An Oxford professor has been arrested on allegations of stealing and selling as many as 120 ancient pieces of papyrus, including a fragment of the Gospel of Mark once believed to be the oldest New Testament text ever discovered.
Dirk Obbink, professor of papyrology and Greek literature at Christ Church Oxford, was arrested on March 2. News of the arrest broke last week in the student newspaper TheOxford Blue. Obbink allegedly took the fragments from the Egypt Exploration Society’s collection of about 500,000 artifacts discovered in the ancient city of Oxyrynchus. The collection is housed at Oxford’s Sackler Library, and Obbink was one of three scholars charged with overseeing it until he was removed under a cloud of suspicion in 2016.
Obbink has denied the allegations in an official statement and said the evidence against him was “fabricated in a malicious attempt to harm my reputation and career.”
The evidence is convincing, however, to some who’ve worked closely with Obbink.
“It’s difficult seeing this ending well for Dirk,” said Jerry Pattengale, a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University and one of the founding scholars of the Museum of the Bible. “It’s sad to think that such a gifted mind might have an abbreviated contribution to the field of Greek papyrology.”
Obbink, originally from Nebraska, went to Oxford in the late 1990s and became director of a project to digitize ancient papyri. The Oxyrynchus collection is a massive trove of documents, including many biblical passages, uncovered in the ruins of a Greek city in Egypt in the 1880s. Much like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the fragments have given modern scholars a broad window into the ancient world and affirmed the reliability of biblical manuscripts.
Obbink became one of the trio of editors responsible with publishing the Oxyrynchus Papyri and overseeing the scholars who were given access to the collection. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—known as the “genius grant”—in 2001 for his skill in rescuing and interpreting ancient manuscripts.
Report of major discovery
Obbink attracted the attention of some evangelical scholars in 2011 when he informally shared news about a fragment of Mark’s Gospel found in the collection. Obbink told Pattengale and Scott Carroll, two scholars who were working with the Museum of the Bible at the time, that the fragment dated to the late first century. The manuscript included a bit of the text of Jesus’ baptism, where John the Baptist tells the crowd, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).
According to Obbink, the words might have been copied down within 30 years of the date of the original biblical manuscript. There are no known biblical manuscripts from earlier than the second century, so this was a major discovery. (The fragment is now believed to date to the second or third century.)
Carroll passed the news to Daniel Wallace, executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, and Wallace mentioned the purported discovery in a public debate with Bart Ehrmann, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in February 2012.