Did Oxford Scholar Secretly Sell Bible Fragment to Hobby Lobby Family?

By Candida Moss
Fred de Noyelle / Godong

A little over a year ago The Daily Beast published an article asking whether one of the oldest passages of the Gospels had actually been found in a garbage dump, or if a prominent scholar was passing off an artifact as having come from that legendary discovery. Now, the scholar involved in its “discovery” has been accused of secretly selling pieces of one of the world’s most famous collections of ancient manuscripts, which is housed at Oxford, to the evangelical Green family of Hobby Lobby.

Last year the Egyptian Exploration Society (EES), the non-profit organization that owns the Oxyrhynchus papyri collection deposited at the Sackler Library University of Oxford, had just announced a new discovery and publication: a late second- or early third-century Common Era fragment of the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. It was a huge announcement: Scholars possess very few early copies of the New Testament, thus, any newly discovered fragments from the first few centuries of the Common Era is inherently important and inherently valuable.

The discovery was shrouded in controversy because despite its announcement as “news,” academics had known about this fragment for over five years. It had been mentioned in connection with representatives of the Green Family, the owners of Hobby Lobby and the founders of the Museum of the Bible, in Washington, D.C. Last year the EES said in no uncertain terms that the papyrus had never been for sale. If that was true, we and others asked, how did so many people at the Green family know about this fragment and why did they think they had acquired it?

Now Michael Holmes, Director of the Museum of the Bible’s Scholar’s Initiative, has made a shocking accusation: that one of the academics involved in the original publication of the fragment, distinguished Oxford scholar Dirk Obbink, appears to have sold a papyrus that belonged to the EES to Hobby Lobby in 2013. To be clear, according to the accusation, Obbink presented himself as the owner of the Mark fragment and sold it and other fragments to Hobby Lobby for an undisclosed amount.

Was One of World’s Oldest Bible Passages Found in a Garbage Dump?

Obbink did not respond to emails or phone calls from The Daily Beast, but he has previously denied selling the fragment. EES has not commented, and the the University of Oxford released a statement that said, “Recent developments concerning these papyri have been brought to the University’s attention. We will be looking into the matter further before issuing any further comment.” As a result, it’s not clear if the accusations surrounding the fragment are rooted in an ethical breach or some kind of misunderstanding.

Rumors of the existence of this fragment have circulated since February 2012 when, in a debate with well-known agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman, evangelical text critic Dan Wallace announced that he had seen a “first-century Mark fragment.” Wallace indicated that his source for the dating of the manuscript was “a high ranking papyrologist.” When other scholars asked to see the manuscript, Wallace indicated that he was unable to comment further, stating shortly after the debate that he had signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Over the course of the following few years a number of other evangelical scholars suggested that they had seen the same papyrus in person but were unable to discuss it further. For scholarly observers, just the mention of NDAs suggested that the fragments belonged to the Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby and, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the most active collectors of biblical manuscripts in the world. No collections other than the Green Collection were requiring that scholars sign NDAs.

In the course of researching Bible Nation with my co-author Joel Baden, we asked Steve Green, CEO of Hobby Lobby, about the first-century Mark. He told us, “At some point it was like, this is an item I want to pursue.” All of this seemed to suggest that the fragment had been acquired by the Green family, as Wallace believed. In an interview at the National Conference on Christian Apologetics, shot on a cell phone and posted to YouTube, Scott Carroll, the former director of collections for the Green Collection, told the Christian apologist Josh McDowell that he first saw the fragment on the pool table in the office of American-born Oxford papyrologist Dirk Obbink. This suggested that Obbink could be the “highly respected papyrologist” who had told Wallace the fragment was first century. When the EES published their fragment of Mark in 2018, Wallace confirmed that it was the same fragment that he had seen over six years earlier but said that it had been misdated. As Elijah Hixson noted in a post at Evangelical Textual Criticism, there were still many unanswered questions.

Yesterday, on his blog, noted papyrologist and New Testament scholar Brent Nongbri, published an email sent by Holmes to members of a conference panel that is due to meet in November in San Diego. In the email Holmes wrote that “Prof. Dirk Obbink sold [the fragment of Mark] and three other allegedly early Gospel fragments to the Green Collection.” The other fragments were a fragment of Luke (that was published, alongside the Mark fragment in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 83 [2018]), and fragments of the Gospels of Matthew and John (that also appear to be owned by the EES). In the agreement he signed with the Greens, Holmes writes, “Obbink clearly asserted … that he was the owner of the property described therein.” Attached to the email was a redacted purchase agreement signed by Obbink and a (currently) unknown representative of “Hobby Lobby, Inc.” Holmes confirmed to The Daily Beast that the document is authentic. There is no evidence to suggest that EES was complicit in the sale.

Given that in the past the Green family were investigated and reached a settlement with the federal government for trafficking in illicit artifacts, it is worth noting that Hobby Lobby had permitted the fragments to stay in Obbink’s “custody for research and publication” and thus, while they received the title to these fragments, neither the Green family, nor Museum of the Bible (to whom Hobby Lobby routinely donated its artifacts) ever took physical possession of them. In the past Hobby Lobby has been known to buy manuscripts that it could never physically possess. In this case the redacted contract specified that the buyer would receive the manuscripts after publication.

It’s unclear exactly how much the Green Family paid for the papyri they never received. In 2003, a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John known as P39 sold at auction at Sotheby’s for $400,000. At some point later it became part of the Green Collection, although it is not known how much they paid for it. The new fragments are not as visually appealing as P39 but there are four of them (one form each canonical gospel) so it is probable that the Green family paid seven figures for them.

A year ago, in a brief response to emails, Obbink stated that any claim that he tried to sell the Mark fragment to the Greens “is not true.” The Daily Beast reached out to Hobby Lobby, but did not get a response.

The allegation that Obbink may have tried to sell papyri belonging to the EES to a private collector is shocking on a number of levels. Obbink is an illustrious papyrologist and classicist. He was the long time general editor of the Oxyrhynchus collection at the University of Oxford, is a professor at the University of Oxford, and is a winner of a MacArthur “genius grant,” which comes with a considerable $500,000 prize.

If true, the story could call into question the provenance of other news-making artifacts that Obbink has been involved with in the past decade. For example, in 2014, Obbink announced the discovery of some lost fragments of Sappho, the provenance of which raised eyebrows in the scholarly community. Were they legally acquired and sold? There are two other (blacked out) items listed on the redacted contract between Obbink and Hobby Lobby, what are these items? What of the integrity of the Oxyrhynchus collection? Has Obbink attempted to or succeeded in selling other papyri? Are there other buyers? Have other manuscripts been sold to Hobby Lobby? Have any EEC-owned texts actually physically left Oxford?

Roberta Mazza, a papyrologist who has worked on the ethics of manuscript transparency since 2014 when the Sappho fragments were discovered, said that she was “unsurprised” by this news.

Nongbri told The Daily Beast, “the currently available evidence suggests that [Obbink] was both selling property he does not own and also using his reputation as a respected papyrologist to artificially inflate the value of these items by claiming they were all “first century” Christian papyri. To call these actions unethical would be an understatement.”

Theoretically, if Obbink was involved in the initial dating of the papyrus fragment to the first century while suspecting it was second or third century then he would have been artificially inflating its scholarly and financial value for his own benefit. Of course, it could also have been a simple mistake.

Did Hobby Lobby Buy a Piece of the Bible Illegally Sold on eBay?

Nongbri added that if either Museum of the Bible or Hobby Lobby have any other invoices for antiquities involving Obbink they should release them so that “we can get a sense of the scale of the problem.” He noted that the invoice says nothing about the origins of the papyrus fragment other than just “Egypt.” As he put it: “No export date. No prior history of ownership. Amazing.” Hobby Lobby should have asked for more information. (An inquiry to Hobby Lobby about additional provenance details did not receive an immediate response).

For the field of papyrology this may be a moment of reckoning. Nongbri told me, “If this isn’t a one-off thing, and there are more records of sales, it becomes harder to believe that other scholars who work closely with Dirk Obbink didn’t know this kind of thing was going on.” Regardless of the scale of the problem, and even if this is all a big misunderstanding, the fact that it could happen at all demonstrates that there is a need for greater transparency in the administration of shared intellectual and cultural heritage. Buyers need to be vigilant about asking for proper documentation of the provenance of antiquities and institutions need to carefully oversee the management and administration of their collections.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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