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What links an eccentric Oxford classics don, billionaire US evangelicals, and a tiny, missing fragment of an ancient manuscript? Charlotte Higgins unravels a multimillion-dollar riddle
To visit Dr Dirk Obbink at Christ Church college, Oxford, you must first be ushered by a bowler-hatted porter into the stately Tom Quad, built by Cardinal Wolsey before his spectacular downfall in 1529. Turn sharp right, climb a flight of stairs, and there, behind a door on which is pinned a notice advertising a 2007 college arts festival, you will find Obbink’s rooms. Be warned: you may knock on the door in vain. Since October, he has been suspended from duties following the biggest scandal that has ever hit, and is ever likely to hit, the University of Oxford’s classics department.
An associate professor in papyrology and Greek literature at Oxford, Obbink occupies one of the plum jobs in his field. Born in Nebraska and now in his early 60s, this lugubrious, crumpled, owlish man has “won at the game of academia”, said Candida Moss, professor of theology at Birmingham University. In 2001, he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” award for his expertise in “rescuing damaged ancient manuscripts from the ravages of nature and time”. Over the course of his career, he has received millions in funding; he is currently, in theory at least, running an £800,000 project on the papyrus rolls carbonised by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79.
Since he was appointed in 1995, Obbink has welcomed many visitors into his rooms at Christ Church: dons, undergraduates, researchers. Less orthodox callers, too: among them, antiquities dealers and collectors. In the corner of Obbink’s study stands a pool table, from which two Egyptian mummy masks stare out impenetrably. Its green baize surface is all but obscured by papers and manuscripts – even, sometimes, a folder or two containing fragments of ancient papyrus. One bibliophile remembers a visit to this room, “like the set of an Indiana Jones movie”, a few years ago. He was offered an antique manuscript for sale by a man named Mahmoud Elder, with whom Obbink owned a company, now dissolved, called Castle Folio.
One blustery evening towards the end of Michaelmas term, 2011, two visiting Americans climbed Obbink’s staircase – Drs Scott Carroll and Jerry Pattengale. Both worked for the Greens, a family of American conservative evangelicals who have made billions from a chain of crafting stores called Hobby Lobby. At the time, the family was embarking on an ambitious new project: the Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington DC in 2017. Carroll was then its director. Items for the Green collection were bought by Hobby Lobby, then donated to the museum, bringing a substantial tax write-off. Pattengale was the head of the Green Scholars Initiative, a project offering academics research opportunities on items in the Green collection.
The Greens, advised by Carroll, were buying biblical artefacts, such as Torahs and early papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament, at a dizzying pace: $70m was spent on 55,000 objects between 2009 and 2012, Carroll claimed later. The market in a hitherto arcane area of collecting sky-rocketed. “Fortunes were made. At least two vendors who had been making €1-2m a year were suddenly making €100-200m a year,” said one longtime collector.
That wintry evening, Carroll and Pattengale were making one of their occasional trips to seek Obbink’s expertise on matters papyrological. According to Pattengale, just as they were about to leave, Obbink reached into a manila envelope and pulled out four papyrus fragments, one from each of the gospels. Obbink told them that three of these scraps dated from the second century AD.
But the fourth, a fragment of the Gospel of Mark – a 4cm by 4cm scrap the shape of a butterfly’s wing, containing just a few broken words – was earlier than that. It was almost certainly from the first century AD, which would make it the oldest surviving manuscript of the New Testament, copied less than 30 years after Mark had actually written it. Conservative evangelicalsplace enormous weight on the Gospels as “God-breathed” words. The idea that such an object existed was indescribably thrilling. Carroll was “ecstatic”, Pattengale recalled. “Veins along his neck bulged. He paced with arms flailing.”
Carroll, who declined to be interviewed, has said that Pattengale’s account is full of “misrepresentations, misrecollections, and exaggerations”. But he has confirmed this: Obbink showed him the Mark fragment “on the pool table in his office … and he then went into some paleographic detail why he believed it must date to the late-first century … It was in this conversation that he offered it for consideration for Hobby Lobby to buy.”
