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An Oxford University professor stands accused of illegally selling rare ancient Bible fragments to a controversial religious US company.
Dirk Obbink was one of the world’s most celebrated classics professors but he is currently the centerpiece in a major scandal after incriminating evidence was found in an investigation by staff associated with Oxford’s Oxyrhynchus Papyri project. The professor has been accused of selling a number of ancient fragments to the US arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby, owned by the prominent Christian evangelical, Green family, who are no strangers to defending high-profile scandals related to the illegal purchasing of biblical artifacts.
The Net Closes
According to a report in The Guardian Hobby Lobby president Steve Green said the family funded Washington’s $400 million Museum of the Bible in 2017 which exhibits among other things contemporary art depicting the Apocalypse, “there is something here for you, your family, your community”.
Museum of the Bible, funded by Hobby Lobby, has numerous biblical artifacts. (Fishermade / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Egypt Exploration Society (EES), which manages the Papyri project, said it was told by the Museum of the Bible that “11 fragments were sold to it by Obbink” in two separate batches in 2010 and now both the EES and staff at the university have confirmed Obbink is currently under investigation for the alleged illegal sale of the ancient biblical artifacts .
The famous lecturer in papyrology and Greek literature previously denied the allegations but the EES say Obbink’s removal as general editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri project was due not only to “unsatisfactory discharge of his editorial duties” but also due to “concerns” that he failed to disclose his alleged involvement in the “marketing” or sale of the ancient biblical texts .
The Fish Is On The Bank
So far we have what appears to be a clean cut case of a professor who saw a way to triple his retirement fund with one dodgy steal and sale, and he must have convinced himself somehow that his actions were for the greater good. Most criminals can easily, and often convincingly, justify their criminal actions. But where this case gets really shadowy is that in EES’s statement they said file records relating to the missing fragments had “been removed”.
Biblical Artifact - Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 24 - Book of Revelation 5:5-8. (Primaler / )
Key texts which would have stood as solid evidence had been “taken” without any prior authorization from the EES, and what’s more, the report says in most of the 13 cases the catalog card and photograph are also “missing”. The Daily Beast has long speculated about Obbink’s connection in the sale of the rare biblical fragments of the Gospel of Mark to the powerful Green family. They reference that, New Testament scholar, Brent Nongbri published an email sent by the Museum of the Bible linking Obbink with the sale of this, and three other gospel fragments to the Greens, and they went so far as to publish a copy of the contract.
But It Flips Back In Again
Commenting after the statement made in Monday’s Daily Beast Nongbri said the sale of the manuscripts and the attempt to cover it all up by removing records “is almost unbelievable”. According to EES their investigations have determined 13 pieces in the Museum of the Bible’s collection are the legal property of the nonprofit society and do not belong to one of the largest collections of biblical antiquities in the world.
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Gospel of Matthew written 70 AD. Copy from 250 AD. Biblical artifact from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri project. (Saiht / )
Reporting on such occurrences often sets flames of anger and resentment inside one and the aim of the objective reporter is to deliver the facts, without any emotional bias or slant, especially when the accused has not yet been charged with anything. However, while we must at this stage cut Obbink some slack until he is charged and sentenced by a court judge, should we extend the same courtesy to the Green family?
It Was A Fake Rubber Fish All Along
Their museum has been a controversy-generator since day one and it struggles to legally justify how it came to possess many of its acquisitions. In June 2017, according to The Washington Post , Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million for illegally importing “thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts ” and in this instance they falsely labeled crates and threw customs officers off the trail by shipping the biblical artifacts first to the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
A cuneiform tablet illegally imported by Hobby Lobby in 2007. (Bluerasberry / )
In post-trial comments a Hobby Lobby spokesperson said the company had only erred by relying on artifact dealers who did not understand how to properly ship the items. So let’s say one accepts Hobby Lobby’s blaming of everyone around them, as an excuse for their actions, can the same acceptance be offered knowing that just after this incident the Museum of the Bible had to remove five fragmentary parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls that were later discovered to be, according to The Guardian , “modern forgeries”?
Hobby Lobby smuggling scandal
The Hobby Lobby smuggling scandal started in 2009 when representatives of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores received a large number of clay bullae and tablets originating in the ancient Near East. The artifacts were intended for the Museum of the Bible, funded by the Evangelical Christian Green family, which owns the Oklahoma-based chain.  Internal staff had warned superiors that the items had dubious provenance and were potentially looted from Iraq.
Several shipments of the artifacts were seized by US customs agents in 2011, triggering a years-long struggle between Hobby Lobby and the federal government that culminated in a 2017 civil forfeiture case United States of America v. Approximately Four Hundred Fifty Ancient Cuneiform Tablets and Approximately Three Thousand Ancient Clay Bullae. As a result of the case, Hobby Lobby agreed to return the artifacts and pay a fine of US$3,000,000 . U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement returned 3,800 items seized from Hobby Lobby to Iraq in May 2018.  In March 2020 the Hobby Lobby president agreed to return 11,500 items to Egypt and Iraq. 
Hobby Lobby Scandal Widens as Museum of the Bible Admits Oxford Prof Sold Illicit Papyri to Green Family
The Museum of the Bible revealed today that at least 13 biblical fragments in its collection were illicitly sold by a Oxford professor to Hobby Lobby's Green family.
In June The Daily Beast reported on the possibility that an illustrious award-winning professor at the University of Oxford had sold an ancient fragment of the Gospel of Mark that did not belong to him to crafting giant Hobby Lobby, Inc.
At the time of purchase the Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby, planned to donate the fragments to Museum of the Bible, the charitable organization and D.C.-based museum they founded. Statements released today by Museum of the Bible and the Egypt Exploration Society reveal that the Mark fragment was just the beginning of the scandal. Investigations have revealed that (so far) 13 pieces in the Museum’s collection are in fact the rightful property of the Oxford-based nonprofit Egypt Exploration Society.
The artifacts in question are all Bible and Bible-related fragments 12 were written on papyrus and one on parchment. In other words, just the kinds of things that fit the Green Family and Museum of the Bible’s interests. They are part of the Oxyrhynchus Collection, a vast collection of fragments from ancient trash-piles in the city of Oxyrhynchus (modern Al-Bahnasa) in Egypt. The collection was excavated in the late 19th to early 20th centuries and most of it is now the property of the Egypt Exploration Society, which acts as curator of an Oxford-based collection.
