Marketing the Word of God

Ancient Asset Investment website today: out of order.  It is saved, however, on

Ancient Asset Investment website today: down for maintenance.
It is saved, however, on Just click on this link.

In his blog, Paul Barford has recently called attention to the “dedication events” listed in the Ancient Asset Investment webpage on “Gifting”. I report here what I have found so far through the web on the basis of that list, some of Barford’s notes, and new evidence. All the donations linked with Ancient Asset Investment and Scott Carroll I have been able to track down have the sponsors in common: Ken and Barbara Larson.

1) 31 March 2014, Bethel University, St Paul Minnesota. Dedication of a Torah donated by Ken and Barbara Larson. The Torah, about 89 feet long, is said to come from Baghdad and dates predominantly to the early 17th century, with later insertions. A lecture entitled “From Baghdad to Bethel: A Holy Legacy” was given by Scott Carroll, Ph.D., Director, Sr. Research Scholar, Manuscript Research Group. See among others: and

2) 4 September 2014, Multnomah University, Portland Oregon. According to the University blog, “Ken and Barbara Larson, from Bonita Springs, Fla., are giving a rare and valuable Torah to Multnomah University.” They are said to be assisted by Ancient Asset Investment. A dedication ceremony has taken place at the beginning of this month:

According to the report, Scott Carroll gave a speech in this occasion: “The 89-foot scroll,” Carroll said, “was composed somewhere in Eastern Europe during the Reformation…If this Torah could talk to us, imagine what it could say and what it’s seen,” said Carroll. “It was preserved through the Enlightenment and the Holocaust. Through a wonderful turn of Providence, it’s in your community now.”

3) 18 September 2014: Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL. A Torah scroll originally from Germany and dating to the late 1400s or early 1500s is donated by Ken and Barbara Larson:

An interesting online article (Donald Libenson, in Capital Gazette, 21 October 2014) is shedding some light on the motivations behind Mr Larson’s donation. It explains that Mr Larson “credited a friend who’s an author and speaker with inspiring the gift. Larson described him as ‘an apologist,’ a defender of Christianity based on historical evidence and other philosophical arguments. ‘He told me he had purchased an ancient Torah and he found it to be helpful in his speaking and teaching. Most people have never seen a Torah. (For each Torah we’ve donated) I have asked the faculty if they’ve ever read from one or touched one, and the answer was no.’ ” Later in the story we have also a report on the evaluation of the scroll: “it has been valued at more than $400,000”.

4) 30 September 2014: The Master’s Seminary, Sun Valley CA. The Facebook page of the Seminary reports on October 1: “Yesterday The Master’s Seminary was given a Torah Scroll by Ken and Barbara Larson of Minneapolis. The scroll, originally crafted in the 18th century in Yemen is a unified work (not a combination of various scrolls merged into one).” A picture with Scott Carroll and the Larson is posted too. A recent donation of a 17th century Torah Scroll is recalled also on the Seminary’s Wikipedia page:’s_Seminary

5) 8 November 2014: Veritas Evangelical Seminar, Santa Ana CA. “In the presence of 1500 attendees at its annual National Apologetics Conference, Veritas Evangelical Seminary  received and dedicated a rare Hebrew Torah scroll. The donors, Ken and Barbara Larson, are passionate about Israel and the Bible, visiting the archaeologically rich nation four times.”The source is an article on Christian News Wire (1 December 2014). The donation is also announced on Twitter.

6) 5 December 2014: Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas TX. The Facebook page of the Seminary reports on this date: “This morning Dr. Scott Carroll, Director and Senior Research Scholar for the Manuscript Research Group, donated a beautiful Torah scroll to DTS”.

The scroll is paid for by Barbara and Ken Larson, as we learn from the presentation ceremony posted online:

Here Carroll explains that the scroll most ancient portions date to the “late 1600 early 1700”. A section comes from Spain, but the scroll in the current shape seems to be from Morocco. Although the details remain vague – as always with our Indiana Scott – Carroll says that the Torah was brought to Israel by people constraint to leave their countries and once there it passed to local collectors with whom “they” – I guess he and Hillard ­– collaborate. In this way the manuscript went to the Larson, who are then introduced.

7) February 2015: Trinity Western University, Langley Canada. As reported in a local newspaper online: “A 450-year-old Torah scroll recently gifted to Trinity Western University (TWU) by donors Kenneth and Barbara Larson will give students access to an original Hebrew manuscript originating from Morocco. The 16th century scroll was presented by the Larson to mark their 50th wedding anniversary. The donation of the Torah was paired with funds for a Torah room in TWU’s Alloway Library.” The donation is also reported in the University webpage.

In conclusion, so far I have been able to count 7 Torah scrolls donated by Ken and Barbara Larson through the agency of Scott Carroll and Ancient Asset Investment to Christian education institutions in a short turn of time. Some of the stories attached to the scrolls look terribly similar, but it is impossible to verify details unless the institutions that have received these gifts will decide to check and enquire further. If I may, I warmly recommend them to do these checks because if Scott Carroll’s knowledge of Torah scrolls pairs his knowledge of papyri, I see problems coming.

It would be interesting, among other things, to know how much the Larson have paid for the scrolls, and how much they have declared their value for in tax returns.

There are of course all the other issues related to collection and acquisition history of these scrolls, export licenses, and so forth so on besides ethical questions regarding the Jewish history of these objects, in some cases even their connection to the Holocaust. It may be all perfectly legal. But I leave the reader to think about this story and to decide if all this sounds ethical.

I personally do not need the law or academic associations policies in order to decide for myself.

