Handling Ancient Artifacts

Handling Ancient Artifacts January 31, 2015

The handling of mummy masks by Josh McDowell, allegedly in the interest of getting his hands (literally) on a first-century copy of Mark and perhaps other New Testament texts, has been getting a lot of attention. Some – including me at one point – have missed exactly what he said as a result of not watching the video the entire way through. Thankfully, Beau Quilter has made a transcript of the relevant part of the video:

“Now, what you do, you take this mask … oh … [giggle] Scholars die when they hear, but we own ’em so you can do it. You take these manuscripts, we soak them in water. There is a process we use with huge microwaves to do it, but it’s not quite as good … we take … show it … we put it down into water … can you put it up here too? We put it down into water at a certain temperature, and you can only use Palm Olive soap, the rest will start to destroy the manuscripts … Palm Olive soap won’t. And you start massagin’ it for about 30, 40 minutes. You’ll pull it up, wring it out — literally wring it out! These are worth millions! And then you put it back in for about 30, 40 minutes. And then you pull it out, and this is what it’ll look like, just like a gob … next one … a gob … it looks like a cattle … uh … a cow’s head. But that’s all papyrus manuscripts, folks. Over 2000 years old.”

“And you start pulling it apart. Say what?! Yep. They’re layered on top of each other. You start pulling ’em apart … keep going .. see there? You put ’em right …”

“See most scholars have never touched a manuscript, you have to have gloves on and everything … [giggle] … We just wash ’em and hold ’em in our hands. We don’t even make you wash your hands before. See? This is a manuscript right there. See? A manuscript, by definition, is not an entire book; it’s a portion of the book. It could just be a little piece to … to … we have one now that’s 38 pages on Corinthians, probably greater discovery than the dead sea scrolls. And … uh … keep going here. This is all … now … see my hand up in the right hand, that’s a pair of tweezers … and you take those tweezers, and you start pulling the layers of manuscripts off.”

“I was so scared the first time I did it. It was last January … I mean I was … er, no, it was … little bit before then … I was so scared bec- … what if you tear it? And they say, well, you tear it. Since we own it, it’s OK.”

Here’s the video itself:

And here are Danny Zacharias and Craig Evans trying, I think, to be funny:


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  • “Since we own it, it’s okay”? Crass.

    From what I understand, mummy masks are not particularly rare and there’s more to be learned from the texts, Christian or otherwise, about our cultural and historical heritage than from the masks. That said, this giggly attitude is inappropriate, to say the least.

  • Jim

    Ok, maybe I ate a bowl of lemons for breakfast. I usually like funny Superbowl videos/commercial, but I didn’t find the Zacharias/Evans video funny at all. The spoof is partially directed at the notion that scholars involved in the FCM project are just mindlessly and carelessly destroying artifacts to get at NT fragments. However, Beau Quilter’s very timely transcript reveals why there is indeed concern.

    Rather than a spoof, it may have been better (and more professional imo) to release the actual protocol employed in obtaining FCM. Revealing this protocol shouldn’t violate any confidentiality aspects since the major confidentiality concerns would be focused on the actual fragments themselves. However, I don’t know the particulars of the specific NDA re this project, and which may involve the process as well?

    Unfortunately, the way things have evolved so far can give one the impression that the processing may have compromised the confidence in dating these fragments or other concerns like provenance of the artifact, etc. Any concerns that have arisen regarding the processing of the masks/fragments could easily be cleared up by an appropriate press release (assuming there is nothing to hide).

    But hey, I ate a bowl of lemons for breakfast.

    • Paul E.

      Not the lemons – your comment is spot on, I think. The flippancy regarding genuine concerns is itself concerning, especially when apologists are involved, imo. Regardless, the video simply isn’t funny on any level.

  • On her Faces & Voices blog, Roberta Mazza is talking about the McDowell video in terms issues involved in the ownership of antiquities:


    Unfortunately, she points out that, if McDowell is right about the legal ownership of the masks (something that has not yet been verified), then the owners can, in fact, dispose of the antiquities in any way they please.

    I tend to think that there are ethical considerations here that transcend property rights.

    • Jim

      Excellent and valuable point re ethical considerations. My thinking was on a more simplistic level; the idea of destroying ancient artifacts just to obtain data to support one’s own interests (apologetics), but in turn, proceeding in a manner that potentially jeopardizes the credibility of one of your most important pieces of evidence (dating). Result, one destroyed artifact and one unusable date. Seems like shooting oneself (and by way of extension, the historical world) in both feet. But maybe all the publicity and hype was worth it. 🙂

  • Gakusei Don

    Interestingly, I read an article recently that has scientists using a Computerised Tomography (CT) scanner, normally used for medical imaging, to read the contents of ancient scrolls from Herculaneum without the need to unroll them:

    The technology is not quite there yet, but I wonder if the masks might not be better left alone until the technology is available to read them without destroying them.

    • Bethany

      I’ve gotten the impression from reading other articles (Bart Ehrman has been linking to a number of them) that there may in fact already be ways to access the documents without destroying the masks.

    • Matthew

      Yes, surely it’s worth waiting for the technology – what’s the rush? This is terrible.

  • Gary

    Nothing to do with Mark, but I find dating rather important for Genesis. Wonder how the mask mashers would handle this article?


  • Andrew Dowling

    Wow . . the Evans video was just painfully unfunny . . .like those 5 cent “Don’t Do Drugs” PSAs/videos for students they did in the late 80s that attempted to be “cool” and “hip”

  • John Bosquet-Morra

    Ohhh! So you’r all freaked out about Mummies all the sudden! If Shelby Spong were pulling them apart, you’d all be cheering for him (not that I like Josh)… are you really worried about this?

    • I would have the same concerns if John Shelby Spong were pulling antiquities apart. What makes you think that I wouldn’t?

  • It looks like Craig Evans has had second thoughts about his unfunny farce, beating a mummy mask with a stick …

    … the video has been removed from Youtube.

    I wish I’d had the forethought to upload the video – I did however save a screenshot of Evans beating a “mummy mask” with a stick.