All of which raises the question: How did a U.S.-based company and, later, museum come to be in possession of these ancient Egyptian artifacts? According to the EES statement, they “were taken without authorization from the EES… Eleven of these pieces came into [Museum of the Bible’s] care after being sold to Hobby Lobby Stores by Professor [Dirk] Obbink, most of them in two batches in 2010.” The Museum of the Bible’s statement more directly confirms that the antiquities were “sold illegally” by a “known expert.” A spokesperson for Museum of the Bible further clarified to The Daily Beast, that of these 13 items, only four are the property of the museum, with the remainder belonging to Hobby Lobby as part of the Green Collection.
Both the EES and the University of Oxford confirmed that Obbink is “under investigation… [for] the removal and alleged sale of EES texts.” In the meantime, the University of Oxford confirmed that Obbink continues to be employed there. The university was unable to comment on whether or not Scotland Yard are involved.
Of the 13 illicit Oxyrhynchus items currently in Museum of the Bible’s collection, two were sold by another buyer. In an online comment Mike Holmes, who heads up Museum of the Bible’s Scholar’s Initiative, stated that the second buyer was “ Khader M. Baidun & Sons/Art-Levant Antiquities of Israel. The exact circumstances of how those two items moved from Oxford to Israel are unknown to” the Museum of the Bible. Both the Green family and Obbink had ties to the Baidun family. Obbink once jointly owned an antiquities company called “Castle Folio” with a man named Mahmoud Elder who, in turn, served as an officer for another company with Alan Baidun. Additionally, a member of the Baidun family was arrested in Israel in 2017 following investigations into a separate antiquities smuggling scandal involving Hobby Lobby. As revealed by The Daily Beast in 2015, Hobby Lobby was subject to a federal investigation for illegally importing illicit antiquities in 2011. The case was settled in 2017.
By cooperating with the EES and helping to facilitate the return of the stolen items there’s no question that Museum of the Bible is doing the right thing here. But there are still questions about how something like this happened in the first place. The EES notes in their statement that in most cases, not only was the item itself taken, but the identifying card catalogue and photograph were also missing. It was only because the EES had back-up records that they were able to identify the missing unpublished texts. In response to the statements, noted New Testament scholar and papyrologist Brent Nongbri writes on his blog that “ The sale of the manuscripts and the attempt to cover it up by removing records is almost unbelievable.”
Then there’s the question of the buyer, in this case Hobby Lobby. The invoice released by Museum of the Bible in June says nothing about the origins of the papyrus fragment other than just “Egypt.” This is legally insufficient. There should be an export date, supporting documentation, and a history of ownership. An enquiry from The Daily Beast to Hobby Lobby, last June, asking for additional provenance details for the sale did not receive any response. The Museum of the Bible, for its part, is not entirely in the clear: any museum accepting donations or loans to its collection should ask for full documentation of the legal status of the item.
On Oct. 16, a statement posted by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research (Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung, INTF) revealed that two additional papyri connected to the Oxyrhynchus collection are in the hands of American collector Andrew Stimer. Stimer, an evangelical Christian, is part of the same general network as the Green Family and has been seen attending talks by Scott Carroll, who formerly oversaw and helped amass Hobby Lobby’s collection of papyri.
Stimer told the INTF that he bought the manuscripts in 2015 from Mr. M. Elder of Dearborn, Michigan. Mr. Elder, Stimer said, had purchased the papyri via a private sale brokered by Christie’s in April 2014. Apparently the consignor of the papyri was a relative of a now deceased Indiana industrialist named Rodman Pruitt. He claimed that he verified the provenance with Christie’s. If this much is accurate, this would appear to be the same Mahmoud Elder who in 2014 co-owned an Oxford-based antiquities trading company with Dirk Obbink called Castle Folio.
When The Daily Beast contacted Christie’s for comment they told us that “Christie’s documentation from a private sale transaction of a group of Coptic papyrus fragments may have been used to verify, inappropriately, the provenance of two different papyrus fragments in a subsequent transaction in which Christie’s had no involvement.” In other words, the provenance was forged and documentation from Christie’s was fraudulently used to legitimize Stimer’s fragments. This, in turn raises the question, where, if he supplied the provenance, did Elder get the fraudulent documents?
This would not be the first time that a legitimate Christie’s sale has been used as cover for an illicit early Christian artifact. As Joel Baden and I revealed in our book Bible Nation the sale of a fragment of Galatians that appeared on eBay in 2012 and was purchased by the Green family was repeatedly justified on the basis that it had been sold at Christie’s. Christie’s told me that Christie’s will “co-operate closely with any official enquiries.”
Obbink did not immediately respond to inquiries from The Daily Beast but 18 months ago, in a brief response to emails, he stated that any story that he tried to sell a fragment of the Gospel of Mark to the Green family “is not true.”
If the allegations are true, they reveal a perfect storm of complicity between seller, buyer, and institution in which an unscrupulous academic was able to remove and sell valuable historical artifacts a buyer was willing to look the other way on questions of provenance and legitimate ownership and a museum failed to do due diligence when accepting donations.
Nongbri added that this may be a “cautionary tale” about academic superstars like Obbink. “There seems to have been very little oversight of Dirk Obbink by Oxford, the AHRC, the EES, or anyone else before this scandal broke… the EES has admitted that Dirk Obbink was keeping papyri in his personal office (allegedly the place where he was also peddling manuscripts). Even ‘geniuses’ need oversight.”
As for Museum of the Bible, which is legally distinct from Hobby Lobby and was not involved in the purchase of these papyri, it’s unclear what the fallout will be. Jill Hicks-Keeton, assistant professor of religious studies at Oklahoma University and co-editor of The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction, told me “This is bad news [for Museum of the Bible] – worse for Obbink, whose scholarly credentials are often raised by MOTB advocates as evidence of the museum’s legitimacy. The disgrace of Obbink should raise serious questions in all of our minds about the Museum of the Bible. Chief among mine is why its Director of the Scholars Initiative is releasing the evidence. If the Museum of the Bible will use this news to publicly distance itself from the scandal, we should be wary. Steve Green is still its board chair…Is the Museum really distancing itself from its past and charting a new course, or merely coming clean about some scandals to give the appearance of reform?”
All of the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scrolls Are Fake, Report Finds
In 2009, Hobby Lobby president Steve Green began acquiring a collection of 16 Dead Sea Scrolls for his Museum of the Bible, a sprawling institution in Washington, D.C. that seeks to provide “an immersive and personalized experience with the Bible, and its ongoing impact on the world around us.”
