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The Curious Case of the “First Century Mark” Fragment

June 24, 2019

Readers of this and other blog sites with interest in NT textual criticism will have heard of a supposedly first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark.  Yesterday, a new report came out from a senior figure connected with the Museum of the Bible (Dr. Michael Holmes), giving remarkable, even startling new information about the item.

This information has come to light in connection with a session focused on this fragment that is scheduled for the 2019 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.  Holmes is one of the several panelists booked to take part in that session, and he conducted some advance investigation that produced the new information.  He then sent this information to other members of the panel, who include Dr. Brent Nongbri.

Specifically, it appears that this fragment and several others were proposed for sale to the Museum of the Bible (Green Collection), and Holmes produced a copy of a sales agreement in which Professor Dirk Obbink is shown as the seller.  The items listed in the agreement for sale are actually the property of the Egypt Exploration Society, which has indicated that none of its holdings were put up for sale.  So Obbink’s agreement to sell the items raises serious questions.

For the text of the email from Holmes, the text of the agreement to sell the items, and initial questions and comments on the matter, see Nongbri’s blog post here, which also includes links to other postings yesterday.

This new evidence is personally dismaying, as it raises questions about the actions of Obbink, in whom I placed trust earlier (as in my blog posting here).  It now appears that my confidence may have been misplaced.  In a comment on Nongbri’s posting, Peter Head says these developments now make me and Ehrman look “stupid”.  I’m not clear how he reached that judgment.  I may have been mistaken in my trust in Obbink, but trusting someone until there is reason to think otherwise is hardly stupid, Peter.

I suspect that there will be further information forthcoming about this curious case.  In the meantime, we have the actual fragment of Mark now published in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series (as described briefly in my posting here), and so scholarly work on it can proceed.

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  1. Tom Hennell permalink

    Now a (very full and informative) article on Dirk Obbink and First Century Mark; from Jerry Pattengale (who was apparently personally present throughout, right from the beginning in December 2011 to the ‘end’, or at least the ‘beginning of the end’, in November 2017).

    Still leaves a lot of questions unanswered; most particularly that if Jerry Pattengale knew in November 2017 that the 2013 purchase agreement for FCM had been deceptive, why is it only in 2019 that the Museum of the Bible (apparently pushed into it by Michael Holmes) let the EES (and everyone else) know about it? The inclination to cover-up missteps and failures seems to run hard and deep.

  2. Tom Hennell permalink

    statement from the Egypt Exploration societ:

    We are grateful to Professor Holmes for sharing with us in advance the newly revealed contract and photograph, and we are working with him to clarify whether the four texts in the photographed list, or any other EES papyri, were sold or offered for sale to Hobby Lobby or its agents, and if so, when and by whom. This may take some time, and unless and until new evidence emerges, there is no more we can say.

    We note that Professor Obbink has not been a General Editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri since August 2016.

  3. Tom Hennell permalink

    Larry; aside from speculations as to possible misreprestentation, one detail of the sale invoice that intrigues me, is that the Matthew fragment offered for sale (presenting parts of Matthew 3 7-10 and 11-12) is stated as being written on parchment, not papyrus. I was under the impression that surviving parchment codices of the New Testament are relatively uncommon in the early period. I wonder how many other of the 20 or so still unpublished New Testament fragments in the EES collection are also from early parchment codices?

    • I can’t answer your question about the unpublished Oxyrhynchus manuscripts, but, yes, the great majority of early mss from Egypt are papyrus, not parchment. Parchment comes to dominance later (4th century and thereafter).

  4. Tom Hennell permalink

    On the face of it, this does look a lot like a smoking gun in the hand of Dirk Obbink;

    .. but I still remain incredulous about how anyone might have believed they could get away with selling papyrus fragments from the EES collection. As the EES statement issued at the time of publication made clear, their catalogue was not only supported by a ‘record card’ for each fragment, but also photographs. So cast-iron proof of a fraudulently misrepresented sale would have followed a matter of hours of the Green collection’s publishing images of their new acquisitions.

    “EES records include a photograph and brief record card for each papyrus awaiting publication, which were prepared to assist the General Editors in selecting papyri for future volumes. The cards were created without detailed study of the texts and without access to today’s online search tools. The record card for 5345, created by Dr Coles in the early 1980s, is marked ‘I/II’, suggesting a late first- or early second-century date. He did not identify it as Mark.”

    I do hope that Michael Holmes is confident of the provenance for the documents he has circulated.

    • Donald Jacobs permalink

      It does seem incredible. But sometimes people do incredibly stupid things. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s impossible to relate or make sense of what others do. It can be the result of psychological or personality disorders which mean some people view the world, risk, and ethics entirely differently than most people do. This is not intended as a comment on anyone mentioned on this thread. It is a comment about why it is difficult to understand the actions of others sometimes, because we are in effect using different operating software.

  5. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Do I take it from this post that there are no new developments regarding the actual age and significance of the fragment itself, only on the controversy surrounding it?

    On the matter of trust, I agree with the principle of giving the benefit of the doubt, it’s always better to err on this side. I guess some would argue there were good reasons to doubt the word of Obbink. I don’t know the matter in detail, but I think some suggested there were good reasons, which have apparently been bourne out.

    • The latest news is about the reported offer to sell the fragment. There is nothing new about the fragment itself.

  6. Pete Head permalink

    Hi Larry, my comment was that everyone who trusted Obbink has been made to look stupid (if that word is too strong, then perhaps try “silly” or at least “wrong”). That includes those who trusted his word as an “esteemed” papyrologist, those who trusted his advice as a consultant to the Greek Collection, those who trusted that these manuscripts were legally in his possession, and those who vouched for his personal integrity even when the questions were mounting.

    • Pete: Not to belabor the matter, but I take it that you’re saying that anyone who trusts a scholarly colleague who is later found to have acted in violation of that trust is “stupid” or “wrong”. So, it’s “stupid” and “wrong” to trust someone unless you have reason not to do so? Hmm. I’m from Missouri, but even we don’t act quite that way.

      • Pete Head permalink

        Good. Anyway, I’ve deleted my original comment. I didn’t mean it to come over as negatively as it obviously has. Apologies.

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