Dirk Obbink, a Classics tutor at Christ Church and one of the world’s foremost experts on papyri, has been accused of selling chunks of ancient text without permission
Obbink is accused of selling the items to US-owned arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby.
In a statement to Cherwell, Obbink said: “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. 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. I am unable to comment on the ongoing investigations but I am co-operating fully with the University’s investigation and am confident that I will be completely exonerated.”
Owned by the Green family, prominent Christian Evangelicals, their other family projects have included the foundation of the $400 million Museum of the Bible in Washington, under the guidance of Hobby Lobby president Steve Green.
The news emerged after an investigation by staff at Oxford’s ‘Oxyrhynchus Papyri’ project, which Obbink oversaw.
According to a statement from the Egypt Exploration Society, which owns the collection and conducted the investigation, it was told by the Museum of the Bible that Obbink sold them 11 fragments in 2010.
The Oxyrhynchus collection comprises over 500,000 fragments of literary and documentary texts, dating from the 3rd century BC to 7th century AD.
Originally uncovered in the 1890s by two British explorers in an ancient Egyptian rubbish dump, the texts are written in Greek, ancient Egyptian, Coptic, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew.
The papyri were preserved under drifted sand, but they were brought to Britain and housed at Oxford University ever since.
A researcher at the museum released an apparent contract between Hobby Lobby and Professor Obbink, detailing the sale of several gospel passages.
The document was redacted and the amount paid is unknown.
The society added Obbink was removed as general editor of the project, “because of his unsatisfactory editorial duties, but also because of concerns, which he did not allay, about his alleged involvement in the marketing of ancient texts.
“In June 2019 the [society] banned him from any access to its collection pending his satisfactory clarification of the 2013 contract [for another fragment sale]. Oxford University is now investigating, with [the society’s help], the removal from university premises and alleged sale of [society] texts.”
Obbink has previously denied some of these allegations, but was banned from accessing the collection in June.
In 2018 he told the Daily Beast that the claim he sold a fragment of the first chapter of the gospel of Mark to Hobby Lobby was not true.
A spokeswoman of the Museum of the Bible said that the items were acquired in good faith and said the museum had previ- ously helped in the recovery of treasures that should never changed hands.
She said that the museum had “helped the Egypt Exploration Society recover antiquities sold illegally between 2010-13.
“A known expert sold antiquities he did not own, and Museum of the Bible helped the buyer return those antiquities to the rightful owner.”
Both the society and the University are investigating Obbink, but he has continued to be employed at the University.
This article has been amended to include comment from Dirk Obbink.