The museum opened in 2017—and not long after, doubts began to swirl about the authenticity of its Dead Sea Scrolls. Five were confirmed to be fake. And now, reports Michael Greshko for National Geographic, a study commissioned by the museum has reached an even more damning conclusion: “[N]one of the textual fragments in the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scroll collection are authentic.”
A team of independent researchers compiled the report with funding from the museum. The investigation, unveiled at a recent academic conference, spanned six months and saw the contested scrolls undergo examination with a battery of advanced technologies, including 3-D microscopes, scanning electron microscopy and microchemical testing.
The report does not cast doubt upon the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls held by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. These artifacts are among the most precious relics of the ancient world, first discovered in 1947 in a cave at Qumran, near the shores of the Dead Sea. Dated to around 2,000 years ago, most of the scrolls were written in Hebrew, though some were penned in Aramaic and Greek.
Today, they survive mainly as thousands of small fragments. The scrolls are typically divided into three categories based on their contents: biblical (copies of the books of the Hebrew Bible), apocryphal (manuscripts of works that were not included in the Jewish biblical canon), and sectarian (biblical commentaries, liturgical texts, and apocalyptic writings, among others).
During the 1950s, according to Greshko, an antiquities dealer named Khalil Iskander Shahin—or “Kando”—began buying Dead Sea Scroll fragments from local Bedouin and selling them to collectors. In 2002, the arrival of 70 new items injected a new spark into the market the Kando family was rumored to be selling relics that had long been hidden away in a vault in Switzerland.
Green sourced his Dead Sea Scrolls from this “post-2002” collection. In 2016, prominent biblical experts published a book about 13 of the museum’s fragments, drawing on scholarly analysis but not scientific testing, reports Sarah Cascone of artnet News. The new report suggests that these experts were duped by modern forgeries.
Several key pieces of evidence pointed investigators toward their conclusion. Genuine Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, are made from tanned or lightly tanned parchment the museum’s pieces were written on leather—possibly sourced from ancient shoes or sandals.
“After 2,000 years, leather and parchment look very similar,” Colette Loll, founder of Art Fraud Insights and leader of the investigative team, tells artnet News. “Until you do a high magnification analysis, as well as a chemical and elemental analysis, you really can’t tell the difference.”
The fragments had the waxy sheen of true Dead Sea Scrolls—a feature that stems from the breakdown of collagen in ancient parchment. But testing revealed that the shine visible among the museum’s holdings wasn’t the result of natural decay instead, the fragments appear to have been soaked in an amber-colored substance, possibly animal-skin glue. What’s more, close examination showed that ink had pooled in the cracks of the leather, suggesting the material was not new when the inscriptions were painted.
All of the 16 fragments, says Loll in a statement, exhibited “characteristics that suggest they are deliberate forgeries created in the twentieth century with the intent to mimic authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments.”
Tracing the provenance of the fakes—and who is responsible for them—lay beyond the scope of the recent investigation. But Loll tells artnet News that there are “a limited number of dealers whose hands have touched these post-2002 Dead Sea Scroll fragments.”
This isn’t the first time that Hobby Lobby has been embroiled in an antiquities scandal. In 2018, the arts and crafts chain returned 4,000 artifacts—among them cuneiform tablets—to Iraq after the United States Department of Justice filed a complaint alleging the objects had been smuggled into the country. Last year, Hobby Lobby said it would turn over 13 fragments of ancient texts following an investigation that found an Oxford University professor had stolen the artifacts and sold them to the chain. The texts were held at the Museum of the Bible, which collaborated on the investigation with the Egypt Exploration Society, a nonprofit organization based in London.
The museum is currently closed due to the coronavirus crisis before it reopens, its collection of “scrolls” will be removed from view. But new revelations about the forgeries have significance beyond the museum itself, raising questions about the authenticity of the entirety of the post-2002 scrolls.
Did Oxford Scholar Secretly Sell Bible Fragment to Hobby Lobby Family?
The first-century antiquity is part of a collection at Oxford, but paperwork reportedly suggests it was sold by a professor.
Fred de Noyelle / Godong
A little over a year ago The Daily Beast published an article asking whether one of the oldest passages of the Gospels had actually been found in a garbage dump, or if a prominent scholar was passing off an artifact as having come from that legendary discovery. Now, the scholar involved in its “discovery” has been accused of secretly selling pieces of one of the world’s most famous collections of ancient manuscripts, which is housed at Oxford, to the evangelical Green family of Hobby Lobby.
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. To be clear, according to the accusation, Obbink presented himself as the owner of the Mark fragment and sold it and other fragments to Hobby Lobby for an undisclosed amount.
Obbink did not respond to emails or phone calls from The Daily Beast, but he has previously denied selling the fragment.
In a statement, EES said it is “working to to clarify” whether EES papyri “were sold or offered for sale to Hobby Lobby or its agents, and if so, when and by whom. This may take some time, and unless and until new evidence emerges, there is no more we can say." The the University of Oxford also released a statement that said, “Recent developments concerning these papyri have been brought to the University’s attention. We will be looking into the matter further before issuing any further comment.”
So for now, it’s not clear if the accusations surrounding the fragment are rooted in an ethical breach or some kind of misunderstanding.
Rumors of the existence of this fragment have circulated since February 2012 when, in a debate with well-known agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman, evangelical text critic Dan Wallace announced that he had seen a “first-century Mark fragment.” Wallace indicated that his source for the dating of the manuscript was “a high ranking papyrologist.” When other scholars asked to see the manuscript, Wallace indicated that he was unable to comment further, stating shortly after the debate that he had signed a non-disclosure agreement.
Over the course of the following few years a number of other evangelical scholars suggested that they had seen the same papyrus in person but were unable to discuss it further. For scholarly observers, just the mention of NDAs suggested that the fragments belonged to the Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby and, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the most active collectors of biblical manuscripts in the world. No collections other than the Green Collection were requiring that scholars sign NDAs.
In the course of researching Bible Nation with my co-author Joel Baden, we asked Steve Green, CEO of Hobby Lobby, about the first-century Mark. He told us, “At some point it was like, this is an item I want to pursue.” All of this seemed to suggest that the fragment had been acquired by the Green family, as Wallace believed. In an interview at the National Conference on Christian Apologetics, shot on a cell phone and posted to YouTube, Scott Carroll, the former director of collections for the Green Collection, told the Christian apologist Josh McDowell that he first saw the fragment on the pool table in the office of American-born Oxford papyrologist Dirk Obbink. This suggested that Obbink could be the “highly respected papyrologist” who had told Wallace the fragment was first century. When the EES published their fragment of Mark in 2018, Wallace confirmed that it was the same fragment that he had seen over six years earlier but said that it had been misdated. As Elijah Hixson noted in a post at Evangelical Textual Criticism, there were still many unanswered questions.
