A Biblical Mystery at Oxford
A renowned scholar claimed that he discovered a first-century gospel fragment. Now he’s facing allegations of antiquities theft, cover-up, and fraud.
On the evening of February 1, 2012, more than 1,000 people crowded into an auditorium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The event was a showdown between two scholars over an explosive question in biblical studies: Is the original text of the New Testament lost, or do today’s Bibles contain the actual words—the “autographs”—of Jesus’s earliest chroniclers?
On one side was Bart Ehrman, a UNC professor and atheist whose best-selling books argue that the oldest copies of Christian scripture are so inconsistent and incomplete—and so few in number—that the original words are beyond recovery. On the other was Daniel Wallace, a conservative scholar at Dallas Theological Seminary who believes that careful textual analysis can surface the New Testament’s divinely inspired first draft.
They had debated twice before, but this time Wallace had a secret weapon: At the end of his opening statement, he announced that verses of the Gospel of Mark had just been discovered on a piece of papyrus from the first century.
Dirk Obbink had rummaged for diamonds in the rough since his boyhood in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 2002, the year after he was awarded the MacArthur prize, his mother, Dorithy, told Smithsonian magazine that as a child her son had haunted thrift shops and the town dump, coming home with “a bunch of junk.” His fascination with other people’s trash carried into his years in New York, where he took his daughter dumpster diving.
That papyrology called to him was perhaps little wonder. Papyrus was the ancient world’s paper, a disposable medium made of reeds harvested along the Nile. Its 1,000-year heyday as a writing surface coincided with the Greco-Roman era, the fall of the pharaohs, the birth of Christianity, and the advent of Islam. Obbink taught students how to mine the brownish, jigsaw-puzzle-like fragments for lost works of Greek literature and philosophy.
No collection came close to rivaling the one Obbink helped oversee at Oxford’s Sackler Library. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, named after the lost Egyptian city from whose ancient rubbish heaps they were excavated, contained forgotten works of Sophocles, Menander, and Sappho; love spells and horoscopes; early gospels and Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. Deciphering the texts is so laborious—and oversight so strict—that just 1 percent of the fragments have been published since their discovery. As a decoder of crumbling, half-vanished manuscripts, Obbink was “an absolute master,” his friend David Sider, an NYU classicist, told me.
When he gave students his attention, they found him mesmerizing. But Obbink was often as inscrutable as the texts he placed under his microscope. Despite boyish looks—an open face beneath a helmet of center-parted bangs—Obbink had a wooden air and monotone voice that struck some people as “cold” or, as one former student put it, “whatever the opposite of charisma is.” He was “never quite there,” another pupil said.
Founded by King Henry VIII in 1546, Christ Church is the most picturesque of the colleges that make up the University of Oxford. The poet W. H. Auden, the philosopher John Locke, and several British prime ministers were educated on its castlelike grounds, parts of which stand in for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.
One night in November 2011, two American evangelicals walked up a flight of stairs in a Gothic bell tower on Christ Church’s central quad. Scott Carroll and Jerry Pattengale had been friends since their days together in a different Oxford—the city in southwest Ohio, where they each earned a doctorate in ancient history, at Miami University. Both had taught at Christian colleges and advised well-to-do collectors before Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, hired them to lay the intellectual foundations for a national Bible museum.
Carroll was put in charge of acquisitions, a post that played to his self-image as an impresario called by God to summon texts from the farthest reaches of the globe. His cellphone’s ringtone was the theme from Indiana Jones. A promotional photo, captioned great scott!, depicts him in shorts and a fedora, swinging through the jungle on a rope.
Steve Green had loosed tidal forces when he entered the antiquities market in 2009. He was a motivated, first-time buyer with millions to burn in the midst of a global recession. Strangers bearing ancient scrolls, oil lamps, and incunabula approached museum officials unbidden at restaurants, college lecture halls, even supermarkets.
