The great Ox­ford Bi­ble mys­tery

What links an ec­cen­tric Ox­ford clas­sics don, bil­lion­aire US evan­gel­i­cals and a tiny, miss­ing frag­ment of an an­cient man­u­script? Char­lotte Hig­gins un­rav­els a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar riddle

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By Char­lotte Hig­gins

visit Dr Dirk Ob­bink at Christ Church col­lege, Ox­ford, you must first be ush­ered by a bowler-hat­ted b porter into the stately Tom Quad, built by Car­di­nal Wolsey be­fore his spec­tac­u­lar down­fall in 1529. Turn sharp right, climb a flight of stairs, and there, be­hind a door on which is pinned a no­tice ad­ver­tis­ing a 2007 col­lege arts fes­ti­val, you will find Ob­bink’s rooms. Be warned: you may knock on the door in vain. Since Oc­to­ber, he has been sus­pended from du­ties fol­low­ing the big­gest scan­dal that has ever hit, and is ever likely to hit, the Univer­sity of Ox­ford’s clas­sics depart­ment.

An as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in pa­py­rol­ogy and Greek lit­er­a­ture at Ox­ford, Ob­bink oc­cu­pies one of the plum jobs in his field. Born in Ne­braska and now in his early 60s, this lugubri­ous, crum­pled, owlish man has “won at the game of academia”, said Can­dida Moss, pro­fes­sor of the­ol­ogy at Birm­ing­ham Univer­sity. In 2001, he was awarded a MacArthur “ge­nius” award for his ex­per­tise in “res­cu­ing dam­aged an­cient manuscript­s from the rav­ages of na­ture and time”. Over the course of his ca­reer, he has re­ceived mil­lions in fund­ing; he is cur­rently, in the­ory at least, run­ning a $1m pro­ject on the pa­pyrus rolls car­bonised by the erup­tion of Ve­su­vius in AD79.

Since he was ap­pointed in 1995, Ob­bink has wel­comed many vis­i­tors into his rooms at Christ Church: dons, un­der­grad­u­ates, re­searchers. One blus­tery evening to­wards the end

of Michael­mas term, 2011, two vis­it­ing Amer­i­cans climbed Ob­bink’s stair­case – Drs Scott Car­roll and Jerry Pat­ten­gale. Both worked for the Greens, a fam­ily of Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tive evan­gel­i­cals who have made bil­lions from a chain of craft­ing stores called Hobby Lobby. At the time, the fam­ily was em­bark­ing on an am­bi­tious new pro­ject: the Mu­seum of the Bi­ble, which opened in Wash­ing­ton DC in 2017. Car­roll was then its di­rec­tor. Items for the Green col­lec­tion were bought by Hobby Lobby, then do­nated to the mu­seum, bring­ing a sub­stan­tial tax write-off. Pat­ten­gale was the head of the Green Schol­ars Ini­tia­tive, a pro­ject of­fer­ing aca­demics re­search op­por­tu­ni­ties on items in the Green col­lec­tion.

The Greens, ad­vised by Car­roll, were buy­ing bib­li­cal arte­facts, such as To­rahs and early pa­pyrus manuscript­s of the New Tes­ta­ment, at a dizzy­ing pace: $70m was spent on 55,000 ob­jects be­tween 2009 and 2012, Car­roll claimed later. The mar­ket in a hith­erto ar­cane area of col­lect­ing sky-rock­eted. “For­tunes were made. At least two ven­dors who had been mak­ing €1-2m a year were sud­denly mak­ing €100-200m a year,” said one long­time col­lec­tor.

That win­try evening, Car­roll and Pat­ten­gale were mak­ing one of their oc­ca­sional trips to seek Ob­bink’s ex­per­tise on mat­ters pa­py­ro­log­i­cal. Ac­cord­ing to Pat­ten­gale, just as they were about to leave, Ob­bink reached into a manila en­ve­lope and pulled out four pa­pyrus frag­ments, one from each of the gospels. Ob­bink told them that three of these scraps dated from the sec­ond cen­tury AD.

But the fourth, a frag­ment of the Gospel of Mark – a 4cm by 4cm scrap the shape of a but­ter­fly’s wing, con­tain­ing just a few bro­ken words – was ear­lier than that. It was al­most cer­tainly from the first cen­tury AD, which would make it the old­est sur­viv­ing man­u­script of the New Tes­ta­ment, copied less than 30 years af­ter Mark had ac­tu­ally writ­ten it. Con­ser­va­tive evan­gel­i­cals place enor­mous weight on the Gospels as “God-breathed” words. The idea that such an ob­ject ex­isted was in­de­scrib­ably thrilling. Car­roll was “ec­static”, Pat­ten­gale re­called. “Veins along his neck bulged. He paced with arms flail­ing.”

