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October 16, 2019

A scandal of biblical proportions: Oxford professor, Dirk Obbink implicated in sale of EES fragments to Hobby Lobby

Dirk Obbink in his home in Oxford at Christ Church
Image Credit:  Facebook Photo Screenshot from the profile of Timothy Smith, Former Chief Development Officer at Museum of the Bible

Since early last summer, the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) has been increasingly concerned about the sale of P.Oxy. 5345, the once-called First Century Mark fragment, and three other pieces of papyrus from the EES Oxyrhynchus collection.  These four early gospel fragments, each conveniently including passages from the consecutive the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are some of the most important historic scriptures to come on the (il)licit market in recent years and were apparently sold, without the knowledge or consent of the EES to Hobby Lobby Inc., which purchased the artefacts in early 2013.  

The seller was Dirk Obbink, an American papyrologist, who was appointed to the University Lectureship in Papyrology at Oxford in 1994, taking over the post vacated by Peter Parsons when the latter took up the Regius Chair of Greek.  Obbink's appointment at Oxford combined a variety of responsibilities, including a Tutorship at Christ Church, where he lectures on a wide range of classical material as well as the direction of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project and its related Imaging Papyri Project.  Obbink's involvement as the seller of these ancient texts appears to be a side pursuit with which he has been involved for a considerable period of time.   

Excavations at Oxyrhynchus 1, ca. 1903. 
Image Credit:EES

Religious Rubbish to Sacred Scriptures 

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, most of which are now the property of the Egypt Exploration Society, is a substantial collection of thousands of papyri fragments discovered during six excavation seasons carried out by British Classicists Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt from 1896 until 1907.  The literary material was uncovered outside the ruins of the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus, near the modern-day city of El-Bahnasa (in the Al-Minya governorate), on the left bank of the Bahr Yussef in Egypt.  There, at the turn of the century, more than 100,000 fragments were unearthed from the city's rubbish mounds, saved by the ravages of time, with the help of Egypt's arid climate and the layers of dry sand which created the ideal conditions for preserving organic matter.  

For biblical scholars, the New Testament papyri found in the garbage heaps of Oxyrhynchus constitute the oldest, most numerous, and most geographically concentrated group of first to third century Christian texts found in any singular area.  Given the vast size of the Oxyrhynchus cache, textual critics and scholars are still deciphering, reconstructing and publishing the transcriptions of the papyrological and parchment fragments discovered by Grenfell and Hunt's team more than a century after their original discovery. 

In a strangely Ponzi-like scheme...

As the scandal reaches biblical proportions, it appears that Hobby Lobby Inc., agreed to the purchase of the four contested fragments, (see the purchase agreement and other documents provided by Michael Holmes, Director of the Museum of the Bible's Scholars Initiative) via a private sales agreement dated January 17, 2013.   

Redacted Obbink-Hobby Lobby Invoice
In that agreement, the US-based craft company is listed as the purchaser of six items including the four New Testament papyri whose dates are listed as "circa 0100 AD".  Oxford scholar Dirk Obbink is listed as the objects' private seller.  The heavily redacted invoice, released publically last June, itemized the objects to be included in the sale and sequences the invoice as number "17". This leaves one to speculate as to who Obbink's sixteen previous invoices were issued, and if they too might involve ancient artifacts that were not in the scholar's purview to sell.  

At the time this purchase agreement was drawn up, Obbink's role as the director of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project, gave him hands on access to any number of ancient texts for scholarly interpretation.  Yet his sale's agreement to Hobby Lobby makes no mention of the four fragments true owners, the EES, or any other provenance collection history for that matter.  Nor does their agreement state when or under what condition these slips of papyri left the territory of Egypt or in what capacity Obbink was acting as the UK-based seller.  

Instead, Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., seemed more focused on obtaining the fragments' in time for an upcoming exhibition at the Vatican in Rome and for control of any future academic publication.  Under their mutually negotiated sales agreement, Hobby Lobby agreed to Obbink's stipulations for exclusivity regarding the research and publishing of the circa 100-300 CE fragments.  They also granted him permission to retain the fragments for a period of four years so that he could conduct scholarly research.    

Yet the path to this sale is filled with contradictions and some statements made by several overlapping actors who were aware of the sale rebut the facts and one another. 

