Recap of the SBL “First Century Mark” Session

A few days ago, I was fortunate to be a part of the a session dedicated to a “postmortem” on so-called “First Century Mark” at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego. Below is a quick summary derived from my recollections. Please let me know if there are any inaccuracies, and I will correct them.

SBL 2019 “First Century Mark” panel: image source: Twitter feed of Charles J. Schmidt (via Evangelical Textual Criticism)

Bart Ehrman started things off by revisiting his 2012 debate with Dan Wallace. He made the case that even if we did have a fragment of Mark datable to the first century, it wouldn’t really tell us much that is new. If it looked like the text of Mark that we know, that’s great, but we still wouldn’t know how it matched up with the lost earliest copy of the gospel. If the first century manuscript looked too different from the Mark we know, then “scholars like Dan” might claim it wasn’t actually a copy of Mark. Bart finished up by speaking out against relying on hearsay (as Dan Wallace had in their debate).

Elijah Hixson gave a thorough and remarkably clear overview of the chronology of events in this episode, and his presentation included an excellent detailed handout that is the sort of thing that should probably be made available online (subtle hint).

For my part, I raised some concerns about Green Collection mummy masks and cartonnage (as well as the mummy masks and cartonnage held by the Egypt Exploration Society). I posed a couple questions to Mike Holmes and to Roberta Mazza, some of which were answered right after my talk, and some of which they addressed in their own contributions. My questions for Mike:

  • What is the size of the Green Collection’s papyrus holdings? (Mike’s answer: roughly 5,000 pieces)
  • What is the size and and what are the sources of the Green Collection’s mummy masks and cartonnage holdings? (Mike’s answer: 8 masks, 4 of which were bought from Dirk Obbink; Josephine Dru, former curator of papyri at MOTB interjected that the number 8 for the masks seemed low to her and may not include items that were purchased but not delivered)
  • What were the redacted items in the invoice that included “First Century Mark” and the other gospel papyri? (not answered)
  • How and when did MOTB personnel become aware that “First Century Mark” was an item in the Oxyrhynchus collection? (Mike’s answer: not answered)

I also asked that last question to Roberta Mazza in regard to the EES along with a follow-up relating to the EES cartonnage collection: 

  • How and when did the EES became aware that “First Century Mark” was an item in the Oxyrhynchus collection? (Roberta’s answer: early 2016, when people involved with the Oxyrhynchus Papyri project saw online content linking Dirk Obbink to the alleged sale of “First Century Mark”)
  • With regard to the EES’s recent report that stated “In March 2019, a thorough survey of the EES Oxyrhynchus cartonnage collection (housed in Oxford) was conducted [and] identified some urgent conservation needs within the collection”: Is there an existing inventory of the cartonnage? If so, were any pieces identified as missing? (Roberta’s answer: There is no reason to suspect any losses from the EES cartonnage collection; but she answered this question before Mike revealed Dirk Obbink as the source of four of the Green Collection’s mummy masks, so this question might need to be revisited)

Jill Hicks-Keeton argued that we can understand “First Century Mark” as a part of a larger phenomenon at work in the Museum of the Bible and in other evangelical Christian circles (including academic circles), which seeks to project, promote, and market what she called the “Reliable Bible.” This “Bible” is portrayed as both recoverable and authoritative, as she demonstrated with reference to exhibits in MOTB and some of the rhetoric used by contributors to the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog (particularly some comments by Pete Williams, one of the founders of the blog).

Roberta Mazza walked us through the complicated network of dealers and collectors connected to Dirk Obbink. She expressed gratitude to Mike Holmes for the work that he has done to bring to light the theft of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, but she was also heavily critical of the collecting practices of the Greens and the Museum of the Bible, in particular describing Steve Green as a “trophy collector” with no understanding of what he was buying. Interestingly, the position she staked out did leave a space for responsible private collectors who were committed to transparency.

Mike Holmes, despite being interrupted several times by alarms, gave an interesting overview of what was happening behind the scenes over the last year as he liaised with the Egypt Exploration Society to determine if the MOTB and the Green Collection did in fact possess papyri from the Oxyrhynchus collection. After pressuring people inside the MOTB organization to investigate the provenance of “First Century Mark,” he first initiated contact with Roberta Mazza in April of 2019 with information about pieces he suspected might have come from the Oxyrhynchus collection. This gambit brought about the collaborative process in which the EES shared its catalog of cards and photos with MOTB in order to determine what, if any, additional papyri from the Oxyrhynchus collection had been sold to MOTB. So far such 13 papyri have been identified in the Green Collection and MOTB collection, and these are in the process of being returned to the EES. Mike added the tragicomic note that the papyri that were stolen from the UK collection are now held up at the border because EU authorities want to issue a VAT charge to (re-)import them into the country!

Overall, I found the session to be a helpful synthesis of this episode. As Mike indicated in his presentation, the occasion of this session allowed him to argue to authorities in the MOTB that it was necessary to release to the panelists the records indicating that Dirk Obbink had sold the Mark papyrus. In that way, the simple existence of the session served to make more of this evidence public. This is a helpful development in my view. It is clear that both MOTB and the EES are working to fix the issues that allowed this to happen.

