Hobby Lobby, the craft chain that helped build a collection for the Museum of the Bible, sued a former Oxford lecturer, saying he sold it to stolen artifacts.
He had impeccable credentials. Nobody disputes that.
Dirk Obink was a respected lecturer at the University of Oxford. He received a MacArthur Foundation grant in 2001 for his work with papyrus, and took a lead in helping run the Oxyrhynchus papyri – the world’s largest collection of ancient papyri. Egypt Exploration Society and is kept in the Sackler Library, Oxford.
So about a decade ago when craft store chain Hobby Lobby began building a collection of ancient artifacts related to the Bible, it made sense to touch base with obliques.
Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, was leading the effort to create a national museum that focused on the Bible. So between 2010 and 2013, the chain says it paid Obebink about $7 million dollars for seven batches of antiquities, including ancient papyri, that contained New Testament writings.
Some of those artifacts, according to the Exploration Society, will end up in the Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington four years ago.
Now, Hobby Lobby is suing Obink, saying that 32 items purchased from him were stolen from the Exploration Society, which identified some of those artifacts as coming from his collection in Oxford.
Obink has since parted ways with the university and could not be contacted for comment. But he has denied taking anything from the Exploration Society’s collection. In 2019 he told the Waco Tribune-Herald: “I am aware that documents are being used against me that I believe have been fabricated in a malicious attempt to damage my reputation and career.”
However, doubts remain, and the Exploration Society has banned Obink from access to the Oxyrhynchus collection.
It is an understatement to say that the controversy over obbink and papyrus has rocked a scholarly world where ancient texts are assigned to a group of experts whose knowledge and experience set them apart.
The Obink was thought to be one of that breed.
“He was recognizable very early in his career as a brilliant linguist and an able peperologist, with a wide range of interests and a lot of energy,” said Roger Bagnall, a widely respected classics scholar who worked at Columbia. Was at university when Obink joined the faculty. .
Obink was known for his ability to piece together and decipher fragmentary texts. MacArthur Foundation called him An “expert in the art and craft of rescuing damaged ancient manuscripts from the ravages of nature and time,” adding that his work was characterized by “diligence, knowledge of the various dialects of Ancient Greek, and the ability to understand abbreviations scattered in the margins.” is required.”
When Obink left Columbia for Oxford in 1995, he gained access to oxyrhynchus The collection with more than 500,000 pieces of literary and documentary texts from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD, most of which came from excavations conducted between 1896 and 1907 by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt.
Although the collection is the most prestigious of its kind, experts say it does not have the same level of documentation and security as some others.
Universities such as Yale and Princeton have large portions of collections photographed and scanned with images in an online database that is accessible to the public with basic information. In such collections, the papyri is usually kept in secure locations and removed under strict protocols.
The practice in the Exploration Society, a small organization with limited funding, was different. Images of objects from the Oxyrhynchus collection about which scholars had published papers were publicly accessible, but images of other objects were not. Internal records are kept in card files rather than electronically. And scholars were sometimes allowed to bring papyri to their rooms at Oxford.
Obink is said to have availed himself of that privilege sometime around 2012, when he was reported to have displayed a papyrus piece with handwritten text from the Gospel of Mark in his rooms, which was later published in Hobby Lobby. was accused of selling
The piece was of particular interest to some scholars, who believed that it may have been composed as early as the 1st or 2nd century, placing it closer to the period around AD 70, when Mark composed his Gospel.
Early examples of New Testament writing attract scholars because of the ongoing debate about the reliability of the Bible. Some experts argue that the term attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John more accurately refers to the years when Christ walked the earth. Others say that the Gospels were changed over the millennia by hand-copying of manuscripts by countless scribes, which was basically unintentional.
The Exploration Society had, decades earlier, tentatively dated the excerpt with the evangelical text, attributed to Mark as early as the 1st or 2nd century AD. But the fact that the piece existed was not widely known.
Recently, word of the piece began to get out. In a 2012 video, Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary said in a discussion With another scholar that a first-century papyrus fragment with Mark’s writings—”the oldest manuscript of the Testament”, as he called it—was discovered. Wallace said the piece had been evaluated by many, with an “impregnable” reputation and considered by many to be “the best peperologists on the planet”, but declined to name the person, saying that it was “privileged”. The oath was administered.”
Then, in late 2015, Scott Carroll, an expert who advised the president of Hobby Lobby as his family began to purchase ancient Bibles, Torahs, manuscripts and other items, led lecture listeners to Obebink’s office in Oxford. Told about seeing a papyrus fragment. Mark.