One would-be seller claimed to have a 5,000-year-old Bible that had been perfectly preserved in ice atop Mount Ararat. Another brought a box of manuscripts to the parking lot of a Cattlemen’s Steakhouse near Hobby Lobby headquarters, in Oklahoma City. When Carroll rebuffed him, the dealer set the box on the trunk of Carroll’s car, then dashed off, yelling, “You’ll love these. Call me!”
In five years, Green acquired more than 40,000 artifacts, from cuneiform tablets and Dead Sea Scrolls to Jewish Torahs and early-American Bibles. But he wasn’t indiscriminate. “We’re buyers of items to tell the story,” Green once said. And the story of Christianity he wanted to tell was of the Bible as a God-given record of “absolute authority and reliability.”
In early 2012, a few months after their meeting at Christ Church, Obbink invited Pattengale to London to show him a batch of papyri that had come up for sale. The men were steps from Sotheby’s—where Pattengale thought they were going—when Obbink turned down a narrow alley to the small, cluttered apartment of a 30-something Turk, who answered the door in a Yankees jersey.
Pattengale would later learn that the man, a dealer named Yakup Eksioglu, was suspected by scholars of illicitly trafficking papyri. Eksioglu had begun selling antiquities on eBay, under a series of usernames, in 2008, around the time social-media accounts placed him in Egypt. When Roberta Mazza, an Italian papyrologist, grilled Eksioglu about the source of his fragments in 2017, Eksioglu threatened her. “Always look at the back when you walk,” he wrote in a WhatsApp chat she later sent me. He alluded to an attack in Europe in which acid had been thrown in victims’ faces. (Eksioglu says that his antiquities business is fully legal and that if threats to Mazza came from his phone, they were perhaps sent by some students he knew, as “humor.”)
Professor Jeff Fish was in his office at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, in the fall of 2010 when he got a voicemail. The caller was someone named Scott Carroll, who asked whether Fish and his students might like to study papyri from the Green Collection.
Fish had never heard of Carroll or the Greens, much less any new cache of unstudied manuscripts. He might have written the whole thing off as some kind of prank had Carroll not dropped the name Dirk Obbink.
Fish revered the Oxford professor, as much for his scholarship as for the role he’d played in Fish’s own career. Fish had been foundering on his doctoral thesis at the University of Texas in the 1990s when Obbink—with whom he’d taken a summer papyrology class at Oxford—steered him toward a new topic and opened doors to closely guarded Italian papyri.
That someone of Obbink’s renown might partner with a scholar Fish had never even heard of was almost unbelievable. Fish wrote to his old mentor to see whether any of it was true.
The technique—known as “dismounting”—was clever. But because the ancients made cartonnage from waste papyrus (receipts, notes, and other ephemera), it produced few major literary discoveries. The likelihood of Christian finds was almost nil: Egyptians had ceased using papyri in mummy masks before Jesus’s day. By the 1960s, the practice of dissolving another culture’s death masks on the off chance of finding a manuscript had been all but abandoned, as much for ethical reasons as for the lackluster results.
Jeffrey might have been just as floored, were it not for something he’d noticed when students were first gathering in the room.
Before his demonstration, Carroll had discreetly set a piece of papyrus beside the sink, and Jeffrey had glanced at it. When Carroll withdrew the wet Romans fragment from the mummy mask, Jeffrey recognized it as the piece he’d seen beside the sink. Carroll, he realized, had only pretended to pull it from the mask.
Simon Burris, who taught Greek poetry at Baylor, had shown up at the mummy-mask dissolving that January less out of scholarly interest than to take part in the life of the department; lecturers like him did well to show their faces to the tenured faculty who decided whether to renew their annual teaching contracts.
But something felt off. The Sappho pieces had been laid out in such a way that even a non–Sappho expert like him could spot several in just minutes. (He would eventually discover some 20 of them.) He wondered: Did Carroll somehow know what was in the mask before he’d disemboweled it?
In most respects, Obbink was indeed Carroll’s opposite: a professor at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, aloof, reserved.
