Cave Number 7 near Kirbet Qumran did not seem nearly so rewarding as some of the others. Other caves, such as Cave 1 and Cave 11, had yielded some quite lengthy fragments of biblical and extra-biblical writings. These fragments, making up the so-called "Dead Sea Scrolls," included a great deal of material from the Old Testament. Cave 1, as a prime example, had yielded an almost complete scroll of the book of Isaiah. Cave 7 (abbreviated 7Q by scholars), however, contained only papyrus fragments, most of which had no more than a few Greek letters on them. It was certainly not the most promising find. Yet now some of these scraps of decayed papyrus have made world headlines as possibly the oldest remains of the New Testament in existence!
Astonishing Identification Claimed
Jesuit scholar Jose O'Callaghan is the one responsible for the present excitement. His first official report in the journal Biblica suggested two identifications in Mark and one in James. This Spanish article entitled "New Testament Papyri in Qumran Cave?" ("¿,Papiros neotestamentarios en la cueva 7 de Qumran?," Biblica 53, 1972, pp. 91-100) began a series of articles. The fragments he had studied were found about 1955 in a cave on the northwest shores of the Dead Sea, an area at that time controlled by Jordan. They were published in volume III of Discoveries in the Judaean Desert in 1962 (Les 'petites grottes' de Qumran, edited by Baillet, Milik, and de Vaux). Two of the 19 fragments found in that cave were identified as portions of the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament into Greek. The other 17 were left unidentified by the editors of volume III, though listed as "Biblical texts?" — with a question mark. When Dr. O'Callaghan had occasion to study photos of the papyrus remains, however, the partial word -nnes- of fragment 5 (7Q5) caught his eye. It had been tentatively restored as egennesen ("he begat"), the editors thinking it was perhaps a portion of a genealogy. But this word sparked a different reaction in the papyrologist's mind. It reminded him of the familiar New Testament word "Gennesaret" or area near the Sea of Galilee. Taking this flash of inspiration, O'Callaghan soon found a passage which seemed to fit quite nicely — Mark 6:52-53. This was in December 1971. Since that time, he has presented quite a number of other identifications.
Such an amazing claim could not fail to raise eyebrows across the scholarly world. O'Callaghan himself presented his finding with some qualifications. But something so exciting as this could not help creating something of a hubbub, especially when it hit the news wires in popular (and often distorted) form. Perhaps one extreme might be represented by William White, Jr., who wrote on the subject for the conservative lay publication Eternity. While noting that there was some possibility of misidentification, Dr. White still concluded among other things that Mark was written down very near to the time of Jesus' ministry and that the "traditional view that the New Testament is a self-contained collection is vindicated." White's enthusiasm is not necessarily matched by other scholars, though. Such eminent men as Frank M. Cross, Jr., Dead Sea Scroll expert at Harvard, and New Testament scholar David Flusser of the Hebrew University have voiced their skepticism. William H. Brownlee, one of the first men to work with the Dead Sea Scrolls after their discovery in 1947, has expressed his misgivings as well, so far mostly in private. As others, he cited the extremely tenuous nature of any identification since the fragments contain only a few letters each, and a good portion of these are partially mutilated. For example, fragment 5 contains traces of 21 letters. But of these, only 9 are listed as visible beyond dispute. Fragment 6,1 (7Q6, I) has only two whole characters even though traces of eleven can be seen. In the three years since O'Callaghan's first article, quite a few other scholars have pointed out the tenuousness of the claim.
Such an amazing claim could not fail to raise eyebrows across the scholarly world. O'Callaghan himself presented his finding with some qualifications. But something so exciting as this could not help creating something of a hubbub.
Further Questions The identifications are based on an assumed length of lines determined from the general line length in the two Old Testament papyri from the same cave. The three suggested reconstructions published in O'Callaghan's first article seem to fit these reasonably well. But since no fragment covers the width of an entire column, it is impossible to know for sure how wide the columns actually were. Another problem is that two of the three restorations leave out phrases overwhelmingly supported by the textual evidence. For example, the restoration based on Mark 6:52-53 leaves out the phrase "upon the land." The one on James 1:23-24 leaves out "for himself." Although some small amount of manuscript evidence is cited as justification, it is so meager one could easily pass it off as negligible. There are also problems of dating, since fragment 5 could be as early as 50 B.C. Most scholars would find such an early Mark rather unusual! A final question which immediately comes to the mind of any Qumran scholar is this: How would New Testament material get into one of the Qumran caves, considering that the Qumran community was hostile to other Jews, much less Christians? One can always suggest possibilities. But really plausible explanations seem to take their time coming up.
What Could a Positive Identification Prove?
Debate on this issue is still in its initial stages and is not likely to die down for some time. On such a small amount of evidence, one can only talk of "possibilities" or at most "probabilities." Positive identification requires the rest of the manuscript, which has most probably long since decayed. But even if incontrovertible evidence proved a copy of the Gospel of Mark was written as early as A.D. 50, would that "prove the Bible" as some evangelical scholars seem to assume? Of course not. The value of the Bible does not lie in its age or proof of human authorship. The "proof" of the Bible does not lie in external evidence. It doesn't depend on bits of papyrus, moth-eaten parchment, or cryptic human scribblings. In the end, everything hinges on its message. It is that powerfully urgent message which challenges each new hearer even now, thousands of years after the last biblical writer died.