No pur­chase was made at the time. Nev­er­the­less, the ob­jects did even­tu­ally end up be­ing sold to the Greens, af­ter Car­roll left their em­ploy in 2012. The ven­dor, or so it ap­pears, was Dirk Ob­bink. His name, and seem­ingly his sig­na­ture, ap­pear on a pur­chase agree­ment with Hobby Lobby dated 4 Fe­bru­ary 2013.

The prob­lem is that the items – if the pur­chase agree­ment is gen­uine – were not Ob­bink’s to sell. They are part of the Oxyrhynchu­s col­lec­tion of an­cient pa­pyrus, owned by the Egypt Ex­plo­ration So­ci­ety (EES) and housed at Ox­ford’s Sack­ler Li­brary.

Thir­teen ad­di­tional frag­ments from the col­lec­tion, it tran­spired this au­tumn, had also been sold to the Greens, 11 ap­par­ently by Ob­bink in 2010, and two by a Jerusalem-based an­tiq­ui­ties dealer.

Six fur­ther frag­ments from the Oxyrhynchu­s col­lec­tion have turned up in the pos­ses­sion of an­other col­lec­tor in the US, An­drew Stimer, a spokesper­son for whom says he ac­quired them in good faith, and with an ap­par­ently com­plete prove­nance (though parts of it have sub­se­quently been shown to have been fal­si­fied). The dealer who sold them to Stimer told him they had come from the col­lec­tion of M El­der of Dear­born, Michi­gan. That is, Mah­moud El­der, Ob­bink’s some­time business part­ner.

In to­tal, the EES has now dis­cov­ered that 120 frag­ments have gone miss­ing from the Oxyrhynchu­s col­lec­tion over the past 10 years. Since the ap­pear­ance, in June 2019, of that fate­ful pur­chase agree­ment and in­voice bear­ing Ob­bink’s name, the scale of the scan­dal has taken time to sink in. What kind of a per­son – what kind of an aca­demic – would steal, sell and profit from arte­facts in their care? Such an act would be “the most stag­ger­ing be­trayal of the val­ues and ethics of our pro­fes­sion”, ac­cord­ing to the Manch­ester Univer­sity pa­py­rol­o­gist Roberta Mazza.

The al­leged thefts were re­ported to Thames Valley po­lice on 12 Novem­ber. No one has yet been ar­rested or charged. Ob­bink has not re­sponded to in­ter­view re­quests from the Guardian, and has is­sued only one pub­lic state­ment. “The al­le­ga­tions made against me that I have stolen, re­moved or sold items owned by the Egypt Ex­plo­ration So­ci­ety col­lec­tion at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford are en­tirely false,” he has said. “I would never be­tray the trust of my col­leagues and the val­ues which I have sought to pro­tect and up­hold through­out my aca­demic ca­reer in the way that has been al­leged. I am aware that there are doc­u­ments be­ing used against me which I be­lieve have been fab­ri­cated in a ma­li­cious at­tempt to harm my rep­u­ta­tion and ca­reer.”

It seems that Dr Dirk Ob­bink is ei­ther a thief, has been caught up in a colos­sal mis­un­der­stand­ing, or, per­haps most shock­ingly of all, is the vic­tim of an elab­o­rate ef­fort to frame him.

A case for Ox­ford’s own In­spec­tor Morse, per­haps. But the real de­tec­tives in this case have been a transat­lantic band of pa­py­rol­o­gists, the­olo­gians, clas­si­cists and bib­li­cal schol­ars, who have turned their de­duc­tive and ev­i­dence-sifting pro­fes­sional skills to the mys­tery. For them, what started as in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity has turned into some­thing more like a cru­sade against the per­ver­sion of the ethics of their field.

This band of schol­arly sleuths, who have pub­lished their find­ings in books and on blogs and so­cial me­dia, in­cludes the the­olo­gian Can­dida Moss; Brent Nong­bri, a scholar of early Chris­tian­ity based at the Nor­we­gian School of The­ol­ogy; Mazza, whose in­ves­ti­ga­tions have some­times made her feel, she said, as if she were in a Coen broth­ers’ movie; and the con­trib­u­tors to a blog called Evan­gel­i­cal Tex­tual Crit­i­cism. The last, a fo­rum “for peo­ple with knowl­edge of the Bi­ble in its orig­i­nal lan­guages”, has not, un­til now, had much call for “break­ing news” ban­ners.