Destroying mummy masks: “Since we own, it’s ok”. Maybe not…

A reader of this blog, Beau Quilter, was so nice to edit the long and remarkably boring performance of Josh McDowell on papyri from mummy cartonnage and the truth of the Bible. We now have a two minutes peak that I hope all of you will watch:

I like the words Beau Quilter has added at the end as a comment to a quote of McDowell himself: “Apparently since they own it, it’s ok’.

This sentence underlines two important elements of this sad story. First, the incredible lack of any awareness about the importance of archaeological evidence that this man and others, like Scott Carroll (who apparently dismounted mummy cartonnage for the Green collection and possibly others in the past), demonstrate. The aggressive cultural discourse behind their words and actions would deserve a treatise on its own. People like Josh McDowell and Scott Carroll are a threat not only for the damages they have procured to cultural heritage patrimony, but also for their misuse of ancient manuscripts in public discourses on the Bible. Their faith must be very weak if they need scraps of papyrus in order to prove the value of the Scriptures.

The second element I wish to bring to your attention is that for once there is some truth in what McDowell is saying: from what I have gathered, according to the American and other legislations, the legal owner of an ancient object can dispose of it as he/she wishes. This opens a number of interesting considerations on responsible and irresponsible private collecting that would deserve a longer, separate post. But that ownership must be legal: if it comes out that the object was bought illegally, in this case that the mask does not have clear provenance, everything changes. In principle, the legal owner of these destroyed masks could pursue McDowell and other iconoclasts, and the dealers who sold the objects, in order to be compensate for the loss.

Why Josh McDowell and other owners of antiquities are not revealing names of the dealers they have purchased masks and other cartonnage from, and do not publicly provide documents proving that their acquisitions are legal? Do they fear that the eventual legal owner of those artefacts (e.g. the Egyptian Government) will pursue them in court one day?

Mummy masks, papyri and the Gospel of Mark

Slide commented by C. Evans, screen shot from YouTube video

Slide commented by C. Evans, screen shot from YouTube video

Do we need to comment on the last articles about professor Craig Evans and the Gospel of Mark fragment? We do, it seems, from the many questions posed by readers of those articles, this blog and many others. But first, I wish to thank all the journalists who have given time and space to this topic and helped to raise questions on what is happening.


So here’s a re-cap with some explanations and a couple of new thoughts:

1) There is not a single New Testament or early Christian papyrus published so far coming from mummy cartonnage. Correct me if I am wrong, please. Mummy cartonnage = a sort of papier-mâché constituted by various materials sometimes including recycled papyri and used for fabricating masks and other covering panels for mummies.

2) According to current scholarship and archaeological finding, the use of recycling papyri for making mummy masks and panels ended in the early Augustan period, i.e. when Jesus was not even born or just a child. So what reported under point 1) is unsurprising. We have hundreds Ptolemaic papyri coming from mummy cartonnage, very few from the Roman period, and at the moment all dated inside this span of time. On the standard dates see e.g. D. Obbink, ‘P. Artemid.: The Artefact’, in: K. Brodersen, J. Elsner, Images and Texts on the “Arthemidorus Papyrus”, Stuttgart 2009.

Of course we would be very excited to learn that there is a massive shift in the current state of research, but without access to the evidence of this shift (images, data and publications) it is impossible to comment if this is really happening or not. These are not conditions in which a serious public debate on the topic can take place. These are perfect conditions, however, for the flourishing of ignorance and propaganda as a consequence.

3) Papyrologists have developed various methods for recovering papyri from cartonnage, which nowadays do not necessitate the complete dissolving or destroying of the masks or panels. If you pay attention to what Evans say in the video and interviews it seems clear that he does not know what he is talking about: he and the team he mentions are not experts on the matter since they apparently are not updated on the current methodology and need to destroy artifacts in order to get the fragments out (keep your cartonnage away from them!).

Although as I said technology is less invasive than it used to be, it still is at some extent. It is the case to remind the audience that any kind of intervention on ancient artifacts, even conservation, presents problems and before being performed teams of experts – in this case papyrologists, conservators, Egyptologists, etc. – evaluate pros and cons in order to decide if and how to proceed. Precise protocols are followed and the process is documented through imaging, recording and publishing. Nothing of this kind has happened yet in this case. We have not seen anything except slides with masks dating to the Ptolemaic – v. early Roman period as those previously shown in other videos – featuring Scott Carroll, director of the Green collection from 2009 to 2012, Josh McDowell and others – which we are carefully archiving since one year by now. Those slides and videos are very alarming: I will change my opinion on what has happened so far the day I will be given access to solid information not only on the process employed, but also on the legal acquisition circumstances of the cartonnage dissolved.

What is also alarming for someone who is supposed to teach and write on a history subject, is the way Evans approaches archaeological objects and their significance: he is reassuring us that “We’re not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece,” as if all the rest of our ancient evidence has no importance whatsoever. Do we need to comment further on this? I do not think so.