At the same time, the knowledge that the Green Collection has roughly 5,000 papyri, and only 24 of them have publicly known provenance information is disheartening. Similarly, the news that Green Collection records indicate that Dirk Obbink was the source of some of the collections mummy masks raises the possibility that these too might have come from EES collections. This opens up a new, and quite possibly more difficult area of investigation: trying to determine how much of the Green Collection cartonnage may have come from the Egypt Exploration Society collections by way of Professor Obbink. More work remains to be done.

This entry was posted in Antiquities Market, Dirk Obbink, First Century Mark, Mummy cartonnage, Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Recap of the SBL “First Century Mark” Session

  1. Pattycake says:

    Thanks for the update Brent.

  2. Pattycake says:

    Did anyone say why it wasn’t announced when the Mark fragment was finally published? It was all in secrecy.

  3. Tim Skorick says:

    Candida Moss’ live-tweet of the event was great, and she posted a picture of Hixson’s handout.

  4. g0thamite says:

    Since Dan Wallace was publicly called out it seems fair to have his comments added

    • Well, I’m not entirely sure his comments at the session helped to cast him in a better light. For that, I would go to his blog post at Nevertheless, if you want to add his session remarks in the comments, you’re free to do so.

      • Tommy Wasserman says:

        Yes Brent, you are right. Dan’s comment did not help. The best thing would have been just to repeat his apology in this forum. He did wear a black shirt (instead of his hawaii shirt) to mark sorrow (or ”his funeral”).

      • Brent Nongbri: Maybe share openly both sides of Wallace’s activities on this P137. Yes, he got ahead of himself on this one in the heat of debate and being an apologetic textual scholar at heart. The thing is the intent. Wallace’s intent has always been to seek truth and he stumbled a little here. It would be like taking the career of Metzger and have him have a misstep and then concluding his career is forevermore tainted. Wallace’s work in NTTC with CSNTM has benefited everyone. I don’t know one textual scholar that sees Wallace in a bad light or in any lesser light than before his misstep. So, maybe show a little respect. You might be mindful that you have many decades ahead of you and you could have a misstep sometime too and you might be hopeful that people will look at the entirety of your career and your heart intent, as opposed to casting subtle stones. Wallace has humbly apologized with no excuses and id truly sorry, so maybe you set aside your academia for a moment and do what Jesus would do, forgive and forget. God throws out mistakes behind his back so that he no longer sees them.

  5. Matthew Hamilton says:

    “This gambit brought about the collaborative process in which the EES shared its catalog of cards and photos”

    The (presumable) theft of some 120 papyri – so far – would have been harder if not impossible if copies of all of the cards and photos were online at EES.

    Years ago photos of the Dead Sea Scrolls were made public – why do we have to wait for another century for the Oxyrhynchus Papyri to be slowly released?

    • I agree. Several collections have done this (to greater and lesser extents) through APIS. The photos of the Dead Sea Scrolls became public against the will of the editors. If it had been up to the editors, we might still be waiting.

      • S Walch says:

        Well if the amount of Oxyrhynchus Papyri is correct (I believe it’s been mentioned to be around 500,000 papyri), our current rate of Oxyrhynchus papyri in the volumes (roughly 6,000 during 100 years, or 60 per year) would mean roughly another 8,233 years for all of them to be published (I think my maths is right there; (500,000 – 6000) / 60 = 8,233 years total)… we could definitely do with all of them being put online. Though I’m not quite sure whether that would’ve made it harder for only 120 of them to go missing.

        Thanks for the info about the DSS images online at the LLDSSDL, Dr. Nongbri. Had no idea that was the case. Plus thanks to the Israel Antiquities Authority for ignoring the editors, and doing the right thing!

      • Well, I was talking about the release of DSS images that took place long before the LLDSSDL, namely “The Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls” edited by Robinson and Eisenman in (I think) 1991.

  6. pgurry says:

    Brent, many thanks. Did Josephine say how many mummy masks she thought MOTB has? And is MOTB giving back its EES masks? Or were they already dissolved? How did Roberta not know? Was she startled to learn this? Maybe (I’m reading into this.)

    • As best I recall, Josephine did not say a specific number, just that 8 seemed quite low to her. And just to be clear, it is not known if the Green Collection bought _EES_ masks from Dirk Obbink, just that they bought some masks from him. Where he was getting them is not yet known for sure. I noted in my presentation that I could only find evidence that Carroll dissolved 2 masks (other types of cartonnage seem to have been dissolved more frequently).

  7. Aractus says:

    Hi Brent!

    Thanks for posting this on your blog. A couple of corrections. The correct credit for the photo is Charles J Schmidt, Twitter. Elijah’s timeline is here (credit: Candida Moss‏, twitter). It does unfortunately miss the Castle Folio’s announcement on 28 Jan 2015 (I don’t think he was aware of Castle Folio alas, credit goes to Lynda Albertson, art crime blog, Lynda is CEO of ARCA – Association for Research into Crimes against Art). For the benefit of the public Castle Folio was jointly owned by Mahmoud Elder and Dirk Obbink, see Brent’s blog post.