Yet in the decade after Obbink’s genius grant, a view had taken hold among some colleagues that he’d failed to live up to the high expectations. Some thought he’d spread himself too thin, chasing every short-lived opportunity rather than pursuing the sort of single-minded research that had produced Philodemus on Piety: Part 1, the 1996 opus that had vaulted him to the highest echelon of classical scholarship. The MacArthur Foundation had noted that Part 2 was due out in 2003. Seventeen years later, it remains unpublished.
By 2013, the Museum of the Bible was paying Obbink $6,000 a month, twice the top rate for other academics in its scholars initiative.
At events sponsored by the Greens, Obbink, at times in a white lab coat, dunked wedges of mummy cartonnage in soapy water. “He says, ‘This is what scholars do,’ ” recalled Jeremiah Coogan, a student who attended one. “We got this spiel about ‘This is where you discover New Testament papyri’ ”—a line that Coogan, like other scholars, soon recognized as dubious.
In early 2014, headlines appeared across the world: Obbink had discovered a pair of breathtaking new Sappho poems—on a piece of papyrus salvaged from a mummy mask. “For a couple of months, it was just me and a girl named Sappho—nothing between me and the text,” Obbink said on BBC Radio. “It was like being shipwrecked on a desert island with Marilyn Monroe.”
When I asked for corroboration, he said he didn’t want to bother his relatives and that in any case no one but him knew anything about it. In our many exchanges, Eksioglu trafficked in conspiracy theories and made statements that he later acknowledged were lies. But even if only the documented claims are true—that he sold the Greens the smaller Sappho scraps—they expose Carroll’s Baylor demonstration as a con and discredit key parts of Obbink’s provenance story.
Though housed at Oxford, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri are owned by the Egypt Exploration Society, the London charity that financed their excavation. Public criticism of Obbink’s Sappho dealings deeply unsettled the EES; the collection’s general editors weren’t supposed to have anything to do with buyers or sellers of antiquities. At a meeting in London in July 2014, EES officials gave Obbink an ultimatum: Cut ties with the Greens or lose his editorship.
That night, after Obbink returned to Oxford, he went to the hotel where Jerry Pattengale and Steve Green were staying during a summer session of the Green Scholars Initiative. They took seats on an outdoor patio, and Obbink told them of the EES’s mandate.
“He was sweating profusely,” Pattengale recalled. If the EES shut Obbink out of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, he would lose the raison d’être for his position at Oxford—and maybe his position along with it.
Pattengale pitched the Greens on endowing a chair for Obbink at Oxford, to keep him at the university even if he lost access to the collection. “This was simply to treat someone well who had been so helpful,” Pattengale told me. But he was overruled; Cary Summers, then president of the Museum of the Bible, saw a faculty job for Obbink at Baylor as a better contingency plan. “It was disingenuous,” Pattengale told me. “It would be the museum funding Baylor to fund him”—masking his ties to the Greens and thereby maintaining his access to the Oxyrhynchus collection, even if he spent part of the year in Texas. (Summers did not respond to multiple interview requests.)
Obbink told the EES that he’d broken with the Greens. In truth, sources told me, the Museum of the Bible continued to finance his projects and pay him the $6,000-a-month stipend. If the EES found out, Obbink might need a new job, fast.
In September 2014, two months after the EES ultimatum, Obbink bought a faux medieval castle a short drive from the Baylor campus. Fish, the Baylor classicist, was dumbfounded.
The 124-year-old Cottonland Castle, built of sandstone, Carrara marble, and Honduran mahogany, was a wholly out-of-place structure, bordered by a used-car lot and blighted by water damage and graffiti. When I visited Waco last fall, people told me that teenagers had a Halloween tradition of breaking into the vacant building and sneaking through the dark to its top floor.
Did Obbink plan to live in the castle? Was he hoping that a showy display of civic goodwill—the restoration of a notorious Waco eyesore—would improve his prospects for a full-time job offer from Baylor? No one at the university seemed to know.
“I think it reminded him of Oxford,” Tom Lupfer, the renovator Obbink hired, told me. Lupfer showed me the plans: underground garage, elevator, spiral staircase leading from sundeck to swimming pool, pool house with changing rooms. Lupfer warned Obbink that the work would take a few years and cost as much as $1.4 million. Obbink didn’t flinch, but Lupfer wondered how anyone on an academic salary could afford such extravagance.