No purchase was made at the time. Nevertheless, the objects did eventually end up being sold to the Greens, after Carroll left their employ in 2012. The vendor, or so it appears, was Dirk Obbink. His name, and seemingly his signature, appear on a purchase agreement with Hobby Lobby dated 4 February 2013.
The problem is that the items – if the purchase agreement is genuine – were not Obbink’s to sell. They are part of the Oxyrhynchus collection of ancient papyrus, owned by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) and housed at Oxford’s Sackler Library.
Thirteen additional fragments from the collection, it transpired this autumn, had also been sold to the Greens, 11 apparently by Obbink in 2010, and two by a Jerusalem-based antiquities dealer, Baidun & Sons. (A spokesperson for the company’s owner, Alan Baidun, says he was an agent acting in good faith, and that he checked the provenance supplied by the person who sold them to him.)
Six further fragments from the Oxyrhynchus collection have turned up in the possession of another collector in the US, Andrew Stimer, a spokesperson for whom says he acquired them in good faith, and with an apparently complete provenance (though parts of it have subsequently been shown to have been falsified). The dealer who sold them to Stimer told him they had come from the collection of M Elder of Dearborn, Michigan. That is, Mahmoud Elder, Obbink’s sometime business partner. (Elder did not respond to requests for comment. Both the Museum of the Bible and Stimer have cooperated fully with the EES, and have taken steps to return the fragments.)
In total, the EES has now discovered that 120 fragments have gone missing from the Oxyrhynchus collection over the past 10 years. Since the appearance, in June 2019, of that fateful purchase agreement and invoice bearing Obbink’s name, the scale of the scandal has taken time to sink in. What kind of a person – what kind of an academic – would steal, sell, and profit from artefacts in their care? Such an act would be “the most staggering betrayal of the values and ethics of our profession”, according to the Manchester University papyrologist Roberta Mazza.
The alleged thefts were reported to Thames Valley police on 12 November. No one has yet been arrested or charged. Obbink has not responded to interview requests from the Guardian, and has issued only one public statement. “The allegations made against me that I have stolen, removed or sold items owned by the Egypt Exploration Society collection at the University of Oxford are entirely false,” he has said. “I would never betray the trust of my colleagues and the values which I have sought to protect and uphold throughout my academic career in the way that has been alleged. I am aware that there are documents being used against me which I believe have been fabricated in a malicious attempt to harm my reputation and career.”
It seems that Dr Dirk Obbink is either a thief, has been caught up in a colossal misunderstanding, or, perhaps most shockingly of all, is the victim of an elaborate effort to frame him.
case for Inspector Morse, perhaps. But the real detectives in this case have been a transatlantic band of papyrologists, theologians, classicists and biblical scholars, who have turned their deductive and evidence-sifting professional skills to the mystery. For them, what started as intellectual curiosity has turned into something more like a crusade against the perversion of the ethics of their field.
This band of scholarly sleuths, who have published their findings in books and on blogs and social media, includes the theologian Candida Moss; Brent Nongbri, a scholar of early Christianity based at the Norwegian School of Theology; Mazza, whose investigations have sometimes made her feel, she said, as if she were in a Coen brothers’ movie; and the contributors to a blog called Evangelical Textual Criticism. The last, a forum “for people with knowledge of the Bible in its original languages”, has not, until now, had much call for “breaking news” banners.
All these academics have, for different reasons, a strong interest in the Oxyrhynchus collection – half a million ancient papyrus fragments that have transformed knowledge of the Greco-Roman world. The fragments were excavated in Egypt, from 1896 onwards, by two Oxford classicists, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt. A hunch led them to dig out some low mounds in the village of el-Behnesa, the site of the ancient Greek city of Oxyrhynchus, founded after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC. To their delight, they hit upon rubbish dumps in which 700 years’ worth of papyrus had been discarded. The papyrus, preserved by the desert-dry conditions, was covered in writing – mostly Greek, the earliest from the third century BC.
