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Startling and Disturbing Development Involving Manuscripts at the Museum of the Bible

There’s been a new and rather astonishing development in the story involving the so-called “First Century Gospel of Mark.”  If you recall, a few years ago some textual scholars began to claim that we now have in our possession the oldest copy of Mark (by a long shot) ever to be discovered.  The existence of the manuscript was first announced in 2012 by Prof. Dan Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary, in a public debate he was having, as it turns out, with me at UNC Chapel Hill.

Until now, our first fragmentary copy of Mark could be dated to around the beginning of the third century.  The earliest full copy of Mark comes to us form the middle of the fourth.  Mark itself was written, probably, around 70 CE.  So, well, that’s a long time between when the original was first published and when our first complete copy of it was made.  Around 300 years.  How many changes were made over the years?  Were there lots?  Were they massive?  How could we ever know?

But what if we had a copy from, say, within 20-30 years of the original having been produced?  Dan announced that we now had one.  But he could not tell us anything about it because he had signed a non-disclosure agreement: how extensive it was (a tiny scrap or a full manuscript?), how it had been dated to the first century, by whom, with what corroboration, how different it was from other known copies, etc. etc.

OK, I’m not going to go into all the ins and outs here again.  I posted a number of times on the issue: just use the search function on the blog and look for posts with the phrase “first-century Mark.”  You’ll see.

In 2018 we had learned through the actual publication of the manuscript that in fact it is just a small fragment and it does not date to the first century, but to the second or third (i.e., about the same age as the much fuller fragmentary copy we have already had for a long time).  But, even more intriguing, it came out that the fragment had been illegally sold by someone who didn’t own it – on the grounds that it *was* to be dated extremely early — to the people who were funding, organizing, and operating the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC (“the people” are the Green family that own the Hobby Lobby and use the proceeds from that enterprise to fund their conservative Christian evangelical causes).

The person named as selling it was …

It starts getting pretty darn interesting.  Hope you can read the rest.  If you belong to the blog, you can.  If you don’t … sorry!  But the good news is that it’s easy and inexpensive to join.  You’ll have access to all the blogs for over seven years.  And every penny you pay goes to charity.  So why not?

The person named as selling it was Dirk Obbink, from the University of Oxford, one of the world experts in analyzing and dating ancient manuscripts, who was the director of the extremely important and prestigious “Oxyrhynchus Papyri” collection, which publishes the authorized editions of ancient manuscripts that had been discovered, starting in the 19th century, in the ruins of the city of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt (most of the world’s ancient manuscripts come from Egypt, mainly because the climate allows them to survive), under the direction of the Egypt Exploration Society, a fantastic and very important organization that works to preserve and promote the cultural heritage of Egypt.  You should know about this organization.  Here’s the website:  https://www.ees.ac.uk/

As the Director of the project, Obbink had been given temporary possession of manuscripts (of all kinds – whatever is found from this site in Egypt, from tax receipts to literary texts) so he could analyze and publish them in the series.

OK, now to the breaking news.  Yesterday thee Egypt Exploration Society published a statement indicating that a *number* of ancient manuscripts had been unlawfully sold by Obbink to representatives of the Green family / Hobby Lobby, who were collecting such things for the Museum of the Bible.  That is, he sold antiquities that he didn’t own.  And the Museum of the Bible people were hoodwinked.  From not doing due diligence?   I don’t know.  Below I reproduce the statement published by the EES yesterday:  https://www.ees.ac.uk/news/professor-obbink-and-missing-ees-papyri

I would like to point out that the two scholars mentioned in the first paragraph who through their diligence more or less drove the inquiry in the first place are both members of the blog:  Brent Nongbri, who has occasionally made guests posts for us (he’s the author of Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept and God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts), and my old friend and colleague Michael Holmes who is the Director of Scholars Initiative at the Museum of the Bible.  I should clarify, Mike had ZERO to do with the purchase of the manuscripts; he works in a completely different branch of the museum, and joined it long after the purchases were made.  But he has been persistent in trying to figure out what in the blazes actually happened, and making the information public.