All these aca­demics have, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, a strong in­ter­est in the Oxyrhynchu­s col­lec­tion – half a mil­lion an­cient pa­pyrus frag­ments that have trans­formed knowl­edge of the Greco-Ro­man world. The frag­ments were ex­ca­vated in Egypt, from 1896 on­wards, by two Ox­ford clas­si­cists, Bernard Gren­fell and Arthur Hunt. A hunch led them to dig out some low mounds in the vil­lage of el-Behnesa, the site of the an­cient Greek city of Oxyrhynchu­s, founded af­ter Alexander the Great con­quered Egypt in 332BC. To their de­light, they hit upon rub­bish dumps in which 700 years’ worth of pa­pyrus had been dis­carded. The pa­pyrus, pre­served by the desert-dry con­di­tions, was cov­ered in writ­ing – mostly Greek, the ear­li­est from the third cen­tury BC.

Gren­fell and Hunt’s dis­cov­er­ies forged an ex­tra­or­di­nary, di­rect link with an­tiq­uity. Most of the old­est sur­viv­ing manuscript­s, had, un­til then, come from no ear­lier than the 10th cen­tury. What classical lit­er­a­ture there was – for ex­am­ple, just seven out of over 120 plays by Sopho­cles – had sur­vived be­cause me­dieval monks had thought it worth pre­serv­ing, copy­ing it over and over again down the gen­er­a­tions.

At Oxyrhynchu­s, though, an en­tire cul­ture was re­vealed in the rub­bish, un­fil­tered by monk­ish taste, and dat­ing di­rectly from an­tiq­uity: pre­vi­ously lost works by canon­i­cal writ­ers such as Sap­pho, Pin­dar, and Me­nan­der; frag­ments of bib­li­cal texts; let­ters, bills, re­ceipts, tax re­turns, even mag­i­cal spells. Legally, un­der the colo­nial con­di­tions of the time, the frag­ments be­came the prop­erty of the Egypt Ex­plo­ration Fund (now So­ci­ety) and were taken to Ox­ford, where for years, they were sim­ply kept in boxes in Gren­fell and Hunt’s rooms in Queen’s Col­lege, Ox­ford, as the schol­ars, then their suc­ces­sors, started to sift, edit and pub­lish them.

Oxyrhynchu­s spawned a whole new sub-dis­ci­pline of clas­sics: pa­py­rol­ogy. More than a cen­tury af­ter the dis­cov­er­ies, one of pa­py­rol­ogy’s main tasks is to pub­lish these scrappy manuscript­s. That in­volves of­fer­ing a pro­posed re­con­struc­tion of a text; trans­lat­ing and dat­ing it; and pro­duc­ing a com­men­tary on its sig­nif­i­cance. Over the past cen­tury, just over 5,000 of the half-mil­lion Oxyrhynchu­s pa­pyri have been pub­lished. Each ap­pear­ance of a vol­ume in the Oxyrhynchu­s Pa­pyri Se­ries – there are now 83 – is a real event for clas­si­cists, his­to­ri­ans, the­olo­gians. “They re­draw the map of what we know,” said Tim Whit­marsh, pro­fes­sor of Greek at Cam­bridge.

To­day, the Oxyrhynchu­s col­lec­tion is held in a back room on the first floor of Ox­ford’s Sack­ler clas­sics li­brary, where you’ll see a schol­arly mess of pa­per­work, mi­cro­scopes and books. The col­lec­tion’s walls are lined with tall, locked cup­boards, filled with ranks of boxes. Open one, and you will see the dark-brown pa­pyrus, as­ton­ish­ingly tough given its age, still wrapped in 1910s and 20s pages of the univer­sity news­pa­per, the Ox­ford Gazette. Some frag­ments are large, even up to A4 size; many are tiny, known as “corn­flakes” in the trade.

The Oxyrhynchu­s pro­ject is its own lit­tle fief­dom. Not ex­actly se­cre­tive, but very far from open, it car­ries the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing cultish, even within the Ox­ford clas­sics fac­ulty. At any one time, up to three gen­eral edi­tors share the du­ties of work­ing on the ma­te­rial and as­sign­ing it to schol­ars for study and publi­ca­tion. Un­til 2016, Ob­bink was one of that trio of edi­tors, with 24-hour ac­cess. It is Ob­bink, rather than any­one else, on whom sus­pi­cions have fo­cused.

There is a rough, hand­writ­ten cat­a­logue of the en­tire col­lec­tion, on 12cm by 7cm in­dex cards, as well as pho­to­graphs, which gives a rough in­di­ca­tion of what each frag­ment con­tains. When the EES an­nounced in Oc­to­ber that in­dex cards and pho­tos had, in many cases, dis­ap­peared along with the miss­ing frag­ments them­selves, the scale of the al­leged crime be­gan to be­come clear. Who­ever had stolen the frag­ments had tried to erase any trace of their ex­is­tence, so that the crime would never come to light.

How­ever, the al­leged thief seems to have erred in one cru­cial re­spect: they do not seem to have known, or taken into ac­count, that there was back-up in­for­ma­tion al­low­ing the EES to as­cer­tain what had al­legedly been stolen.

