Washington D.C.’s Museum of the Bible has found itself under scrutiny once again. The museum—which is run by the Green family, the evangelical Christian family behind craft store chain Hobby Lobby—has announced it will return allegedly stolen Bible fragments acquired illegally from a highly regarded Oxford University professor.
In 2017, the family opened the nearly $500-million museum a few blocks from Capitol Hill. Critics complained then that the museum represented only the Judeo-Christian perspective of the text, leaving out religions like Islam, which draw heavily upon it. That same year, the family had to forfeit some 5,500 objects that had been smuggled out of Iraq prior to opening the museum; the objects had been intended for museum display. Last year, it removed five Dead Sea Scroll fragments under suspicion that they were fakes. Prior to all this, the Green family was primarily known for the 2014 Supreme Court decision—dubbed the “Hobby Lobby decision”—that made it more difficult for their employees to access contraception and expanded the rights for a corporation to be treated like a person in the eyes of the law.
On Monday, the London-based nonprofit Egypt Exploration Society (EES) released a statement alleging that Dirk Obbink, a member of Oxford’s classics department, had stolen items from the EES’s Oxyrhynchus Papyri and sold them to Hobby Lobby between 2010 and 2013 for use in the museum. The Oxyrhynchus collection contains pieces of papyrus and parchment dating as far back as the third century BCE. According to the statement, Obbink sold 11 of the fragments that ended up in the museum. Two other items from the Oxyrhynchus collection were sold to the museum by an antiques dealer in Israel. A spokesperson for the museum told the New York Times: “The exact circumstances of how those items moved from Oxford to Israel are unknown to us.”
While Obbink has yet to respond to EES’s allegations, in a 2018 conversation with The Daily Beast, he denied selling a similar text, which dated back to the second or early third century, to the Green family. An Oxford spokesperson noted that Obbink is still employed by the university, though an internal investigation is underway. Though the Museum of the Bible stated that the objects were acquired “in good faith,” it is making arrangements to return them.