Diane Rayor: “Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ’ ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει, γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον.”
Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, a podcast where we investigate the truth and controversy surrounding Sappho, her life, the Isle of Lesbos, and her relevance today. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode, we’ll be taking a deep dive into the most recent discovery of Sappho’s poems.
LC: As we do each episode, we’re going to start with one of Sappho’s fragments, chosen by our resident poet, Alyse. Stay tuned until the end of the episode to hear our own version of the poem as a song. Alyse, will you tell us more about the poem?
Alyse Knorr: I’m going to read to you today Fragment 58, from Anne Carson’s 2002 translations, “If Not, Winter.” Here we go. When there are gaps in the text and there are a lot, I’ll do a dramatic pause so you can hear how fragmented it is. ” ] / ] / ] / ] / ]running away / ]bitten / ] / ] / ]you / ]makes a way with the mouth / ]beautiful gifts children / ]songdelighting clear sounding lyre / ]all my skin old age already / hair turned white after black / ]knees do not carry / ]like fawns / ]but what could I do? / ]not possible to become / ]Dawn with arms of roses / ]bringing to the ends of the earth / ]yet seized / ]wife / ]imagines / ]might bestow / But I love delicacy and this to me– / the brilliance and beauty of the sun–desire has allotted.”
EB: I just–I love, I want to just be like, what are your favorite little phrases? Like my favorite is: “But I love delicacy.”
LC: Who doesn’t?
EB: Just that one phrase. Me too. Me too, Sappho. Sappho’s just incredible, but just like three words, you pause, and like, I don’t know. What’s the one about–there’s something about dawn. It’s just such a beautiful phrase
AK: “Dawn with arms of roses.”
EB: Yeah, “dawn with arms of roses.”
AK: It’s actually really common in Greek epithets that you’ll hear dawn referred to as “rosy-fingered” or “rosy-armed dawn.” So it’s like a really commonplace expression. But it somehow sounds new out of Carson’s mouth, out of Sappho’s mouth, you know, like it’s different than Homer or anybody else. It’s just–it’s gorgeous in it’s fragmentation, and I love it, too.
EB: Why did you choose this particular poem for this episode?
AK: I chose this poem because the version that I just read, like I said, was published in 2002. But here’s the thing: a whole bunch more of this poem was discovered in 2004.
AK: And it completed a lot of those gaps that you heard me read. So on our next episode–this is a two-part episode–and at the beginning of our next episode, I will read you the more complete version of this poem, as translated by Carson again, after the 2004 discovery. So this poem captures how exciting it is that–with Sappho, her poems are all full of gaps, and they’re all fragments, but we’re still discovering more and more of them and filling in those gaps. And it’s just really, really exciting.
EB: I love it. What if we find more Sappho fragments during this podcast?
AK: Oh my god.
EB: What if we just went on– We did! Not in Egypt, in my room!
LC: Us personally!
AK: Yeah, I think we will. I think that’s the goal here, right?
EB: But just how cool would that be if we’re like, you know, “Google News alert: Sappho.” Like, “Tomorrow, a new fragment was discovered.” It’s very exciting.
AK: Yeah, it could happen at any minute.
EB: Any time.
LC: It’s almost as exciting as the story that we’re going to cover in the next two episodes, which we did discover after we had conceptualized this podcast, which is just so wild. I remember when we found out about it, and there was this flurry of texts between all of us just like, “Oh my god, I cannot believe this.” So, super excited to tell that story.
AK: I should clarify something along those lines before we get into it, which is that the poem I just read is known as the “Old Age Poem,” ’cause Sappho was talking about growing old. The poems that we’re going to be talking about–the poem that we’re going to be talking about for our next two parts of this two-part episode is a different poem. It’s not the “Old Age Poem.” The one we’re going to be talking about in the next few episodes is known as the “Brothers Poem.” And it was also a new discovery of Sappho, but one mired in controversy, which you’ll hear all about. And for ethical reasons, we chose to read the “Old Age Poem” instead of the “Brothers Poem” to frame these next two episodes.