De­spite that ap­par­ent over­sight, one thing is close to cer­tain: the items were taken by some­one fa­mil­iar with the col­lec­tion’s in­ner work­ings. Which means – colos­sal a be­trayal as that would be – the crime was al­most cer­tainly an in­side job.

Car­roll and Pat­ten­gale’s visit to Ox­ford in 2011, tan­ta­lis­ing ru­mours of the dis­cov­ery of a first-cen­tury frag­ment of Mark rip­pled through Amer­i­can evan­gel­i­cal cir­cles. On 1 Fe­bru­ary 2012, in Chapel Hill, Univer­sity of North Carolina, two the­olo­gians, Prof Bart Ehrman and Dr Daniel Wal­lace, were de­bat­ing – to a rapt au­di­ence of 1,500 – whether the orig­i­nal text of the New Tes­ta­ment could be re­cov­ered. Sud­denly, Wal­lace dropped a bomb­shell.

“The old­est man­u­script of the New Tes­ta­ment is now a frag­ment of Mark’s Gospel that is from the first cen­tury,” he claimed. “My source is a pa­py­rol­o­gist who worked on the man­u­script, a man whose rep­u­ta­tion is unim­peach­able.” It was, re­called Ehrman at a re­cent con­fer­ence in San Diego, “a real jaw-drop­per”. He was burst­ing with ques­tions. How ex­ten­sive was the frag­ment? Who was the pa­py­rol­o­gist? Had the dat­ing been cor­rob­o­rated by oth­ers? Wal­lace said he was sworn to se­crecy. All he could re­veal was that the frag­ment would soon be pub­lished by the aca­demic im­print, Brill.

A few months later, Brill did in­deed an­nounce a new publi­ca­tion: the Green Schol­ars Ini­tia­tive Pa­pyri Se­ries, edited by Ob­bink and Pat­ten­gale, a se­ries of vol­umes of “rare un­pub­lished pa­pyri texts from the Green col­lec­tion”. The mys­tery frag­ment of first-cen­tury Mark, then, must be­long to the Greens, Ehrman rea­soned. The only prob­lem was that the frag­ment “wasn’t pub­lished that year, and it wasn’t pub­lished the next year, and it wasn’t pub­lished the next year”, said Ehrman.

For the scholar sleuths – as they would soon be­come – alarm bells started ring­ing. Where had this frag­ment come from? Why the se­crecy? Was it le­gal? Buy­ers of arte­facts are sup­posed to es­tab­lish prove­nance: proof that the item was legally re­moved from its coun­try of ori­gin, usu­ally be­fore 1970, when a Unesco con­ven­tion on cul­tural her­itage was widely adopted. The Greens, it was be­com­ing ap­par­ent to ob­servers, were not do­ing that.

In the ab­sence of solid in­for­ma­tion about the frag­ment of Mark and its ori­gin, gos­sip pro­lif­er­ated. A widely re­ported claim was that it had emerged from an an­cient Egyp­tian mummy mask. Ob­bink’s some­time vis­i­tor Scott Car­roll, whose lec­ture style is more 19thcen­tury show­man than sober scholar, was speak­ing pub­licly about mummy masks a lot at the time, claim­ing they were a great source of early New Tes­ta­ment pa­pyri. Be­cause some mummy masks had been man­u­fac­tured from a kind of pa­pier-mache of re­cy­cled pa­pyrus, known as “car­ton­nage”, you could, he told au­di­ences, dis­solve the masks in soap and warm wa­ter, prise the con­stituent sheets of pa­pyrus apart and, hey presto, re­veal early manuscript­s – frag­ments of the Gospels, of Homer, what­ever. “My wife will laugh and re­mem­ber the time she would come into the house and smell mummy on the stove,” Car­roll told an au­di­ence in Mex­ico, in 2013. “Noth­ing like the smell of mummy on the stove.”

All the talk of dis­solv­ing mummy masks hor­ri­fied se­ri­ous schol­ars: de­stroy­ing arte­facts in the spec­u­la­tive search for other an­cient arte­facts is not ex­actly muse­o­log­i­cal best prac­tice. Those with a cyn­i­cal cast of mind also ob­served that mummy masks were a great way to laun­der il­le­gally pro­cured pa­pyri. All you had to do was claim you had found your dodgy pa­pyrus man­u­script in a legally ac­quired an­cient mummy mask. Mummy masks could be turned into “bot­tom­less prove­nance ma­chines”, as one col­lec­tor put it.