Here is their statement.  I’m afraid it doesn’t look good for Prof. Obbink.


On 25 June 2019 the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) posted a statement on its website that it was working with the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) to clarify whether any texts from the EES Oxyrhynchus collection had been sold or offered for sale to Hobby Lobby or its agents, and if so, when and by whom. This was in response to the online publication by Dr Brent Nongbri, following its release by Professor Michael Holmes of the MOTB, of a redacted copy of a contract of 17 January 2013 between Professor Dirk Obbink and Hobby Lobby Stores for the sale of six items to Hobby Lobby, including four New Testament fragments probably of EES provenance. This statement reports our findings to date.

With the help of photographs provided by the MOTB, the EES has so far identified thirteen texts from its collection, twelve on papyrus and one on parchment, all with biblical or related content, which are currently held by the MOTB (see the attached list). These texts were taken without authorisation from the EES, and in most of the thirteen cases the catalogue card and photograph are also missing. Fortunately, the EES has back-up records which enable us to identify missing unpublished texts. For clarity, we note that the four texts specified in the handwritten list made public alongside the 2013 contract, which are probably the texts of that contract, remain in the EES collection, and two have been published as P.Oxy. LXXXIII 5345 and 5346.

The Board of Trustees of the MOTB has accepted the EES claim to ownership of the thirteen pieces identified to date, and is arranging to return them to the EES. The EES is grateful to the MOTB for its co-operation, and has agreed that the research on these texts by scholars under the auspices of the MOTB will receive appropriate recognition when the texts are published in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series.

The MOTB has informed the EES that 11 of these pieces came into its care after being sold to Hobby Lobby Stores by Professor Obbink, most of them in two batches in 2010. In August 2016 the EES did not re-appoint Professor Obbink as a General Editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri primarily because of unsatisfactory discharge of his editorial duties, but also because of concerns, which he did not allay, about his alleged involvement in the marketing of ancient texts, especially the Sappho text. In June 2019 the EES banned him from any access to its collection pending his satisfactory clarification of the 2013 contract. Oxford University is now investigating, with EES help, the removal from University premises and alleged sale of EES texts.

The EES is also pursuing identification and recovery of other texts, or parts of texts, which have or may have been illicitly removed from its collection. Systematic checking of the EES collection will be a long process because of its size. Meanwhile, our primary aim remains the authoritative publication for public benefit of the texts of all types in our collection.



We cannot comment here on any broader legal issues arising from these findings, except to note that they are under consideration by all the institutions concerned.

EES papyri being returned by the MOTB (MOTB inventory number in square brackets)

  1. Genesis 5:  P.Oxy. inv. 39 5B.119/C(4-7)b.  [PAP.000121]
  2. Genesis 17:  P.Oxy. inv. 20 3B.30/F(5-7)b.   [PAP.000463]
  3. Exodus 20-21:  P.Oxy. inv. 102/171(e).   [PAP.000446]
  4. Exodus 30.18-19:  P.Oxy. inv. 105/149(a).   [PAP.000388]
  5. Deuteronomy:  P.Oxy. inv. 93/Dec. 23/M.1.   [PAP.000427]
  6. Psalms 9.23-26:   P.Oxy. inv. 8 1B.188/D(1-3)a.   [PAP.000122]
  7. Sayings of Jesus:  P.Oxy. inv. 16 2B.48/C(a).   [PAP.000377]
  8. Romans 3:  <related to P.Oxy. inv. 101/72(a)>.   [PAP.000467]
  9. Romans 9-10:  P.Oxy. inv. 29 4B.46/G(4-6)a.   [PAP.000425 one part]
  10. 1 Corinthians 7-10:  P.Oxy. inv. 106/116(d) + 106/116(c).   [PAP.000120 three small fragments]
  11. Quotation of Hebrews:  P.Oxy. inv. 105/188(c).   [PAP.000378]
  12. Scriptural homily:  P.Oxy. inv. 3 1B.78/B(1-3)a.   [PAP.000395]
  13. (parchment) Acts of Paul:  P.Oxy. inv. 8 1B.192/G(2)b.   [MS.000514]



How Did We Get The 27 Books of the New Testament?
Crazy Things Textual Scholars Say



  1. Avatar
    Stephen  October 15, 2019

    “And the Museum of the Bible people were hoodwinked.”