Grenfell and Hunt’s discoveries forged an extraordinary, direct link with antiquity. Most of the oldest surviving manuscripts, had, until then, come from no earlier than the 10th century. What classical literature there was – for example, just seven out of over 120 plays by Sophocles – had survived because medieval monks had thought it worth preserving, copying it over and over again down the generations.
At Oxyrhynchus, though, an entire culture was revealed in the rubbish, unfiltered by monkish taste, and dating directly from antiquity: previously lost works by canonical writers such as Sappho, Pindar, and Menander; fragments of biblical texts; letters, bills, receipts, tax returns, even magical spells. Legally, under the colonial conditions of the time, the fragments became the property of the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) and were taken to Oxford, where for years, they were simply kept in boxes in Grenfell and Hunt’s rooms in Queen’s College, Oxford, as the scholars, then their successors, started to sift, edit and publish them.
Oxyrhynchus spawned a whole new sub-discipline of classics: papyrology. More than a century after the discoveries, one of papyrology’s main tasks is to publish these scrappy manuscripts. That involves offering a proposed reconstruction of a text; translating and dating it; and producing a commentary on its significance. Over the past century, just over 5,000 of the half-million Oxyrhynchus papyri have been published. Each appearance of a volume in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Series – there are now 83 – is a real event for classicists, historians, theologians. “They redraw the map of what we know,” said Tim Whitmarsh, professor of Greek at Cambridge.
To be a papyrologist – to tease sense from damaged, ancient, near-illegible writing – you need to possess linguistic brilliance, a profound historical imagination, and a codebreaker’s ability to play with different hypotheses of a text’s meaning. It is patient, painstaking work – but also, exciting. It offers the thrill of discovery. One papyrologist told me, “I could have spent my career thinking about old chestnuts like the terminal date of Caesar’s command, or whatever. But what I love is reading stuff that no one has read before.”
Today, the Oxyrhynchus collection is held in a back room on the first floor of Oxford’s Sackler classics library, where you’ll see a scholarly mess of paperwork, microscopes and books. The collection’s walls are lined with tall, locked cupboards, filled with ranks of boxes. Open one, and you will see the dark-brown papyrus, astonishingly tough given its age, still wrapped in 1910s and 20s pages of the university newspaper, the Oxford Gazette. Some fragments are large, even up to A4 size; many are tiny, known as “cornflakes” in the trade.
The Oxyrhynchus project is its own little fiefdom. Not exactly secretive, but very far from open, it carries the reputation of being cultish, even within the Oxford classics faculty. At any one time, up to three general editors share the duties of working on the material and assigning it to scholars for study and publication. Until 2016, Obbink was one of that trio of editors, with 24-hour-access. A curator-researcher also works day-to-day with the material. Researchers are employed to help; scholars come in and out to study the material. It is Obbink, rather than anyone else, on whom suspicions have focused.
There is a rough, handwritten catalogue of the entire collection, on 12cm by 7cm index cards, as well as photographs, which gives a rough indication of what each fragment contains. Editors have not usually been forthcoming about the details of the unpublished material, fearing an onslaught of interested academics. For scholars outside the charmed circle, who wonder what gems lie in wait, that can be frustrating. For a criminal, it might create an opportunity. The fewer people who know what is in the collection, the easier it might be to pilfer from it.
When the EES announced in October that index cards and photos had, in many cases, disappeared along with the missing fragments themselves, the scale of the alleged crime began to become clear. Any lingering suggestion that all this had been some colossal misunderstanding was blown aside. Whoever had stolen the fragments had tried to erase any trace of their existence, so that the crime would never come to light. “Destroying the catalogue records – that’s such an anti-intellectual thing to do, it blows the mind,” said Candida Moss.
