Excerpts from The Guardian:
….After Carroll and Pattengale’s visit to Oxford in 2011, tantalising rumours of the discovery of a first-century fragment of Mark rippled through American evangelical circles. On 1 February 2012, in Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, two theologians, Prof Bart Ehrman and Dr Daniel Wallace, were debating – to a rapt audience of 1,500 – whether the original text of the New Testament could be recovered. Suddenly, Wallace dropped a bombshell. “The oldest manuscript of the New Testament is now a fragment of Mark’s Gospel that is from the first century,” he claimed. “My source is a papyrologist who worked on the manuscript, a man whose reputation is unimpeachable.” It was, recalled Ehrman at a recent conference in San Diego, “a real jaw-dropper”.
Ehrman was bursting with questions. How extensive was the fragment? Who was the papyrologist? Had the dating been corroborated by others? Wallace said he was sworn to secrecy. All he could reveal was that the fragment would soon be published by the academic imprint, Brill.
…But still, from the stories circulating online, the EES [Egypt Exploration Society] knew two things about the notorious fragment of Mark that had supposedly been sold to the Green family [the evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby]: it was from the gospel’s first chapter, and it was first century. It so happened that an item in their own collection was a papyrus catalogued in the 1980s as “I/II”, a note that could have been interpreted as “first or second century AD”. In 2011, a researcher on the Oxyrhynchus Project had identified it as from the first chapter of Mark. The fragment had not been officially signed out, but EES officials believed Obbink had it in his possession ostensibly to study.
Obbink always denied that he had been trying to sell Oxyrhynchus items, as a later EES statement made clear. Nevertheless, an official of the society was sufficiently suspicious that he might have been at least trying to sell the Mark fragment that he decided to try to smoke him out – by instructing him, in spring 2016, to publish the manuscript in the next volume, number 83, of the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus Series. That would get the fragment out in the public sphere. It would also mean it would have to be physically returned to the Sackler classics library so that the editing could be checked by colleagues. In short, if Obbink were indeed trying to sell it, this move would stop him. Or so the EES official thought.
…On 12 November, the thefts of all 120 fragments, including the four that had remained in Oxford and the 13 that had been delivered to the US, were reported to the police.
…In November, a “postmortem on so-called first-century Mark” was held at the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual conference in San Diego. As Nongbri joked at the time, it was really more of a vivisection. While reserving respect for Holmes’s reforming efforts, Mazza did not pull her punches. The Greens have “poured millions on the legal and illegal antiquities market without having a clue about the history, the material features, cultural value, fragilities and problems of the objects,” she said. This irresponsible collecting “is a crime against culture and knowledge of immense proportions – as the facts unfolding under our eyes do prove.”
At the other end of this disturbing chain is someone who stole and sold Oxyrhynchus fragments to the evangelical billionaires. Whoever they are, they are still at large. For now, the papyrus thief walks free.