MYTH BUSTING

Did Hobby Lobby Buy a Piece of the Bible Illegally Sold on eBay?

Sketchy doesn't even begin to describe the controversy surrounding artifacts in the new Museum of the Bible, which is backed by evangelicals investigated for illicit artifacts.

In 2014, an exhibit of biblical artifacts was displayed with great fanfare at the Vatican. Called “Verbum Domini,” or “The Word of the Lord,” it featured items from the Green Collection, which had been amassed by the owners of Hobby Lobby, the Green family of Oklahoma City. That collection of artifacts amassed by the evangelical family is part of the controversial soon to be opened Museum of the Bible.

Along with rare fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a first edition of the King James Bible were lesser-­known items, including some never-­before-­seen ancient biblical manuscripts.

Among the two hundred artifacts was a papyrus fragment of the New Testament. Its edges are frayed, but it is clearly decipherable: the text is from the second chapter of the book of Galatians. It is written in Coptic, the language of Egyptian Christianity for much of the first millennium. While visually it looks like Greek, because it uses many Greek letters, the script hints at the papyrus’s origins in the arid climate of late antique Egypt. Given its small size—­about four inches by four inches—­most visitors probably gave it little more than a passing glance. But it immediately caught the eye of Roberta Mazza, a papyrologist from the University of Manchester. Although this was the first public display of the papyrus, Mazza had seen it before: it had been offered for sale on eBay less than two years earlier.

In October 2012, a Turkish dealer operating under the name MixAntik had listed an unidentified Coptic papyrus on the online auction site, one of many such pieces that this dealer had been offering over the previous year.

Although MixAntik did not name it as being a biblical text, he seems to have known that it was more valuable than most of his offerings, which often sold for as little as $20: this one had a price tag of $14,000. Brice Jones, an American papyrologist, quickly identified the text as being from Galatians, and, when he asked MixAntik for more details, was told that the papyrus came from Egypt. This was already a legal red flag: as both Turkey and Egypt have strict laws governing the export of cultural artifacts, MixAntik’s sale seems to have been self-­incriminatingly illegal. Shortly thereafter, MixAntik changed his eBay handle to ebuyerrrr—­and eventually disappeared from the site entirely. The Galatians papyrus, however, made its way from an anonymous corner of eBay to an exhibition in the heart of the Roman Catholic Church and, to this day, remains part of the Green Collection. As we began looking into the Green Collection for our article in The Atlantic, the Galatians fragment seemed like an obvious test case for the question of provenance: how did the Greens go about ascertaining the provenance of the items they were purchasing, and how much of that information might they be willing to share with other interested parties? Our initial inquiries into the papyrus were handled by Josephine Dru, then curator of papyri for the Green Collection. She told us that the Greens had not bought it on eBay, but that it had been legally purchased from a trusted London dealer in 2013. That dealer, she said, traced the papyrus back to a large lot of papyri that had been sold at Christie’s in November 2011. And that lot, in turn, had a clear provenance, having originally been part of a collection known as the Robinson Collection, a segment of which had been donated to the University of Mississippi back in 1955—­well before the UNESCO regulations went into effect. Though the appearance of the papyrus on eBay was difficult to explain, there seemed to be no legal problem with the provenance of the fragment—­at least, everyone at the Green Collection declared themselves to be satisfied.

Behind the veil of public confidence, however, representatives for the Green Collection exhibited signs of concern. The eBay sale created doubts about the fragment’s connection to the Robinson Collection. How was it that, between the Christie’s auction in London in 2011 and the Green Collection’s acquisition from their dealer in 2013, the papyrus came to be offered for sale online, in Turkey, by a dealer known to trade in illicit artifacts? And why—­if indeed it had been part of a perfectly legal sale at Christie’s—­would the online vendor MixAntik obscure the established provenance of the fragment, claiming that it had come out of Egypt, when illicit antiquities sell for far less than those with a clean provenance? The eBay sale, both generally and in its details, complicated the Green Collection’s straightforward narrative more than they were willing to admit.