On mummy cartonnage dismounting and conservation I recommend J. Frösén “Conservation of ancient papyrus materials” written for the Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Check out also the webpage of Helsinki University dedicated to the topic:

4) Why this obsession for cartonnage? This is indeed a fascinating question on which I am pondering since a while. For sure this is a means through which speakers (e.g. Christian apologists and academics) may evoke a sense of mystery and adventure that appeals so much to the media and the public. The oldest fragment of the Bible, new lines of famous classical authors, the expertise of the team…have you got a pale idea of everyday life in a papyrus collection? What we mainly recover are tax receipts, accounts and letters of people who ask to send donkeys up and down the Nile and then attach greetings for the entire village: and I mean name by name, and the names are odd. It is super cool, but it would hardly have any media coverage, right? Even more dramatically, academics are far from cool, trust me: badly dressed, usually unfit and clumsy, always exhausted. They spend most of their time in small untidy offices dealing with bureaucracy with the mirage to sit in a dusty library or a museum. There are the archaeologists, true, but I am mostly told unedifying stories of insects, diarrhea, and bad sweat smell. Yes, we are miles away from Indiana Jones…

Anyway, dealers should be quite happy about all the recent cartonnage advertisement. The Christian papyri stories, and the Sappho fragments news too, must have increased the appeal of cartonnage on the market: I am very curious to keep an eye on prices in auction catalogues, eBay and elsewhere. Taking aside nice masks and decorated panels, these materials are not very attractive for the average collector: the promise of hidden gems could be a good way to pack them nicely for sale.

Finally, I start thinking that cartonnage may represent a very convenient way for collections and collectors to do some papyri laundry. Let’s consider this scenario: you are a collector who buys mummy cartonnage and other Egyptian antiquities on the market with solid acquisition history and records. For instance, you go to a London auction and purchase a collection of mummy panels or other cartonnage (book-coverings and similar), with legal acquisition records (e.g. documents attesting that the pieces were already in a European collection in 1950). You do buy a lot of this stuff because you love Egypt, the mummies, the paintings on the panels, and papyri of all sorts, or maybe you are planning to open a museum or a library. Then you or someone working for you find some dodgy papyri on sale let’s say in Egypt, Turkey, or on eBay, and since you have some training in papyrology or you have an expert on your payroll, you do realize that these are fragments from a Gospel or from a famous classical author. (And they are a bargain in comparison to those sold by auction houses, or London and New York antiquities shops). Surely, for these you will never get good acquisition circumstances records. But as long as all of those involved in the transaction will keep their mouth closed, you could always pretend that those dodgy papyri come from the cartonnage you bought in London and later dismounted with your staff. You can even be so lucky to have made the regular purchase from a dealer who does not keep images or records of the pieces on sale, especially when they appear in the shape of insignificant papyri glued together (book coverings and other recycled papyri) or small pieces of mummy panels. We have learnt that even a big auction house like Christie’s happens not to keep images and records of pieces of this kind in some cases.

Obviously, these are all fantasies. In the real world people are never too brilliant and would certainly commit many mistakes. So do not try to embark into a criminal career following these suggestions: you will go to jail soon or later, I bet…

5) To conclude: will this Mark fragment be ever published? Does it even exist? Good questions: who knows? Well some people do actually know, but will not speak because they have signed non-disclosure agreements (another recent innovation, unheard in our fields before all this started): for instance Evans and Daniel Wallace, who both apparently saw or were informed about the papyrus in question. But also the Green collection team should know something, at least if Evans is telling us lies when saying that the fragment will be published by Brill, the publisher of the Green papyri (has Brill anything to say on this?). Mike Holmes, director of the Green Scholars Initiative, has posted an elusive answer on his blog after I and others pressed him with questions.

The lack of information does not help. What a mess!

Provenance issues: Information with thoughts to follow

The Galatians 2 Coptic fragment when advertised on eBay, screen shot from  Quaternion blog post

The Galatians 2 Coptic fragment when advertised on eBay in 2012, screen shot from The Quaternion blog post

As many of my readers already know, there was an entire session devoted to issues of provenance at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego. Three papers were presented, followed by respondents, and then we had a lively general discussion. I have enjoyed the session, and what has been said has made me re-thinking about many of the issues at stake. But before I’ll write at length about this, I feel necessary to give important updates on the acquisition history of the Sappho papyrus fragments and the Coptic Galatians 2 papyrus on which I have written in the past. I was given the details which follow right before the SBL session, they were swiftly included in my paper, and I think it is my duty now to report them in the blog.

Full information on the acquisition history of the new Sappho fragments will be given by Dirk Obbink in a forthcoming article in ZPE. An entire session at the American Philological Association/Archaeological Institute of America annual meeting in New Orleans (Session 5, 9th January 2015) will be devoted to the new Sappho poems: the first paper by Obbink will address, among others, issues of provenance, as you can read from the program.
The fragments do not come from mummy cartonnage, as previously written by Obbink in his TLS article, but from book binding cartonnage; their provenance is documented, and proofs that they were out of Egypt before 1972. The book binding was dismounted before the papyri were studied and then published respectively by Dirk Obbink (P.Sapph. Obbink) and by S. Burris, D. Obbink, and J. Fish (P.GC. 105).

The Galatians 2 Coptic fragment (GC.MS.000462) was purchased in 2013 by Steven Green from a trusted dealer; the Museum of the Bible/Green Collection archives do have files attesting that the papyrus was part of the David Robinson papyrus lot sold at a Christie’s auction in London in November 2011. The files do not explain what happened to the manuscript between November 2011 and October 2012, when it was on sale on eBay, and how it went from eBay to the dealer who sold it to Green. The only person who would be able to explain how a papyrus legally acquired at a Christie’s auction in London went on sale on an eBay account located in Turkey at this point would be the above mentioned trusted dealer, whose identity remains undisclosed.

I am confident that some form of public access to the acquisition data and hopefully documents of the objects belonging to the Green Collection/Museum of the Bible will be provided in the near future.

To publish or not to publish? A multidisciplinary approach to the politics, ethics and economics of ancient artefacs

FlyerThe John Rylands Seminar in Papyrology

25 October 2014, Christie Room, The John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester

A brief introduction on the aims of the seminar is available from here: Aims



10:45-11:00 Welcome/Introduction: Roberta Mazza (University of Manchester)

11:00 -11:30 David Gill (University Campus Suffolk): What does ‘provenance’ mean?