The scholar-sleuths be­gan to trawl the in­ter­net look­ing for more videos of Car­roll and those close to him, on the hunt for fur­ther in­for­ma­tion about the mys­tery Mark frag­ment. One video showed a talk by an evan­gel­i­cal author called Josh McDow­ell, an as­so­ciate of Car­roll’s: in it, he re­vealed that the frag­ment of Mark was from the Gospel’s first chap­ter. That seem­ingly tiny piece of in­for­ma­tion would, later, turn out to be a cru­cial clue in putting to­gether the story of the al­leged thefts from the Oxyrhynchu­s col­lec­tion. In 2017, yet an­other video was fer­reted out by scholar-sleuths, and was re­posted on the Evan­gel­i­cal Tex­tual Crit­i­cism blog. In it, Car­roll – about whom there is no sugges­tion of mis­con­duct in this re­gard – says that he had seen the frag­ment of Mark, in “Ox­ford at Christ Church, and ac­tu­ally on [Ob­bink’s] pool ta­ble”. The frag­ment, he said, ac­tu­ally hadn’t come from a mummy mask, as far as he could tell. It was, how­ever, for sale.

The thief tried to erase any trace of the frag­ments’ ex­is­tence, so the crime wouldn’t come to light

cuts an ec­cen­tric fig­ure, even by Ox­ford stan­dards. In 2014, around the time his an­tiq­ui­ties deal­er­ship Cas­tle Fo­lio was in­cor­po­rated, he bought him­self a cas­tle. Or, rather, the Texas equiv­a­lent – an 1890s neo-Gothic pile in Waco, called Cot­ton­land Cas­tle. He al­ready had a six-bed­room house in Ox­ford’s suburbs.

At the same time, Ob­bink is, in some ways, a stan­dard-is­sue Ox­ford don – head in a book, limited so­cial skills, “an ab­sent-minded pro­fes­sor type”, as one col­lec­tor called him. He added: “I have a hard time be­liev­ing that he stole Oxyrhynchu­s pa­pyri in cold blood and sold them to Hobby Lobby.”

In Jan­uary 2014, Ob­bink had a mo­ment of me­dia glory, when he dis­cov­ered and pub­lished two new frag­ments of po­ems by the sev­enth-cen­tury BC poet Sap­pho. It was global news. At the time, the story, at least as it was re­ported by me and oth­ers, was all about the thrill of pre­cious new words by a great poet. It was left to ex­perts in the il­le­gal traf­fic of an­tiq­ui­ties to point out that the “new” Sap­pho was not just a ten­der poem about her broth­ers – but also, and im­por­tantly, an an­cient arte­fact.

Now, in the light of the rev­e­la­tions of the al­leged thefts of the Oxyrhynchu­s pa­pyri, schol­ars are look­ing at the Sap­pho story with new eyes, and ask­ing, with a fresh sense of ur­gency, whether the man­u­script can have been legally ob­tained. There are even doubts as to its au­then­tic­ity. The lat­est gos­sip in classical cir­cles is that it might even be a fake. “Ev­ery­thing about it seems too good to be true,” one se­nior Cam­bridge clas­si­cist told me.

Doubts about the Sap­pho pa­pyrus have nig­gled away at schol­ars be­cause Ob­bink’s ac­count of how it was ac­quired – all the time re­port­ing, he said, what he had been told by its name­less owner – has been at best sketchy, and at times con­tra­dic­tory. At first, in Jan­uary 2014, he re­vealed only that the Sap­pho pa­pyrus was owned by an anony­mous pri­vate col­lec­tor in Lon­don. Then, in Fe­bru­ary, he said the man­u­script had come from “a mummy car­ton­nage panel”. It had been car­bon-dated, he said, to AD201, plus or mi­nus a cen­tury. For ex­pert Egyp­tol­o­gists, though, that was a red flag. Both things – mummy car­ton­nage and a date of AD100-300 – can­not be true. Pa­pyrus ceased to be used to make mummy car­ton­nage in around AD14.

In Jan­uary 2015, the story changed. The Sap­pho man­u­script hadn’t been found in mummy car­ton­nage, af­ter all, but “in­dus­trial car­ton­nage”, per­haps used for book­bind­ing. This “in­dus­trial car­ton­nage”, with the Sap­pho sup­pos­edly hid­den within it, had been pur­chased by auc­tion at Christie’s in 2011, as part of a mixed lot of pa­pyrus. This new in­for­ma­tion con­ve­niently solved the dat­ing prob­lem, since in­dus­trial car­ton­nage was still be­ing made dur­ing the pe­riod to which the Sap­pho man­u­script had been car­bon-dated. The de­tail about the Christie’s auc­tion also sug­gested the item was le­gal – the pa­pyrus in that par­tic­u­lar lot had been ex­ported from Egypt prior to the 1970 Unesco con­ven­tion on the ex­port of arte­facts.