LC: Well, thank you so much, Alyse, for sharing that with us and all the work you’ve done. Alyse has done so much on this episode, so thank you so much for that.
EB: Our favorite researcher.
LC: Our favorite. We don’t know–without you, Ellie and I would just be floundering around, singing songs by ourselves.
EB: That is true.
AK: Y’all are my favorite podcasters. More than Ira Glass, you know, it’s pretty real.
LC: What a compliment.
EB: That is high praise.
LC: We’re coming for you, Ira.
EB: Well, for all of you out there, unless you want to hear us just talk to each other about how much we love each other all episode…
LC: Isn’t that what people come here for?
EB: Yeah, right? We’re going to dig more into our episode. As we said at the beginning of this episode, we’ll be discussing the most recent discovery of Sappho’s poems today.
LC: We had no idea what we were getting into when we decided to do a podcast about Sappho, in terms of this recent controversy. It’s a really detailed and fascinating story. And we need at least the next two episodes to cover it, because it’s just–there’s so much here.
EB: So before we get into the episode today, everything in the upcoming podcast is alleged. As it is now, please take this as a disclaimer for the whole episode. Everything we touch on in this episode has been reported in reputable news outlets or academic journals, and we are simply relaying that information to you.
LC: That being said, we hope you enjoy these two episodes and this massive tangent that we never expected. So first of all, we’ll be hearing from our favorite papyrologist, Malcolm Choat, who we spoke to extensively last week, and we’ve had amazing feedback from all of you about him. So, really excited to have him on again. The second voice that you’ll hear in the next clip belongs to Ariel Sabar, who is a journalist for the Atlantic who helped uncover this whole story. But first, here’s Malcolm.
Malcolm Choat: I’m just gonna, like, get one of my departmental administrators to come and interrupt me in four hours time, when I’ll be a third of the way through the story. There’s just been a perfect series of scandals.
Ariel Sabar: The Sappho part really begins publicly in early January of 2014, when Dirk Obbink–he’s one of the most illustrious figures in Classics, he’s a MacArthur Genius Award winner, viewed as one of the top people in Classics largely because of his talent at reconstructing language and reconstructing the fragments of papyrus from antiquity, particularly Greek poetry and Greek philosophy. That’s how he sort of built his career. He graduated from Stanford, won the MacArthur Genius Award, went to Columbia University and in 1995, moved to Oxford University, which houses the largest collection of manuscripts from the ancient world. It’s a collection of a half a million papyri known as the Oxyrhynchus collection, after a town in Egypt, a long lost town in Egypt, where the largest cache of papyris have ever been found. In fact, many earlier fragments of Sappho come from Oxyrhynchus. This is the same provincial Greek capital, you know, again, thriving sort of second century to seventh century AD. And so Dirk Obbink, in January of 2014, he presides over, again, presides over the largest papyrus collection in the world, he announces that he has discovered two new poems by Sappho. And this is international news. I mean, it’s a huge, huge deal, because as I’m sure you know, as folks who have worked on this podcast, there are very, very few surviving complete poems of Sappho. There are a lot of fragments. There are very few, I don’t know, maybe one or two complete poems depending on who you talk to you. So the fact that he’s discovered two new poems on a single sheet of papyrus, about seven by four inches, is major news. I mean, it’s covered around the world, it makes headlines. And, you know, he’s discovered two poems. One is known as the “Brothers Poem,” in which Sappho addresses two of her brothers. The other is known as the “Cypris Poem,” which is a poem about unrequited love addressed to Cypris, which is another name for Aphrodite. So these are, you know, they’re sort of poems that really, greatly deepen and enlarge the material that scholars of Sappho have to work with. And that’s very exciting in the world of Classics. I mean, Sappho is one of the most revered figures in Classics. And the frustrating thing for a lot of scholars is that there’s not a lot to work with.
EB: So that sounds really exciting. More Sappho?