Yesterday, on his blog, noted papyrologist and New Testament scholar Brent Nongbri, published an email sent by Holmes to members of a conference panel that is due to meet in November in San Diego. In the email Holmes wrote that “Prof. Dirk Obbink sold [the fragment of Mark] and three other allegedly early Gospel fragments to the Green Collection.” The other fragments were a fragment of Luke (that was published, alongside the Mark fragment in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 83 ), and fragments of the Gospels of Matthew and John (that also appear to be owned by the EES). In the agreement he signed with the Greens, Holmes writes, “Obbink clearly asserted … that he was the owner of the property described therein.” Attached to the email was a redacted purchase agreement signed by Obbink and a (currently) unknown representative of “Hobby Lobby, Inc.” Holmes confirmed to The Daily Beast that the document is authentic. There is no evidence to suggest that EES was complicit in the sale.
Given that in the past the Green family were investigated and reached a settlement with the federal government for trafficking in illicit artifacts, it is worth noting that Hobby Lobby had permitted the fragments to stay in Obbink’s “custody for research and publication” and thus, while they received the title to these fragments, neither the Green family, nor Museum of the Bible (to whom Hobby Lobby routinely donated its artifacts) ever took physical possession of them. In the past Hobby Lobby has been known to buy manuscripts that it could never physically possess. In this case the redacted contract specified that the buyer would receive the manuscripts after publication.
It’s unclear exactly how much the Green Family paid for the papyri they never received. In 2003, a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John known as P39 sold at auction at Sotheby’s for $400,000. At some point later it became part of the Green Collection, although it is not known how much they paid for it. The new fragments are not as visually appealing as P39 but there are four of them (one form each canonical gospel) so it is probable that the Green family paid seven figures for them.
A year ago, in a brief response to emails, Obbink stated that any claim that he tried to sell the Mark fragment to the Greens “is not true.” The Daily Beast reached out to Hobby Lobby, but did not get a response.
The allegation that Obbink may have tried to sell papyri belonging to the EES to a private collector is shocking on a number of levels. Obbink is an illustrious papyrologist and classicist. He was the long time general editor of the Oxyrhynchus collection at the University of Oxford, is a professor at the University of Oxford, and is a winner of a MacArthur “genius grant,” which comes with a considerable $500,000 prize.
If true, the story could call into question the provenance of other news-making artifacts that Obbink has been involved with in the past decade. For example, in 2014, Obbink announced the discovery of some lost fragments of Sappho, the provenance of which raised eyebrows in the scholarly community. Were they legally acquired and sold? There are two other (blacked out) items listed on the redacted contract between Obbink and Hobby Lobby, what are these items? What of the integrity of the Oxyrhynchus collection? Has Obbink attempted to or succeeded in selling other papyri? Are there other buyers? Have other manuscripts been sold to Hobby Lobby? Have any EEC-owned texts actually physically left Oxford?
Roberta Mazza, a papyrologist who has worked on the ethics of manuscript transparency since 2014 when the Sappho fragments were discovered, said that she was “unsurprised” by this news.
Nongbri told The Daily Beast , “the currently available evidence suggests that [Obbink] was both selling property he does not own and also using his reputation as a respected papyrologist to artificially inflate the value of these items by claiming they were all “first century” Christian papyri. To call these actions unethical would be an understatement.”
Theoretically, if Obbink was involved in the initial dating of the papyrus fragment to the first century while suspecting it was second or third century then he would have been artificially inflating its scholarly and financial value for his own benefit. Of course, it could also have been a simple mistake.
Nongbri added that if either Museum of the Bible or Hobby Lobby have any other invoices for antiquities involving Obbink they should release them so that “we can get a sense of the scale of the problem.” He noted that the invoice says nothing about the origins of the papyrus fragment other than just “Egypt.” As he put it: “No export date. No prior history of ownership. Amazing.” Hobby Lobby should have asked for more information. (An inquiry to Hobby Lobby about additional provenance details did not receive an immediate response).
For the field of papyrology this may be a moment of reckoning. Nongbri told me, “If this isn’t a one-off thing, and there are more records of sales, it becomes harder to believe that other scholars who work closely with Dirk Obbink didn’t know this kind of thing was going on.” Regardless of the scale of the problem, and even if this is all a big misunderstanding, the fact that it could happen at all demonstrates that there is a need for greater transparency in the administration of shared intellectual and cultural heritage. Buyers need to be vigilant about asking for proper documentation of the provenance of antiquities and institutions need to carefully oversee the management and administration of their collections.
The secret of Sant’Ambrogio
The convent of Sant’Ambrogio had a secret. At first, Katharina had no idea what this might be. But three months after she entered the convent on March 27, 1858, she knew that something that “frequently occupied the community” had been kept from her. Through her conversations with the madre vicaria, she became aware of the existence of “some kind of secret.” “She led me to understand that the father confessor had decided it was not yet time to reveal it to me.” She soon sensed this was somehow connected with “influences of a supernatural kind,” but comforted herself with the thought that “such naïve souls” as her new Roman sisters could more easily obtain their spiritual edification from those miraculous tales than from abstract theological tracts.
Of course, had she been able to interpret Reisach’s cryptic remarks, she might have been forewarned about this, as Katharina remarked self-critically in her Erlebnisse. Before she entered the convent, the cardinal had explained to her that in a southern country such as Italy one was frequently confronted with unusual or supernatural occurrences. “Strange and remarkable things might take place around her.” The Italians’ lively characters would make things seem very different from what she was used to, coming from cool, rationalist Germany. But in a place like Rome, where a “living faith grasps and maintains everything with a freshness and strength that we Germans can hardly conceive of . . . there also exist struggles and temptations quite alien to our experience.” Reisach had warned Katharina not to let herself “be unsettled or disturbed by such things.”