However, the alleged thief seems to have erred in one crucial respect: they do not seem to have known, or taken into account, that there was back-up information allowing the EES to ascertain what had allegedly been stolen. (The EES has remained silent on the nature of this backup, but prior to digitisation, libraries would photograph card-index catalogues and transfer the images to microfiche.)
Despite that apparent oversight, one thing is close to certain: the items were taken by someone familiar with the collection’s inner workings. Which means – colossal a betrayal as that would be – the crime was almost certainly an inside job.
After Carroll and Pattengale’s visit to Oxford in 2011, tantalising rumours of the discovery of a first-century fragment of Mark rippled through American evangelical circles. On 1 February 2012, in Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, two theologians, Prof Bart Ehrman and Dr Daniel Wallace, were debating – to a rapt audience of 1,500 – whether the original text of the New Testament could be recovered. Suddenly, Wallace dropped a bombshell.
“The oldest manuscript of the New Testament is now a fragment of Mark’s Gospel that is from the first century,” he claimed. “My source is a papyrologist who worked on the manuscript, a man whose reputation is unimpeachable.” It was, recalled Ehrman at a recent conference in San Diego, “a real jaw-dropper”.
Ehrman was bursting with questions. How extensive was the fragment? Who was the papyrologist? Had the dating been corroborated by others? Wallace said he was sworn to secrecy. All he could reveal was that the fragment would soon be published by the academic imprint, Brill.
A few months later, Brill did indeed announce a new publication: the Green Scholars Initiative Papyri Series, edited by Obbink and Pattengale, a series of volumes of “rare unpublished papyri texts from the Green collection”. The mystery fragment of first-century Mark, then, must belong to the Greens, Ehrman reasoned. The only problem was that the fragment “wasn’t published that year, and it wasn’t published the next year, and it wasn’t published the next year,” said Ehrman. “I started to feel like it was the parousia [Christ’s second coming] – it’s coming soon, but we don’t know when.”
For the scholar sleuths – as they would soon become – alarm bells started ringing. Where had this fragment come from? Why the secrecy? Was it legal? The trade in antiquities is governed by laws designed to protect artefacts from two things. First, the kind of mass removal of cultural heritage that was a feature of the colonial era. Second, illegal excavation and looting of archaeological sites, acts that involve an irreparable loss of knowledge, and, like many criminal trades with a high-value product, are run on human exploitation and violence. Buyers of artefacts, therefore, are supposed to establish provenance: proof that the item was legally removed from its country of origin, usually before 1970, when a Unesco convention on cultural heritage was widely adopted. The Greens, it was becoming apparent to observers, were not doing that. In 2017, for example, a consignment of ancient Iraqi cuneiform tablets they had purchased was found to have been smuggled into the US as “tile samples”.
In the absence of solid information about the fragment of Mark and its origin, gossip proliferated. A widely reported claim was that it had emerged from an ancient Egyptian mummy mask. Obbink’s sometime visitor Scott Carroll, whose lecture style is more 19th-century showman than sober scholar, was speaking publicly about mummy masks a lot at the time, claiming they were a great source of early New Testament papyri. Because some mummy masks had been manufactured from a kind of papier-mache of recycled papyrus, known as “cartonnage”, you could, he told audiences, dissolve the masks in soap and warm water, prise the constituent sheets of papyrus apart and, hey presto, reveal early manuscripts – fragments of the Gospels, of Homer, whatever. “My wife will laugh and remember the time she would come into the house and smell mummy on the stove,” Carroll told an audience in Mexico, in 2013. “Nothing like the smell of mummy on the stove.”
All the talk of dissolving mummy masks horrified serious scholars: destroying artefacts in the speculative search for other ancient artefacts is not exactly museological best practice. Those with a cynical cast of mind also observed that mummy masks were a great way to launder illegally procured papyri. All you had to do was claim you had found your dodgy papyrus manuscript in a legally acquired ancient mummy mask. (Such masks were relatively widely produced in antiquity; today, you can find them on eBay.) Mummy masks could be turned into “bottomless provenance machines”, as one collector put it.