In November 2015, a video appeared on YouTube, filmed on a smartphone from the pews of a church in Charlotte, North Carolina. From the pulpit, where he was addressing a conference of conservative Christians, Scott Carroll spoke of seeing a Gospel of Mark from the first century “at Oxford University at Christ Church College … in the possession of an outstanding, well-known, eminent classicist … Dirk Obbink,” who thought the papyrus might date to as early as a.d. 70—the same year most scholars think the gospel was first composed.
This was no longer Daniel Wallace telling a vague, secondhand story on a debate stage. This was an eyewitness with names, dates, and places. The video so unnerved the Egypt Exploration Society that it began a review of all its unpublished New Testament papyri. It learned that one of Obbink’s researchers had found a small fragment of Mark in its collection in 2011, a piece photographed by a curator as early as the 1980s but never before identified.
Was this the discovery that Wallace had announced at the University of North Carolina—and that Carroll had confirmed in the church video nearly four years later?
Confronted by the EES, Obbink admitted to having a fragment of Mark from Oxyrhynchus in his office and showing it to Carroll. But he insisted that he’d never said it was for sale. The EES instructed him “to prepare it for publication as soon as practicable in order to avoid further speculation about its date and content.”
Obbink could no doubt foresee the consequences of publication: The moment images of the fragment became public, Pattengale, Carroll, and Wallace would recognize the papyrus as the one he’d allegedly offered to the Greens half a decade earlier. They would notice he’d published it in the official book series for EES papyri—exposing it as never his to sell. Perhaps most distressing, they’d see Obbink’s new dating: In a book of serious scholarship, he’d assign their supposed “first-century Mark” to the late second or early third century, making it far less remarkable.
In 2016, the EES declined to renew Obbink’s position as general editor and took away his key to the papyrus room. He could no longer work there unless supervised by Daniela Colomo, the collection’s curator. The next year, as the deadline for Obbink’s editio princeps approached, it looked to his editors as though he might never finish. Unwilling to brook further delay, the EES enlisted Colomo and the collection’s researcher, Ben Henry, to complete it for him.
Meanwhile, new curators at the Museum of the Bible began making disquieting discoveries about the Greens’ papyri. David Trobisch, who directed the museum’s collection, called Eksioglu while on business in Istanbul. The dealer picked Trobisch up at his hotel at 2 a.m., drove him to a high-rise apartment, and plied him with cigars and whiskey. Trobisch asked where Eksioglu had gotten the papyri he sold the Greens. “He had no records, there was nothing, he couldn’t help me,” Trobisch told me.
But Eksioglu hoped Trobisch could help him. The dealer set cardboard boxes containing at least 1,000 fragments of papyri on his kitchen table, in hopes of another sale.“Where is it from?” Trobisch asked. Eksioglu mumbled something about war and Syria, then mimicked locals stubbing their toes into the ground, stumbling on antiquities.
“This is over,” Trobisch replied. (Eksioglu denies meeting Trobisch, and says that a student had gone in his stead.)
Later that day, when Trobisch met with another of the Greens’ Turkish papyrus suppliers, “he wanted to know whether I came with the police.”
In December 2017, Trobisch and his soon-to-be-successor, Jeffrey Kloha, traveled to Oxford to ask Obbink about the sources of his papyri. “He said he didn’t have [the provenance paperwork] in his office, he would check later, he would forward them to me later,” Kloha told me. “He never produced anything.” The Greens broke all ties with Obbink the next month.
When the Mark fragment was finally published, in April 2018, in the book The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Vol. LXXXIII, it ignited exactly the scholarly firestorm anyone might have predicted. On his influential blog, Brent Nongbri wrote, wryly, “Seems like there is a bit more to the story.”
In June 2019, Michael Holmes, who replaced Pattengale as the director of the scholars initiative, flew to London to meet with leaders of the Egypt Exploration Society, who remained skeptical that Obbink, whatever his other shortcomings, might have sold Oxyrhynchus papyri.