The cardinal’s words reveal his own enthusiasm for Latin European sentimental forms of Catholic devotion, and his rejection of an Enlightened, rational religious practice that was common in Germany. He was particularly fascinated by transcendental religious phenomena: in every single hour he was prepared for manifestations of the Sacred, especially in Rome. There was no doubt in his mind that “poor souls,” the spirits of the dead, could take up contact with this world from the other side at any time. So the princess saw nothing unusual in the fact that the refectory readings in Sant’Ambrogio often mentioned “ecstasies, miracles and apparitions.” Admittedly, she criticized these readings for overstimulating the imagination of her fellow nuns, and would have preferred solid “religious instruction.” This might have imparted the necessary basic Christian knowledge that the nuns of Sant’Ambrogio were wholly lacking — as the princess soon noticed. But, following Reisach’s advice, she put their enthusiasm for supernatural religious phenomena and miracles down to their southern mentality and their lack of educational achievement. At first, she didn’t see anything dangerously heretical. And her new father confessor, Padre Peters, managed to allay the princess’s “first serious concerns.”
However, the nuns were still hiding something from her: they would stop talking abruptly when Katharina approached them they would slip into a Roman dialect that the princess didn’t understand they dropped obscure hints.
It was only after she was admitted as a novice on September 29 that Padre Peters and Cardinal Reisach were finally prepared to come clean and lift the veil of secrecy. They had kept from her the fact that the founder of the Franciscan community of Sant’Ambrogio, Mother Agnese Firrao, had been condemned as a false saint by the Roman Inquisition, and sent into exile. They evidently feared that this revelation would have kept the princess from entering the convent.
This secret was the first point of Katharina’s denunciation. She complained that despite her conviction, Agnese Firrao was still being honored as a real saint in Sant’Ambrogio. The nuns, and in particular Padre Peters, had played down the implications of the Holy Office’s verdict on their mother founder. Once Katharina had become a novice, they referred to Firrao in her presence as La Beata Madre and venerated her as a saint, even though the Church stipulated that this kind of cult was only for people it had officially beatified. “They showed me her scourges, and other instruments of mortification, and told me of the three pounds of raw flesh that fell from the Mother after a single flagellation. They always praised her extraordinary virtue,” the princess noted in her report. “In this convent they don’t even blush when they proclaim the holiness of Sister Maria Agnese she surpasses almost all other saints.”
In Sant’Ambrogio, the Inquisition was criticized for having passed a clearly wrong judgment when it found Agnese Firrao guilty of false holiness. According to Katharina, the nuns regarded numerous items owned by their “saint” as contact relics: clothes, embroidery, and in particular three portraits done in oils. The confessors were working on a “saint’s life” of Firrao, which would be read aloud to the community once it was finished. The founder’s prayers, mottoes, letters, and messages had been painstakingly collected. On high feast days, “poems were recited, glorifying the blessed Maria Agnese, depicting her surrounded by angels, and nuns who had passed on.” On these occasions, “words of praise for the current madre vicaria were put into the mouth of the ‘Beata Madre,’ calling her ‘her joy, her treasure, the brightest of her stars.’”
Hubert Wolfis Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Muenster in Germany, and has been awarded a number or prizes, including the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation (DFG), the Communicator Prize, and the Gutenberg Prize. An internationally renowned scholar of the history of the papacy, he is the author of The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio.
Featured image: St Peter’s Basilica, by Ed Brambley. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
Biblical Artifacts Had Questionable Provenance
This week, the EES said the 13 items “were taken without authorization,” and 11 ended up in the care of the Museum of the Bible “after being sold to Hobby Lobby Stores by Professor [Dirk] Obbink, most of them in two batches in 2010.” (Two items were sold by another buyer.) Obbink, who has previously denied the allegations, has been banned from accessing EES archives.
Along with the artifacts, identifying materials such as catalog cards and photographs of text also disappeared. Through backup records, the EES was able to identify what was missing.
The Museum of the Bible, saying it purchased the artifacts “in good faith,” confirmed the items were “sold illegally” to them by a “known expert.” Four of the items are currently property of the museum, and the rest belong to Hobby Lobby as part of its Green Collection. Although the artifacts weren’t on display, some were part of a traveling exhibit before the museum opened.
Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, founded the Museum of the Bible in 2017 as a charitable organization to engage people with God’s Word. Within just a decade, he built one of the world’s largest private collections of biblical artifacts.
Jeff Kloha, the museum’s chief curatorial officer, says, “We have collaborated with EES in the investigation, have shared all relevant documentation with them, and will continue to assist them in recovering other items that may have been removed without authorization from their holdings.”
The EES expressed gratitude for the museum’s cooperation with acknowledging the items’ ownership and arranging their return. The Museum of the Bible provided EES with photos of its entire collection, allowing the group to research other items that might have gone missing.
According to a museum spokeswoman, former employees accepted those fragments at a time before the museum established tougher policies for assessing provenance. “Since then,” says Heather Cirmo, “Museum of the Bible curators and registrars began rigorously reviewing all acquisitions and researching documentation and dealers, with special attention on antiquities, items that may originate in modern conflict zones, and agents who are now known to [have] sold items of questionable origin or authenticity.”
Antiquities Buyers Must Proceed With Caution
These latest allegations in the antiquities world “reveal a perfect storm of complicity between seller, buyer, and institution,” says biblical scholar Candida Moss, co-author of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.
Museums are obligated to perform “due diligence” with acquisitions, experts say. Documentation should include the item’s export date, ownership history (provenance), and supporting paperwork. The invoice that the Museum of the Bible released in June for the Mark fragment simply said “Egypt,” which is insufficient.
Jill Hicks-Keeton, a religious studies professor who co-edited The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction, calls these latest revelations “bad news” for the Museum of the Bible and “worse for Obbink, whose scholarly credentials are often raised by [museum] advocates as evidence of the museum’s legitimacy.” She adds that the scandal “should raise serious questions in all of our minds about the Museum of the Bible,” including why it is releasing this evidence.
Forget Art and Gems, Thieves Make Discreet Millions at the Library
Last September, New York City’s Swann Galleries were advertising the sale of an invaluable piece of Spanish and Mexican history: a 500-year-old letter involving Hernán Cortés, the Spanish military leader and colonizer. The letter was expected to sell for somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 until a group of academics intervened. Reuters reports that the letter was one of a cluster of Cortés documents that had been stolen out of the National Archive of Mexico (AGN) and put up for sale. What’s even more shocking is that this is not the first time that important and valuable pieces of history have been stolen from a national archive, prominent library, or museum and ended up on the block at a prominent auction house.
The thefts would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the investigations of amateur sleuths and professional academics María Isabel Grañén Porrúa, a scholar of Spanish colonial books, Michel Oudijk, a Dutch philologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and María del Carmen Martínez, a Cortés scholar at the University of Valladolid in Spain. The suspicions of the group were aroused when a sudden flurry of Cortés papers emerged on the market in 2017. Grañén and Oudijk contacted Mexican antiquities authorities in 2018 and 2019 but when no action was taken by the government, they took matters into their own hands.
