A biblical expert at the University of Chicago, Margaret M. Mitchell, together with experts in micro-chemical analysis and medieval bookmaking, has concluded that one of the University Library's most enigmatic possessions is a forgery. The book, a copy of the Gospel of Mark, will remain in the collection as a study document for scholars studying the authenticity of ancient books.
Scholars have argued for nearly 70 years over the provenance of what's called the Archaic Mark, a 44-page miniature book, known as a "codex," which contains the complete 16-chapter text of the Gospel of Mark in minuscule handwritten text. The manuscript, which also includes 16 colorful illustrations, has long been believed to be either an important witness to the early text of the gospel or a modern forgery, said Mitchell, Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature.
"The mystery is now solved from textual, chemical, and codicological (bookmaking) angles," said Mitchell, who first became intrigued by the codex when she saw it as a graduate student in 1982. Comprehensive analysis demonstrates that it is not a genuine Byzantine manuscript, but a counterfeit, she said, "made somewhere between 1874 and the first decades of the 20th century."
Mitchell said experts from multiple disciplines made the findings possible. "Our collective efforts have achieved what no single scholar could do -- give a comprehensive analysis of the composite artifact that is an illustrated codex. The data collected in this research process has given us an even deeper understanding of the exact process used by the forger," said Mitchell. "It will, we hope, assist ongoing scholarly investigation into and detection of manuscripts forged in the modern period."
Since 1937, when Edgar J. Goodspeed a University of Chicago biblical scholar, acquired the Archaic Mark, the manuscript has been an enigma. As early as 1947, scholars speculated about its authenticity. Because it is the closest of any known manuscript to the venerable 4th-century Codex Vaticanus for the text of Mark's Gospel, Mitchell said, it was believed to be "either a very important textual witness (from the 14th Century) or a forgery based upon some late 19th-century critical edition of the Greek New Testament incorporating the readings of the Vatican manuscript." The modern blue pigment in the illustrations, indentified in 1989, would support the latter, but Mitchell explained this finding was not definitive because the pigment could have come from a restoration effort on an earlier manuscript.
In 2006, the University of Chicago Library digitized the Archaic Mark, making it available to scholars worldwide (goodspeed.lib.uchicago.edu) and stimulating renewed interest in it. The following year, in response to that growing interest in the mysterious manuscript, Alice Schreyer, Director of the Special Collections Research Center, convened a committee to lead a complete and definitive examination of the material components of the Archaic Mark.
The Library commissioned materials analysis from McCrone Associates, and enlisted the aid of Abigail Quandt, a rare books expert and preservationist at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
Last January, Joseph G. Barabe, a senior scientist at McCrone, took 24 samples of parchment, ink and a range of paints used in illustrations. Barabe analyzed the samples using an array of techniques -- polarized light; energy dispersive X-ray spectrometry; the scanning electron microscope for elemental analysis; X-ray diffraction; Fourier Transform infrared spectroscopy; and Raman spectroscopy. Under microscopic analysis, Barabe and his colleagues found no evidence of retouching of any kind in the manuscript, disproving earlier suspicions of restoration attempts.
Barabe determined the Archaic Mark was created after 1874 -- using materials not available until the late 19th century -- on a parchment substrate dating from about the middle of the 16th century. Carbon dating determined the animal hide was from some time between 1485-1631.
The rest of the authentication team confirmed and helped interpret Barabe's findings.
Quandt carefully reconstructed the steps the modern forger took to produce the manuscript, from preparing the parchment, to the painting of images and inscription of text, as well as the application of the modern coating, cellulose nitrate. Quandt also identified specific ways in which its production defies usual Byzantine procedures, and she determined that the reused parchment contains no recoverable text underneath.
Mitchell completed the analysis with a study of the textual edition the forger had used. She confirmed and refined Stephen C. Carlson's proposal that the modern edition from which the forger copied the text was the 1860 edition of the Greek New Testament by Philipp Buttmann. Mitchell identified telltale readings in the Archaic Mark that arose from the original 1856 edition of Buttmann's critical text, reproducing errors later corrected in the flurry of collations of the famous manuscript Vaticanus between 1857 and 1867.
Mitchell, Barabe and Quandt have detailed these findings in a paper scheduled for February publication in the journal Novum Testamentum.