The scholar-sleuths began to trawl the internet looking for more videos of Carroll and those close to him, on the hunt for further information about the mystery Mark fragment. One video showed a talk by an evangelical author called Josh McDowell, an associate of Carroll’s: in it, he revealed that the fragment of Mark was from the Gospel’s first chapter. That seemingly tiny piece of information would, later, turn out to be a crucial clue in putting together the story of the alleged thefts from the Oxyrhynchus collection. In 2017, yet another video was ferreted out by scholar-sleuths, and was reposted on the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog. In it, Carroll – about whom there is no suggestion of misconduct in this regard – says that he had seen the fragment of Mark, in “Oxford at Christ Church, and actually on [Obbink’s] pool table”. The fragment, he said, actually hadn’t come from a mummy mask, as far as he could tell. It was, however, for sale.
Dirk Obbink cuts an eccentric figure, even by Oxford standards. In 2014, around the time his antiquities dealership Castle Folio was incorporated, he bought himself a castle. Or, rather, the Texan equivalent – an 1890s neo-Gothic pile in Waco, called Cottonland Castle. He already had a six-bedroom house in Oxford’s suburbs, in the garden of which he had dug a large, L-shape swimming pool – an upgrade from the canal boat he had once shared with a colleague.
He has a reputation for elusiveness. “If Dirk says: ‘See you,’ I know I won’t clap eyes on him for weeks,” said one papyrological colleague. In the early 2000s, he held the chair of papyrology at the University of Michigan – a full-time job – but failed to resign from Oxford, leaving colleagues “profoundly disappointed by his conduct”, according to a senior US-based classicist. It didn’t seem to matter. “In certain institutional contexts, you somehow become untouchable,” one professor of classics told me.
At the same time, Obbink is, in some ways, a standard-issue Oxford don – head in a book, limited social skills, “an absent-minded professor type”, as one collector called him. He added: “I have a hard time believing that he stole Oxyrhynchus papyri in cold blood and sold them to Hobby Lobby.”
In January 2014, Obbink had a moment of media glory, when he discovered and published two new fragments of poems by the seventh-century BC poet Sappho. It was global news. “A Sappho poem,” as the Telegraph’s headline put it, “is more exciting than a new David Bowie album”. At the time, the story, at least as it was reported by me and others, was all about the thrill of precious new words by a great poet. It was left to experts in the illegal traffic of antiquities to point out that the “new” Sappho was not just a tender poem about her brothers – but also, and importantly, an ancient artefact. One archaeologist-blogger posted a different kind of headline: “No-Questions-Asking UK Academic Reads a Freshly Uncovered Ripped-up Papyrus from Unknown Source.”
Now, in the light of the revelations of the alleged thefts of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, scholars are looking at the Sappho story with new eyes, and asking, with a fresh sense of urgency, whether the manuscript can have been legally obtained. There are even doubts as to its authenticity. The latest gossip in classical circles is that it might even be a fake. “Everything about it seems too good to be true,” one senior Cambridge classicist told me.
Doubts about the Sappho papyrus have niggled away at scholars because Obbink’s account of how it was acquired – all the time reporting, he said, what he had been told by its nameless owner – has been at best sketchy, and at times contradictory. At first, in January 2014, he revealed only that the Sappho papyrus was owned by an anonymous private collector in London. Then, in February, he said the manuscript had come from “a mummy cartonnage panel”. It had been carbon-dated, he said, to AD201, plus or minus a century. For expert Egyptologists, though, that was a red flag. Both things – mummy cartonnage and a date of AD100-300 – cannot be true. Papyrus ceased to be used to make mummy cartonnage in around AD14.