Together with Martínez, whose research involved taking thousands of photographs of AGN manuscripts, and the genealogical resources of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints they were able to trace the origins of 10 manuscripts that had come up for auction. The Mexican Foreign Ministry and U.S. Department of Justice are currently working together to repatriate the 10 missing manuscripts. Currently none of the auction houses involved—which include Swann, Bonhams, and Christie’s—have disclosed the names of buyers or sellers (as is common practice for auction houses) but it’s likely that the US government will subpoena this information as part of their investigation. At this point it should become clear who was responsible for surgically removing the documents from their bindings at the AGN and passing them on to other vendors. Grañén told Reuters, “We are very worried, not just by this theft, but also about all the other robberies and looting of national heritage.”
Sadly, this is anything but a one off.
In April 2020, Pennsylvania archivist Gregory Priore was ordered to three years home confinement and 12 years of probation for stealing more than $8.1 million worth of rare books and material from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Before his arrest, Priore had worked at the library for 30 years as an archivist and the sole manager of the William R. Oliver Special Collections Room. Over the course of nearly 25 years Priore stole roughly 320 items from the library, badly damaging many atlases and folios in the process. Priore would hide the items in manila envelopes or larger items but sometimes he simply hand-carried rare books out of the building. He would then deliver the objects to John Schulman, the proprietor of Caliban’s book shop and an occasional expert on PBS’s Antique Roadshow, who would sell them.
The thefts were discovered as part of a routine insurance appraisal conducted in 2017. Some of the more valuable items stolen included a 400-year-old Bible (later located in a museum in the Netherlands), a first edition of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (since recovered), and a still-missing German version of Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s, Travels in the Interior of North America, which was valued at $1.2 million. Police called it the largest antique book art theft in the world. Alexander P. Bicket, the Allegheny County judge who presided over the trial, told Priore and Schulman that they had betrayed their professions and the library, he further indicated that had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic he would have sentenced them to time in prison.
The University of Oxford has also found itself embroiled in scandal. On March 2, 2020, student newspaper the Oxford Blue reported that Dr. Dirk Obbink, a MacArthur grant-winning associate professor in papyrology and Greek literature, was detained by Thames Valley Police in connection with the disappearance of papyrus fragments out of the University’s Sackler Library. It is alleged that priceless ancient papyri from the Oxyrhynchus Collection, which were housed at the Sackler and owned by the Egypt Exploration Society, had been sold to Hobby Lobby Inc. and the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.
As was the case with the recent Cortés papers, the unprovenanced character of the papyri in Museum of the Bible’s collection was first revealed by academics, who lobbied authorities and the Museum to reveal the origins of many of the items in their collection. In June 2019, a redacted contract, allegedly between Obbink and Hobby Lobby, for fragments of the four Gospels was released by the Museum of the Bible prompting the EES to review its holdings. It subsequently emerged that many other papyrus fragments in the 5000-piece collection were also missing.
Most of the items absent from the Sackler are early Christian papyri or fragments of the Bible, while a spokesperson for Museum of the Bible refused to disclose how much Hobby Lobby had paid for the artifacts, Dr. Carl Graves, director of the EES, has described them as “priceless and irreplaceable.” A statement posted on the Egypt Exploration Society website in February 2021 revealed that the Museum of the Bible fragments had been repatriated to Egypt and that the police investigation into their unauthorized removal was ongoing. Dr. Obbink is no longer employed by the University of Oxford and does enjoy any of the privileges of emeritus status. Obbink has denied any wrongdoing.
What makes the unauthorized removal of unstudied papyri or other unpublished documents from libraries so devastating is the impact that it has on our knowledge of the past. Brent Nongbri, a professor at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society and one of those to draw attention to the Oxyrhynchus thefts, told The Daily Beast “unpublished materials stolen from libraries and museums can fly under the radar on the market much more easily, since most of the academic community is unaware of the existence of unpublished pieces.” It’s less risky for the thief but “it’s the unpublished and unstudied pieces that have the most to teach us.” In the case of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, he said, the impact is huge. “As far as I know, some 120 papyri, all of them unpublished, were missing about 40 have been recovered from American collectors. The contents of half of these have been identified, and they are all Christian (or possibly Jewish) literary texts. All told, about 160 Christian literary texts from Oxyrhynchus have been published. The EES hasn't revealed the content of the 100 other missing pieces, but if that pattern holds, we may be talking about a loss of as much as 20% of the total number of Christian books found at Oxyrhynchus.”
When items go missing from public libraries or national archives, it’s not unusual for the theft to turn out to be an inside job. This was the case for the U.S. National Archives (then called the National Archive and Records Administration) in 2002 when Shawn Aubitz, a curator at the Archival Operations Branch in Philadelphia, was arrested for stealing hundreds of documents. The theft was discovered when an eagle-eyed National Park Service employee saw items up for sale on eBay. Aubitz subsequently served 21 months in a federal prison. In 2003 Samuel R. Berger, a former national security adviser during the Clinton administration, repeatedly removed classified documents from the National Archives: he did a hundred hours of community service and was fined $50,000. These are just two cases involving the National Archives, but there are many more. In 2008 Paul Brachfeld, then inspector general of the archives, told Smithsonian Magazine, “If I come to the National Archives today and I have larceny in my blood, I can probably walk out and make some good money.”
On other occasions it is emboldened experts, like East Coast map dealer Edward Forbes Smiley, who are to blame. Smiley sold his wares privately and was only discovered when a quick-thinking librarian found an X-Acto blade on the floor of the Beinecke, Yale University’s rare book and manuscript library. He was caught with seven maps on him, including a 500-year-old example worth more than $150,000. After Smalley was arrested, five other prestigious libraries realized that they had been robbed of nearly $3 million worth of maps. Smiley served 42 months and was released in January 2010.
The recent thefts from the National Archive of Mexico (AGN) highlight the vulnerability of public collections, archives, and university libraries. Even the community of experts who are charged with conserving, curating, and studying these artifacts have, Steve Twomey has put it sometimes failed “to treat rare collections as community property instead of as a cultural ATM.” The solution is not only the introduction of additional security and surveillance methods (such as those Yale introduced after the Smiley affair), but a shift in how libraries and institutions regard their experts. Greg Priore was the sole manager of the Collections room from which he stole others were archivists, experts, or scholars who were implicitly trusted with valuable artifacts and had free rein in valuable collections.
