Oxford University probes ‘sale’ of ancient Bible fragments originally from Egypt

The Oxford University confirmed it was seeking to verify the sale. (Reuters)
Updated 16 October 2019

Oxford University probes ‘sale’ of ancient Bible fragments originally from Egypt

  • The university is investigating wether an associate professor unilaterally sold about a dozen fragments to the US retailer Hobby Lobby
  • The artifacts were part of the Oxyrhynchus collection owned by the London-based Egypt Exploration Society

LONDON: Oxford University said Wednesday it has launched an investigation into claims that one of its professors sold ancient Bible fragments to the controversial US company of a billionaire evangelical Christian.
The renowned British university confirmed it was seeking to establish if Dirk Obbink, an associate professor in papyrology and Greek literature, unilaterally sold about a dozen fragments to the US retailer Hobby Lobby.
The arts and crafts chain was founded by Steve Green, who is also chairman of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, and has courted controversy for supporting conservative causes.
The artifacts were part of the Oxyrhynchus collection owned by the London-based Egypt Exploration Society, which initiated its own probe earlier this year after it emerged its items may be held by the museum. 

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project is a collection of centuries-old manuscripts recovered from an ancient Egyptian rubbish dump during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

“We can confirm we are engaging with the Egypt Exploration Society with regard to the allegations concerning papyri from the Oxyrhynchus Collection,” an Oxford University spokesperson said.
“The University is conducting its own internal investigation to seek to establish the facts.”
Obbink did not respond to a request for comment from AFP.
In a statement, the EES said it had been working with the museum to clarify whether any texts from its collection had been sold or offered for sale to Hobby Lobby or its agents.
That followed the emergence of a copy of a redacted 2017 contract purportedly between Obbink and the retailer for the sale of six items, “including four New Testament fragments probably of EES provenance.”
The EES statement added the museum had subsequently provided photos identifying 13 texts from its collection which had been “taken without authorization” and were now being returned.
“The (museum) has informed the EES that 11 of these pieces came into its care after being sold to Hobby Lobby Stores by Professor Obbink, most of them in two batches in 2010,” EES said.
The society noted it had not re-appointed Obbink in August 2016 as a general editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri project partly due to concerns “about his alleged involvement in the marketing of ancient texts.”
It added he was then banned from any access to its collection “pending his satisfactory clarification of the 2013 contract” which he had yet to provide.
“We cannot comment here on any broader legal issues arising from these findings, except to note that they are under consideration by all the institutions concerned,” EES said.
It is not the first time both Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible have been caught up in an artifacts controversy.
The company was forced to pay a $3 million settlement in 2017 and give up 5,500 artifacts — including ancient clay cuneiform tablets from Iraq — that the US Justice Department said were illegally imported.
Meanwhile the museum last year announced that five items it had said were fragments of the ancient manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls were in fact fake, and would no longer be displayed.


Symbolic swearing-in for Sri Lanka’s new strongman

Updated 14 min 44 sec ago

Symbolic swearing-in for Sri Lanka’s new strongman

  • Rajapaksa’s landslide win split the nation of 21.6 million people on religious and ethnic lines as never before
  • Rajapaksa took his oath of office at an ancient temple at Anuradhapura, in the northern part of the island

ANURADHAPURA, Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka’s new president Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in Monday at a Buddhist temple revered by his core Sinhalese nationalist supporters, following an election victory that triggered fear and concern among the island’s Tamil and Muslim minority communities.

Rajapaksa’s landslide win split the nation of 21.6 million people on religious and ethnic lines as never before, seven months after deadly Islamist attacks rocked the country.

The former defense secretary is lauded by his majority Sinhala-Buddhist community for leading a no-holds-barred military campaign that crushed Tamil rebels and ended a 37-year separatist war in 2009 when his brother was president.

Rajapaksa took his oath of office at an ancient temple at Anuradhapura, in the northern part of the island.

He did so facing the temple’s stupa, which is the tallest in Sri Lanka and dates back more than two millennia.

The imposing structure is said to have been built by a Sinhalese king who is venerated by Sri Lanka’s Buddhists for vanquishing an invading south Indian Tamil ruler.
Around 40,000 Tamil civilians were allegedly killed at the end of the civil war in 2009.

Saturday’s election saw the country’s Tamils, who account for about 15 percent of the population, vote overwhelmingly against Rajapaksa.

During his brother’s 2005-15 presidency Gotabaya had unfettered control over security forces, while “death squads” that abducted dozens of dissidents, opponents, journalists and others also allegedly reported to him.

Many people were never found again after being bundled into feared white vans, while some were killed and dumped by roadsides. Rajapaksa has denied any involvement.

He has resisted international calls to investigate the alleged war crimes.

At his only press conference during a three-month election campaign, Rajapaksa reiterated that he will not allow Sri Lankan troops to be tried by any war-crime tribunal, foreign or local.

He had also pledged to exonerate and free from prosecution the dozens of military personnel accused of abductions, extortion and killings during his brother’s decade in power.

In his brief acceptance speech at the announcement of the final election results on Sunday, Rajapaksa pledged to work for all Sri Lankans.

“I am the president of not only those who voted for me but also those who voted against me... irrespective of which race or religion they belong to,” Rajapaksa said.

“I am deeply committed to serve all the people of Sri Lanka.”

The island’s minority Tamils have been campaigning for greater autonomy in areas where they are concentrated.

Tamil youth took up arms in 1972 demanding a separate state and their violent guerilla campaign at its height saw them control a third of the country.

After being in opposition for nearly five years, the Rajapaksa family’s comeback came after the Sinhalese-Buddhist community and the powerful Buddhist clergy rallied behind them.

Rajapaksa formally announced his intention to run for the presidency just days after Islamist attacks on April 21 that killed 269 people, promising to protect the nation.

The Easter Sunday suicide bombings on three upscale hotels and three churches was carried out by a homegrown outfit from among Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority, who make up 10 percent of the population.

It shocked the nation, and the world, just as Sri Lankan tourism was booming and as the nation prepared to celebrate a decade since the end of the Tamil separatist war.

Rajapakasa insisted that extremists would not have carried out any attacks if he had been in power. He blamed the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for weakening the intelligence apparatus he had built.