As far as I can tell, people are accusing a distinguished papyrologist named Dirk Obbink of selling, wittingly or unwittingly, papyri that actually belong to the Egypt Exploration Society. (I started to write here that Obbink is my also my colleague at Baylor, but he appears to have been removed from the webpages for the Institute for Studies of Religion and the Classics department.) But everything that I have read — and I’ve been reading a lot in the past few days — about this scandal-in-the-making is confusing. This narrative by Jerry Pattengale, which tells the story from an insider’s point of view, purports to make some of these matters clear but actually just confuses me more.
The beginning of the story is clear. In 2011, Pattengale and Scott Carroll, who were “founding scholars” for the not-yet-opened Museum of the Bible, were visiting Obbink in his office at Christ Church, Oxford, when he showed them “four papyrus pieces of New Testament Gospels identified as Matthew 3:7–10, 11–12; Mark 1:8–9, 16–18; Luke 13: 25–27, 28; and John 8:26–28, 33–35,” and told them that “three of the pieces dated from the second century” — but the fragment from Mark was “very likely first century,” which would make it the earliest fragment of the Gospels yet discovered.
From here on out things get confusing. I’m going to quote many passages from Pattengale’s article and ask the questions that they raise.
Eventually, all four pieces were purchased in 2013 for a considerable sum — though at a fraction of their value (even taking the later dates our researchers suggested).
Purchsed by the Museum of the Bible? Payment to Dirk Obbink? And who were “our researchers”? What dates did they assign to the fragments?
Remember when I said that the manuscripts were one of the greatest discoveries since Grenfell and Hunt had excavated the Oxyrhynchus papyri? Well, it turned out that they were part of the discovery that Grenfell and Hunt made. As news of a “First-Century Mark” surfaced, it eventually became obvious it was a piece in the Oxyrhynchus collection (P.Oxy. 83.5345; P137) — which, at the time, was under Obbink’s purview in Oxford.
How did it become obvious? What were the clues? And to whom did it become obvious? What does “under Obbink’s purview” mean?
The piece had been awaiting research for a century, and cryptically identified in the 1980s as early New Testament (though not as Mark).
Identified by whom?
When the Egyptian Exploration Society (EES), who owns this collection, discovered it was the same piece in the news, it logically thought the piece had never been for sale nor had it ever been out of its possession.
Presumably this sentence means something along these lines: “Until the EES saw news reports about the papyrus fragment of Mark, which they knew to be their own fragment, they did not know that anyone had taken it out of their collection.” I think?
Before the EES became aware of this particular case, that the “First-Century Mark” was actually its own, Obbink reported to Steve Green (chair of the Museum of the Bible’s board) and me that the EES gave him an ultimatum to sever all public ties with our museum or be fired. His name had started surfacing in connection with other rare pieces and our museum, like the Sappho manuscripts he published, and the contract with Brill Publishers for a series.
This is utterly baffling to me. For one thing, how is the second sentence — which is grammatically incoherent — related to the first? Is the second purportedly explanatory of the first? The EES didn’t like it that Obbink’s “name had surfaced in connection with other rare pieces”? If so, why not? How does a Sappho fragment relate here? (Sappho is not in the Bible, AFAIK.) What kind of “series” was Brill contracting to publish? Did the series relate to the Museum of the Bible in some way? Presumably the EES didn’t approve of the Museum of the Bible?
I confided in Peter Williams, warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge, and even discussed arranging a meeting with the eminent Kenneth Kitchen and his EES colleagues to understand more fully the situation. I put forth an internal proposal to fund a professorship in Kitchen’s name at Christ Church, should the progenitor agree, assuming that Dirk would not accept the EES’s conditions. But he did, and I was outvoted anyway in favor of a plan in Waco, Texas.
What did Pattengale confide to Peter Williams? And why? What involvement did Williams have? Pattengale “put forth an internal proposal” — internal to what? And how does the creation of a new chair relate to any of the issues being explained here? What the hell is a “progenitor”? “Outvoted” by whom? “A plan in Waco, Texas”??
While sitting with [Edwin] Yamauchi at the opening gala dinner at the Museum of the Bible, this whole affair began to unravel. Yamauchi asked a simple question of David Trobisch, then curator of the Museum’s collection: “Dr. Trobisch, Scott Carroll mentioned the first-century Mark fragment. When do you expect its publication?” Trobisch responded, “That fragment was never offered to us for sale, isn’t that correct, Jerry?” I about snorted coffee through my nose, then responded, “Some things are best discussed in other settings.” Then David continued, “A researcher in Oxford, I think a graduate student, discovered an image of it in a museum collection, and it has remained there. It was just a misunderstanding.” You could have hit me with a frozen salmon. Apparently Obbink, or his alleged collectors, were unaware of filmed evidence of this rare piece — dating to the 1980s and rediscovered in 2008! Or someone stole it and just thought the chances of going undetected were worth it.
Presumably “filmed evidence” refers to the “image of it” — the Markan fragment? — “in a museum collection” — but what museum? And what was a “misunderstanding,” and among what parties? Again: total incoherence.
And the next paragraph gets even weirder:
Last week, with enough evidence now to go public, Michael Holmes (noted for his edition of the Apostolic Fathers and my replacement several years ago at the museum over the research side), released a copy of the purchase agreement signed by Obbink. He also included Obbink’s handwritten list of the manuscripts, a folded paper that I carried for years in my wallet. As this goes to press, an Oxford scholar informed me he traced the unidentified picture Holmes released to my house in Indiana using iPhone metadata.
So how did Michael Holmes happen to have the “handwritten list of the manuscripts” that Pattengale carried for years in his wallet? (Why did Pattengale do that, anyway?) And if, as the previous paragraph says, the “filmed evidence” of the fragment’s existence goes back to the 1980s, how does “iPhone metadata” come in?
Near the end of his article Pattengale writes,
Yes, the “First-Century Mark” fragment “sale” was scandalous.
Why is “sale” in quotation marks? Near the beginning of the article Pattengale says it was sold, though in a passive construction that does not identify the buyer. Where are those four fragments now? Are they at the Museum of the Bible?
Let me be explicit about this: I don’t ask these questions because I think Pattengale did anything wrong. I ask these questions because his article makes no sense. It is simply very badly written, and I suspect, rushed into the public eye with minimal editing. I would just love to get a clearer picture of what happened — or at least of what people suspect may have happened.