Given how often it is that volunteers accidentally stumble across stolen material, the real worry is how many national archives are plundered without anyone noticing and how few questions are asked when artifacts reach auction houses. The Cortés papers and missing Oxyrhynchus pieces were identified because of academic intervention. While some auction houses report items they suspect are stolen, others don’t seem to be asking enough questions or, worse, ignoring the problem entirely. In the meantime, national archives are being plundered for personal profit.
Hobby Lobby faces another Bible artifacts scandal
Renowned classics professor Dirk Obbink is accused of stealing and selling as many as 11 ancient Bible fragments to Hobby Lobby. The Egypt Exploration Society, which manages Oxford University’s Oxyrhynchus Papyri project, said Monday the arts and crafts retailer bought the fragments in two batches back in 2010.
How did Hobby Lobby get involved? The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby and also founded the Museum of the Bible, has gathered one of the largest sets of Bible antiquities in the world. In 2017, the U.S. government ordered Hobby Lobby to pay a $3 million fine for illegally importing thousands of artifacts from Iraq. Last year, the museum pulled five Dead Sea scrolls from display after acknowledging they were forgeries.
Dig deeper: From the WORLD Magazine archives, read senior reporter Emily Belz’s report on the Museum of the Bible and smuggled artifacts.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.
Onize is WORLD's Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.
Dirk Obbink's ancestors were originally from the Netherlands, later immigrating to the United States. [ citation needed ] Obbink's father Jack was director of the Federal Housing Administration office in Omaha his mother worked for the state government.  He attended high school in Lincoln, Nebraska,  and took a BA in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1979, before earning an MA in Classical Studies and Papyrology there in 1984. [ citation needed ] In 1987, he received his PhD in Classics at Stanford University with his 1986 dissertation entitled Philodemus, De Pietate I. 
After an assistant professorship at Columbia University in New York in 1995, Obbink was appointed to the post of Lecturer in Papyrology and Greek Literature in the Faculty of Classics at Christ Church, Oxford University  and was appointed the head of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri are a large collection of ancient manuscript fragments discovered by archaeologists at an ancient rubbish dump near Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. They include thousands of Greek and Latin documents, letters and literary works.  In addition, from 2003 to 2007, Obbink was a faculty member at the University of Michigan, as a professor of classical studies and the Ludwig Koenen Collegiate Professor of Papyrology. 
From 1998 to circa 2015, Obbink was the Director of the Imaging Papyri Project at Oxford. This project is working to capture digitised images of Greek and Latin papyri held by the Ashmolean Museum (the Oxyrhynchus Papyri), and the Bodleian Library and the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples (the carbonized scrolls from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum), for the creation of an Oxford bank of digitised images of papyri. The newly digitised versions of the literary texts will be published.  An international team of papyrologists combine traditional philological methods with more recent digital imaging techniques. They have made accessible heavily damaged texts from the ancient world, many of which had been regarded as being irretrievably lost. In this way the damaged texts of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri and the Villa of the Papyri can now be read for the first time.
Obbink has made significant contributions in the fields of ancient literature, society and philosophy. He is familiar with the poetry of Sappho or Simonides discovered in the Egyptian Oxyrhynchus papyri, as he is with the technical-philosophical writings of the Epicurean Philodemus, the text of which he helped recover from the carbonized papyrus rolls discovered in The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. 
In 2001, Obbink was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his work on the papyri from Oxyrhynchus and Herculaneum. In May 2007, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven awarded him an honorary doctorate.  
In March 2010, Obbink appeared in Channel 4's series Alexandria: The Greatest City, presented by Bettany Hughes. In the programme he talked about the ancient Library of Alexandria. He also featured briefly in the 2015 BBC documentary Love and Life on Lesbos with Margaret Mountford, in which he showed Mountford a papyrus brought to him by an anonymous private collector in 2012 and that is now believed to be a manuscript copy, executed in about A.D. 200, of a poem written by Sappho in c. 600 B.C. 
In August 2016 the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) decided not to reappoint Obbink a general editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series, stating this was “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.”  In May 2018 Obbink and Daniela Colomo published the papyrus fragment P.Oxy. 5345 in volume LXXXIII of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series of the Egypt Exploration Society.  This fragment contained portions of six verses from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, and was designated P
Following publication in 2018, the Egypt Exploration Society, the owners of the papyrus fragment, released a statement  clarifying both the provenance of the fragment and Obbink's role in the circumstances of misleading information subsequently emerging on social media. The EES stated that the text in the fragment had only been recognised as being from the Gospel of Mark in 2011. In an earlier cataloguing in the 1980s by Revel Coles, the fragment had been described as 'I/II', which appeared to be the origin of the much discussed assertions of a very early date. In 2011/2012 the papyrus was in the keeping of Obbink, who had shown it to Scott Carroll, then representing the Green Collection, in connection with a proposal that it might be included in the exhibition of biblical papyri Verbum Domini at the Vatican during Lent and Easter 2012. It was not until the spring of 2016 that the EES realised that the rumoured "First Century Mark" papyrus that had become the subject of so much speculation was one and the same as their own fragment P.Oxy. 5345, whereupon Obbink and Colomo were requested to prepare it for publication.
In June 2019, the Egypt Exploration Society released a further statement  following the publication by Professor Michael Holmes of the Museum of the Bible of a contract between Obbink and Hobby Lobby dated 17 January 2013 for the sale of a number of fragmentary texts, one of which Holmes identified as P.Oxy. LXXXIII 5345. The Egypt Exploration Society reaffirmed its previous statement that this fragment had never been offered for sale by the EES, while offering the clarification that, in that statement, they had "simply reported Professor Obbink's responses to our questions at that time, in which he insisted that he had not sold or offered for sale the Mark fragment to the Green Collection, and that he had not required Professor Wallace to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement in relation to such a sale".
