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Oldest known gospel retrieved from mummy mask, researchers claim

A technique developed in recent years has allowed archaeologists to melt the glue and dismantle paper mummy masks without damaging the ancient ink lettering.

By Brooks Hays

WOLFVILLE, Nova Scotia, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- The mummy masks of ancient commoners are a treasure trove of classical and religious documents -- Christian scripture, Phoenician histories, Greek poetry.

While the rich and royal members of ancient Egyptian society were buried in mummy masks of flaked gold and other precious metals, common people were forced to construct theirs with recycled pieces of paper. Recently, archaeologists found what they believe to be the world's oldest piece of scripture in the mask of mummy from the first century.

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Researchers say the new scrap of spiritual papyrus is a portion of the the Gospel of Mark, the second chapter of the New Testament. The gospel scroll fragment dates to approximately 90 AD. Scientists were able to zero in on the paper's age by analyzing handwriting, comparing it to the other texts found in the mask, and (most convincingly) via carbon dating.

A technique developed in recent years has allowed archaeologists to melt the glue and dismantle paper mummy masks without damaging the ancient ink lettering.

But ancient scripture isn't all the scientists are finding.

"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," lead researcher Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, recently told Live Science.

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Some archaeologists and other scholars have argued that a fixation on recovering the so-called original scriptures has ignores the ethical dilemmas of such discoveries -- that is, destroying one artifact as a means to highlight another.

The work may "encourage more people to buy mummy masks on the antiquities market and dissolve them in Palmolive soap," Roberta Mazza, a classics professor at the University of Manchester, recently wrote on her blog.

The debate over the masks and documents they reveal remains very much shrouded in secrecy, as scientists working on this particular project were forced to sign confidentiality agreements. But the discussion is likely to become more transparent later this year; Evans says the documents (including the gospel) will be published soon.

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