He said that Obink dated it to between AD 70 and 120, an important finding because such an early manuscript may strengthen the argument that the New Testament language of today can be traced back to approximately the time of Jesus. could.
“I saw it at Christ Church College at the University of Oxford and it was in the possession of an outstanding, famous, eminent classicist,” said Carroll Video posted on YouTube by an audience member. “It has since been acquired; I can’t say by whom.”
According to an article, Exploration Society officials soon came to know about the video published last year in The Atlantic, and he was so impressed by it that he began to review unpublished New Testament papyri in his collection.
In 2016, the society declined to reappoint Obink as a general editor of the Oxyrhynchus collection, citing, among other things, concerns about his “alleged involvement” in the marketing of ancient texts.
But there was no evidence that Mark’s writing piece was filmed. It was still at Oxford, and the society later stated that Obebink had accepted showing it to Carroll, but insisted that he had not offered it for sale.
(In 2018 the society said it had revised its earlier provisional dating of the section as possibly the first century, adding that it was more likely to be from the end of the second or the beginning of the third.)
The plot thickened, however, in 2019, when a copy of the 2013 contract between Obbink and Hobby Lobby surfaced. The contract testified that the seller, Obink, had four fragments of a “fragmentary Greek manuscript” from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, written around AD 100. An attached document contained quotations from verses from the Gospels that coincided with the Exploration Society’s writings on texts.
The Museum of the Bible said through a spokesperson that it had handed over a copy of the contract to Exploration Society officials in 2019 because it felt obligated to tell the society what museum officials believed. He had uncovered fraudulent activity.
Around the same time, Brent Nongbri, a professor of history of religions at a Norwegian school, published A copy of the contract, saying that he had obtained it from a scholar affiliated with the Bible Museum.
Part of the contract was designed to keep the sale a secret. Obink was allowed to retain “temporary custody” of the objects and the right to conduct “scholarly research” in them. The contract also called on the buyer and seller to “keep all information about the subject of scholarly research secure and confidential”.
Soon after the contract was published, the Exploration Society banned Obink from access to the Oxyrhynchus collection. It was later stated that the Bible Museum acknowledged that the items in its care came from the society’s collection and were sold by Obink to Hobby Lobby.
The society said catalog cards and photographs were also missing along with some missing artifacts. “Luckily,” the society said, he had “backup records.”
The Exploration Society credits the Museum of the Bible with helping identify items from the society’s collections that were removed without authorization “and were acquired from a number of third parties by Hobby Lobby and its agents.”
The museum said in a statement that it will “remain as helpful as possible as authorities investigate the source of the unauthorized sale.”
A spokesperson for the museum said it was returning to the Exploration Society all items that had been removed from the Society’s collection without authorization and sold to Hobby Lobby. The spokeswoman, Charlotte Clay, said that “no items were ever on display in the museum.”
Hobby Lobby never actually found the piece with writing from Mark, who he says he bought from Obbink in 2013, as that item was kept by Obebink for “further research”. But several years later, in 2017, according to the suit, Obink admitted that the piece and others he sold in 2013 belonged to the Exploration Society and was “accidentally” put up for purchase. The suit states that Obink agreed to refund the $760,000 he received for those pieces, but has only paid $10,000 so far.
Hobby Lobby has argued in its lawsuit that all papyrus pieces purchased from Obbink, not just those it believes to have been stolen, are tainted by their association with people who have been found without authorization. has been taken.
Obink has yet to respond to the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Brooklyn. Lawyers for the chain said he recently served papers on a houseboat on Wears Mill Stream near the River Thames, where he was thought to be living.
British officials are also continuing their investigation into the alleged theft of papyrus pieces from the Sackler Library. Last year, British newspaper reported that was oblivious Arrested Regarding that inquiry.
But Thames Valley Police, which is investigating possible theft, said they could not release the name of a 63-year-old Oxford man who was arrested on March 2, 2020, on suspicion of theft and fraud. Police recently said that the man “has been released under investigation.” Police said that no charges have been registered in the case.
Oxford University has declined to address the matter in any detail, but has acknowledged that Obink left the university job in February.
Some of those who track the claim that Obink has turned from professor to robber wonder whether the Hobby Lobby lawsuit may help solve not only the question of who stole the papyri pieces from Oxford, but why. .
Among them is Nongbri, who over the years has published dozens of posts online about obbink, hobby lobby, and the missing Oxyrhynchus papyri.
“I would love to learn motivation, which is a mystery,” Nongbri said. “To someone who appeared…