LC: I know, it’s like exactly what we were just talking about we would love to happen right now. Dream come true. It made pretty big headlines and Obbink said some pretty–he said some things. One quote from him is: “For three months, it was just me and a girl called Sappho. It was like being on an island with Marilyn Monroe.” So that’s a quote that he said to the BBC.
EB: So, to confirm, this was his discovery, and his alone?
LC: We’re gonna hear more about that from Ariel.
AS: But if the story had a happy ending, perhaps it would end there. But one of the things that really troubled a lot of fellow scholars was that Dirk Obbink, when he announced this in 2014, did not tell anyone where the papyrus came from. And it was like this major omission and you know, maybe back 100 years ago, if you made a discovery, it was kind of cool to say, “Hey, just someone’s great uncle had this in their closet. I don’t need to tell you who the great uncle, I don’t need to tell you where they lived. Don’t need to tell you much else. Sort of just give you the sort of quick cover story and then we can just move on to talking about this really exciting text.” But in the year 2014, the ethics in archaeology and papyrology had really greatly changed. And that’s because of the sense that when a scholar, particularly a scholar of Dirk Obbink’s eminence, lends his name to a papyrus, the financial value of that papyrus, as something that someone might want to sell, goes through the roof. It’s a sort of intellectual laundering of a papyrus whose origins are unclear. And the other concern is that because of all the recent conflict in the Middle East, you have terrorist organizations like ISIS and other opportunists who are actually looting really important archaeological sites across the Middle East, in Syria, Egypt, other places. When professors get involved in helping authenticate a find whose origin is unclear, the concern among scholars is that they’re encouraging illegal looting, illegal import of papyri from the country’s origins, and also potentially forgery.
EB: So I didn’t get a chance to actually sit in on these interviews. But Leesa, you were there. So can you clear a few things up for me? First of all, what is provenance?
LC: Provenance is just a word to refer to the origins of the document, like where it came from, and its ownership history.
EB: And he talks about looting, too. So what does he mean by that?
LC: Okay, so I’m gonna let our next guest who is Canadian classicist and papyrologist, Mike Sampson, another favorite papyrologist. We said Malcolm’s our favorite, you’re all our favorite. So he’s going to talk about this. He explained a little more to us about what looting is and why provenance matters.
Mike Sampson: Looting is defined as the unauthorized excavation of archaeological heritage and cultural heritage. Typically, when a dig takes place in a country like Egypt, or Greece, or Italy, or any country that, you know, has a rich archaeological heritage, those digs are sanctioned with the appropriate legal permits from the governing authorities. The first reason is the law. Egyptian legislation has, since 1983, effectively prohibited the domestic trade in antiquities. And so, any item that cannot be demonstrated to have left Egypt prior to that date, was exported illegally and in violation of Egyptian law. That’s the big one. The next one is that UNESCO passed a resolution on the protection of cultural heritage in the early 1970s. And the date of the UNESCO convention is typically used by scholarly associations, the Archaeological Institute of America, the American Society of Papyrologists, the Society for Classical Studies, all invoke this data as sort of the ethical red line in the sand. If you don’t know that the object you’re working on was exported and in a collection before that date, you essentially are asked not to work with it, and to not be involved, either directly or indirectly in its study or its publication. And the reason for that ethical standard is that the only check that scholars can place on the illegal trade in antiquities is to say, “No, we’re not interested in material that is potentially looted.” And so as a scholar, if somebody comes to me and says, “I’ve got this crazy new papyrus, and I want you to look at it and authenticate it,” my first question is, “Where did you get it? And where does it come from? Because if you can’t demonstrate to me that it’s not loot, I’m not going to look at it.”
MC: We have to control the buying. The thing that will stop the market is people stopping buying them. You can’t go and guard every site in Egypt or guard every museum. What you can stop is people buying them. And so that’s why we said there needs to be a code of ethics.