In January 2015, the story changed. The Sappho manuscript hadn’t been found in mummy cartonnage, after all, but “industrial cartonnage”, perhaps used for bookbinding. This “industrial cartonnage”, with the Sappho supposedly hidden within it, had been purchased by auction at Christie’s in 2011, as part of a mixed lot of papyrus. This new information conveniently solved the dating problem, since industrial cartonnage was still being made during the period to which the Sappho manuscript had been carbon-dated. The detail about the Christie’s auction also suggested the item was legal – the papyrus in that particular lot had been exported from Egypt prior to the 1970 Unesco convention on the export of artefacts.
Obbink published an explanation of how the two types of cartonnage had come to be confused. A piece of mummy cartonnage and a piece of industrial cartonnage had been dissolved together by the owner’s staff, he said, and the resulting sheets of papyrus got muddled up. Obbink also reported that at some point some 20 smaller fragments of the Sappho manuscript had been “deemed insignificant” by the anonymous owner, and sold off to the Greens.
In this entire story of the origins of “P.Sapph.Obbink” – to use the manuscript’s scholarly nomenclature – there was no solid evidence, no documentation, no images, and no external witnesses. Nor did Christie’s possess relevant images of its auction lot of 2011 – the mixed lot of papyrus containing the piece of industrial cartonnage in which the Sappho fragment was supposedly concealed. Everything depended on the word of the great Oxford don.
Now, Mike Sampson, a papyrologist at the University of Manitoba, has found evidence, seen by the Guardian, suggesting that the origin-story of the Sappho manuscript reported by Obbink may be a fiction. Sampson was sent a PDF by an academic source. The document is a glossy, lavishly illustrated brochure produced by Christie’s. It advertises the Sappho fragment for sale by private treaty. A “private treaty sale” is a service whereby an auction house will broker a sale between vendor and buyer discreetly, outside the relatively public auction schedule. (The document is quite separate from the 2011 auction, and was produced some time after it.) The brochure will have been circulated very discreetly, too, to a few key collectors. Sampson has analysed the metadata of the PDF, and believes that the Sappho fragment was in fact probably offered for sale by private treaty twice – once in 2013, prior to the public announcement of its existence, and again in 2015. (No price is mentioned, but a collector familiar with the field estimates a likely figure of around $800,000.)
In the brochure, there are, at last, images that purport to show how the two different types of cartonnage – mummy cartonnage and industrial cartonnage – were confused. One picture shows a brightly painted blue-and-red piece of mummy cartonnage lying in a ceramic basin beside a brown mass of what appears to be flattened papyrus, described as “cartonnage”. The caption recaps the final story reported by Obbink – that the two items were muddled up in a “confusion of processing”. However, in the opinion of Sampson, it “defies belief” that the entirely different objects could have been confused. Furthermore, because of the physical condition and measurements of the brown papyrus mass in the photograph, he thinks it unlikely that the Sappho manuscript could have emerged from within it, as claimed.
Perhaps Sampson’s most telling finding, though, is that parts of the Sappho manuscript were shown in public when they were supposedly still undiscovered in a wodge of industrial cartonnage. According to his study of the PDF’s metadata, the photographs of the materials sitting side by side in the ceramic basin, prior to “processing”, were taken on 14 February 2012. And yet there is video footage of Scott Carroll brandishing 26 small fragments of the Sappho, those that ended up belonging to the Greens, a week earlier, on 7 February 2012.
There is no suggestion Carroll was involved in wrongdoing in this regard: the point is that the timeline seems so implausible as to be impossible. According to Sampson, whose analysis will appear in full in a forthcoming academic article, the most plausible interpretation of all this is that the photographs were retrospectively staged by persons unknown – along with images of the Sappho fragment apparently being prised from a dark-brown mass of papyrus.
The most obvious reason for staging an origin-story for the Sappho manuscript like this would be to conceal the fact that the papyrus had been illegally imported, excavated or traded. The other possible reason – though this is not Sampson’s personal view – would be to mask a fake.