    I’m shocked, shocked to find out gambling is going on in this establishment!

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  October 15, 2019

    “impius ante aras, atque auri caecus amore”

    • Avatar
      AndrewJenkins  October 16, 2019

      Timeo Batavos et dona (furata) ferentes.

  3. Avatar
    groucho  October 15, 2019

    FYI, here is the Washington Post story about it.

  4. Avatar
    Mark57  October 15, 2019

    Wow. It just gets more astounding. Its hard to imagine why Obblink thought he could get away with this. Perhaps he did not know about the backup records? Or why Hobby Lobby’s scholars could be so naive –or is it indifference? And how much deeper this all goes with the academics that worked with him & should have known or other manuscripts not discovered missing yet.



  5. Avatar
    Jeff  October 15, 2019

    This incident does not surprise me. The Green family sounds similar to the DeVos Family here in Michigan. Both extremely wealthy, evangelical, with strong right wing political ties. Unfortunately, it appears among some evangelicals, academic credentials take second place to their theological beliefs. Fortunately, for the field of biblical scholarship, there was an eventual revelation of the facts.

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  October 16, 2019

      buyin’ for Jesus . .

    • Avatar
      JAF  October 19, 2019

      Totally kills me that, for Christians, “Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, the Life”; yet these hypocritical Evangelicals, who believe rigidly in the Bible as the inerrant word of God and are SO self-righteous as to be offensive, continue to bypass TRUTH and JUDGE others. This is not what Jesus preached.

  6. Avatar
    Nichrob  October 15, 2019

    Episode 298 on the “Blacklist”

  7. Christopher
    Christopher  October 15, 2019

    So I notice in that list, at the bottom, that no mention of a Markan fragment is made. I thought this was all about the Markan “1st centry” papyri that we are concerned with? What’s up with that?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2019

      You know, I’m not really sure. It’s not all about Mark though — that is what probably got it started. It’s about someone illegally selling mss. I’m not sure why Mark’s not on the list. I’ll find out!

      • Brent Nongbri
        Brent Nongbri  October 16, 2019

        Hi Bart, as I understand it, this list contains only items that actually physically made it to the US. The Mark fragment (and the other three gospel fragments mentioned in that invoice) never actually were delivered to the US, which is why the Hobby Lobby / Museum of the Bible people decided to air out this dirty laundry in the first place.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 18, 2019

          Got it! Wrote to Mike Holmes, and he filled me in. Should have figured that one out myself!

  8. Christopher
    Christopher  October 15, 2019

    On a separate note, Bart, how do you think this 1st century Mark kerfuffle compares to the spread of the authorship tradition, in the 1st-2nd century? An odd question, to be sure, but surely you see my point. Dan Wallace is a first-rate scholar, who had it on “good authority” that this fragment was well-vetted. Similarly, Papias and Ireneous pass on traditions “on good authority”, and surely theirs are even more questionable, and less investigatable, than this one has been. Consider how fast the news of a first century Markan frag spread through the evangelical apologetic community! To me, this is a great example of the spread of very important, yet false, information through a community, by people of well-endowed intelligence, and well meaning. Your musings, on this comparison, would be edifying, I think, Bart. Many a time have I heard someone express skepticism that the communities of early Christianity could have passed on an authorship tradition without it being well-vetted, given the importance of it.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2019

      Interesting point! Yes indeed, it does seem analogous! thanks!

  9. spencer290
    spencer290  October 15, 2019

    How much is a second century New Testament papyrus worth in USD?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2019

      Completely depends — e.g. on how reliable the dating is and how extensive it is. But even a fragment — I really don’t know? Seven figures?

  10. Lev
    Lev  October 16, 2019

    Astonishing news!

