The Museum of the Bible appears to have acquired not merely texts of uncertain provenance, but texts that were affirmatively stolen.
Last year the Egyptian Exploration Society (EES), the non-profit organization that owns the Oxyrhynchus papyri collection deposited at the Sackler Library University of Oxford, had just announced a new discovery and publication: a late second- or early third-century Common Era fragment of the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. It was a huge announcement: Scholars possess very few early copies of the New Testament, thus, any newly discovered fragments from the first few centuries of the Common Era is inherently important and inherently valuable.
The discovery was shrouded in controversy because despite its announcement as “news,” academics had known about this fragment for over five years. It had been mentioned in connection with representatives of the Green Family, the owners of Hobby Lobby and the founders of the Museum of the Bible, in Washington, D.C. Last year the EES said in no uncertain terms that the papyrus had never been for sale. If that was true, we and others asked, how did so many people at the Green family know about this fragment and why did they think they had acquired it?
Now Michael Holmes, Director of the Museum of the Bible’s Scholar’s Initiative, has made a shocking accusation: that one of the academics involved in the original publication of the fragment, distinguished Oxford scholar Dirk Obbink, appears to have sold a papyrus that belonged to the EES to Hobby Lobby in 2013.
The Green family plunged into the antiquities market with a lot of money to build a collection for its Museum of the Bible, and so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that there were sellers willing to cut corners to make a quick buck.
There apparently is a lot of loose stuff out there, too. After all, there were a lot of texts left lying around, and state and scholarly interest in protecting them is relatively recent. Fragments, some quite large, were brought home by visitors to the Middle East, passed to friends and family and eventually made their way to the attic — a forgotten souvenir that nobody quite knew what to do about. I see nothing inherently improper about acquiring those texts, even if their origin and an ownership chain cannot be comprehensively documented.
Clearly, though, the Museum didn’t exercise the level of care expected of serious scholars.