Thursday, January 09, 2020

Longform Guardian Article on the Mark Fragment Saga

This morning, the Guardian published a long story titled “A scandal in Oxford: the curious case of the stolen gospel.” Its about Dirk Obbink and the stolen Oxyrhynchus fragments. It’s quite good and worth reading in full. Here I highlight things that stood out as new or noteworthy.

Obbink has been suspended from Oxford.
Since October, he [Obbink] 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.
We get some sense of how much these items might have been selling for.
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. 
The prices of the items [on the MOTB sale contracts] were redacted, but an expert told me he thought they could have been sold for $200,000 each. 
No price is mentioned [in the Christie’s brochure for the Sappho papyrus], but a collector familiar with the field estimates a likely figure of around $800,000.
$200k seems low for a “first-century” NT fragment, but I’m hardly knowledgeable in this area. In any case, it appears that Obbink was not only making enough money to buy his “castle” in Waco, but also to upgrade his home in Oxford.
In 2014, around the time his antiquities dealership Castle Folio was incorporated, he bought himself a castle. Or, rather, the Texan equivalent – an 1890s neo-Gothic pile in Waco, called Cottonland Castle. He already had a six-bedroom house in Oxford’s suburbs, in the garden of which he had dug a large, L-shape swimming pool – an upgrade from the canal boat he had once shared with a colleague.
The MOTB still has a lot of dodgy papryi and they are trying to repatriate (some of?) them.
At present, just over 20 papyri are displayed on the museum’s website, out of 5,000. I asked Holmes whether one can therefore conclude that the Greens own around 4,980 papyri that lack reliable provenance. “In general, yes,” said Holmes. The organisation is now negotiating, he told me, with national governments to return ownership of unprovenanced items to their countries of origin.
Why were so many duped along the way? I think the author nails it with this:
These rumours [about Obbink selling papyri] 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?
The irony is that, in this case, the man whose “lecture style is more 19th-century showman than sober scholar” turns out to be more reliable than the “lugubrious, crumpled, owlish” Oxford don!

For its part, the EES seems to have been on to Obbink by 2016.
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.
This answers a question I have had since Elijah’s original post: why in the world would Obbink publish “First-Century Mark” in the Oxyrhynchus series if he had stolen it from there? Given the fanfare about FCM, it made no sense. Surely that would expose him. This looks like my answer. If the EES forced him to publish it, he may have been stuck with no other way out. He certainly couldn’t hand it over to MOTB at that point.

If this is indeed the case, then the EES’s backup information may well be what saved the day for them.
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. (The EES has remained silent on the nature of this backup, but prior to digitisation, libraries would photograph card-index catalogues and transfer the images to microfiche.)
One thing we don’t learn and that I’d still like to know is did MOTB actually hand money over to Obbink for the papyri? I assume they did. If so, is that now gone or did he give it back at some point when it became clear they weren’t getting their papyri?

One other minor question of detail: Scott Carroll is said in this article to have been the director of the MOTB in 2011. Is this accurate? I didn’t think he was ever the director.

Nongbri has also blogged his thoughts, especially on the key new Sappho details in the article.



  1. Kudos to Charlotte Higgins for writing this excellent article. An example of dispassionate journalism which ought to be an example for quite a few academics who are involved one way or the other in this saga.

  2. Greg Matthews1/09/2020 7:25 pm

    What I've always been astounded about in all of this is how stupid Obbink could have been to let Carroll see and take photos of FCM, those four other small fragments that Pattengale has written about and the Sappho fragment (among others?). Carroll talked about those fragments in the private and public gatherings where he shows off the latest suspiciously provenanced finds and eventually Obbink would go on to sell or attempt to sell them. That just boggles my mind. Even if the world of papyrology is truly that tiny I just don't understand how Obbink thought he would get away with it. I guess he had no idea how much interest that supposed FCM fragment was going to generate.