In response to this new evidence, Christie’s told me: “Christie’s endeavours to uphold the highest standards of due diligence. We would never knowingly offer any works of art without good title or incorrectly catalogued or authenticated. We take our name and reputation very seriously and would take all necessary steps available to address any situation of inappropriate use.” The auction house says that if there is any official investigation, they will cooperate. At present, however, the origins of the Sappho fragment remain shrouded in mystery.
In early 2016, the EES were becoming seriously alarmed that Obbink was refusing to supply an adequate account of the source of the Sappho manuscript – and also, increasingly, by the rumours that he had offered papyrus fragments for sale in his Oxford rooms. These rumours seemed outlandish – who would you be more likely to trust: the eminent Oxford papyrologist Dirk Obbink, or Scott Carroll, with his mummy masks on the stove?
But still, from the stories circulating online, the EES knew two things about the notorious fragment of Mark that had supposedly been sold to the Green family: it was from the gospel’s first chapter, and it was first century. It so happened that an item in their own collection was a papyrus catalogued in the 1980s as “I/II”, a note that could have been interpreted as “first or second century AD”. In 2011, a researcher on the Oxyrhynchus Project had identified it as from the first chapter of Mark. The fragment had not been officially signed out, but EES officials believed Obbink had it in his possession ostensibly to study.
Obbink always denied that he had been trying to sell Oxyrhynchus items, as a later EES statement made clear. Nevertheless, an official of the society was sufficiently suspicious that he might have been at least trying to sell the Mark fragment that he decided to try to smoke him out – by instructing him, in spring 2016, to publish the manuscript in the next volume, number 83, of the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus Series. That would get the fragment out in the public sphere. It would also mean it would have to be physically returned to the Sackler classics library so that the editing could be checked by colleagues. In short, if Obbink were indeed trying to sell it, this move would stop him. Or so the EES official thought.
That August, the EES decided not to reappoint Obbink a general editor of the Oxyrhynchus series, “primarily,” it said in a public statement, “because of unsatisfactory discharge of his editorial duties, but also because of concerns, which he did not allay, about his alleged involvement in the marketing of ancient texts, especially the Sappho text”.
It was in May 2018 that a Cambridge-based biblical scholar, Elijah Hixson, flicking through the newly posted Amazon listing for volume 83 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus Series, saw that one of the manuscripts about to be published was from the first chapter of Mark. This was, surely, the same item as the fragment of Mark that had been the source of such intense scholarly speculation over the previous seven years.
But if that was the case, then something seriously odd was going on. The Mark fragment was, supposedly, part of the Green collection. It could not also belong to the EES. What’s more, the reason the fragment was the source of such fascination was that it was from the first century. But the one about to be published was labelled as late-second, or early-third century. Hixson immediately posted a blog on Evangelical Textual Criticism spelling out his puzzlement. As a commenter on the post said, there had either been a catastrophic misunderstanding – or someone was lying.
Naturally, there was also consternation in Washington, at the Museum of the Bible. Michael Holmes, the director of the Green Scholars Initiative since 2015, believed that the fragment of Mark belonged to them, not the EES. It had been bought and paid for by Hobby Lobby, and donated to the museum. They had the paperwork to prove it, though admittedly, not the papyrus.
The items had, according to an agreement, been left with the vendor temporarily for further study. Something was very wrong. It looked as if they had been sold something that was not what it purported to be, by someone who didn’t seem to own it; and what’s more, they didn’t even have the item in their possession.
In April 2019, Holmes emailed Roberta Mazza in her capacity as an EES trustee, telling her that Obbink had allegedly sold the fragments to Hobby Lobby. Even at this point, Mazza told me, the whole idea still seemed crazy – as ridiculous as the plotline of 1960s Italian film Totòtruffa, in which a hustler pretends to sell the Trevi fountain to a tourist. Of course the items couldn’t have been sold to Hobby Lobby – not least because the EES actually had possession of the items themselves. Holmes suggested a meeting so that they could, at last, establish the truth of the matter.
