Thursday, August 16, 2018

Museum of the Bible and Dirk Obbink

Somehow I missed this, but back in June, Michael Press wrote an article exploring the latest mandatory tax filing from the Museum of the Bible. Most of the payments are not terribly surprising although Press sees problems with some of the locations of their funded digs. He seems most troubled that the Museum is Evangelical and influential.

Of most interest to me is the end of the article which explains payments to one particular individual associated with the Oxyrhynchus collection. Press suggests that the unnamed “Domestic Individual” is Dirk Obbink, and that certainly makes the most sense. It’s not actually news that he was paid by them (see here), but now I guess we know how much. According to the tax filing, it was $225,311 in 2016/2017. (Who says textual criticism doesn’t pay?)

Press suggests that the payments might be what confused people into thinking the Museum owned P.Oxy. 5345 (previously “First-Century Mark”). That seems unlikely to me since paying for research on a fragment is hardly the same thing as owning it. Also, why would anyone sign an NDA with the people funding the research rather than with the institution that actually owns the object of that research? These questions persist.

Here is what Press has to say about the payment:
Besides funding institutions, the Museum of the Bible also reports grants to individuals — most of which are non-itemized scholarships. One grant, however, is itemized in some detail: in 2016–2017, the museum awarded $225,311 to an unnamed individual as a “research grant for Early Christian Lives, Proteus/Ancient Lives, and Imaging Papyri projects as well as establishing a research center.” All of these projects involve the Oxyrhynchus papyri, the largest group of papyrus documents from the ancient world. They consist of fragments of several hundred thousand texts from an ancient garbage dump at the site of Oxyrhynchus (modern Al Bahnasa) in Egypt. Most of the papyri were found in excavations at the site in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, conducted on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) in the U.K. The Museum of the Bible purchased several Oxyrhynchus papyri that had been gifted to American institutions in the early 20th century and later deaccessioned. However, most of the papyri from the site are still owned by the EES and housed at the University of Oxford.

The unnamed individual who received the grant from the Museum of the Bible is presumably Dirk Obbink, an American-born papyrologist currently at the University of Oxford. Obbink is the principal investigator for all of the projects named on the Form 990. Obbink’s relationship with the museum has been public for years, though the exact nature of it has never been clear. Obbink is listed as Papyrus Series editor for the museum’s publications with the prominent Dutch academic publisher Brill, and has been paid by the museum as a consultant, but in comments to Megan Gannon of Live Science in 2015, Obbink suggested that the Greens had more direct control over his work. Unlike many other collaborations, this arrangement was never made public — there is no press release on the Museum of the Bible website. It was also unusual in that the grant was made to an individual rather than an institution. (In a statement to Hyperallergic, the EES declared that “the EES has not, and has never had, any arrangement of any kind with the Museum of the Bible.”)

This funding arrangement may shed some light on the issue of the rumored “First Century Mark.” Starting in 2012, rumors circulated among biblical scholars of a fragment of the New Testament Gospel of Mark dating to the first century CE. This rumored First Century Mark would be significant as the earliest known version of the text, and one dating shortly after the book would have been written (it is generally dated by scholars sometime in the middle decades of the first century CE). It was thought that the Green family owned or was trying to purchase this fragment, but no firm evidence was ever put forward about this. Last month, the EES posted a note about a recently published Oxyrhynchus papyrus, confirming that this was in fact the rumored First Century Mark — except that it dated to the late second or early third century, and was owned not by the Museum of the Bible but by the EES. The publication of the fragment was edited by Dirk Obbink. The Museum of the Bible’s funding of Obbink’s Oxyrhynchus projects might have some bearing on puzzling aspects of the case, such as why it was believed that the fragment was owned by the Museum of the Bible. (If in fact the Green family is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars funding Oxyrhynchus-related research, then they may have a proprietary attitude toward that research even if they do not own the fragments themselves.)


  1. It might be relevant that Oxyrhynchus Papyri LXXXIII (published April 2018), in which Obbink and Colomo edit 5345 (Mark), is the first in several years in which Obbink is not named as one of the General Editors.

  2. It is also interesting to note that these payments are said to be for a "research grant for Early Christian Lives, Proteus/Ancient Lives, and Imaging Papyri projects as well as establishing a research center." As far as I know, neither the Imaging Papyri project nor the Ancient Lives project list the Museum of the Bible among their sponsors. See Melissa Sellew's comment here: