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 1920 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:
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.