11:30-12:00 Neil Brodie (University of Glasgow): The role of academics

12:00-12:30 Stuart Campbell (University of Manchester): Mesopotamian objects in a conflicted world

12:30-13:30 Lunch

Chair: Roslynne Bell (University of Manchester)

13:30-14:00 Roberta Mazza (University of Manchester): Who owns the past? Private and public papyrus collections

14:00-14:30 Chris Naunton (Egypt Exploration Society, London): Association policies: the case of the Egypt Exploration Society

14:30-15:00 Coffee Break

15:00-15:30 Vernon Rapley (V&A Museum, National Museum Security Group, London): ‘Working together.’ Law enforcement and cultural sector, intelligence sharing and cooperation

15:30-16:00 James Ede (Charles Ede Ltd, London): Dealers: trade, traffic and the consequences of demonization

16:00-16:45 The way forward: round table

Discussants include David Trobisch (Director of the Green Collection, Washington DC), Marcel Marée (The British Museum), Nikolaos Gonis (UCL), Campbell Price (Manchester Museum), Nicole Vitellone (University of Liverpool), William Webber (Art Loss Register), Donna Yates (University of Glasgow)

Everybody is welcome!

UPDATE 23 September: Due to unexpected growing interest, I now kindly ask people who wish to attend to confirm it to me via email due to space limitations:

This conference and research project have not been funded by The British Academy.

Mummy Cartonnage: An Introduction

Mummy mask of the Ptolemaic period, probably from Hawara

Mummy mask of the Ptolemaic period, probably from Hawara, Manchester Museum 2781.a

As all of you should know by now, I am remarkably pedantic. Therefore when I don’t know much about a topic, I go back to books and sometimes the Internet. Being mostly interested in Byzantine papyri, I had to refresh my knowledge of papyri from mummy cartonnage and related matters, since they have become such a hot topic after the publication of the new Sappho fragments (P. Sapph. Obbink and P.GC.105), and the YouTube adventures of the two Palmolive Indiana Jones retrieving New Testament papyri through mummy masks washing-up. So I thought to share what I have learnt so far.

In lesson one of any course in papyrology or related subject, you would be taught that there are two main sources from where you can legally or illegally retrieve papyri: excavating the remains of ancient cities, cemeteries, deposits or rubbish heaps, and dismounting mummies or book bindings, coverings and similar agglomerations of papyrus and other materials. Papyri can be found in mummy contexts, so to speak, in two main forms. They could have been used for fabricating mummy masks and panels, mixed together with other materials such as linen, and then covered with stucco and painting (the so-called papier mache), or they could have been used for wrapping or filling the mummies themselves. This second case is what B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt found, for instance, in the sacred crocodile cemetery of Tebtunis, and later in other villages in the Fayum when papyrology was in its early days at the beginning of the 20th century. Possibly the first to have done experiments for retrieving papyri from mummy cartonnage was the French archaeologist Jean Antoine Letronne around 1825; he was disappointed by their bad status of preservation and the administrative contents. Sometimes the papyri retrieved from panels covering the feet or the breast of the mummies preserve the shape of the elements they come from. You can see an example of feet-shaped papyri in the Berkeley Tebtunis collection clicking here; you can have an idea of the appearance of mummies covered by such masks and panels from an image of a Ptolemaic one nowadays in the Louvre, clicking here (I know, it is a free-from-copyright image, but mummies scare me to death and I don’t like having a whole one in this post…).

From a rough calculation, I would say that the vast majority of our legal and illegal findings have derived from discoveries in situ; fewer papyri have come from mummy cartonnage or other similar kinds of papyrus recycling. (You will not get percentages from me: I refuse numbers as a form of resistance to a present where everybody knows the price and measure of everything, but the value and meaning of nothing).

Mummy fillings, wrappings and mummy cartonnage are renown for being an excellent source of papyri of the Ptolemaic period, which are fewer in absolute numbers than those of the following Roman and Byzantine periods, and therefore particularly important to scholars of the Hellenistic period. According to standard papyrology manuals, the practice of fabricating cartonnage for mummy masks and panels went on throughout the entire Ptolemaic period, and ended towards the end of the Augustan era, so at the beginning of the first century AD.

The retrieval of papyri from mummy panels and masks presents a number of problems and issues due not only to the technical aspects of the process, but also to the damages it procures to the objects. As you may imagine, there are different views about what comes first, either the mummy masks and panels, or the texts inside them. Therefore papyrologists and conservators have been working hard for finding methods for obtaining papyri from mummy cartonnage that take all these issues into consideration. Nowadays imaging technologies can help not only through the recording of the entire process, but also and foremost through the developing of non-destructive ways for retrieving and reading papyri. However at the moment, as J. Frösén reminds us in a dedicated chapter of the Oxford Handbook of Papyrology (“Conservation of ancient papyrus materials”, p. 88), “the recovery of papyrus from cartonnage is still the subject of controversy. Admittely it interferes with the integrity of the cartonnage as an artifact”.

Among the conservators who have worked in the field of papyri from mummy cartonnage there is Michael Fackelmann, a conservator active in Vienna in the seventies-eighties of last century. Fackelmann is an elusive figure, I have discovered, although he wrote important contributions on papyrus restoration that you find in the standard papyrology bibliography. Interestingly, he became also a collector and dealer of papyri, which were sometimes sold to university collections worldwide besides to private collectors. In those years there was much less awareness of the importance of papyrus archaeological provenance and acquisition circumstances than nowadays; I have been constantly reminded recently of the long history of the issues of ‘provenance’, and how much they are embedded in our disciplines and even in the birth of papyrology. I think historical awareness does not excuse present practices, and above all invites future change for better ones.