Some people involved in the Green Collection attempted to eliminate the eBay listing from the history of the papyrus altogether. When we asked Christian Askeland, the main papyrologist employed by the Greens to study their Coptic manuscripts, about the provenance of this particular Coptic text, he denied that MixAntik had ever authentically had the manuscript in hand to sell, suggesting instead that he had simply had a picture of it, presumably in order to scam a potential buyer. This story, however, raises even more questions than it answers. How did MixAntik come into possession of photographs of the papyrus? They had never appeared online before, and it seems unlikely that an honest dealer would have passed photographs around to unscrupulous online traders. Why would MixAntik go to such lengths to fake a sale? Although he was known to sell illegal artifacts, he did not seem to have made a habit of swindling his customers. If he had acquired the photographs from a legitimate dealer, it seems likely that the fragment would have been identified and that MixAntik would have incorporated that information into his listing.

Seemed mostly annoyed that anyone would even bother to ask such basic questions.

Askeland’s theory suffers a serious blow when the images of the papyrus put on eBay by MixAntik are closely examined. The piece is set against a slate gray background, perhaps a table top, with a transparent ruler set to the side to show the size of the papyrus. The same background, and the same ruler, appear in another listing by the same seller. There seems to be little doubt that MixAntik did, in fact, have the papyrus in his possession when he offered it for sale. It does not help the credibility of his argument that, before becoming a full-­time employee of the Greens, Askeland himself raised the possibility in a blog post that they may have purchased the fragment directly from MixAntik.

Askeland, at least, acknowledged that the eBay sale was a problem that needed to be reckoned with. This was not the case with David Trobisch, the director of the Green Collection, who in our interactions with him seemed mostly annoyed that anyone would even bother to ask such basic questions. He described the eBay sale as “a curiosity,” but one irrelevant to the question of provenance. He even tried shaming us into dropping the line of inquiry, suggesting that it was “something Fox New [sic] would like to spin,” but that it was beneath higher journalistic standards.

Even while Trobisch was telling us that this was a question hardly worth asking, he was trying to track down some of the answers for himself. In May 2015—­after we first asked about the provenance of the Galatians fragment—­Trobisch and Dru made their way to the University of Mississippi, where they spoke to the curators of the Robinson Collection about whether there were any photographs of the Galatians piece to be found there.

This visit to the Robinson Collection in Mississippi is curious on a number of levels. Most simply, there is the question of why they would have felt the need to ask for images of the Galatians fragment in the first place. They had declared the provenance of the piece to be perfectly fine—­yet the fact that they were doing further research suggests that they were not as confident as they publicly proclaimed. This disconnect was only compounded by the manner in which Trobisch disclosed the trip to Mississippi.

In all of our conversations with him, and with Josephine Dru, in the summer and fall of 2015, neither of them told us that they had gone to visit the Robinson Collection, even when we asked directly about the Galatians fragment. Trobisch first mentioned the excursion not to us, but to the fact checkers at The Atlantic, when they asked him about the papyrus. He told them that the provenance was good—­that he had even been to the University of Mississippi to look at photographs, and that there was no problem.

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But there was a problem. What Trobisch didn’t tell the fact checkers—­what he told us only when we asked to see whatever he had found down in Mississippi—­was that when he and Dru went searching for evidence that the Galatians papyrus had once been in the Robinson Collection, they came away empty-­handed. There were no photographs to be had.

In the decades that elapsed between the donation of the Robinson Collection to the University of Mississippi and its journey to the floor of Christie’s, other scholars would have had the opportunity to survey the materials. And yet there is no mention of a New Testament papyrus, either in a brief overview of the Robinson Collection published in 1961 or in the Christie’s listing from 2011. The lot description from the auction mentions “a receipt for a wheat transaction,” and describes the contents of the lot as “documentary, petitionary and literary excerpts, receipts, contracts and accounts.” Had they known that the Galatians papyrus was in the lot, they would have been certain to mention it: the entire lot sold at Christie’s for $11,610—­the Galatians fragment alone was listed on eBay for $14,000.

No one from the University of Mississippi, nor anyone from Christie’s, who as a matter of course bring in experts to help assess the value of their auction items, noticed this singular papyrus. And while it is certainly true that in a large collection individual pieces might be overlooked, this one—­an important New Testament manuscript, with enough text preserved to have been quickly recognized by Brice Jones as being from Galatians—­is a remarkable oversight.

His attitude was, at best, disingenuous.

