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The Legality, Morality, and Scandal of Acquiring Ancient Manuscripts: Guest Post by Jennifer Knust

Here is the final part of Jennifer’s Knust’s quest to trace the history of an intriguing Christian manuscript she came across, suspecting it had come to Duke ultimately as a result of Nazi looting decades earlier.  Now she details how she tried to track it down.

The entire episode leads her, then to reflect on the Green Family Collection, a group of manuscripts and antiquities purchased by the owners of the Hobby Lobby and the basis of the “Museum of the Bible” in Washington D.C.   Any visitor to the museum might assume that acquiring such treasures would be relatively simple and involve no issues of legality, morality, and scandal.  On the contrary….

Jennifer Knust’s most popular books are To Cast the First Stone and Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity.


Part III: Manuscripts are Commodities

The Antiquariat was (and is) a bookstore. Günther Koch was a bookseller. Indeed, in a counter-claim filed against the Rosenthals in the 1950s, he described himself as uniquely qualified for the position he undertook during and after the war. He reminded the Wiedergutmachungsbehörde I, Oberbayern (Upper Bavarian Restitution Agency I) that he is the author of Kunstwerke und Bücher am Markte (“Works of Art and Books on the Market,” Eßlingen a. N. Paul Neff, 1915), fluent in thirteen languages, more capable than the Rosenthals of assessing the true value and significance of their collection, and a “Philosemite” to boot. From his perspective, both the Rosenthals and the German government owed him compensation for his troubles. Such a self-serving, self-important, and demonstrably false counter-claim — it was recognized as such by the German court — seems stunning now, more than fifty years later. Yet Koch’s lack of regret should serve as a warning to all of us: dripping condescension and an over-active sense of entitlement are professional hazards for those of us with access to the training, institutional support, and privilege that expertise in rare books requires. In Koch’s case, his access to the Antiquariat’s books came at significant human as well as financial cost: Norbert and his son Paul were murdered in the concentration camps. Norbert’s wife Johanna, mother of Ernst, Fritz, and Paul, died as the result of illness, also in the camps (For more information, see ….

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Sad News From Larry Hurtado
Christian Manuscripts and Nazi Loot: Guest Post by Jennifer Knust



  1. Avatar
    AndrewJenkins  July 9, 2019

    This a brilliant, moving and thought provoking post.

    Thank you so much, Andrew.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  July 9, 2019

    It saddens me that people who claim the title “Christian” are willing to commit or tolerate dishonest deeds in their pursuit of promoting the “truth” of God. You can’t use or even tolerate evil to achieve good; it only results in more evil in the world, and we have enough already.

  3. Avatar
    Tempo1936  July 9, 2019

    Was Galatians written after Luke’s Acts?
    The book of Acts when compared with Paul’s letters is very different in biographical detail and where Paul was at a certain time and with whom.

    So Luke must not have known about Paul’s epistles, particularly Galatians. Otherwise there would not be so many differences.

    Could Luke’s Acts have been written before Galatians???

    Also I don’t think we have any contemporary accounts of Paul’s death, although traditions from several decades afterwards indicate that he was martyred. 

    Are there independent Roman or Jewish sources that verify Details of Paul’s life and writings?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 10, 2019

      Galatians was almost certainly written before Acts, and you’re right, nothing seems to indicate that the author of Acts knew about it (or about Paul’s own views of the matter). No, there are no Roman or Jewish sources from the period that even mention Paul (or his death)

  4. Avatar
    caseyjunior  July 9, 2019

    Someone interested in these posts might want to read Bible Nation by Moss and Baden. I found the whole background of the MOTB to be Infuriating when I read it, just as a warning.

  5. epicurus
    epicurus  July 9, 2019

    Great series! Now this will always be in the back of my mind when viewing antiquities ( and modern stuff) in museums in the future.

  6. Avatar
    rburos  July 9, 2019

    I had assumed all of this away, so thanks so much for opening my eyes to this monstrosity. To think–stealing by people aiming to promote Christianity! At the very least people like you make it harder for them to do it.

  7. Avatar
    doug  July 9, 2019

    Commodification is something we should think about. Not only are objects such as manuscripts often treated as commodities, but people are often treated as commodities, too.

  8. Avatar
    wostraub  July 9, 2019

    Many thanks to Prof. Knust for this fascinating if disturbing three-part series on the sad fate of rare manuscripts, of which so many were stolen and never returned to their rightful owners.

    There is yet another ancient set of manuscripts that were effectively taken away from their owners, which is the Hebrew Bible itself. Unlike the Nazis, whose goal was greed coupled with nationalistic fervor, Christians claimed the Old Testament for purely religious purposes. Just as the looted works described by Knust were accompanied by mass murder, the looting of the Hebrew Bible by Christians set the stage for two millennia of anti-Semitism, leading to the sad events of Germany in World War II.

  9. Avatar
    brenmcg  July 9, 2019

    I guess another ethical question is whether any ancient texts should be held in private hands – do you think there’s much important material held privately that professionals dont have access to?

    • jwk37
      jwk37  July 10, 2019

      That is a good question. Many, many ancient texts are held privately, by private university libraries (e.g., Duke, Harvard, Yale), private religious institutions (the Vatican library, the monasteries on Mt. Athos, seminaries and religiously affiliated colleges), and private collectors (the Bodmer collection is one example). Then there are manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts owned by individual collectors – I don’t think we know how many of these there are out there.

  10. Avatar
    chixter  July 9, 2019

    Great work Dr. Knust. Thank you.

  11. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  July 10, 2019

    Terrific. Thanks. Reminds me of, among other things, “Beethoven’s Hair” by Russel Martin. Provenance again. Yep, involving Jews and Nazis.

  12. Avatar
    Apocryphile  July 11, 2019

    Interesting and very thought-provoking post. I suppose the real issue is who ultimately owns cultural artifacts. Some cases are more straightforward, morally and legally, than others, but they all eventually boil down to this one question. If the object in question is an ancient artifact such as an Egyptian statuette or papyrus manuscript fragment currently residing in, say, America or England, its entire provenance is probably far from clear. Who can be said to be the real owner of something like this? Can we ever be 100% sure that it was taken out of its home country legally, or illegally? Does the current nation-state whose (modern) borders it was originally found within always have a primary claim to it, or would the fact that it was, say, spirited out of a particular country or land in the 18th century under murky circumstances and is currently housed in ideal climatic conditions within a publicly funded American or British museum mean anything? Would it strengthen or lessen the claim to ownership if the institution or collection is privately funded instead? Modern societies can and do write laws to try to provide some legal and ethical clarity to this issue of ownership of cultural artifacts, but laws usually extend only up to a nation’s borders. Commodification knows no boundaries.

  13. Avatar
    madmargie  July 12, 2019

    Very interesting…if alarming!

  14. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  July 13, 2019

    ” Those who espouse humanistic — or, in the case of the MOTB’s Scholars Initiative, Christian — values cannot afford to sit idly by when markets and institutions ignore, erase, and overlook the actual human lives embodied in the objects they treasure.”
    The MOTB doesn’t sit idly by. They actively initiate and participate in these very markets. They ‘believe’ their ’cause’ is more important than – other – human lives.

  15. Avatar
    JohnMuellerJD  July 13, 2019

    Wow! While I had no idea, sadly I am not surprised. So happy for these posts.

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