In any case, what I have realized is that some of the papyri connected with Fackelmann’s activities are particularly important in the history of dismounting mummy cartonnage, because they challenge the above-mentioned standard chronology of papyri from this kind of source. In other words, there have been cases of papyri that are said to come from mummy cartonnage and to date after the Augustan period, other than the recent Sappho fragments, dated to the 3rd century AD by their editors on the basis of C14 analysis and palaeographical considerations, and the New Testament texts that the Palmolive Indian Jones declare they found dissolving mummy masks. On these and other papyri challenging the traditional chronology we’ll talk in future posts.

Update on the new Sappho fragments and the Green Collection

So-called Sappho from Pompeii (Naples, MANN 9084) From Wikicommons

So-called Sappho from Pompeii (Naples, MANN 9084)
From Wikicommons

The director of the Museum of the Bible/Green Collection, David Trobisch, has kindly informed me via email that the collection is going towards full digitisation and open access. As it happens in many other collections, “in some cases items are put on reserve and not accessible until the research has been done.” He writes that information on the acquisition circumstances of the Green Sappho fragments and their relation with the London Sappho will be provided in a forthcoming publication by Dirk Obbink.

As for the acquisition circumstances of Galatians 2 (GC 462), the Green collection has purchased it “through a trusted dealer that we have done business with over many years”.

I thank David Trobisch for the answers he is constantly providing; it is clear that his arrival is a dramatic step forward for the Green Collection. My only comment is that this dealer must not be so trustworthy since the papyrus was on sale from e-Bay Turkish seller MixAntik in 2012.



Papyri retrieved from mummy cartonnage: a video

"I figured about about 65 classical texts…"Dr. Scott Carroll in Mexico, September 2013

“I figured about 65 classical texts…”Dr. Scott Carroll in Mexico, September 2013

As the readers of my blog know, I am a big fan of Dr Scott Carroll, formerly on the payroll of the Green Collection (2009-2012) and recently collaborating with the evangelical apologist Josh McDowell, as you can read in a recent post of Brice C. Jones. I am fascinated by this Indiana Jones of Biblical Studies, as I have explained in an old post, and desperate to meet him in person.

At the moment, I am just following his adventures on the web. I know that a meeting with him would be an amazing experience, as I understand while watching the faces of people gathering en masse for his talks in the videos I am now religiously collecting for my amusement.

However, I found this particular video of an event organised by the University of the Nations for a workshop in Mexico last September 2013 a bit concerning. Here Scott, after having explained what his and his wife’s organisation (I guess the Scott Carroll Manuscripts & Rare Books and The Manuscript Research Group) do, starts moving around what do seem glazed papyrus fragments and other artefacts. Then he addresses the fascinating topic of papyri from mummy cartonnage. He jokes about the smell of mummy cartonnage over the house stove to the despair of his wife, and alludes to the scams you may find on eBay looking for cartonnage. Finally, he explains how to extract papyrus fragments from mummy cartonnage showing images from his computer. He says that the procedure he shows through what seems to be powerpoint slides – that you can see in the screen shots I took from min. 24:40 onwards in the video (see below), but I really recommend to watch the video itself – was performed at Baylor University (Texas) where, he asserts, he had an appointment. Unless he is lying, which I cannot believe because he is a good Christian, he must refer to the days when he was working for the Green Collection and the Green Scholars Initiative, since Baylor University has been collaborating with both at least from September 2011. In fact, an event lead by Scott Carroll consisting into the dismounting of a mummy mask for obtaining papyri took place at Baylor University and involved professors and students of the Department of Classics on September 9, 2011, as reported in the Bulletin of the Department (pp. 1-2).

Can you help me tracking down this Indiana Jones of Biblical Studies for an interview (and a picture with autograph, obviously)? Can you add details, corrections or integration to the information retrieved so far? Were you part of the public for any of these scholarly or wider audience events? I’d love to hear from you…

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A trip to Rome (with a detour on eBay). A Review of Verbum Domini II

The entrance to Verbum Domini II

The entrance to Verbum Domini II

I spent Easter with family in Italy and took a train to Rome for visiting a very interesting exhibition, Verbum Domini II, organized by the Museum of the Bible, the organization in charge of the traveling exhibitions of biblical artifacts in The Green Collection. About 200 items related to the history of the Bible are on display in the Braccio di Carlo Magno in Vatican City until next June 22. The exhibition is free, which is understandable since the mission of Mr. Green is that of bringing the Word of God to the world. Objects range from fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Complete Lunar Bible, a microfilm in gold frame that went on the moon on Apollo 14. In eleven sections, the exhibition informs the visitor on the media, languages, and ways through which the Bible was transmitted to the people all over the world from the moment it was recorded. A catalogue co-authored by Jennifer Atwood, Rory P. Crowley, Jonathan Kickpatrick and David Trobisch, offers a detailed analysis of the pieces on display according to the different sections, from the Jewish and Greek roots of the Bible to the mission on the moon, with nice images.

Very few pieces on display are borrowed from museums or libraries, mainly but not exclusively the Vatican collections; the vast majority of them belong to the Green Collection. It is impressive to visualize the size and richness of this recently formed private collection. From what I have understood through the web, Mr. Green has been able to buy about 40,000 items related to the history of the Bible in few years (2009-2012) and I imagine acquisitions are still on going.