Ob­bink pub­lished an ex­pla­na­tion of how the two types of car­ton­nage had come to be con­fused. A piece of mummy car­ton­nage and a piece of in­dus­trial car­ton­nage had been dis­solved to­gether by the owner’s staff, he said, and the re­sult­ing sheets of pa­pyrus got mud­dled up. Ob­bink also re­ported that at some point some 20 smaller frag­ments of the Sap­pho man­u­script had been “deemed in­signif­i­cant” by the anony­mous owner, and sold off to the Greens.

In this en­tire story of the ori­gins of “P.Sapph.Ob­bink” – to use the man­u­script’s schol­arly nomen­cla­ture – there was no solid ev­i­dence, no doc­u­men­ta­tion, no im­ages, and no ex­ter­nal wit­nesses. Nor did Christie’s pos­sess rel­e­vant im­ages of its auc­tion lot of 2011 – the mixed lot of pa­pyrus con­tain­ing the piece of in­dus­trial car­ton­nage in which the Sap­pho frag­ment was sup­pos­edly con­cealed. Ev­ery­thing de­pended on the word of the great Ox­ford don.

Now, Mike Samp­son, a pa­py­rol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba, has found ev­i­dence, seen by the Guardian, sug­gest­ing that the ori­gin­story of the Sap­pho man­u­script re­ported by Ob­bink may be a fic­tion. Samp­son was sent a PDF by an aca­demic source. The doc­u­ment is a glossy, lav­ishly il­lus­trated brochure pro­duced by Christie’s. It ad­ver­tises the Sap­pho frag­ment for sale by pri­vate treaty. A “pri­vate treaty sale” is a ser­vice whereby an auc­tion house will bro­ker a sale be­tween ven­dor and buyer dis­creetly, out­side the rel­a­tively pub­lic auc­tion sched­ule. The brochure will have been cir­cu­lated very dis­creetly, too, to a few key col­lec­tors. Samp­son has an­a­lysed the meta­data of the PDF, and be­lieves that the Sap­pho frag­ment was in fact prob­a­bly of­fered for sale by pri­vate treaty twice – once in 2013, prior to the pub­lic an­nounce­ment of its ex­is­tence, and again in 2015.

In the brochure, there are, at last, im­ages that pur­port to show how the two dif­fer­ent types of car­ton­nage – mummy car­ton­nage and in­dus­trial car­ton­nage – were con­fused. One pic­ture shows a brightly painted blue-and-red piece of mummy car­ton­nage ly­ing in a ce­ramic basin be­side a brown mass of what ap­pears to be flat­tened pa­pyrus, de­scribed as “car­ton­nage”. The cap­tion re­caps the fi­nal story re­ported by Ob­bink – that the two items were mud­dled up in a “con­fu­sion of pro­cess­ing”. How­ever, in the opin­ion of Samp­son, it “de­fies be­lief” that the en­tirely dif­fer­ent ob­jects could have been con­fused.

Per­haps Samp­son’s most telling find­ing, though, is that parts of the Sap­pho man­u­script were shown in pub­lic when they were sup­pos­edly still undis­cov­ered in a wodge of in­dus­trial car­ton­nage. Ac­cord­ing to his study of the PDF’s meta­data, the pho­to­graphs of the ma­te­ri­als sit­ting side by side in the ce­ramic basin, prior to “pro­cess­ing”, were taken on 14 Fe­bru­ary 2012. And yet there is video footage of Scott Car­roll bran­dish­ing 26 small frag­ments of the Sap­pho, those that ended up be­long­ing to the Greens, a week ear­lier, on 7 Fe­bru­ary 2012.

There is no sugges­tion Car­roll was in­volved in wrong­do­ing in this re­gard: the point is that the time­line seems so im­plau­si­ble as to be im­pos­si­ble. Ac­cord­ing to Samp­son, whose anal­y­sis will ap­pear in full in a forth­com­ing aca­demic ar­ti­cle, the most plau­si­ble in­ter­pre­ta­tion of all this is that the pho­to­graphs were ret­ro­spec­tively staged by per­sons un­known – along with im­ages of the Sap­pho frag­ment ap­par­ently be­ing prised from a dark-brown mass of pa­pyrus.

The most ob­vi­ous rea­son for stag­ing an ori­gin-story for the Sap­pho man­u­script like this would be to con­ceal the fact that the pa­pyrus had been il­le­gally im­ported, ex­ca­vated or traded. The other pos­si­ble rea­son – though this is not Samp­son’s per­sonal view – would be to mask a fake.

