The letter and documents provided by Mike Holmes in my previous post appear to provide confirmation of what many have suspected since the publication of P.Oxy. 83.5345, the so-called “First Century” Mark fragment: This papyrus and other Christian manuscripts in the Oxyrhynchus collection were offered for sale by one of the (now former) curators of the Oxyrhynchus collection, Oxford professor Dirk Obbink.
It has long been known that, especially in the early days of the building of the Green Collection and conceiving of the Museum of the Bible, Dirk Obbink was an important part of the undertaking.
But until now, the main piece of evidence linking Professor Obbink with the attempted sale of an Oxyrhynchus manuscript was the statement of Scott Carroll in a thread of blog comments shortly after the publication.
Some further digging through Scott Carroll’s online videos turned up an additional statement by Carroll that Oxford University was the source of at least some of the mummy masks that Carroll had purchased.
This new evidence provided by Mike Holmes of the Museum of the Bible is much more concrete and raises several questions. For now, I’ll just pose two of them. The first is: How many additional similar invoices are there? The Green Collection and Hobby Lobby purchased a lot of early Christian parchment and papyrus pieces between 2009 and 2013, many of them without clear provenance. Were any of them bought from Dirk Obbink? How big might this problem be? The Museum of the Bible could help by releasing any other invoices from Dirk Obbink that they might have.
The next question is: Why did this deal fall through? The terms of the purchase agreement, dated 17 January 2013, suggest that papyri of the four gospels, all assigned, presumably by Professor Obbink, to the first century, would remain at Oxford with Professor Obbink for a “Research Period” of 4 years, after which they would be published in the “Brill Green Papyri Series.” After this, the manuscripts were to be “returned to the buyer.” So, why did this not occur?
I’m not sure, but parts of this timeline don’t really add up. According to the statement issued by the Egypt Exploration Society last year:
“The identification of the fragment as Mark was made in 2011 by a researcher working for Professor Obbink, then one of the General Editors of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series. Professor Obbink decided he would himself prepare the text for publication. Editors are permitted, on certain conditions, to take out individual papyri from the collection for study or teaching on University premises. In spring 2016, in the light of the social media debate about possible early fragments of gospels being for sale, the EES decided to review what NT fragments had been identified in its collection but not yet published, and realised that the supposed first-century Mark was the papyrus now published as 5345. Professor Obbink was instructed to prepare it for publication as soon as practicable in order to avoid further speculation about its date and content, with Dr Daniela Colomo as co-editor; Dr Ben Henry also improved the edition at the sub-editing stage.”
So, at least one other “researcher” (who identified this papyrus as Mark) already knew in 2011 that this piece was part of the Oxyrhynchus collection. How, then, could Professor Obbink expect (in 2013) to be able to 1) publish the piece in the Green collection publication instead of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri series? or 2) “return” this and the other manuscripts to the “buyer”? From the terms of the agreement, it seems that all parties expected that these papyri would be physically delivered into the custody of Hobby Lobby. It’s hard to see how that could be the case if it was already known that at least one of them was part of the Oxyrhynchus collection. It would illuminate matters quite a bit to hear from the “researcher working for Professor Obbink” who identified the papyrus. Or is this researcher also under a non-disclosure agreement of some kind?
Similarly, if there was, as the Egypt Exploration Society statement says, “a record card for 5345, created by Dr [Revel] Coles in the early 1980s,” were there similar cards for the other manuscripts mentioned in the purchase agreement? And again, if so, how could Professor Obbink expect to sell the pieces without anyone noticing? Or was Professor Obbink also in charge of these cards? This is odd. It would be helpful if the Egypt Exploration Society explained this system of cards and made some examples available.
More to come.