One of the exhibits at the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) is a medieval New Testament manuscript dating to the 1100s.
It turns out, the Greek manuscript of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life was stolen from the University of Athens (Greece) 27 years ago.
The discovery follows an investigation the museum is conducting on the provenance, or origins, of more than 3,000 items in its collection.
The journey the artifact has taken since it went missing doesn’t reveal who stole it but points out the difficulty many museums face in documenting ownership of ancient pieces.
The item, known as “Manuscript 18,” was last seen in the University’s library in 1991. It turned up seven years later at Sotheby’s auction in London, where it was purchased by an unknown owner. It wasn’t until 2010 that Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, owner of one of the world’s largest private collections of biblical texts and artifacts, bought the manuscript. The Green family, major funders of MOTB, donated it to the museum in 2014.
As a result of the discovery, MOTB is returning the manuscript to the University of Athens. Spokeswoman Michelle Farmer of DeMoss told Religion News Service this is “the first return of an artifact because of a provenance issue.”
Jeff Kloha, chief curatorial officer, told RNS that the decision to return the item was easy. “We’re a Museum of the Bible, so it’s ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you,’” he said, citing Matthew 7:12.
Following the Manuscript 18 donation in 2014, the museum listed the item on a database of New Testament manuscripts at the Institute for New Testament Textual Research at the University of Münster in Germany. That listing drew the attention of Theodora Antonopoulou, a professor of Byzantine literature at the University of Athens. Her research showed that the manuscript had been appropriated from the school without its permission.
The Metropolitan Museum in New York, Chicago’s Field Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and others have all discovered stolen artifacts in their exhibits.
Some academics concede the cases demonstrate the difficulties of provenance inherent in assembling collections of ancient artifacts. The Green family is no stranger to this provenance difficulty. In 2017, their company, Hobby Lobby, was fined for buying stolen artifacts from Iran.