    I hope that helps, I’d love for you to upload your presentation for us to see!


  8. Thanks! I fixed the photo credit. Most of my presentation was just context for the questions outlined above, but there were a couple new pieces of data that I will post here when I have a moment.

  9. D. Bradnick says:

    Among other things, I was interested to hear that Stimer’s sixth papyrus fragment was a non-biblical literary text that was formerly thought to be part of P131 (assuming that I heard correctly). So questions about the provenance of the Homer and Aesop’s Fable manuscripts still linger. Carroll’s Belarus exhibition guide states that the latter was extracted from a mummy mask, which is a similar story that we heard for other texts connected to Carroll and Obbink. If they are part of Stimer’s collection, it would be helpful for him to share the provenance of these texts, thus exhibiting some of the transparency for which Roberta Mazza implored.

    The same can be said about some of the other non-EES manuscripts in MOTB’s collection–or at least “non-EES” based on current information.

  10. Timothy Joseph says:

    First, thanks for the update! Second, I would echo the question above about how Dr. Mazza and the rest of the Board were unaware that 120 items were missing? Third, is it not a little disconcerting, given the EES Board’s own lack of oversight and coverup, for Dr.Mazza to urge Dr. Holmes to leave the MOTB?


    • It does definitely seem like there was a lack of oversight on the part of the EES, at least in the years between 2010 and 2013, when Dirk Obbink was alleged to have sold the Oxyrhynchus pieces. I don’t think the Board of Trustees had much direct contact with the day-to-day workings of the management committee of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri project in those years, but I don’t know the ins and outs of that situation. It’s my impression that a relatively small number of people have good working knowledge of the record keeping systems for the collection and would be in a position to be able to note the absence of specific unpublished pieces.

  11. One of Roberta Mazza’s proposals will be quite interesting if it turns out to be confirmed: that the “elderly London collector” may be an astoundingly thinly-veiled reference to Mahmoud Elder.

  12. Danny Hardesty says:

    Scholars are rightly concerned about chain of custody and authentication issues concerning these documents and how difficult that can be. Imagine first, second, third century chains of custody and beyond….sadly, we will never know. 😦

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  15. Pattycake says:

    This is all I could find regarding Dan’s comments—from David Bradnick’s Twitter page:
    “Dan Wallace speaks from the audience “to clarify the fuller context of the debate.” He and Ehrmans are engaged in dialogue.

    Wallace accuses of Ehrman of also having an agenda because of the criteria that Ehrman requires to verify the originals. Ehrman briefly responds to Wallas and ends with “We’re done.” Obvious tension between the two.”

    Whether his comments were helpful or not, he had the right to respond and speak his mind. For that matter, we should be informed of the exchange between him and Bart. Were we not led to this moment because of secrecy and cover-ups? Yet, we’re getting an edited version of what happened? Not cool.

  16. If Obbink had been able to crucify his capitalist passions and restrict his transactions to the hundred thousands instead of millions I have faith that Jesus would have returned before he was discovered and he would have Saved enough (Obbink, not Jesus) at retirement to purchase the Dresden Castle including the fully furnished Green Vault. A corresponding lack of control at EES made it Obbink’s National Treasure.

    There has been no shortage of scholarly observation that Capitalist Evangelicals like Green El-all are too willing to obtain valuable ancient fragments. A Skeptic though always tries to look at the other side. Considering that Trustees at EES are selected primarily based on scholarship and reputation and are often already overworked and underpaid, is there some corresponding unwillingness on the part of scholars to allow Capitalist Evangelicals/anyone to obtain valuable ancient fragments from non-profits like EES?

    For EES, their inventory may be worth a billion and probably should be listed by Forbes. Would it be so terrible if they sold an ancient fragment of GMark to Green for 10 million? They could publish it first and making it available to the general public is exactly what Green wants to do. EES could use the proceeds for inventory control like maybe an expert in inventory control and a security system that consists of, I don’t know, something other than paper? For a new salary of $ 100,000/year, 10 million would last a long time, I don’t know how long. They could even sell a fragment of GMatthew to hire Richard Carrier to calculate how long.

    The public wants to contribute for interesting things like discovery and publication and not boring things like administration. Why be fanatical on the other side about not selling if there is a really good reason? Remember what The Oracle at Delphi has to say on the subject and if you don’t remember, remember to ask Professor Moss.

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  19. Given the, shall we say, variant provenance stories about Sappho mss, and indications of some rather ineluctably illegal sales, perhaps there are also additional unreliable aspects of the “First Century Mark” story. If there is a trial, perhaps more will be clarified. One specific that perhaps I missed reading more about: according to EES (June 4, 2018), “The identification of the fragment as Mark was made in 2011 by a researcher working for Professor Obbink.” This identifier was not given credit in the publication. Is this person remarkably quiet and unmentioned, and yet to relate some history, or did a certain other person go through Oxyrhynchus literary mss hunting for NT? (And while the Mark story is getting much attention, the question of who forged several recently sold “Dead Sea Scrolls” fragments, and maybe another inscription, has gotten less attention, at least in public.)

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