The business of biblical antiquities, which has been described as murky and even seedy, is dealing with another scandal. After a six-year investigation, University of Oxford officials revealed that “First-Century Mark,” reportedly one of the oldest Bible fragments, apparently had been looted from its collection by a renowned professor. That fragment and 12 other biblical artifacts eventually ended up with the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby and founders of the Washington, D.C.-based Museum of the Bible.
The investigation points to Dirk Obbink, a highly regarded classics professor and recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant.” Obbink, who’s still working at Oxford, is suspected of the “removal and alleged sale” of items from the university’s Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project, excavated in 1896 from an Egyptian garbage dump. The non-profit Egypt Exploration Society (EES) owns and curates the Papyri Project, which is housed at Oxford’s Sackler Library. The EES insists the materials were never for sale.
Biblical Artifacts Had Questionable Provenance
This week, the EES said the 13 items “were taken without authorization,” and 11 ended up in the care of the Museum of the Bible “after being sold to Hobby Lobby Stores by Professor [Dirk] Obbink, most of them in two batches in 2010.” (Two items were sold by another buyer.) Obbink, who has previously denied the allegations, has been banned from accessing EES archives.
Along with the artifacts, identifying materials such as catalog cards and photographs of text also disappeared. Through backup records, the EES was able to identify what was missing.
The Museum of the Bible, saying it purchased the artifacts “in good faith,” confirmed the items were “sold illegally” to them by a “known expert.” Four of the items are currently property of the museum, and the rest belong to Hobby Lobby as part of its Green Collection. Although the artifacts weren’t on display, some were part of a traveling exhibit before the museum opened.
Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, founded the Museum of the Bible in 2017 as a charitable organization to engage people with God’s Word. Within just a decade, he built one of the world’s largest private collections of biblical artifacts.
Jeff Kloha, the museum’s chief curatorial officer, says, “We have collaborated with EES in the investigation, have shared all relevant documentation with them, and will continue to assist them in recovering other items that may have been removed without authorization from their holdings.”
The EES expressed gratitude for the museum’s cooperation with acknowledging the items’ ownership and arranging their return. The Museum of the Bible provided EES with photos of its entire collection, allowing the group to research other items that might have gone missing.
According to a museum spokeswoman, former employees accepted those fragments at a time before the museum established tougher policies for assessing provenance. “Since then,” says Heather Cirmo, “Museum of the Bible curators and registrars began rigorously reviewing all acquisitions and researching documentation and dealers, with special attention on antiquities, items that may originate in modern conflict zones, and agents who are now known to [have] sold items of questionable origin or authenticity.”
Antiquities Buyers Must Proceed With Caution
These latest allegations in the antiquities world “reveal a perfect storm of complicity between seller, buyer, and institution,” says biblical scholar Candida Moss, co-author of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.
Museums are obligated to perform “due diligence” with acquisitions, experts say. Documentation should include the item’s export date, ownership history (provenance), and supporting paperwork. The invoice that the Museum of the Bible released in June for the Mark fragment simply said “Egypt,” which is insufficient.
Jill Hicks-Keeton, a religious studies professor who co-edited The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction, calls these latest revelations “bad news” for the Museum of the Bible and “worse for Obbink, whose scholarly credentials are often raised by [museum] advocates as evidence of the museum’s legitimacy.” She adds that the scandal “should raise serious questions in all of our minds about the Museum of the Bible,” including why it is releasing this evidence.