Without any record of the Galatians fragment, either at Mississippi or at the Christie’s auction, how could the Green Collection be certain that the fragment was actually ever part of the Robinson Collection, which was the basis for their claim of clean provenance? When we put this question directly to David Trobisch, he threw it back at us: “Do you have any evidence that it is not from the Robinson Collection?” Aggressive tone aside, this is to mistake where the burden of proof lies. It is, of course, impossible to prove a negative—­but that is not how provenance works. It must be shown that an artifact has a clean provenance, despite Trobisch’s statement that “lack of evidence does not prove anything.” The fact that Trobisch and Dru looked for evidence at the University of Mississippi, however, suggests that his attitude was, at best, disingenuous.

As it turned out, the University of Mississippi may have been a false lead in any case: the Robinson Collection, we learned, was larger and more widely dispersed than Trobisch seemed to know. The papyrologist Brent Nongbri alerted us to an article by William Willis, the scholar at the University of Mississippi to whom the Robinson Collection had originally been bequeathed in 1958. Willis had donated a portion of the collection to the University of Mississippi, but when he left there for Duke in 1963 he took with him the remainder of the collection, and proceeded to donate the rest of the papyri to the Duke library. In a 1985 article describing the history of the Duke Collection, Willis wrote that only a portion of the papyri in the Robinson Collection had been identified. Though no one at Museum of the Bible had ever raised the possibility, it was not impossible to imagine that the Galatians fragment was one of these unidentified Duke manuscripts. In the years since Willis wrote his summary, however, Duke has photographed and digitally cataloged its holdings from the Robinson Collection; if the Galatians fragment had been among them, it would have become public knowledge. More crucially, papyrologists at Duke confirmed to us that their library has not sold or otherwise deaccessioned their holdings from the Robinson Collection. Thus the riddle of the eBay sale in 2012 remains unexplained. The earliest documentation of the Galatians fragment’s existence is still the photographs included in the eBay auction, in which it is not identified.

When pressed, Trobisch said that when he “went through the correspondence again” he found that the provenance letter filed with the purchase identified the Galatians fragment as being from the “U.S. Collection of Bill Noah, and D M Robinson.” At this point, however, the real issue was not whether documentation connecting the papyrus to the Robinson Collection existed, but whether there was any evidence that such documentation was believable. Considering cultural heritage laws and UN resolutions, any reasonably intelligent seller would have strong grounds for ensuring the clean provenance of the artifact. And, indeed, forged letters of provenance are not unknown. The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was burst onto the public stage in 2012, when the Harvard professor Karen King announced its discovery at the International Congress of Coptic Studies. Almost from the beginning, scholars questioned its authenticity—­Museum of the Bible’s own Bible curriculum refers to it as a forgery—­but it was a 2016 investigation by the journalist Ariel Sabar into the provenance of the text that unraveled the authenticity of the fragment. A well-­educated German named Walter Fritz likely had fabricated not only the writing on the fragment, but also the provenance documents that accompanied it. The affair of the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” makes the question about the provenance of the Galatians fragment more than merely academic: was there any proof, beyond the mere statement of a deeply interested party, to back up the link to the Robinson Collection, the link on which the entire provenance of the Galatians fragment hinged?

There is no such proof. Trobisch confirmed that this was the entirety of the Green Collection’s evidence for the provenance of the piece: the statement of the seller, unsupported by any documentation demonstrating the basis for such a claim—­no identifying marks of the Robinson Collection, no photographs, no sales history.

As we continued to puzzle over this Galatians manuscript, our interest was increasingly drawn back to that provenance letter quoted to us by Trobisch. He had intended this to be proof that the fragment was from the Robinson Collection; as the evidence for that link faded away, we became more curious about the other name in the letter. This was the first time Bill Noah had ever been mentioned in connection with this document, and the connection was not obvious: he was neither a contemporary of Robinson nor an academic.

Dr. William H. Noah is, rather, a respected physician and amateur biblical historian who, with the book dealer Lee Biondi and the disgraced manuscript collector Bruce C. Ferrini, was one of three co-­founders of a touring Bible exhibit in the early 2000s. In 2004, Noah split from Ferrini and Biondi, and sued them for his share of the profits from their venture. Biondi and Noah spun off their former collaboration into competing exhibits, with missions that were eerily similar both to one another and to that of Museum of the Bible. Biondi’s exhibit was named Dead Sea Scrolls to the Bible in America; Noah’s was called Ink and Blood: Dead Sea Scrolls to the Gutenberg. Noah’s exhibition toured the United States in various incarnations from 2006 until 2012. The display cases and other accoutrements from the exhibit are now in storage; the artifacts were returned to the collections from which they were borrowed.