The history recounted through the showcases is a triumphal one. The Bible travelled fast in the context of the Roman Empire, and beyond, surviving the contraction of alphabetization of the Middle Ages. Later on translations in vernacular and national languages, and the development of printing technologies, increased the opportunities for the Book to be known worldwide. Bibles for children and abridged versions of biblical narratives improved alphabetization in the Word of God; at the same time the Bible was often the schoolbook for people to learn to write and read. Despite the variety of texts and artifacts assembled, and the narrative developed through them, I believe that in fact the history of the Bible is much more interesting and multifaceted than that narrated by Verbum Domini II. For example, alternative books or versions of the Bible have been written by minority or less powerful groups from antiquity onwards. The Bible has been interpreted, shaped, written, re-rewritten and transmitted in various, and often contrasting ways. As Egyptian papyrus and parchment findings from the end of the 19th century onwards have shown us, Jesus’s followers recorded different stories, and organized themselves around different traditions, beliefs, rites and writings. The amount of Christian literature related with the canonical, Biblical literature is much wider than that presented in this exhibition. The Green narrative is also sanitized from violence, except when exercised against Christian missionaries. An interesting section is devoted to the killing in Ecuador of five American evangelical missionaries who went to spread the Word of God among the Huaroni in 1953, the so-called Operation Auca covered by a famous photography reportage on Life magazine. This episode has had a great influence on Christian evangelical missionary ideology and practices. One of the Green companies, Every Time Entertainment, has released two films on it: the documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor, and the adventure movie End of the Spear.

However nothing is said, for instance, of the violence exercised by Christian missionaries in South America (just to remain in the area), or the distorted, instrumental and discriminatory reading and uses of the Bible made by monarchies and dictatorships in the course of history. It is understandable that an organization with a Christian evangelical mission, and the Vatican, which is so much part of this story, read and present the history of the Bible in this way. As Steve Green explains talking about his family and the items in their collection in an interview (Les Enluminures, Autumn 2013, p.32): “We are storytellers first, and these items tell a story…We’re buyers of items to tell the story. We pass on more than we buy because it doesn’t fit what we are trying to tell.” I understand you need to operate choices when you collect, and I believe that everybody is free to tell his version of the story of the Bible. Nonetheless as an ancient historian I am not fully convinced that what I have seen in Vatican City is a balanced, historical-critical analysis of the history of the Bible, and more broadly of Christianity. I do think that Christian (and non Christian) audiences (and collectors, scholars, etc.) have no reason to be frightened by their complicated, fascinating history, ‘heretical’ and violent sides included.

Since my interest in papyrology, I focused my attention especially on the first sections, which contain spectacular pieces. A leaf from the Codex Vaticanus, on loan from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, offers the visitor the rare opportunity to take a close look to one of the two most ancient complete copies of the Bible in Greek (the other is the Codex Sinaiticus, in the British Library). A facsimile of the entire codex gives an idea of its ancient shape. There are also some Bodmer papyri. P. Bodmer XIV (P75), also on loan from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, bears the end of the Gospel of John and the beginning of Luke. This papyrus, together with Bodmer XV, was presented to Pope Benedict XVI by the American magnate Frank J. Hanna II in 2007, after the Bodmer Foundation sold it not without critics from the scholarly community. Thanks to this exhibition, I have learnt that the Green Collection has bought some Bodmer papyri too. On display there are five leaves of P. Bodmer XXIV, a Psalter dated to the 3rd-4th century AD, formerly in Geneva and now part of the Green Collection (GC.MS.000170.4-8, Catalogue pp. 19-21). The purchase must have taken place before 29 February 2012, because I retrieved on the web an interesting article and an image of Scott Carroll, former director of the Green Collection, with what seems to be a glazed page of the Word of God in its Bodmer version. Another ancient manuscript the Greens have been able to secure recently for Oklahoma City, later to be moved to Washington, is the famous Codex Climaci Rescriptus, on display with an iPad showing the fantastic results they obtained with multispectral imaging and computer technologies.

So far the exhibition’s superstar pieces. But I must confess that the fragment which attracted my attention mostly is number 28 in the catalogue (GC.MS.000462, p. 42 with figure 26). This is a humbler papyrus fragment from a codex page containing lines from Galatians 2 in Sahidic Coptic. The label reports that the item dates to the 5th-6th century AD and is undergoing research with the Green Scholar Initiative (as most of the items in the exhibition). I remembered this piece well, because it was noticed by Brice C. Jones among those put on sale on eBay from a Turkish account (MixAntik) in October 2012. At that time, Brice wrote a post about it on his blog, and there were reactions from people alerting on the legal issues concerning this selling. Dorothy L. King has also written on this and other fragments posted on eBay by MixAntik in her blog more than once. I have contacted Brice, who is going to write on this bit of the story in his blog soon.

In sum, I really recommend a visit to Verbum Domini II: it is exciting to see assembled together items not so easily accessible to the general public, and I do encourage all of you to go and make discoveries as interesting as mine. Certainly some questions are waiting for public answers at this point: Did the Greens buy GC.MS.000462 directly from the eBay Turkish seller MixAntik or whatever it is called? If not, who did sell it to them? Can we be informed about the terms of this purchase, since there were legal questions posed at that time? As Steve Green explains in the abovementioned interview (p. 36) “A person has a better understanding of the artifact the more they [sic] know about its story …”: I am sure that the Museum he is sponsoring in Washington D.C. will inform visitors on the ancient and the modern story, including acquisition circumstances, of each artifact. Waiting for the opening, I would be grateful for now just to be told from where GC.MS.000462 comes from.

