believe that the original writings and their earliest copies would have been in circulation for a hundred years in most cases - in some cases much longer, even 200 years," Evans said.

The researchers hope to have their results published in a peer-reviewed journal later this year.

In related news, scientists at the Institute of Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples are using new X-ray technology to decipher ancient scrolls, which, along with many Roman cities, were buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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