Over lunch at a private club, Holmes pulled out a purchase agreement between Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Dirk Obbink. Co-signed by the Oxford professor on February 4, 2013, it showed that Obbink had sold the company not just the Mark papyrus, but also fragments of the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. In the contract, Obbink describes the manuscripts as his personal property, vows to “ship/hand carry” them from “Oxford Ancient,” and dates all four to a historically unprecedented “circa 100 AD,” making each a one-of-a-kind worth millions.
When EES officials saw the contract, Holmes told me, “any uncertainties they had evaporated very quickly.” They banned Obbink from the collection.
The Museum of the Bible began sending to the EES images of every papyrus the Greens had purchased—from any seller. Comparing them against the society’s own photographic inventory, EES officials spotted 13 of its biblical fragments. From written descriptions provided by Hobby Lobby, it identified four more: the gospels that Obbink’s sales contract dated to the first century, though none, the EES said, were in fact that old.
Fifteen of the EES’s fragments had been sold to the Greens by Obbink, for more than $1.5 million, a source who has seen the figures told me. Among them was the Romans scrap Carroll pretended to pull from a mummy mask at Baylor in 2012.
The Greens bought the two other EES fragments from the family business of Alan Baidun, a Jerusalem dealer who appeared to have acted as a middleman for Obbink. (Baidun did not answer multiple emails and phone calls, but has previously denied wrongdoing through a spokesperson.)
The EES soon discovered another half-dozen of its papyri in the collection of a wealthy California collector named Andrew Stimer, who had previously sold the Greens four Dead Sea Scrolls that the Museum of the Bible later deemed forgeries. (Stimer disputes the museum’s forgery findings.)
The practice of dissolving mummy masks in search of manuscripts had been all but abandoned before Scott Carroll and Dirk Obbink announced astonishing finds. (Geraint Lewis)Stimer, who leads an evangelical ministry called Hope Partners International, said he purchased two of the fragments in 2015 from a “Mr. M. Elder of Dearborn, Michigan,” a seeming match for Obbink’s business partner. When scholars saw images of those fragments—from Romans and First Corinthians—they realized the Museum of the Bible owned adjoining pieces from the same leaves. Someone appeared to have cut up scriptures that, according to EES photos, had been intact at Oxford. “Mr. M. Elder” had sold one pair of cuts to Stimer, and Obbink had sold the other to the Greens. (Mahmoud Elder declined to comment, invoking what he called a “client non-disclosure agreement.”)
An inventory of Stimer’s collection, provided to me by a source, states that two other papyri—from Exodus and Psalms—had been “deaccessioned,” or sold off, by seminaries in Berkeley, California, and Dayton, Ohio. It was a lie: Both fragments belonged to the EES. (Stimer told me he was “blindsided,” has returned the EES fragments, and is trying to recover the “substantial sums” he paid. Obbink, he said, had listed the Berkeley and Dayton seminaries as their source in a scholarly report that came with the purchase.)
For most of the stolen papyri, the EES’s corresponding inventory cards and photographs were also missing. The thief, it seemed, had sought to cover his tracks by erasing evidence of the papyri’s existence. In a collection of some half a million pieces, perhaps they’d never be missed.
But the thief miscalculated: Copies of the inventory existed in various locations, including University College London.
Drawing on such backups, the EES said it has so far identified 120 papyri that “appear to be missing, almost all from a limited number of folders.” In what might well be British understatement, it warned “that a few more cases may emerge.”
On November 12, the EES reported its findings to the Thames Valley Police. On March 2, the police detained Obbink for questioning on suspicion of theft and fraud. As of press time, no charges had been filed.
“The allegations made against me that I have stolen, removed or sold items owned by the Egyptian Exploration Society collection at the University of Oxford are entirely false,” Obbink said in a statement this past October, four days after the EES and the Museum of the Bible announced the results of a preliminary joint investigation. “I would never betray the trust of my colleagues and the values which I have sought to protect and uphold throughout my academic career in the way that has been alleged.” He hinted, darkly, that he may have been framed, but declined to elaborate.