Papyri, private collectors and academics: why the wife of Jesus and Sappho matter

Gospel of Jesus papyrus, recto. From Wikipedia

Gospel of Jesus’s Wife papyrus, recto. From Wikipedia

What do Sappho and the wife of Jesus have in common? Both figures are attested, directly or indirectly, in papyri in the hands of anonymous private owners who are reported to have asked two prominent scholars, Dirk Obbink (Oxford) and Karen King (Harvard), to study and publish them. Now, although issues of provenance may certainly arise for pieces in public collection, they become especially delicate in case of pieces from private collections. As I have noticed writing on the London Sappho in a post a couple of months ago, there are not shared, clear guidelines for deciding what to do in such cases, but there are national and international laws to be respected and there are also professional associations’ recommendations to be followed if you are a member. In practice, as I will try to explain, problems start as soon as you ask yourself what legal ownership of antiquities, papyri in this case, means and implies.

How could papyrologists verify that a papyrus has been exported legally from Egypt and then legally purchased by a dealer or collector? This question has kept me busy since a while. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 14 November 1970 is the main guide and threshold to be taken into consideration. It is clear what the convention establishes in principle, but the single nations’ ways and timing of reception varied. Article 21 of the Convention explains that it “shall enter into force three months after the date of the deposit of the third instrument of ratification, acceptance or accession, but only with respect to those States which have deposited their respective instruments on or before that date. It shall enter into force with respect to any other State three months after the deposit of its instrument of ratification, acceptance or accession.” While some nations proceeded to ratification, acceptance or accession immediately, others did not. The United Kingdom, for instance, accepted the convention only on 1 August 2002. The United States of America accepted it on 2 September 1983, with important postils underlining rights of interventions (e.g. “the United States understands the provisions of the Convention to be neither self-executing nor retroactive”). In sum, although the Convention certainly is an ideal threshold since its promulgation, there have been different ways in which its principles have been applied in practice.

And what about Egypt’s legislation? This regulated the ownership of antiquities well before the UNESCO convention and its enforcement: a law on the protection of antiquities was issued on 31 October 1951 (law no. 215, emended by laws no. 529 of 1953, no. 24 of 1965, and now superseded by law no. 117 of 1983, emended in 2003). This law set very clear rules forbidding private ownership of movable and immovable antiquities. It also established that whoever accidentally finds movable and immovable antiquities must declare them to the competent authorities (art. 9-11). To my mind this means, for instance, that according to the Egyptian law the finding, and following selling and export of the codex Tchachos (aka Mr Judas gospel), were illegal, since they started in the seventies of last century, i.e. twenty years after the promulgation and enforcement of law no. 215.

I wonder then, should the past and present Egyptian legislation on the protection of antiquities have legal and ethical relevance when deciding about publishing papyri, or not? My personal answer is ‘yes’. Other views on this?

A careful check on the original documents in the hands of the collector is clearly essential; I would not be able to recognize if a modern document is faithful and formally legal, therefore I will need the help of law experts. A colleague I have consulted suggests I may ask the owner to provide an official declaration (an affidavit) on provenance, but would you trust someone you meet for the first time and probably via email or the phone? Then a new problem will have to be solved in case of publication: does my word, the word of an academic, or that of a publisher or a journal’s editorial board suffice for the public to be assured that the provenance of a papyrus is legal? I remember a similar question was posed and never answered in the Oxford forum on the new Sappho poems. I trust my colleagues, but should our professional practices rely only on academic trust and our good behaviours? In other words, what kind of data should we provide in publications on the acquisition of such papyri?

In the case of the London Sappho, Dirk Obbink does not provide any detail on acquisition circumstances and documents in the final publication of what is now called in papyrological language ‘P. Sapp. Obbink’, just out (Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 189, 2014, 32-49); the merging P. GC. inv. 105, from the Green Collection, is also published without details about its provenance and acquisition circumstances by Obbink, with Simon Burris and Jeffrey Fish (Baylor University), in the same issue of Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (pp. 1-28). In sum, we are left with the short statement that the provenance is legal given in the Times Literary Supplement, and with the unforgettable details, freely available on line, on how the Green collection has been formed in these years (see my post Papyri, the Bible and the formation of the Green Collection, and Brice C. Jones’ old post on odd behaviors in the Green house). Maybe something more will be said in the forthcoming study on the restoration of the papyrus announced by Obbink (p. 32 footnote 2).

In the case of the Jesus wife’s gospel fragment, Karen King provides the following information (Harvard Theological Review, 107/2, pp. 153-154 that I copy with footnotes):

The current owner of the papyrus states that he acquired the papyrus in 1999. Upon request for information about provenance, the owner provided me with a photocopy of a contract for the sale of “6 Coptic papyrus fragments, one believed to be a Gospel” from Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, dated November 12, 1999, and signed by both parties. [footnote 105: The amount of the price paid was whited out on the copy I was sent.] A handwritten comment on the contract states: “Seller surrenders photocopies of correspondence in German. Papyri were acquired in 1963 by the seller in Potsdam (East Germany).” The current owner said that he received the six papyri in an envelope and himself conserved them between plates of plexiglass/lucite.

The owner also sent me scanned copies of two photocopies. One is of an unsigned and undated handwritten note in German, stating the following:

Professor Fecht believes that the small fragment, approximately 8 cm in size, is the sole example of a text in which Jesus uses direct speech with reference to having a wife. Fecht is of the opinion that this could be evidence for a possible marriage. [Footnote 106: “Professor Fecht glaubt, daß der kleine ca. 8 cm große Papyrus das einzige Beispiel für einen Text ist, in dem Jesus die direkte Rede in Bezug auf eine Ehefrau benutzt. Fecht meint, daß dies ein Beweis für eine mögliche Ehe sein könnte.” The named Professor Fecht might be Gerhard Fecht (1922–2006), professor of Egyptology at the Free University, Berlin.]