Bill Noah has some ties to the Green Collection. He sold a couple of pieces to Johnny Shipman (including a Coptic receipt that previously belonged to Ferrini) that have since found their way into the Green Collection. It seemed plausible that he may have sold other Coptic papyri. But when we asked Noah whether he had ever owned a Coptic fragment of Galatians or anything from the Robinson collection, he said no. This makes sense: in 2011, when the Robinson Collection was on the auction block at Christie’s, the Ink and Blood exhibit was winding down. As the Christie’s lot was not advertised as containing any biblical material, there was no reason for Noah to have been interested in it anyway. And in 2012, when the picture of the fragment appeared on eBay, his exhibit was on the verge of closing. It is difficult to believe that he was in the market for antiquities, but if he had been, one would expect that the fragment would have joined his touring collection. Had he owned the fragment before its sale as part of the Robinson collection, one would, likewise, have expected some of the materials to be incorporated into his exhibit. At no point in his career has Noah had the technical training, facilities, or staff necessary for handling dozens of packets of fragmentary papyri.

When we asked Noah if anyone from MOTB or the Green Collection had ever called him to verify that he had owned the manuscript, he said that he had never been asked about it. Eugenio Donadoni, director of the Christie’s manuscript department, confirmed that Noah was “neither the buyer nor consignor” of the lot in which the Robinson papyri were sold. Perhaps the fact that Noah had sold the Green family a different Coptic piece led to the misattribution, but this does not explain why the Galatians fragment would also have been connected to the Robinson collection. Nor does it explain how it was that a trusted dealer would have made this mistake if, as Trobisch told us, this information was included in the letter that accompanied the fragment’s sale. It appears that the provenance documentation for the Galatians fragment has been compromised, although it is difficult to say whether or not it was deliberately falsified. This leaves us with an unprovenanced artifact, the origins of which, prior to its appearance on eBay, are completely unknown.

It is perhaps revealing that, at the moment that he finally admitted just how little evidence the Green Collection has about the provenance of this artifact, Trobisch also made sure to say, “The purchase happened before I joined the collection.” This was not the first time he had said this to us; nor was he the only person to throw that fact into conversation. Josephine Dru: “I was not involved in the acquisition process.” Christian Askeland: “This is before I worked for the Green Collection.” Given the purchase date of 2013, it seemed likely that the purchase had been negotiated by Cary Summers, the presidet of the Museum of the Bible. In the months that elapsed between Scott Carroll’s (a New Testament scholar) departure in 2012 and Trobisch’s arrival in 2014, Cary Summers told us, he had acted as de facto head of the collection, presenting potential acquisitions to the family and negotiating the terms of sales. But with regard to the Galatians papyrus, Summers told us he didn’t quite remember: “I think that was something that Scott had started way back.” Carroll, for his part, denies ever having seen the Galatians papyrus. This seems believable: the item appeared on eBay only a few weeks before he left the Green Collection, and certainly not “way back.” Thus even if MOTB and Green Collection administrators claim that the Galatians fragment is perfectly legitimate, they also seem to want as much distance as possible from it. Nobody wants to take responsibility for the papyrus, and, given the many unanswered questions that surround it, it is easy to see why.

In 2016, and in the wake of our articles in The Daily Beast and The Atlantic about the federal government investigating the group for illicit artifacts, the Green Collection went offline. Statements by MOTB served to distance it from the Green family and the Green Collection: despite Cary Summers, the president of MOTB, having been the one to confirm the existence of the federal investigation to us, MOTB quickly clarified to inquiring members of the press that it was the Greens and Hobby Lobby that were under investigation, and that MOTB had nothing to do with it. Not long thereafter, the website for the Green Collection effectively disappeared. Without looking at the cached internet pages, the only hints of the collection’s existence are in brief, tersely worded summaries on the MOTB website. The Green Collection—­which never had any legal status to begin with—­retreated into the shadows.

Of course, the artifacts themselves are still in the Hobby Lobby warehouses in Oklahoma City or on loan to other exhibitions, and the Museum of the Bible still touts the massive collection that will eventually find its home in Washington, D.C. What has happened is not a change in the collection, but a change of its name: the Green Collection is now known as the Museum Collection. This nomenclature serves to obscure more than to clarify: the designation is given not only to those artifacts that have been donated by the Greens to MOTB, but also to those not yet donated. And changing the name of the collection does not alleviate any of the problems of provenance; in a sense, by obscuring even the current owners, it only heightens awareness of the issue.

