In light of the renewed hubbub about a supposed first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark, I’ll offer some comments about why people get all excited (or exasperated) about the matter and other such incidents.
For any text of antiquity, scholars prize early copies, the earlier the better. In the transmission process (hand-copying) every copy to be made presented the possibility of accidental or deliberate changes (variants) being introduced. So, in principle, the closer we can get to the origin of the text, the fewer such opportunities we have to consider, and the closer we might get to the text as it originated.
To take a well-known example, until the Qumran find, the oldest copy of the Hebrew scriptures we had was from the 10th century AD. In the Qumran manuscripts, however, scholars found copies of writings of the Hebrew scriptures that were dated (palaeographically) to the 1st century BC, i.e., some…
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