If these two documents pertain to the GJW fragment currently on loan to Harvard University, they would indicate that it was in Germany in the early 1960s. [Footnote 107: The second document is a photocopy of a typed and signed letter addressed to H. U. Laukamp dated July 15, 1982, from Prof. Dr. Peter Munro (Freie Universität, Ägyptologisches Seminar, Berlin), stating that a colleague, Professor Fecht, has identified one of Mr. Laukamp’s papyri as having nine lines of writing, measuring approximately 110 by 80 mm, and containing text from the Gospel of John. Fecht is said to have suggested a probable date from the 2nd to 5th cents. c.e. Munro declines to give Laukamp an appraisal of its value but advises that this fragment be preserved between glass plates in order to protect it from further damage. The letter makes no mention of the GJW fragment. The collection of the GJW’s owner does contain a fragment of the Gospel of John fitting this description, which was subsequently received on loan by Harvard University for examination and publication (November 13, 2012).]

In this case, there is a clear effort to give us as more information as possible. Nonetheless are we all satisfied with this level and kind of information? Are they enough to clear issues of provenance and acquisition?

So far on legal provenance and publication of data related to the modern history of the papyri: are there any other, further questions to be considered? Indeed there are, and very important ones.

You are going to inspect a papyrus and will have to decide if to study and publish it, or not: your decision will have consequences on the value of it. For the sake of clarity, let’s consider the specific case of the wife of Jesus fragment in the light of this panorama. We have seen that the price paid for this and the related batch of papyri in 1999 was prudentially whited out in the purchase documentation sent to professor King. Another interesting piece of information on the world of antiquity collectors and dealers is given in an article published in 2012, which I re-read for the occasion. Karen King recounted to the Smithsonian magazine the story of the first approaches from the collector. She was contacted first in 2010, but left the inquiry unanswered until when in 2011 a second email followed (A. Sabar, ‘The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text on Jesus’, The, 18 September 2012 available at

In late June 2011, nearly a year after his first e-mail, the collector gave her a nudge. “My problem right now is this,” he wrote in an e-mail King shared with me, after stripping out any identifying details. (The collector has requested, and King granted him, anonymity.) “A European manuscript dealer has offered a considerable amount for this fragment. It’s almost too good to be true.” The collector didn’t want the fragment to disappear in a private archive or collection “if it really is what we think it is,” he wrote. “Before letting this happen, I would like to either donate it to a reputable manuscript collection or wait at least until it is published, before I sell it.”

This collector loves his fragments, maybe he believes they increase his proximity to ancient culture (Lucian’s The Ignorant Book Collector is keeping coming back to my mind, it must be that I used it for teaching recently), but he is also well aware of their price – as you read above – and the money he may potentially make and spend in different ways, such as sending the kids to Harvard or Oxford, taking many holidays to the Maldives, buying a house in Tuscany, or maybe purchasing more papyri, in view of his great passion or in case he is a dealer himself. The value of this piece, and I believe also of the rest of the small collection deposited for study in Harvard, has certainly increased from 18 September 2012 (the day the Jesus’s wife fragment was presented in Rome at the International Congress of Coptic Studies) onwards. In short, this was a lucky strike for the owner, whatever his intentions were and are now. At present, it seems that he will leave the papyrus in Harvard for scholars’ consultation, but ownership, and possible future gains, will stay with him, unless he will establish to donate the papyrus to an institution, as he said was an option, or – why not? – to the country the fragment comes from. This reminds me that unless I have missed something, we are still waiting for the Tchachos codex to be moved to Egypt since almost a decade by now. But this is another story, one where a lot of money were involved: read Neil Brodie, ‘The lost, found, lost again and found again Gospel of Judas’, Culture Without Context (19) 2006, 17-27 if you wish to refresh your memory.

It should be mentioned that not only the anonymous owner, but also other people had some benefits from the publication process, directly or indirectly, and in different measures and ways. I imagine the current issue of the Harvard Theological Review will sell more than usual; the production of documentaries (like that of the Smithsonian that you can watch in the French version on YouTube) and other media releases should have involved some money too; academics and other experts who took part to the research process had a return in terms of publicity, career, impact, and consequent visibility, for instance, for potential University donors or, in case of technical laboratories, for similar commissions. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with all this, but I wish to stress that although to publish a papyrus or any other ancient artefact legally owned by a private collector is certainly legal, it is not a neutral act: it has consequences on the price of an ancient object in private hands, and involves a number of professional and ethical questions that cannot be ignored, as I tried to show.

Among these questions there is also that of the advancement of knowledge. It is clear that especially when presented with texts of such interest and importance, academics feel the peril to lose the occasion to bring relevant ancient sources to light causing detriment to research. There is some truth in this argument. Imagine Karen King or Dirk Obbink were not fully satisfied with the legal status of the papyri in question, or with the possibility to publish details on them: we would know nothing about these new texts (whatever the results on authenticity issues of the wife of Jesus papyrus will be, the source remains in any case important to the scholarly debate: think about the Secret Gospel of Mark). However, I cannot see how knowledge could overcome the laws in case of papyri of dubious provenance, or prevent us asking ourselves relevant ethical questions connected with the exercise of our profession. I would be really glad to read and discuss cogent counter arguments on these last points.