Elijah Hixson draws attention to an article that appeared online today in Christianity Today by Jerry Pattengale, one of the core team who developed the Green Collection and the Museum of the Bible: “The ‘First-Century Mark’ Saga from Inside the Room.” The article recounts his involvement with Professor Obbink and the Mark fragment. There is a lot to digest here, both in terms of new information and new questions raised. These are my initial reactions.
Pattengale recounts Obbink’s initial presentation of the fragments to Scott Carroll and himself in 2011. According to Pattengale, Professor Obbink showed them four gospel fragments, one of which dated to the first century. Pattengale states that Professor Obbink told them “he was selling the manuscripts on behalf of a private collection—a common practice.” After a further period of time and in an effort “to maintain our due diligence,” Pattengale consulted Dan Wallace (as is well known) and Peter Head. Although doubts arose about the first-century dating of the Mark fragment, the pieces were bought anyway:
“Eventually, all four pieces were purchased in 2013 for a considerable sum—though at a fraction of their value (even taking the later dates our researchers suggested).”
Then comes a series of statements that I think require some further explanation in light of the statements made by the Egypt Exploration Society both in 2018 and in recent days. Pattengale writes,
“As news of a “First-Century Mark” surfaced, it eventually became obvious it was a piece in the Oxyrhynchus collection (P.Oxy. 83.5345; P137)—which, at the time, was under Obbink’s purview in Oxford.”
I’m still not clear on exactly how and when it “became obvious” to the Egypt Exploration Society that “First Century” Mark was P.Oxy. 83.5345. According to the EES statement of 2018:
“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.”
I’m unclear as to what people would recognize the fragment both as “First Century Mark” (a description that would presumably only be known to Obbink, Carroll, Pattengale, Wallace, and a small circle of Hobby Lobby people) and as the item in the photograph associated with the record card produced by Revel Coles in the 1980s. But I digress. In their statement from earlier this week, the EES said:
“We note that Professor Obbink has not been a General Editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri since August 2016.”
Now into this mix, Pattengale writes that:
“Before the EES became aware of this particular case, that the “First-Century Mark” was actually its own, Obbink reported to Steve Green (chair of the Museum of the Bible’s board) and me that the EES gave him an ultimatum to sever all public ties with our museum or be fired.”
This raises a couple questions–When exactly did this all take place? Before 2016? And why? Was the EES somehow unhappy with Professor Obbink before then? And what is meant by being “fired”? I don’t think Professor Obbink was ever an employee of the EES. He was on the Managing Committee of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri collection and was one of the general editors, and he was still publishing Oxyrhynchus papyri as recently as 2018.
Pattengale goes on to note that in November 2017, David Trobisch, who was at that time director of collections at the Museum of the Bible, apparently didn’t know that gospel papyri had been purchased from Professor Obbink. The culture of secrecy at the Museum of the Bible is truly astounding. Matthew 6:3 comes to mind (“. . . do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing . . .”)
There is much more that could be said, but for now, I just want to highlight two particular points that stood out to me. First, Pattengale describes himself and Carroll as seasoned experts in working with manuscripts:
“Through the decades, we handled thousands of ancient manuscripts in various parts of the world; had helped host exhibits in the Vatican; met in the manuscript bowels of Monte Casino [sic]; stayed in the Coptic papal residence in Wadi Natrun, Egypt; stood on a Persian rug in a bomb shelter covering a trove of antiquities in Jerusalem . . .” and so on.
He describes encountering a variety of sellers peddling their wares but being savvy enough to disperse them by calling for legal documentation:
“One fellow kept calling about a buried boxcar of antiquities in Texas, another claiming ownership of something from Jesus’ birth stable, and yet another with plaster casts of the first-century tomb in Jerusalem. Of course, once I ask to see the Israeli Antiquities Authority documentation, the conversations usually change.”
Fair enough. So at what point in the “First Century” Mark saga was Obbink asked for such documentation about how these papyri left Egypt? I missed that part of Pattengale’s account. And were such questions asked about the other Green Collection papyri, like the fragment of the Gospel According to Matthew that Pattengale used to carry in his pocket (also, incidentally, dated by Dirk Obbink)?
And finally, this sentence:
“The extent of Obbink’s involvement in other sales is yet to unfold.”
The only reason that the story of some of those sales “is yet to unfold” is because the Green Collection and the Museum of the Bible continue to withhold sales records and ownership histories for many of their fragments (what ever did happen to that Coptic Galatians fragment that was on e-bay?). The picture that Pattengale paints of himself and Carroll being tricked by Professor Obbink is plausible, but the Green Collection and the Museum of the Bible, with their insistence on secrecy, do not help matters. The release of these documents by Michael Holmes is a step in the right direction, but there is more to be done.