Magazine article The Christian Century

Mummy Mask Theater: A Deceptive Quest for Biblical Manuscripts

Magazine article The Christian Century

Mummy Mask Theater: A Deceptive Quest for Biblical Manuscripts

Article excerpt

WHEN JOSH MCDOWELL decided to Pur chase a 500-year-old Torah scroll in 2013, he wasn't seeking a collector's item. McDowell is a Christian apologist well known in evangelical circles, especially for his 1972 book Evidence That Demands a Verdict. In that book and many others, he lays out his defense of the historical accuracy of the Bible and the pristine transmission of the text from the time of its original writing down to the present. McDowell regards the reliability of textual transmission as a crucial part of defending the Bible itself as the source of authority.

At speaking engagements around the world, McDowell brings his Torah scroll with him, holding it up, literally, as a witness to the accuracy and authenticity of the Bible's message. That today's text is identical to the text of a 16th-century scroll is evidence, for him, that God has provided for the perfect transmission of the biblical text across the centuries. "It helped me explain how scripture was truly reliable in ways I had never dreamed possible," McDowell wrote on his website.

Having seen how effective the Torah scroll was with his audience, McDowell hoped to acquire an ancient fragment of the New Testament--a scrap of papyrus containing a few words of the New Testament and dating from the centuries just after Jesus.

"Displaying such an artifact to thousands upon thousands of young people and adults alike," he wrote, "would bring them face to face with the reality of the written truth about Christ and his life-transforming message." The older a biblical manuscript is, McDowell reasoned, the more trustworthy it is.

Ancient manuscripts of the New Testament are hard to come by. Most are housed in libraries at places like Yale, Oxford, and the Vatican. Those that occasionally crop up on the open market are sold for extravagant prices by auction houses like Christie's or Sotheby's. McDowell needed a different avenue for acquiring one of his own, and he knew where to look: inside ancient Egyptian funerary masks, or mummy masks.

Mummy masks conjure up for most people the image of King Tutankhamen's funeral mask, which is richly decorated with gold, glass, and precious stones. But funerary masks were produced for nonroyal Egyptians as well, albeit in considerably more mundane fashion. Typically, layers of linen or papyrus were cut into strips, moistened with water, and glued together in the form of a face--essentially the same process that is used to make papier-mache masks today. The compressed substructure, called cartonnage, was then overlaid with plaster, and the face of the deceased painted on it.

For the ancient Egyptians, the funeral mask was a way to ease the transition into the afterlife and ensure a positive reception by the gods. For modern scholars, these masks are a potential trove of information about the history and culture of Egypt 2,000 years ago. If the papyrus strips have writing on them, they can be an invaluable source for reconstructing daily life in the ancient world. Some discovered papyrus strips have contained fragments of marriage contracts, financial records, and, in a few rare cases, bits of poetry, epigrams, historical chronicles, or philosophical works. What was trash--or, more accurately, recycling--to the people who made the masks is treasure for scholars.

The possibility of recovering ancient texts from the cartonnage of Egyptian mummy masks came to the attention of evangelical collectors and apologists like McDowell primarily through the work of Scott Carroll. Trained in ancient languages and history at the University of Miami, Carroll has made a career acting as an agent for individual collectors, most recently for the Green family, which owns the Hobby Lobby company, possesses one of the world's largest collections of biblical artifacts, and is the force behind the Museum of the Bible which opened in November in Washington, D.C.

A self-styled Indiana Jones figure--during one of our conversations with him, his cell phone rang with the theme music of the Indiana Jones films--Carroll travels the world identifying and purchasing ancient manuscripts. …

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