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.
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.