In re­sponse to this new ev­i­dence, Christie’s told me: “Christie’s en­deav­ours to up­hold the high­est stan­dards of due dili­gence. We would never know­ingly of­fer any works of art with­out good ti­tle or in­cor­rectly cat­a­logued or au­then­ti­cated. We take our name and rep­u­ta­tion very se­ri­ously and would take all nec­es­sary steps avail­able to ad­dress any sit­u­a­tion of in­ap­pro­pri­ate use.” The auc­tion house says that if there is any of­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion, will co­op­er­ate. At present, how­ever, the ori­gins of the Sap­pho frag­ment re­main shrouded in mys­tery.

In early 2016, the EES were be­com­ing se­ri­ously alarmed that Ob­bink was re­fus­ing to sup­ply an ad­e­quate ac­count of the source of the Sap­pho man­u­script – and also, in­creas­ingly, by the ru­mours that he had of­fered pa­pyrus frag­ments for sale in his Ox­ford rooms. These ru­mours seemed out­landish – who would you be more likely to trust: the em­i­nent Ox­ford pa­py­rol­o­gist Dirk Ob­bink, or Scott Car­roll, with his mummy masks on the stove?

But still, from the sto­ries cir­cu­lat­ing on­line, the EES knew two things about the no­to­ri­ous frag­ment of Mark that had sup­pos­edly been sold to the Green fam­ily: it was from the gospel’s first chap­ter, and it was first cen­tury. It so hap­pened that an item in their own col­lec­tion was a pa­pyrus cat­a­logued in the 1980s as “I/II”, a note

that could have been in­ter­preted as “first or sec­ond cen­tury AD”. In 2011, a re­searcher on the Oxyrhynchu­s Pro­ject had iden­ti­fied it as from the first chap­ter of Mark. The frag­ment had not been of­fi­cially signed out, but EES of­fi­cials be­lieved Ob­bink had it in his pos­ses­sion osten­si­bly to study.

Ob­bink al­ways de­nied that he had been try­ing to sell Oxyrhynchu­s items, as a later EES state­ment made clear. Nev­er­the­less, an of­fi­cial of the so­ci­ety was suf­fi­ciently sus­pi­cious that he might have been at least try­ing to sell the Mark frag­ment that he de­cided to try to smoke him out – by in­struct­ing him, in spring 2016, to pub­lish the man­u­script in the next vol­ume, num­ber 83, of the Oxyrhynchu­s Pa­pyrus Se­ries. That would get the frag­ment out in the pub­lic sphere. It would also mean it would have to be phys­i­cally re­turned to the Sack­ler clas­sics li­brary so that the edit­ing could be checked by col­leagues. In short, if Ob­bink were in­deed try­ing to sell it, this move would stop him. Or so the EES of­fi­cial thought.

That Au­gust, the EES de­cided not to reap­point Ob­bink a gen­eral edi­tor of the Oxyrhynchu­s se­ries, “pri­mar­ily,” it said in a pub­lic state­ment, “be­cause of un­sat­is­fac­tory dis­charge of his ed­i­to­rial du­ties, but also be­cause of con­cerns, which he did not al­lay, about his al­leged in­volve­ment in the mar­ket­ing of an­cient texts, es­pe­cially the Sap­pho text”.

It was in May 2018 that a Cam­bridge-based bib­li­cal scholar, Eli­jah Hix­son, flick­ing through the newly posted Ama­zon list­ing for vol­ume 83 of the Oxyrhynchu­s Pa­pyrus Se­ries, saw that one of the manuscript­s about be pub­lished was from the first chap­ter of Mark. This was, surely, the same item as the frag­ment of Mark that had been the source of such in­tense schol­arly spec­u­la­tion over the pre­vi­ous seven years.

But if that was the case, then some­thing se­ri­ously odd was go­ing on. The Mark frag­ment was, sup­pos­edly, part of the Green col­lec­tion. It could not also be­long to the EES. What’s more, the rea­son the frag­ment was the source of such fas­ci­na­tion was that it was from the first cen­tury. But the one about to be pub­lished was la­belled as late-sec­ond, or early-third cen­tury. Hix­son im­me­di­ately posted a blog on Evan­gel­i­cal Tex­tual Crit­i­cism spell­ing out his puz­zle­ment. As a com­menter on the post said, there had ei­ther been a cat­a­strophic mis­un­der­stand­ing – or some­one was ly­ing.

Nat­u­rally, there was also con­ster­na­tion in Wash­ing­ton, at the Mu­seum of the Bi­ble. Michael Holmes, the di­rec­tor of the Green Schol­ars Ini­tia­tive since 2015, be­lieved that the frag­ment of Mark be­longed to them, not the EES. It had been bought and paid for by Hobby Lobby, and do­nated to the mu­seum. They had the pa­per­work to prove it, though ad­mit­tedly, not the pa­pyrus.