    1. I've always assumed that Obbink took the photos and sent them to the Greens/Carroll to display what he had for sale. I also assumed that Carroll was violating non-disclosure agreements by publicly displaying these photos at various events/lectures. Certainly Obbink expected these items to be in the Museum someday so photos wouldn't be damaging evidence, especially since photos wouldn't reveal anything about provenance. It also seems unlikely to me that Obbink wouldn't recognize the attention that a first-century NT manuscript would arouse.

      What boggles my mind is that Obbink allegedly did this with the existence of back-up records. Was he unaware of the back-up records? This makes sense, but is it probable that he didn't know about these records? If he did know about the back-up records, does it speak to his extreme hubris?

    2. Could it be that Obbink thought he could satisfy any questions? Would anyone asking about this or that fragment, doubt his explanations? Was the publicizing of FCM ever part of the plan Would the EES have suspected Obbink if Carroll hadn't spilled the beans? Was that the reason for Carroll and The Green's parting ways? Was the sudden 5 year(after promising it would be published the next year) delay in publishing made in hopes that people would forget FCM?

    3. But how would Obbink satisfactorily explain questions about EES manuscripts in MOTB's collection, assuming that someone came across the extant EES records? To me, and without further information, this only makes sense if Obbink was unaware of the back-up records? But, at the same time, it almost seems improbable, that someone with such authority and knowledge of the Oxyrhynchus collection wouldn't know about these back-up records. Or did Obbink miscalculate, thinking that no one would ever study or examine the back-ups?

      The whole mummy mask charade also seems like a miscalculation. Wouldn't someone of Obbink's caliber know the anachronistic nature of these claims? These features seem like missteps that are beneath him. But, again, was it hubris or was he potentially blinded by greed?

      While Carroll may have spilled the beans early, didn't Obbink expect these manuscripts to eventually end up in MOTB for all to see? So how would it be any different than the publicity at opening day of MOTB? Additionally, Obbink sold the Greens "FCM" after the beans were spilled. If he had concerns about its publicity, wouldn't he have killed the deal?

      I've wondered that myself about Carroll and the Greens parting ways. After hearing Carroll speak in Boston last November, I get the impression that the Greens saw Carroll as a liability--someone who wanted to be the center of attention, yet lacking the brand or couth that they desired as the face of the collection. But I could be wrong.

  3. If FCM was published in order to stop or expose Obbink, what does this say about the publication schedule? How long would we have needed to wait under normal circumstances?

    1. Greg Matthews1/09/2020 8:55 pm

      Over a century in some cases....

    2. There is a list of sold fragments including identified biblical fragments - does anybody know when was this list made?
      Unless they have not been recovered it will be interesting to see how long it takes to have these fragments published.

    3. Possibly they will move up in priority as a result of the publicity. In a collection of several hundred thousand documents, publication of most of the documents and fragments will inevitably take decades or centuries for most of the material. The number of trained papyrologists and graduate students is small owing to the relatively small number of jobs and funded places. The paucity of jobs, and the fact that PhDs in papyrology tended to take longer--sometimes including unfunded years--than in other fields, put me off pursuing that career.

      The imbalance between the wealth of the material and the number of skilled papyrologists is significantly worse for documentary and literary texts and fragments on papyrus in languages other than Greek, in the Oxyrhynchus collection and elsewhere.

      The situation is not as a bad as it sounds because one can reasonably assume that during the initial cataloguing the custodians of the collections gained an approximate idea of what is most likely to be interesting, and prioritized them for publication. Nevertheless items of great interest must have been missed.

      It is not a question of dilatoriness so much as lack of resources. Scholars who can raise funds for work on papyrus in legitimate ways, and donors who support the field, are of inestimable value, and Dr Obbink must be included here, even if he turns out to be guilty of the bad things alleged against hm. Without commenting on any individual case, a scholar who raises funds in illegitimate ways may even start to imagine that support of publication by the sale of a few stolen items of lesser interest is justified, to the extent that those funds are channelled into research. Everyone in the field is eager to expedite high quality publication, so far as the supply of funds and skilled labourers in the vineyard permits.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. My thoughts and some questions for Christie's here:

  6. I'm quite pleased that, this time around, none of our faces appeared on screen!