Dirk Obbink and the Oxyrhynchus “Distribution” Papyri

There is an interesting twist with the developing story of the alleged attempt by Dirk Obbink to sell Oxyrhynchus papyri owned by the Egypt Exploration Society. It appears that he had some prior experience selling Oxyrhynchus papyri that he did in fact own. This can be a little confusing for the uninitiated. So, let me stress at the outset that the material released by Mike Holmes and the Museum of the Bible yesterday deals with manuscripts that are the property of the Egypt Exploration Society. What I am about to discuss is something different.

Let me first summarize an earlier post on the topic. Starting in the early days of the excavations of Grenfell and Hunt, the Egypt Exploration Society (then known as the Egypt Exploration Fund) had a regular practice of “distributing” excavated artifacts to donors. Pieces usually ended up at libraries, museums, or schools in the UK and the US. With respect to the Oxyrhynchus papyri, this practice only involved pieces that were already published, and it took place from about 1900 to 1924.  In the Appendix to Volume 4 of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (published in 1904), the editors gave a list of the papyri that had been donated up to that time and prefaced it with the following note:

Similar lists appear as appendices to Volume 5 (1908), Volume 11 (1915), and Volume 16 (1924). I’m not aware of further distributions of papyri after 1924. Now, the fates of these “Distribution Papyri,” as they have come to be known, have varied. Some remain in the institutions to which they were sent. Some are simply lost now. In some cases, the institutions themselves have ceased to exist. So, for instance, the papyri sent to the Andover Newton Theological School are now in the library of Yale Divinity School, which absorbed the remains of the Andover faculty when the school closed. It also happened that some of these “Distribution Papyri” were put up for auction by institutions in the US in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. It is well known that the Green Collection swooped in to buy such manuscripts, especially Christian pieces. What was not so well known (at least to me) was that the Green Collection seems not to have bought all these papyri directly from the institutions. The Museum of the Bible has added several of their Oxyrhynchus papyri to their growing “Provenance” page. The details of ownership history of some pieces include a surprise. Here is the entry for P.Oxy. 1779, a papyrus fragment of the Psalms:

“Provenance” information for P.Oxy. 1779 at the Museum of the Bible website

Now, the buying and selling of these “Distribution Papyri” is legal. Whether it’s ethical is a separate question (the Egypt Exploration Society has taken a stand against the sale of “Distribution” items). These records, if accurate, show that Professor Obbink was active in the antiquities market, and it is fascinating to see that Professor Obbink was buying and then almost immediately reselling these pieces to the Green Collection. It’s not just this Psalms fragment. It’s several pieces bought from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio: P.Oxy. 1353; P.Oxy. 1459; P.Oxy. 1678; P.Oxy. 1688; P.Oxy. 1728; P.Oxy. 1756; and P.Oxy. 1775, as well as a Tebtunis papyrus.

It’s also noteworthy that this was happening quite early in the formation of the Green Collection–in 2010. If these records are accurate, then almost from the beginning of the enterprise, Dirk Obbink was not just an advisor, but also a supplier of manuscripts to the Green Collection. It certainly makes the question of the ownership history of the unprovenanced Christian manuscripts in the Green Collection and Museum of the Bible all the more pressing.

This entry was posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Antiquities Market, Dirk Obbink, Green Collection, Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Dirk Obbink and the Oxyrhynchus “Distribution” Papyri

  1. John Thomas says:

    So, if Dirk Obbink is acquiring these papyri, does he have to pay a big amount for it? Where does he (as a Professor) get those money from? Maybe Green Collection is paying him?

    • Greg Matthews says:

      Well, he did buy a castle once as a fixer upper which he sold earlier this year when he decided it was going to cost too much to actually fix up. So something has been profitable for him….

    • PeterMontoro says:

      He won a MacArthur genius grant award which comes with several hundred thousand dollars of cash, no strings attached.

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  3. Tyler Smith says:

    Brent, I’m working my way through the initial reactions to Mike Holmes’s email to you et al. Good lord. I still have a lot of unanswered questions, one of which has to do with P.Oxy. 5345’s current whereabouts. Is it still on Obbink’s pool table? Has the EES asked for it back?

    • To the best of my knowledge, that papyrus, like all the Oxyrhynchus pieces published in the last 90 or so years, is now mounted between glass panes and stored in the Papyrology Room in the Sackler Library.

  4. Pattycake says:

    I’ve always known that Obbink was in charge of acquiring antiquities. I read about that a long time ago. I thought he and Carroll had the same job there for a while. I didn’t know he owned any of the pieces however.

    • Do you recall where exactly you read about that?

      • Pattycake says:

        I think I made a comment about it on Bart’s blog a while back. I provided some links, so it might be there. I’ll look it up.

      • Pattycake says:

        I found my comment from Bart’s blog:
        Pattycake1974 June 3, 2018
        I don’t know what to make of Obbink at this point. He was directly involved in the GSI with mentoring, acquisitions, as well as the destruction of the mummy masks according to Moss and Baden’s book Bible Nation. He’s also been said to have promised positions at Oxford to certain graduate students affiliated with the GSI. The insinuation is that he was granting favors because of his connection to the Greens.

        I can’t remember what I read in Bible Nation that made me think he was directly involved in acquisitions. I just read the sections that contain his name, and I don’t see anything about acquisitions. But I am almost positive I read *somewhere* that he flew to a place to acquire a piece, and it made me think he had the authority to make purchases and that it was an early role he had for GSI.

        This is really bugging me now. I need to figure it out!

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  6. Michael Clark says:

    Hi Brent
    Interesting article. Footnote 2 stipulates that the EES had “gifted” many Papryi. Perhaps I am reading this wrong but how is someone acquiring Papryi that was gifted to an “institution?”
    Are these institutions selling Papryi? Why doesn’t the footnote state “acquired privately” for DO instead of just “Acquired?”

  7. Michael Clark says:

    Thanks for your answer, Brent.
    That makes good sense what you stated. That could be the case. So, it seems he is quite active in this market.

    In your opinion, what are the chances these Papryi came elsewhere besides the EES? Are these Mummy Masks smoke and mirrors? It seems hard to believe all this…

  8. Michael Clark says:

    Sorry for the confusion, I jumped ahead.
    The Papyri that DO allegedly sold to Hobby Lobby.

    • The four papyrus gospel fragments allegedly offered for sale by Dirk Obbink to Hobby Lobby are (and have been since the time they exited Egypt) the property of the EES. They did not come from mummy masks.

  9. Michael says:

    Thanks for your insight.
    I was curious because as you know there have been reports of a Mark 1 century being found in a mummy mask ( see Dr. Evans @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kPgACbtRRs) and I was wondering if it were at all possible that these items allegedly offered for sale could at least partially be from this mask (for what its worth I find it strange we would find a papryi text this way).

    It’s very bizarre this whole chain of events. One would think that at least some partial evidence would need to be shown upfront before anything could allegedly be put in writing (i.e. mummy masks).

    I’m a non-academic but could you explain briefly why you think they are from the EES? Is it because the EES stated they have something similar and there is no way this could be a co-incidence?


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