Police Arrest an Oxford Professor for Allegedly Stealing Ancient Papyrus Fragments and Selling Them to the Museum of the Bible

Dirk Obbink says the allegations have been fabricated to harm his career.

Dirk Obbink in his home in Oxford at Christ Church. Photo via Timothy Smith, former chief development officer at Museum of the Bible.
Dirk Obbink in his home in Oxford at Christ Church. Photo via Timothy Smith, former chief development officer at Museum of the Bible.

An Oxford professor who stands accused of stealing ancient biblical texts from the university’s Sackler Library has been arrested. It’s the latest development in a saga fit for an Indiana Jones movie, which revolves around the disappearance of papyrus fragments that belong to the Egypt Exploration Society and were stored at the university’s library.

Authorities have accused Oxford papyrologist Dirk Obbink, age 63, of selling 13 of the artifacts to the owners of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, which returned them last year after learning they were stolen. The society has identified an additional 120 pieces as missing from the collection, reports the Oxford Blue. Obbink denies any wrongdoing.

The manuscripts are part of the Oxyrhynchus collection, which was excavated in the late 19th and early 20th century from an ancient rubbish dump in Egypt.

“These are early fragments of the gospels or biblical fragments,” the society’s director, Carl Graves, told the Guardian. “They are testament to Egypt’s early Christian heritage and are early evidence of biblical scripture. We don’t value them monetarily but they are priceless and irreplaceable.”

Dirk Obbink working on a papyrus at the Sackler Institute at Oxford University. Photo by Geraint Lewis/Oxford University.

Dirk Obbink working on a papyrus at the Sackler Institute at Oxford University. Photo by Geraint Lewis/Oxford University.

Obbink, who teaches papyrology and Greek literature, was taken into custody on March 2 by Thames Valley police. A formal complaint was filed against him with the police in November. The Egypt Exploration Society revoked Obbink’s access to its collection in June, and Oxford suspended him in October, although he is still listed as a professor on the university’s website.

Scott Carroll and Jerry Pattengale, who helped amass the collection of the Museum of the Bible for founder and Hobby Lobby tycoon Steve Green, reportedly met with Obbink on multiple occasions. In the sales invoices for the society’s documents, the disgraced academic is listed as the seller.

Spokespeople for Oxford and the Museum of the Bible did not immediately respond to Artnet News’s request for comment. Obbink could not be reached.

Despite the evidence against him, however, Obbink has insisted that the allegations are false. In his only public statement on the matter, made in October, he claimed that the incriminating documents “have been fabricated in a malicious attempt to harm my reputation and career.”


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