The Egypt Exploration Society Statement on Alleged Sales of Papyri to Hobby Lobby

The Egypt Exploration Society has issued a statement on the alleged sale of Oxyrhynchus papyri: Professor Obbink and sales of papyri to Hobby Lobby.

I recommend everyone read the full statement at the link above. I note that the statement does not positively affirm one of the central claims in the letter sent by Mike Holmes, namely that the documents supplied with the letter– 1) the redacted copy of the purchase agreement between Prof. Dirk Obbink and Hobby Lobby for four gospel fragments and 2) the photo of a list specifying the contents of four gospel fragments that match the contents of items in the Oxyrhynchus collection–“together document the fact of the sale and the identity of the items sold.”

The EES statement phrases the organization’s position this way: “At present we cannot confirm or deny that the four texts in the photographed list are the same as the four texts summarily described in the appendix to the 2013 contract.”

The statement concludes with the following:

“We are grateful to Professor Holmes for sharing with us in advance the newly revealed contract and photograph, and we are working with him to clarify whether the four texts in the photographed list, or any other EES papyri, were sold or offered for sale to Hobby Lobby or its agents, and if so, when and by whom. This may take some time, and unless and until new evidence emerges, there is no more we can say. We note that Professor Obbink has not been a General Editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri since August 2016.”

It is encouraging to hear that Holmes and the EES will be working together to get to the bottom of this. If, as Holmes’ letter alleges, “a purchase agreement was executed” in 2013, presumably money changed hands and there are additional financial records to examine.

A couple points made in the statement do seem to call for further clarification. The first is this one: “In our statement of 4 June 2018 we simply reported Professor Obbink’s responses to our questions at that time. . .” It would be helpful to know how much of that 2018 statement was “simply reporting” what Professor Obbink said. For instance, the account of the identification of the fragment: “The identification of the fragment as Mark was made in 2011 by a researcher working for Professor Obbink.” Was this claim is based on anything other than Professor Obbink’s answers to questions posed in 2018, or was there some EES oversight of the matter before that time?

The second point is related. The final line of the statement reads: “We note that Professor Obbink has not been a General Editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri since August 2016.” Can representatives of the EES clarify whether this fact is at all related to this portion of last year’s EES statement: “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”? Or is the timing of the two simply coincidental?

And again, for reasons I outlined in a previous post, it would be useful to have some clarity about the system of photographs and cards mentioned in the June 2018 statement: “EES records include a photograph and brief record card for each papyrus awaiting publication, which were prepared to assist the General Editors in selecting papyri for future volumes.” The existence of such records makes it hard to see how anyone could think it was even possible to get away with what Professor Obbink is being accused to doing (selling Oxyrhynchus papyri that are owned by the Egypt Exploration Society and that are documented as such). I’ll repeat my previous questions: What is on these cards besides photographs and dates? Where are they kept, and who has access to them? It would be great if someone with knowledge of the matter at the Egypt Exploration Society would shed some light on that, while we all await the time when “new evidence emerges.”

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

12 Responses to The Egypt Exploration Society Statement on Alleged Sales of Papyri to Hobby Lobby

  1. Aractus says:

    I’m glad you pointed that out regarding the timing and second-last paragraph. To me as an Aussie “Spring 2016” means September-November 2016 coming after August. So reading those facts I would have thought he had already stepped down from that position before any controversy.

    • Yes, I was always confused by that “seasonal” language when I lived in Australia!

    • spiker says:

      That seems to be the implication Aractus. Recall that this is two years before the EES, as far as we know, even knew that FCM was in their collection. Further the EES statement Doctor Nongbri cites is curiously vague.

  2. D. Bradnick says:

    On Twitter Candida Moss recently posted about antiquities dealer Alan Baidun, who is connected to Elder, who is connected to Obbink. The Baidun Antiquities website is selling 4 leaves from a 9th-12th century Armenian Gospel of John.

    It looks to me like these are from the same manuscript as leaves on display in Belarus where Scott Carroll did an exhibit in 2018.

    Do these match or am I seeing a connection that’s not there?

    Baidun Antiquities has also sold a 5th-cent. text of Mark. I am almost certain that I’ve seen it before, but I cannot place it. Perhaps in one of Carroll’s presentations?

    I’m not sure how these dots connect, but maybe Baidun Antiquities is the source for some of these texts but not before breaking them up to maximize profits? This also makes me wonder about P129, considering that some pieces are in the Green Collection and another piece was also on display in Belarus.

  3. Minor point: EEF convey that they have a photo and a card for 5345, and many others. By implication, at least, notes such as Iliad, astronomical, literary, documentary sometimes obtain on the cards. But, strictly interpreted, the photo is not necessarily attached to the card, though it might well be.

  4. Tom Hennell says:

    Brent, I fully agree with the points you raise; one specific question I have on the record cards is whether they all carry a date indicator from Revel Coles cataloguing of the 1980s (e.g. I/II); and if so, which date indicators were recorded for the Matthew, Luke and John fragments that correspond to the photographed note in Dirk Obbink’s handwriting.

    On the general matter at hand, I believe it has been abundantly clear – ever since the publication of P 137 in May 2018 – that ‘First Century Mark’ has been the occasion of an attempted financial deception; and that the target for the deception was Hobby Lobby/the Green Collection. But three further questions have remained a mystery up till now: who was involved in the deception; how did they reckon to exploit the deception to extract money; and how did they expect to get away with it?

    Mike Holmes’s email proposes an answer to the first of these questions; that one of those involved in the deception was Dirk Obbink. As the EES statement clarifies, this accusation depends on identifying the four gospel fragments on Dirk Obbink’s handwritten list (which can only describe fragments in the ownership of the EES) with the four gospel fragments listed on page 4 of the purchase agreement (initialled on page 4, and signed by Dirk Obbink on page 3). If the purchase agreement list were to have been referring to another four gospel fragments entirely (all dated circa 100 AD in 2012), then Mike Holmes accusation fails. This can only be resolved by further documentation from Hobby Lobby.

    Supposing that this first question is not yet finally closed, I might propose my opinion as to a hypothetical solution to the second question, taking clues from the form of the purchase agreement, which provides for payment to be made up-front but for the items sold only to be delivered several years later . If one were to speculate about why one would ‘sell’ something that one didn’t own and had no intention of stealing, having a 5-year window between the date of the sale and the due date for delivery of the goods might provide an answer; as it would hypothetically allow someone to make use of a good deal of money for five years. All the more so, if the vendor was also able to exploit the contacts and goodwill created by the ‘sale’ of the principal item of interest, to then sell further items to Hobby Lobby at a substantial profit – items purchased using the money received from the principal sale. On this assumption, it would always have been intended to return the principal sum after five years (minus a consideration for those items actually sold), for which a superficially plausible explanation and apology would then have been needed; perhaps along the lines of “I regret to tell you that my further researches have confirmed that none of these items can be older than the third century A.D; and as they unfortunately do not now correspond with the description I provided at the point of sale, I am sending you your money back”.

    On the third question, again in my opinion, the deception would only have been apparent to Hobby Lobby once the principal item offered for sale (First Century Mark) was eventually published by the EES; which did not in the event happen until May 2018, but might well have been delayed longer. And even then it would seem that Dirk Obbink (if it was indeed him) did nearly escape with his public academic reputation intact. Professor Obbink was able to offer assurances to the EES that he had never sought to sell these particular fragments, assurances that they reported without qualification in their public statements; and the only persons who might gainsay him on this point would have been those with access to, very confidential, Hobby Lobby purchase records; some of whom, he could have assumed, might have their own reasons for not calling him out. But he did not reckon with Mike Holmes.

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