In a video interview at the National Apologetics Conference, held on October 16-17, 2015, almost three years after the alleged sale, the Green Collection's controversial former buyer, Scott Carroll commented on seeing the Mark fragment on a pool table along with a number of pieces of mummy cartonnage, in what is believed to have been, but was not explicitly stated to be, Obbink's office in Oxford at Christ Church.    
Here is a brief excerpt from that interview between Carroll and the Evangelical Protestant Christian apologist Josh McDowell.  The full seven minute video is also included below. 

"Now, this Mark may have been in that kind of a context. I’m not sure um I saw it in, ah, at Oxford University, at uh, at uh, Christ Church College and with, it was in the possession of an outstanding, well-known, and eminent classicist. I saw it again in 2013.  

There were some delays with its, with its, ah purchasing, and I was working at that time, ah, with the Green family collection which I had the privilege of organizing and putting together for the Hobby Lobby family, and had hoped that they would, at that time, acquire it. But they delayed and didn’t. Um, we were preparing an exhibit for the Vatican Library, and um, I wanted this to be a show piece in that exhibit, but,  it…." 

"Who wouldn’t?" 

"I know, wouldn’t that have been awesome? But it was just not the timing and so it was passed on, delayed. It has since been acquired. I can’t say by whom. It is in the process of being prepared for publication and what’s important to say is…."  

"What does that mean, “process of being prepared”? What does that mean?"  

"It’s a lengthy process, actually going through, especially with this because it’s going to get, it’s going to go out there, and there are going to be people immediately trying to tear it down, ah questioning its provenance, so where it came from, what it dates to, especially with the date. And so they want an ironclad argument on the dating of the document so that, ummm, it won’t be, I mean they have a responsibility to that. But this is going to be very critical (***inaudible***). It will be a major flash-point in the news when this happens."  

"Who’s the main person in the publishing of it?" 

"Well, umm, the most important person of note is Dirk Obbink, who is… see this is a lot more information than you heard last time."  

"Yeah it is."  

"Dirk Obbink is an outstanding scholar. He’s one of the world’s leading specialists on papyri. He directs the collection, for students who are in here, you may remember hearing the word “Oxyrhynchus Papyri.” He is the director of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri

Um, I can’t speak to his, like his own personal faith positions and I don’t think he would define himself as an Evangelical in any sense of the word, but he is um, not, he doesn’t have a derogatory attitude at all. He’s a supportive person. But he, he, specializes in the dating of handwriting. And as he was looking at the, both times I saw the papyrus, it was in his possession. So, it was in Oxford at Christ Church, and actually on his pool table in his office, along with a number of mummy heads. So, he had these mummy heads..." 

"So, you’re playing pool [laughter, inaudible]."

"And you’ve got that document there. And that’s the setting. That’s kind of surreal. And Dirk, Dirk was wrestling with dating, somewhere between 70 AD and 120, 110/120..."

On December 1, 2011 Carroll took to social media and wrote on Facebook "For over 100 years the earliest-known text of the NT has been the so-called John Rylands papyrus.  That is about to change with a sensational discover[y] I made yesterday.  Stay tuned for the update."  The same day he tweeted the same in shorter form on the social media site Twitter. "For over 100 years the earliest known text of the New Testament has been the so-call John Rylands Papyrus. Not any more."

In this instance Carroll was referring to the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St John's fragment, (accession reference P. Rylands 457), a papyrus fragment which Carroll believed was superseded, in terms of earliest known NT scripture by the yet to be published fragment shown to him in Oxford by Obbink.

In 2018 Professor Obbink himself reported to EES that he did show the Mark papyrus to Scott Carroll in his rooms, where he claimed it was temporarily there for teaching purposes.  Obbink reported that Scott Carroll and he discussed whether the fragment could be displayed in an exhibition at the Vatican but without conclusion and insisted that he had never said that the papyrus was for sale.  Obbink also informed the EES that while he did receive some payments from the Green Collection for advice on other matters, he had not accepted any payment for or towards the purchase of this previously unpublished text.  The exhibition Obbink obliquely referred to would have been the Verbum Domini which highlighted 152 pieces from the Green's collection and which opened in Rome on March 1, 2012, long before the sales agreement between Obbink and Hobby Lobby was finalized. 

Jerry Pattengale, former Executive Director of Education Initiatives at Museum of the Bible also gave his own version of his long and sometimes contentiously bumpy relationship with Obbink, Carroll, the Museum of the Bible's benefactors and the controversial sale of the stolen EES artifacts.  In an article penned for Christianity Today on June 28, 2019, Pattengale reported being present during the infamous viewing of the Mark fragment on Obbink's pool table and writes that he and Carroll were about to leave the scholar's office, when Obbink stood up and told them “I have something you two might like to see.”

According to Pattengale, Obbink then opened a manila filing envelope containing the four papyrus pieces of New Testament Gospels of Matthew 3.7-10, 11-12; Mark 1.8-9, 16-18; Luke 13.25-7, 28, and John 8.26-8, 33-5, which the scholar  was purportedly shopping to the pair of MOTB affiliates on behalf of a confidential seller.  In Pattengale's version he tries to paint an innocent portrait of himself as having been duped by the Oxford professor.  He even goes so far as to admit that he was the individual who photographed Obbink’s handwritten list of the four manuscripts for sale, reporting that he carried the slip of paper, folded up in his own wallet, for years.

In reality, it was the file metadata of the photo of the handwritten inventory which tied the photo to Pattengale, and which showed that the image was taken near Indiana Wesleyan University, where Pattengale works.  Despite throwing Obbink under the bus, Pattengale gives the reader no information on whether or not he or Carroll pressed the Oxford scholar for any documentation on the objects' legitimacy for sale before he and Carroll brought the offer forward to the Greens and Hobby Lobby. 

Buyer's Remorse? 

The evangelical Green family's private collection of biblical artifacts is known to have been gathered and purchased, in staggering quantities, over a ten year period, many brokered through purchases arranged by Scott Carroll, in anticipation of the opening of the family-sponsored $800 million, eight-story, Museum of the Bible.  Brimming with objects gifted to the Washington DC museum by their deep-pocketed benefactors, this family-sponsored museum opened its doors, just two blocks south of the National Mall, in November 2017.

Since then, many of the objects and texts purchased by the Greens, and in some cases donated on to the museum, have caused reputational damage to DC's youngest museum, as well as to the Green family themselves and their zealous buyer. So many purchases were made during the Greens antiquities shopping sprees that at times the museum's upper level directors appeared to be somewhat in the dark about when, and what, had been purchased, and from whom.   

As aggressive buyers who at times have been portrayed as being unfamiliar with, or obtuse to ethical collecting practices, the Greens and the Museum of the Bible have not commented publicly on their own involvement leading up to the sale of the EES fragments. It is not known (publically) if the Greens or anyone connected to the sales and ownership transactions queried Obbink at any point to produce documentation demonstrating how the scholar came to acquire the manuscripts, or when, and under what circumstances, the artifacts had left the source country.

What is known is that after agreeing to the Obbink's conditions and proceeding with the invoiced transaction.  The museum waited from 2013 until June 2019 to get cold feet and only transmitted the sale's details to worried scholars, confirming that something was afoot with this purchase, a full year after the Egyptian Exploration Society had identified the Mark fragment as their own. 

This lack of transparency is not the Museum's first, or only time that their collection's acquisition and disclosure details leave a lot of unanswered questions and have proven problematic for the Greens' reputation.  In their drive to acquire, the family has not only purchased stolen artifacts, tied to multiple transactions, but they have also been snookered into buying forgeries which later proved to be too good to be true.  

With the transmission of this controversial purchase agreement and other documents sent to Dr. Brent Nongbri's and published in his June 2019 blog post, Obbink's statements regarding what happened during the his MOTB meetings can now, once and for all, be concluded as false. This plus the continued scholarly outcry from Roberta Mazza, Josephine Dru, Candida Moss, Brent Nongbri, Ariel Sabar, David Bradnick, and a host of other concerned scholars, perhaps served to impetus to the EES to initiate a thorough, internal investigation into what else, in addition to these fragments, might be missing from within their collection while under Obbink's supervision.

Screenshot:  Facebook, taken 16 October 2019. 

That inquiry, facilitated by information and photographs provided by the Museum of the Bible staff, has served to confirm that the MOTB purchased 13 EES fragments stolen from their collection.  Likewise, their investigation has revealed that key file records, including some catalogue cards and photographs relating to the missing fragments (twelve on papyrus and one on parchment) were also methodically removed, likely to cover the tracks of the thief or thieves involved.

For the moment it has been determined that eleven of these fragments were sold directly by Obbink to Hobby Lobby Inc., in two batches in 2010 which were then donated to the Museum of the Bible for the museum's collection.  The other two fragments identified as missing from the EES collection came into the MOTB's hands via Khader M. Baidun & Sons who operate Art-Levant Antiquities of Israel.  Baidun was one of five antiquity dealers in East Jerusalem, arrested in Israel in 2017 in connection to a large smuggling scandal involving antiquities purchased by Hobby Lobby.