The items had, ac­cord­ing to an agree­ment, been left with the ven­dor

The Mu­seum of the Bi­ble opened in Wash­ing­ton DC in 2017 tem­po­rar­ily for fur­ther study. Some­thing was very wrong. It looked as if they had been sold some­thing that was not what it pur­ported to be, by some­one who didn’t seem to own it; and what’s more, they didn’t even have the item in their pos­ses­sion.

In April 2019, Holmes emailed Roberta Mazza in her ca­pac­ity as an EES trus­tee, telling her that Ob­bink had al­legedly sold the frag­ments to Hobby Lobby. Even at this point, Mazza told me, the whole idea still seemed crazy – as ridicu­lous as the plot­line of 1960s Ital­ian film Totòtruffa, in which a hus­tler pre­tends to sell the Trevi foun­tain to a tourist. Of course the items couldn’t have been sold to Hobby Lobby – not least be­cause the EES ac­tu­ally had pos­ses­sion of the items them­selves. Holmes sug­gested a meet­ing so that they could, at last, es­tab­lish the truth of the mat­ter.

Which is how, on 4 June, the New Tes­ta­ment scholar was taken aback to find him­self in the in­salu­bri­ous, nar­row al­ley­way that flanks one of Lon­don’s opera houses, look­ing for the en­trance of Two Bry­dges, a bo­hemian pri­vate mem­bers’ club fre­quented by singers and writ­ers. His lunch dates in the wood-pan­elled restau­rant were Mazza, the an­cient his­to­rian Prof Do­minic Rath­bone, and Dr Mar­garet Mount­ford, a pa­py­rol­o­gist and then chair of the EES.

“At the meet­ing I shared the ev­i­dence that Ob­bink had in fact sold ‘first-cen­tury Mark’ and three oth­ers to Hobby Lobby in Jan­uary 2013,” Holmes re­called at a re­cent con­fer­ence. “Sold, but not de­liv­ered.”

Con­ver­sa­tion around the ta­ble quickly turned to a fur­ther ques­tion: had there been other items that had been both sold – and de­liv­ered? In the fol­low­ing weeks, it was con­cluded that a fur­ther 13 pa­pyri be­long­ing to EES had been wrong­fully sold to Hobby Lobby, 11 ap­par­ently by Ob­bink, two by the Jerusalem an­tiq­ui­ties deal­ers, Baidun.

Soon af­ter­wards, on 23 June, Holmes cir­cu­lated redacted copies of the al­leged sales con­tracts be­tween Hobby Lobby and Ob­bink for four Gospel manuscript­s, in­clud­ing a frag­ment of Mark. One of the re­cip­i­ents was pa­pyrus sleuth Brent Nong­bri. He im­me­di­ately pub­lished them on his blog: there was Ob­bink’s ap­par­ent sig­na­ture for all to see. Ei­ther the doc­u­ments had been “fab­ri­cated in a ma­li­cious at­tempt to harm [his] rep­u­ta­tion”, as Ob­bink’s later state­ment claimed, or he re­ally had sold them. The prices of the items were redacted, but an ex­pert told me he thought they could have been sold for $200,000 each.

On 12 Novem­ber, the thefts of all 120 frag­ments, in­clud­ing the four that had re­mained in Ox­ford and the 13 that had been de­liv­ered to the US, were re­ported to the po­lice. On 18 De­cem­ber, the 13 were re­turned, af­ter a de­lay while it was es­tab­lished that since they were stolen goods, they were ex­empt from VAT – a coda that Holmes called “the cherry on the sun­dae”. The frag­ments that ended up in US col­lec­tor An­drew Stimer’s pos­ses­sion have also been re­turned to Ox­ford.

In Novem­ber, a “post­mortem on so-called first-cen­tury Mark” was held at the So­ci­ety of Bib­li­cal Lit­er­a­ture’s an­nual con­fer­ence in San Diego. While re­serv­ing re­spect for Holmes’s re­form­ing ef­forts, Mazza did not pull her punches. The Greens have “poured mil­lions on the le­gal and il­le­gal an­tiq­ui­ties mar­ket with­out hav­ing a clue about the his­tory, the ma­te­rial fea­tures, cul­tural value, fragili­ties and prob­lems of the ob­jects,” she said. This ir­re­spon­si­ble col­lect­ing “is a crime against cul­ture and knowl­edge of im­mense pro­por­tions – as the facts un­fold­ing un­der our eyes do prove.”

At the other end of this dis­turb­ing chain is some­one who stole and sold Oxyrhynchu­s frag­ments to the evan­gel­i­cal bil­lion­aires. Who­ever they are, they are still at large. For now, the pa­pyrus thief walks free •

There had ei­ther been a cat­a­strophic mis­un­der­stand­ing – or some­one was ly­ing

Dirk Ob­bink has been sus­pended by Christ Church, where he is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor


The frag­ments of pa­pyrus come from early copies of the Gospel of Mark

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