In the July/August 2019 issue of Christianity Today, Jerry Pattengale wrote an article in which he published for the first time his own perspectives on the 'First Century Mark' saga. Pattengale stated that he had been present with Scott Carroll in Obbink's rooms in Christ Church, Oxford in late 2011, when the P
In October 2019, the Egypt Exploration Society announced that twelve papyrus fragments and one parchment fragment were being returned to them by the Museum of the Bible, which acknowledged that the fragments belonged to the EES. The Museum of the Bible stated that eleven of these pieces had come into their possession after having been sold to Hobby Lobby by Obbink in two batches in 2010.    The other two pieces are reported to have been bought from a dealer based in Israel.  The EES said that the corresponding catalogue card and photograph for most of these thirteen items were also missing from the EES collection, and that they were only able to identify the missing items because backup copies of the catalogue cards and photographs had been made. The EES is continuing to check its collection for any more items that may have been taken without permission.  These thirteen items are:
- P.Oxy. inv. 39 5B.119/C(4–7)b: Genesis 5
- P.Oxy. inv. 20 3B.30/F(5–7)b: Genesis 17
- P.Oxy. inv. 102/171(e): Exodus 20–21
- P.Oxy. inv. 105/149(a): Exodus 30.18–19
- P.Oxy. inv. 93/Dec. 23/M.1: Deuteronomy
- P.Oxy. inv. 8 1B.188/D(1–3)a: Psalms 9.23–26
- P.Oxy. inv. 16 2B.48/C(a): Sayings of Jesus
- related to P.Oxy. inv. 101/72(a): Romans 3
- P.Oxy. inv. 29 4B.46/G(4–6)a: Romans 9–10
- P.Oxy. inv. 106/116(d) + 106/116(c): 1 Corinthians 7–10
- P.Oxy. inv. 105/188(c): Quotation of Hebrews
- P.Oxy. inv. 3 1B.78/B(1–3)a: Scriptural homily
- P.Oxy. inv. 8 1B.192/G(2)b: Acts of Paul (parchment)
Since June 2019, Obbink has had his access to the EES collection removed, and as of October 2019 [update] he is under investigation by Oxford University for removing texts belonging to the EES from university premises.  
In a statement to the Waco Tribune-Herald, Obbink denied all accusations of wrongdoing and claimed that documents linking him to the sale of the papyrus fragments were forgeries deliberately intended to damage his reputation and career.  In October 2019, Obbink was suspended from his role at Christ Church, Oxford. 
In November 2019, the chairman of the Egypt Exploration Society stated that 120 pieces had been discovered to be missing from the EES collection of Oxyrhynchus papyri, including the thirteen items from the Museum of the Bible and another six items now in the collection of Andrew Stimer in California. Both the Museum of the Bible and Stimer have agreed to return the pieces to the EES.  The alleged thefts of these items were reported to the Thames Valley Police on 12 November 2019. Obbink's arrest by officers from Thames Valley police was reported on 16 April 2020 in student newspaper The Oxford Blue.  
In June 2021 the Museum of the Bible stated it was suing Obbink for £5 million. Hobby Lobby, the company behind the Museum, alleges that Obbink sold fragments of papyrus and ancient objects stolen from an Oxford University collection in seven private sales between 2010 and 2013, worth a total of $7,095,100. 
Museum of the Bible says Oxford professor sold stolen biblical papyrus fragments
RNS — As many as 17 ancient Bible fragments that Hobby Lobby’s owner, billionaire Steve Green, bought for the Museum of the Bible were apparently stolen by a world-renowned Oxford University professor, the museum has acknowledged.
The acknowledgment builds on a slow drip of revelations over the past two years regarding the problematic origins of many of the antiquities stored in the museum, located just south of the National Mall in Washington, DC. The museum, which opened nearly two years ago, was created by the Green family at a cost of $500 million.
The biblical fragments belong to a British nonprofit, the Egypt Exploration Society, and were apparently sold in batches between 2010 and 2013. It was unclear on October 15 whether any charges will be filed in the case.
The fragments in question include four New Testament papyri that were bought by Hobby Lobby in 2013 from Oxford Professor Dirk Obbink but remained in the possession of the Egypt Exploration Society’s collection, where Obbink was apparently studying them. Another 11 Old and New Testament fragments Obbink sold to Hobby Lobby are in the museum’s collection in Washington, along with two additional fragments that came from another antiquities dealer, the Israeli Baidun family, but also belong to the society.
“We have collaborated with EES in the investigation, have shared all relevant documentation with them, and will continue to assist them in recovering other items that may have been removed without authorization from their holdings,” Jeffrey Kloha, chief curatorial officer at the Museum of the Bible, said in a statement.
The latest revelations about the origins of the Museum of the Bible holdings follow a pattern of questionably sourced antiquities.
Last year, the museum acknowledged that five Dead Sea Scroll fragments it had on display were forgeries and pulled them from a display case.
The museum also returned a medieval New Testament manuscript to the University of Athens after learning the document had been stolen. And in 2017, Hobby Lobby agreed to return nearly 4,000 artifacts to Iraq after they were found to have been looted from Iraqi archaeological sites.
“The Green family bought an enormous amount of material really, really quickly,” said Candida Moss, a biblical scholar at the University of Birmingham, England, and co-author of “Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.“
The buying spree, which began in 2009, included some 40,000 items, many of which Hobby Lobby donated to the museum it created for a tax break.
In recent years, the museum has worked to ensure that it properly reviews the provenance, or origins, of all the items in its collection.
The revelations concerning the most recent batch of fragments came about in June when the Egypt Exploration Society published a story about a late second- or early third-century fragment of the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark in its collection.
The publication was important since there are very few early copies of the New Testament and Mark is considered the earliest of the four gospels.
But researchers at the Museum of Bible thought that Mark fragment belonged to its collection and produced a contract showing that Hobby Lobby bought the fragment in 2013 from Obbink (though it did not have physical possession of the fragment). The museum declined to say how much Hobby Lobby paid for any of the fragments.
That spurred the society to investigate what else Obbink, a US native who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, may also have sold to Hobby Lobby in his capacity as general editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. (Oxyrhynchus, now called Al-Bahnasa, is a city in Egypt where archaeologists found a massive garbage heap with thousands of ancient biblical fragments.)
The society said it has banned Obbink from access to its collections and in a news release thanked the museum for its cooperation. Religion News Service was unable to contact Obbink for comment.
“The Board of Trustees of the MOTB has accepted the EES claim to ownership of the thirteen pieces identified to date, and is arranging to return them to the EES,” the release added.
Asked if there were possibly more pieces that Hobby Lobby bought from Obbink, Mike Holmes, director of the Museum of the Bible Scholars’ Initiative, said there was a small chance.
“The museum made available to EES photographs of everything we have and they are comparing them to their records,” said Holmes. “They found these 13. Is it possible they might turn up a few more? It’s possible. Who knows?”
Holmes said the 13 fragments in the museum’s collection were never exhibited, although a few of them were part of traveling exhibits before the museum opened.
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