Yet whomever removed the artifacts from the Egypt Exploration Society and tampered with the find records, in furtherance of the theft and subsequent sales, was evidently unaware that the EES still had a small ace up their sleeve.  Archival records stored in another area of the society enabled EES staff to identify several missing texts. With this iron-clad evidence, the Society then worked with the MOTB to developed a mutually beneficial agreement which would allow research on the stolen fragments by scholars under the auspices of the MOTB, who would publish their findings in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series, in exchange for the museum's Board of Trustees acceptance of the Society's claim to ownership and the museum's voluntary forfeiture of the contested pieces.

Hashing out this agreement may explain the nearly one year delay between the time EES issued a statement that the fragment of Mark P.Oxy. LXXXIII 5345 was theirs and the time in which Michael Holmes, Director of the Museum of the Bible's Scholars Initiative, released information on the sale's process to worried scholars. 

Genesis 5:  P.Oxy. inv. 39 5B.119/C(4-7)b.  [PAP.000121]
Genesis 17:  P.Oxy. inv. 20 3B.30/F(5-7)b.   [PAP.000463]
Exodus 20-21:  P.Oxy. inv. 102/171(e).   [PAP.000446]
Exodus 30.18-19:  P.Oxy. inv. 105/149(a).   [PAP.000388]
Deuteronomy:  P.Oxy. inv. 93/Dec. 23/M.1.   [PAP.000427]
Psalms 9.23-26:   P.Oxy. inv. 8 1B.188/D(1-3)a.   [PAP.000122]
Sayings of Jesus:  P.Oxy. inv. 16 2B.48/C(a).   [PAP.000377]
Romans 3:  <related to P.Oxy. inv. 101/72(a)>.   [PAP.000467]
Romans 9-10:  P.Oxy. inv. 29 4B.46/G(4-6)a.   [PAP.000425 one part]
1 Corinthians 7-10:  P.Oxy. inv. 106/116(d) + 106/116(c).   [PAP.000120 three small fragments]
Quotation of Hebrews:  P.Oxy. inv. 105/188(c).   [PAP.000378]
Scriptural homily:  P.Oxy. inv. 3 1B.78/B(1-3)a.   [PAP.000395]
(parchment) Acts of Paul:  P.Oxy. inv. 8 1B.192/G(2)b.   [MS.000514]

In June 2019, perhaps in tandem with the release of the purchase agreement documents, the EES formally banned Obbink from any access to its collection, at least for the moment, pending his satisfactory clarification of his 2013 contract for another fragment.  For the moment, no formal charges against Obbink have been made public and Oxford University seems to be carrying out their own internal inquiry.  The EES has also stated that it is "also pursuing identification and recovery of other texts, or parts of texts, which have or may have been illicitly removed from its collection."

Further investigations by Candida Moss outlined on Twitter show a connection between two  antiquities trading company one called Oxford Ancient headed by Dirk Obbink and a second called Castle Folio was jointly owned by one Mahmoud Elder and Dirk Obbink.

In the meanwhile, David Bradnick points out that two additional fragments with private collector, Andrew Stimer, in California, one of 1 Cor 7:32-37; 9:10-16 and the other of Rom 9:21-23; 10:3-4 which were reviewed by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research (INTF) also appear to likely belong to the same codex sold separately to the MOTB by Obbink.

Stimer has long been connected with Scott Carroll, as well as with his exhibitions in eastern Europe and Russia.  He is also believed to be the same individual who may have sold fake Dead Sea Scrolls fragments to the Museum of the Bible.

Knowing that this could be the tip of what could be a much larger iceberg, the EES will continue carrying out its systematic review of their entire collection, in order to determine what else might be missing and might have been sold. Further details into their internal investigation and whether or not law enforcement authorities in the UK or US will become, or are, involved have not been publicly confirmed as of the writing of this blog post. 

By:  Lynda Albertson


Why have no charges been filed, at least by the FBI and or other agencies? Surely, there is enough evidence to do so. Also, how are these parties still employed by their respective institutions or companies? It is evident that there is food dragging on someone's part and Scotland Yard has had Stolen Art Team in the past. Does no one care about these priceless and historically important items? The only way to curtail and discourage this fraudulent behavior is to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law!