Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement of denial by Obbink.
Since 2012, scholars and University of Oxford officials have been trying to trace a rumor that the oldest Bible fragment ever discovered not just existed but had been mysteriously stolen and sold to American arts-and-crafts giant Hobby Lobby.
Now, officials said they have finally cracked the case. The suspected thief at the center of the biblical controversy? Professor Dirk Obbink, one of the most celebrated classics professors in the world, a Nebraska native and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient who had long directed — and allegedly looted — Oxford’s Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project, a collection of centuries-old literature recovered from an ancient Egyptian garbage dump in 1896.
On Monday, officials from the Papyri Project released the results of a three-month probe into Obbink, and accused the acclaimed professor of taking and selling at least 11 ancient Bible fragments to the Green family, the Hobby Lobby owners who operate a Bible museum and charitable organization in Washington, D.C.
The Egypt Exploration Society, a nonprofit that manages the Papyri Project’s collection of ancient literature, and the Museum of the Bible explained their findings in statements shared with The Washington Post.
“The [museum] has informed the EES that 11 of these pieces came into its care after being sold to Hobby Lobby Stores by Professor Obbink,” the nonprofit said in a statement Monday.
Obbink, who is still a professor at Oxford, denied the allegations Friday through a statement by his attorneys to the Tribune-Herald, saying he would be fully exonerated.
"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," he stated. "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.
"I am aware that there are documents being used against me which I believe have been fabricated in a malicious attempt to harm my reputation and career. I am working with my legal team in this regard."
An Oxford spokesman confirmed to The Post that it is working with the Papyri Project and conducting its own investigation. The Green family and Hobby Lobby did not respond directly to The Post late Monday, but a museum spokeswoman said Hobby Lobby bought the artifacts “in good faith.”
Time in Waco
Obbink and the Green family both have ties to Baylor University through the Green Scholars Initiative, the “academic research wing” of the Museum of the Bible.
Baylor classics senior lecturer Simon Burris said the initiative’s purpose is to send experts to various universities. Students at Baylor worked with Obbink on papyrus, manuscripts and other projects using items from the Green Collection.
Baylor had an agreement with the Green Scholars Initiative to serve as its “academic home” from 2010 to 2014, according to a university spokesperson. Obbink was a part-time distinguished visiting scholar off and on from 2010 to 2018, the spokesperson said.
When asked if Obbink had ever been offered a position with the university, the spokesperson said the university’s standard practice is to not discuss personnel matters.
Local contractor Thomas Lupfer said Baylor had made Obbink an offer by the time Obbink approached him about renovating the Cottonland Castle on Austin Avenue. Obbink told Lupfer he met with then-Baylor President Ken Starr regularly and was considering accepting Baylor’s offer and coming to Waco, he said.
“When does a MacArthur Genius grant, papyrus expert and professor at Oxford’s Christ Church College show up and say ‘I want you to do something for me?’” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and I can tell you I’d never had that experience before.”
He said Obbink contacted him after seeing his work on the Migel House, another historical home in Waco. Lupfer secured the castle, cleaned up the vandalism and water damage and presented Obbink with a budget for a $1 million renovation and addition.
“When I got involved, the first thing I said to him was that the castle is a jinxed property, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to contractors and owners,” Lupfer said. “The number of owners who’ve owned the house versus the number of owners who’ve occupied the house is significantly different.”
Obbink was knowledgeable about the type of work that would be needed to restore the castle, but as bills piled up and Obbink delayed the project while in the midst of a divorce, “it was obvious that it was causing more stress for him to maintain the work we were already doing, much less what was coming,” he said.
“My suggestion was that he sell it, and I told him that I’d heard Chip and Joanna Gaines would move instantaneously if he listed it,” Lupfer said.
Within 48 hours, they did.
Obbink’s five-year ownership of the castle started in 2014, while Hobby Lobby Stores bought the bible fragments referenced in the recent investigation between 2010 and 2013, according to the company.
Early copies of the New Testament are very rare. The oldest, nearly complete copy dates to the 5th century and most substantial manuscript fragments come from no earlier than the 3rd century. Obbink was a decorated scholar who studied these earliest iterations of the Bible and headed the Papyri Project from 1998 to 2016.