    The 7th fragment listed sounds intriguing “Sayings of Jesus” – I wonder what those sayings are?

    I understand the EES has had these fragments for over 100 years, yet it sounds like most of them are unpublished. Does anyone know why it’s taking so long?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2019

      Oh, yes. We know full well. Massively abundant harvest and very, very few workers in the field.

      • Spencer Black
        Spencer Black  October 16, 2019

        I wonder what kind of credentials/education is needed to help with that process. What kind of people do they need?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 18, 2019

          Massively credentialed. PhD and extensive work not just in Greek classics but in Greek palaeography in particular. No point putting out an appeal on social media!

      • Brent Nongbri
        Brent Nongbri  October 16, 2019

        Yes, that and the fact that the overwhelming majority of the papyri are documents–receipts, tax records, deeds–not the kind of stuff that sells books. So, they publish only a few literary pieces (Christian or classical works) in each volume, and then fill up the majority of the space with documents that are interesting mainly to specialists in the field.

  11. Avatar
    flshrP  October 16, 2019

    My guess is that the ultra conservative Christians in the Hobby Lobby ownership will justify these thefts by maintaining that they were merely doing the work of the Lord and that they were being faithful to a higher morality than that embodied in lowly human laws. It’s likely that these zealots view ancient Christian artifacts in the hands of Muslims as an abomination, which they can rectify by under-the-table-deals for the greater glory of their museum.

  12. Avatar
    Leovigild  October 16, 2019

    True of archaeological discoveries in general. There’s more to do than resources to do it. There are important archaeological deposits from Athens excavated in the 1920s that still await publication; the original scholars have died and the scholars who were asked to take over for them have also died.

  13. Avatar
    JoeWallack  October 16, 2019

    “Mark itself was written, probably, around 70 CE.”

    There is no quality External or Internal evidence that GMark was written c. 70. The multiple anachronisms appear to date it long after. The best argument for an early date seems to be backsliding from Marcion. Justin says Marcion was around a long time, Marcion was unaware of the origin of his version of GLuke and GMark was the base for GLuke.

    Regarding the guilt of MOTB, in addition to insufficient vetting of sources you can add gullibility (faith). Why would they even think it could be first century. Which reminds me, in order to help pay for his legal defense Obbink would like to know if anyone wants to buy a Seaside Castle in Nazareth?

    In a transparent attempt to get off my soapbox and follow your rules I’ll ask the one required question:

    What do you think is the best evidence that GMark was written c.70?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2019

      I”d say Mark can’t be too much later than that since it was known to both Matthew and Luke, which give no indication of being written after th eend of the first century. Marcion, of course, does not mention Matthew or Mark so far as we know.

      Manuscripts are dated on palaeographic grounds, a very sophisticated procedure that is nonetheless complicated and not completely reliable. But used by manuscript experts.

      It appears from what I’ve been told that Obbink did buy a huge mansion, but in Texas!

      • Avatar
        JoeWallack  October 18, 2019

        Well, as Earnest famously said in “The Importance of being Earnest”, “As I said.”

  14. Avatar
    fishician  October 17, 2019

    How could anyone claiming to be Christian be involved in such chicanery? It’s unheard of! (NOT!)

  15. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  January 15, 2020

    Happy New Year, Professor Ehrman. An article on this subject appeared in last Friday’s (UK) Guardian newspaper and I have included a link. The journalist refers to you (in connection with your debate with Dr Daniel Wallace back in 2012) but describes you as a ‘theologian’. That’s a shame to make such a mistake as the journalist, Charlotte Higgins, is one for whom I have a lot of respect. An interesting article though.


    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      Yup, mentioned it in a post two days ago. But I know! Theologian?!?

  16. Lev
    Lev  March 14, 2020

    It seems the MOTB has had a run of bad luck with their acquisitions. All the DSS fragments in their collection are fake: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/03/museum-of-the-bible-dead-sea-scrolls-forgeries/

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2020

      Yup. And it wasn’t all due to luck, I’m afraid. They had very bad practices.

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