Which is how, on 4 June, the New Testament scholar was taken aback to find himself in the insalubrious, narrow alleyway that flanks one of London’s opera houses, looking for the entrance of Two Brydges, a bohemian private members’ club frequented by singers and writers. His lunch dates in the wood-panelled restaurant were Mazza, the ancient historian Prof Dominic Rathbone, and Dr Margaret Mountford, a papyrologist and then chair of the EES – better known to the British public in her guise as Alan Sugar’s former sidekick on the reality show, The Apprentice.
“At the meeting I shared the evidence that Obbink had in fact sold ‘first-century Mark’ and three others to Hobby Lobby in January 2013,” Holmes recalled at a recent conference. “Sold, but not delivered.”
Conversation around the table quickly turned to a further question: had there been other items that had been both sold – and delivered? In the following weeks, it was concluded that a further 13 papyri belonging to EES had been wrongfully sold to Hobby Lobby, 11 apparently by Obbink, two by the Jerusalem antiquities dealers, Baidun.
Soon afterwards, on 23 June, Holmes circulated redacted copies of the alleged sales contracts between Hobby Lobby and Obbink for four Gospel manuscripts, including a fragment of Mark. One of the recipients was papyrus sleuth Brent Nongbri. He immediately published them on his blog: there was Obbink’s apparent signature for all to see. Either the documents had been “fabricated in a malicious attempt to harm [his] reputation”, as Obbink’s later statement claimed. Or he really had sold them. The prices of the items were redacted, but an expert told me he thought they could have been sold for $200,000 each.
On 12 November, the thefts of all 120 fragments, including the four that had remained in Oxford and the 13 that had been delivered to the US, were reported to the police. On 18 December, the 13 were returned, after a delay while it was established that since they were stolen goods, they were exempt from VAT – a coda to the affair that Holmes called “the cherry on the sundae”. The fragments that ended up in US collector Andrew Stimer’s possession have also been returned to Oxford.
Holmes is trying to improve practices at the Museum of the Bible. Hobby Lobby and the Greens have, he said, declared a halt to what he called “problematic” acquisitions. Only items with fully researched provenances will be bought. Only papyri that have properly established legal provenance will be displayed online and in the museum, and published in scholarly volumes.
At present, just over 20 papyri are displayed on the museum’s website, out of 5,000. I asked Holmes whether one can therefore conclude that the Greens own around 4,980 papyri that lack reliable provenance. “In general, yes,” said Holmes. The organisation is now negotiating, he told me, with national governments to return ownership of unprovenanced items to their countries of origin.
Classicists are by turns gripped by the drama, and horrified by its implications. “Classics runs on trust – on people working together to make our knowledge and understanding accessible to all,” Helen Morales, professor of Greek at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told me. Whoever allegedly stole and sold the papyri “broke that trust, and thumbed their nose at the system,” she said. Another lecturer in Greek told me that the alleged crime was, in effect, a deeply disturbing perpetuation of the “profiteering and the pillage” of past centuries – just at the moment when the discipline was trying to reflect on a history of complicity with colonialism.
In November, a “postmortem on so-called first-century Mark” was held at the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual conference in San Diego. As Nongbri joked at the time, it was really more of a vivisection. While reserving respect for Holmes’s reforming efforts, Mazza did not pull her punches. The Greens have “poured millions on the legal and illegal antiquities market without having a clue about the history, the material features, cultural value, fragilities and problems of the objects,” she said. This irresponsible collecting “is a crime against culture and knowledge of immense proportions – as the facts unfolding under our eyes do prove.”
At the other end of this disturbing chain is someone who stole and sold Oxyrhynchus fragments to the evangelical billionaires. Whoever they are, they are still at large. For now, the papyrus thief walks free.