In February 2012, speculation spread that the oldest known biblical fragment had been discovered and examined by a small and tight-lipped group of scholars and artifact dealers. Those who had seen it couldn’t say much about the so-called “First-Century Mark.” They all described the text as the first few verses from the Gospel, which was allegedly recorded in the first 100 years after the birth of Jesus. The lucky few who claimed to have laid eyes on the rare and invaluable artifact said they were bound by nondisclosure agreements to keep secret the identity of the Mark’s owner.
For many prominent religion scholars, the NDA may as well have been a name tag. Only the Green Collection required scholars to sign the agreements at the time, the Daily Beast reported earlier this year. Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby who amassed one of the largest private collections of biblical artifacts in the world in just 10 years, even hinted that the fragment might be part of his massive archive. “At some point it was like, this is an item I want to pursue,” he told the authors of “Bible Nation,” when they asked the crafting mogul what he knew about the first-century Mark while researching their 2017 book.
Scott Carroll, who served as director for the Green Collection, publicly said he’d first seen the fragment in late 2011, laid out on a pool table in Obbink’s Oxford office among classical busts and Egyptian funerary masks. He refused to say who owned the verses or whether he’d helped Green buy them.
The existence of the ancient Bible passage and its possible owner remained a frustrating mystery for nearly six years, until the Egypt Exploration Society published a suspiciously similar fragment from the Gospel of Mark in June 2018. But the ancient Bible story the university published dated to the late 2nd or early 3rd century and had never been for sale, the nonprofit said. The Egypt Exploration Society acknowledged the fragment it published was likely the rumored and ill-named “First-Century Mark,” but denied ever asking researchers to sign an NDA.
“Professor Obbink insists that he never said the papyrus was for sale,” the Egypt Exploration Society said at the time, “and that while he did receive some payments from the Green Collection for advice on other matters, he did not accept any payment for or towards purchase of this text.”
That story slowly began to dissolve under scrutiny, officials say. Nearly a year later, the Museum of the Bible, Green’s pet project in Washington, where he displays many items from his biblical collection, shared documents that appeared to show that Obbink had sold the Mark fragment and three other ancient Bible pages, to Hobby Lobby Stores in 2013. In the sales agreement, Obbink had been permitted to retain possession of the fragments for research purposes.
In June, the Egypt Exploration Society opened an investigation, in partnership with the Bible museum, to suss out what had happened. The nonprofit banned Obbink from accessing the Papyri Project archives. Oxford also opened its own investigation into the allegedly fraudulent sales.
After investigating its collection, the Egypt Exploration Society announced on Monday that it had found at least 13 other Bible fragments had gone missing.
“The [Egypt Exploration Society] is also pursuing identification and recovery of other texts, or parts of texts, which have or may have been illicitly removed from its collection,” the nonprofit said in a statement Monday.
Obbink allegedly swiped the Bible fragments, which include passages from Genesis, Psalms and an ancient copy of the Ten Commandments, in 2010, when Green was in the early years of building his private collection. The catalogue cards and photographs of the texts also disappeared from the Oxford collection.
“The items referenced were acquired by Hobby Lobby Stores in good faith between 2010 and 2013, but sold by a known expert from Oxford University,” a Museum of the Bible spokeswoman said in a statement shared Tuesday with The Post.
The Bible museum said Monday it will return the fragments to the Egypt Exploration Society, which will store them once again on the Oxford campus.
The controversy over the illicit Bible fragments is hardly the first for Steve Green and his museum.
“[The rare manuscript world] is sometimes seen from the outside as seedy,” Carroll told The Post in 2014, during the construction of Green’s museum. Since its opening, the museum and its founder have run into several mishaps involving illicit artifacts.
In 2017, federal investigators announced that they had been probing Hobby Lobby after the company illegally purchased thousands of ancient cuneiform tablets and clay bullae stolen from Iraqi archaeological sites. The company eventually settled with the Justice Department and agreed to pay a $3 million fine and return all of the illegally imported artifacts to Iraq.
The Museum of the Bible removed five prominently featured segments of the Dead Sea Scrolls last October after a Trinity Western University researcher told the institution he suspected at least seven of its scroll fragments might be “modern forgeries.” Fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls would be from the oldest known copy of the Hebrew Bible.
In a statement provided to The Post on Tuesday, museum spokeswoman Heather Cirmo said the Bible fragments that belong to the Egypt Exploration Society came to the museum before it adopted a more robust set of policies for assessing the provenance of artifacts in 2016.
“Former employees who have not been associated with the museum since 2012 made the decision,” to accept the 13 Bible fragments, she said. “Since then, 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.”