The examples that we have discussed in our book are just those that have bobbed to the surface of academic consciousness. But there is good reason to think that these are merely the tip of the iceberg. Michael Holmes, the current director of the Green Scholars Initiative, told us that there are crates of papyri in the collection that no one can match to documentation of purchases. This suggests that there is potentially a substantial trove of unprovenanced papyri in the holdings of the Green Collection, the origins of which are documented even more poorly than the Galatians fragment. Despite the widespread institutional acknowledgment that the acquisitions of the Scott Carroll years were riddled with potential problems of legality and, it has been mooted, even authenticity, no one associated with the Greens or MOTB has ever suggested that they would consider returning or removing from the collection even a single item to its previous owners or country of origin. Repatriation is a complicated issue, but the fact remains: even as they disavow the earlier era of acquisitions and administration, the collection and museum continue to claim the artifacts from that period, continue to boast of their 40,000-­piece holdings. It is as if simply admitting that mistakes were made relieves them of the obligation to take responsibility for those mistakes or correct them.

What is lacking among the members of the Green organization is any sense of due diligence.

Nor does there appear to be much effort to research or document the provenance of the artifacts in the collection. When we inquired about the provenance and authenticity of a cuneiform-­inscribed brick from Larsa (in modern-­day Iraq), a photograph of which appeared on the MOTB Facebook feed, we were told by Lance Allred, the curator responsible for cuneiform objects, that the acquisition happened before his time and that he could not assist us in determining its provenance. “To research it,” he said, “would require quite a lot of work on my part.”

David Trobisch echoed Allred’s sense that provenance was secondary and something that lay beyond the bounds of his personal responsibility. When we pressed him on the provenance of the Galatians fragment that appeared on eBay, he suggested that we go to Mississippi ourselves to “try to solve the riddle.” Even without making a trip to the South, within the space of a morning and two phone calls we were able to ascertain that the provenance of the Galatians fragment provided by Trobisch is inaccurate. This is not to suggest that Green Collection employees are perpetrating a deception; but for all of the extensive research they claimed to have conducted, they never took the most basic steps in trying to track down the origins of this piece. There is a sense among some curators and directors that they are in no way obligated to solve these problems themselves. Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan District Attorney, recently cautioned against just this sort of attitude: “The process of establishing an item’s provenance may not be easy, and it’s often not straightforward, but the alternative is the implicit endorsement of an unacceptable practice through willful ignorance.” What is lacking among the members of the Green organization is any sense of due diligence.

Moreover, it is not clear that those employed by the Greens fully understood what provenance actually is. And, whatever they may say, this appears to be a problem not confined to the Scott Carroll era. In late October 2015, before our piece in The Atlantic was published, we received an email from David Trobisch berating us for discussing issues of provenance in it. Among his arguments was the statement that they have between 10,000 and 15,000 printed books, and that it is “hard not to have provenance when the year and place of publication is on the title page.” This is a fundamental misapprehension of how provenance works. Provenance is about the ability to document the legal chain of ownership. If a printed book manufactured in the eighteenth century was stolen during wartime and later sold for profit, its provenance would be corrupted. (This is why, for example, artwork stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust is not considered to have a clean provenance.) Merely knowing when and where a book was printed does not mean that it was acquired legally or ethically. By training, David Trobisch is a New Testament scholar, and New Testament scholars sometimes use the term provenance, as Trobisch did, to refer to the circumstances of a text’s composition. But to use the term in that way in the world of the antiquities trade is an error, and one that is troubling.

It is unclear if anyone associated with the Green Collection is addressing, in depth or with transparency, the legal and ethical issues surrounding provenance. In 2016, Josephine Dru contacted some prominent papyrologists asking for their assistance in identifying the provenance of papyri in the collection. The flow of information does not go both ways. Emails we sent to various Green Collection curators requesting the details of the provenance of items in the collection that had already been displayed or advertised went unanswered for weeks, if they were ever answered at all. The scholarly guild has repeatedly been promised that the artifacts would be published, but they are years overdue. Delays, of various lengths, are not uncommon in the academic world; but when a collection is as prominent as this one, when its size and scope are so publicly touted, and when it is known to be destined for a major museum, the degree of accountability is necessarily higher.

Adapted from BIBLE NATION by Candida Moss and Joel Baden, published by Princeton University Press. Copyright © 2017.