Academic Faces Questions Surrounding Contentious Biblical Fragments

Where museums, academia and mummies converge

Oxford University
Oxford University
Michael D Beckwith/Creative Commons

What happens when an academic who’s received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” and has ties to Oxford University is embroiled in an archaeological scandal? The situation that papyrologist Dirk Obbink has found himself in is a complex one, involving wealthy donors, conflicting agendas and a controversial museum. In a new article for The Atlantic, Ariel Sabar explores a tangled situation involving renowned experts, the devoutly religious and the controversial practice of destroying one type of artifact in the hopes of finding something else.

At the center of this contentious situation is Obbink, described on the MacArthur Foundation’s website as “a scholar of the classics and an expert papyrologist whose work has opened new windows on poetry, society, and philosophy in the classical period.” Sabar’s article describes Obbink’s work with the Green Scholars Foundation, an organization supported by the Green family — also known for their ownership of Hobby Lobby. Steve Green is also the founder of the Museum of the Bible, which has run into issues recently with artifacts that turned out to be fake.

In the case of the situation Sabar describes, the issue at hand here doesn’t have to do with forgeries, but rather with how certain materials were obtained. (Also in the mix: the phenomenon of dissolving mummy masks in the hopes of finding historically relevant papyrus, an act that is simultaneously disrespectful and largely fruitless.) Obbink sold the Greens a number of artifacts of mysterious provenance — which turned out to have ties to his work at Oxford.

The whole story is a complex one, but in the end it may come down to Obbink misusing his position for personal gain. (According to Sabar, Obbink implied he may have been framed, but offered no additional details.) It’s a gripping account situated at the intersection of science and religion — with a whole lot of money at stake.

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