A few days later, in the second week of Oxford’s fall term, Obbink was relieved of his teaching duties.
I traveled to Oxford later that week and rang the doorbell at a comfortable-looking but hardly lavish house with a small swimming pool at the end of a leafy lane. When Obbink opened the door, he was wearing black jeans, slip-on leather shoes, and a tan shirt with stylized military epaulets.
I said I was there because I wanted to hear his side of the story.
“I’d like to tell it,” he said, with an almost preternatural calm, “but I’m under a duty not to speak about the matter while it’s under investigation” by Oxford.
In April, I sent Obbink and his attorney a detailed list of questions. His attorney responded with three minor clarifications, but said that Obbink was otherwise unable to comment because he owed “confidentiality to Oxford during its ongoing internal process.”
If Obbink’s relationship with the Greens had a fatal flaw, it was that he needed it to stay secret, whereas the Greens wanted to shout it to the world. “By far and away, Dirk is the most strategic friend and supporter of all that we are doing,” Carroll wrote to Steve Green in a June 2011 email.
In negotiations with Hobby Lobby for the sale of the four “first-century” fragments, Obbink had demanded a set of highly irregular contract clauses: There was to be no public announcement of the acquisition; Obbink could never be named as the seller; and the fragments would stay in his office at Oxford for four years—after which there would be what he called “a kind of ‘shared custody’ with ‘visitation rights.’ ”
In hindsight, Pattengale allowed, the whole arrangement “was kind of far-fetched.” But at the time, all he could think of was how much he wanted Hobby Lobby to own a gospel fragment from so close to Jesus’s day. He emailed his superiors, pressing them to meet Obbink’s demands; they eventually did.
On March 26, Steve Green announced that he was giving 5,000 of his papyri to Egypt. It was an admission that virtually every papyrus in his collection lacked sufficient evidence of not having been stolen, looted, or acquired by other improper means. For the same reasons, he said, he was repatriating 6,500 clay relics to Iraq—on top of the 3,500 Iraqi antiquities Hobby Lobby had surrendered to settle a 2017 federal smuggling case.
Green and his museum have sought to portray themselves as chastened by their early stumbles and determined to make amends—both by coming clean about their failures and by making institutional changes. “I trusted the wrong people to guide me,” Green said, “and unwittingly dealt with unscrupulous dealers in those early years.”
Scholars have praised the latest reforms. But Green’s efforts to deflect blame have rung hollow in some circles.
In 2010, early in his collecting blitz, Green had attended a presentation that Hobby Lobby commissioned from Patty Gerstenblith, a DePaul University professor who is one of the world’s foremost experts on cultural property law. “I warned him,” Gerstenblith told me, “and he proceeded anyway.” With hundreds of millions of dollars of spending power, Green had all the leverage to ask hard questions about provenance—and to order investigations—before handing his money over to dealers. But he never did.
In the Obbink case, Green and his representatives have cast themselves as the unsuspecting dupes of a mastermind. Green told me he’d failed to see the conflict in Obbink’s dual roles as adviser and seller because of his “stellar reputation and standing in the scholarly community.” He added, “I would never intentionally buy anything forged or stolen.”
Green has returned the stolen Oxyrhynchus fragments to Oxford, and in 2018, he told me, Hobby Lobby asked Obbink to refund the money it had paid him for the four “first-century” gospel fragments.
“Professor Obbink provided assurances many times that he would pay us back, and asked for time, which we patiently gave him,” Green told me. He said Obbink reimbursed $10,000 last summer but stopped communicating after news of the alleged thefts broke last fall.
Until Oxford, the EES, or the police reveal more, many questions will remain unanswered. But in the eyes of some devout critics, the last chapter of this saga will be written by a higher authority. “Believers in the truth of the Bible cannot act like pirates,” Peter Costello wrote last year in The Irish Catholic, Ireland’s largest religious newspaper. “If they wish to help establish the truth they must do it through legal channels … God’s truth deserves nothing less.”
This article appears in the June 2020 print edition with the headline “The Case of the Phantom Papyrus.”