MS: Right, if you have demand, then supply will arise to meet that demand. And so the reality of looting in the Middle East, especially in the years following the Arab Spring, is that this is happening. And it’s been happening for a long time before that, the Iraq War, first Iraq War is another good example of sort of political events leading to widespread looting. Because there is demand, supply is going to arise to meet that demand. And when scholars enter the equation, there’s very little we can do, you know, for the most part. I’m not a rich man, I have a family. I’m not out there collecting, you know, valuable antiquities, because I don’t have the money and because I’m more interested in studying them than in having them on my mantelpiece. And the only check that as a scholar I can place on that illegal trade, apart from getting up and saying this is wrong, is to disassociate myself from it. Because if a papyrus comes to light, no looter is going to know what it is. It’s going to have to be brought to a scholar, to a papyrologist, to read it, to authenticate it, and to determine what, in fact, it is. And the scholar therefore plays a really important role in this cycle of looting in the antiquities market, because if we don’t involve ourselves, then all of a sudden, it’s just a piece of scrap paper that’s, you know, hundreds of years old, and who knows whether it’s worth anything. But the moment you set foot, as a scholar, and you start involving yourself in objects that have been looted or that are on the antiquities market, what you’re doing is legitimizing it. You’re saying that this is real, this is okay. What you’re doing is you’re authenticating it, you’re saying, “In fact, this is new fragments of Sappho.” And the message that you’re sending to the rest of the world is that it’s okay to do this. And that’s why, ethically, you know, these professional standards are encouraging us essentially to back off and to say no. The only check that we can place on it is to say, “No, no, we’re not going to be involved. I’m not going to look at it for you. I’m not going to authenticate it. And I’m not going to increase the commercial value.” You know, if I step in and say, “This is brand new Sappho, we’ve never seen it before. Nobody’s ever looked at it. New poetry, five new stanzas. This is a unique and, you know, groundbreaking discovery.” The looter is going to look at that and say, “Okay.” And what’s he gonna do? He’s going to go and he’s gonna keep digging. And so when scholars involve themselves in the market in this way, what they’re essentially doing is encouraging it. And increasing the commercial value of the items on the antiquities market is a surefire way to pour fuel on the fire.
EB: Okay, so from what Mike and Malcolm are saying, it sounds like it’s really important they figure out where these papyri came from.
LC: Absolutely. You don’t want to be working on a document if it was uncovered via looting, because then it makes you part of the problem, and you’re creating a demand for the documents. And so, of course, illegal artifact dealers are going to meet that supply. So this involves violence, this involves child labor, and of course, just straight up theft of cultural artifacts from its home nation. And so the way that I thought about this when we were having it explained to us, is it’s sort of like the idea that people, like us as individuals, can change climate change from happening, right? So we have this idea that’s sold to us by corporations and governments that we’re individually responsible. But at the end of the day, it’s corporations and governments who kind of decide how we do everything in life, and it’s up to them to make the difference. So I guess, in this analogy, we are the artifact dealers, and they are the people who are buying the papyrus. And so that’s sort of how I like to think about it. Anyway, we were so, so grateful to speak to Usama Gad. We really wanted to speak to somebody who was an Egyptian scholar, and he is an Egyptian classicist and digital humanist specialized in papyrology. And I will let him take it from here.
Usama Gad: If you ask yourself, “Why are the people in Egypt, you know, are still digging under their houses or illegally searching for antiquities?” You know, they cannot sell it in Egypt. It has to be exported. So we have, you know, this proverb in my village, you know: “You don’t blame the one who stole the duck.” It’s a village and the duck is important, so: “You don’t blame the one who stole the duck, but blame the one who is buying ducks illegally.” You know, so this is a very small thief, you know, but the big one, the bigger names, the market, you know, you have to blame the market, you know, like this, you know. So the market is not in Egypt, as I say, the market is in Europe, the market is in the United States. It’s very competitive, because it’s an international matter that, again, you know, we will continue to have this as long as we do have a market.
MC: So by the time 2014 rolled around, and in the wake of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” scandal in 2012, which also had reappeared in 2014, and in the wake of a number of high-profile cases involving things like cuneiform tablets–because you may remember there were a couple of walls in Iraq earlier in this millennium, and mysteriously thousands of cuneiform tablets had appeared on the market. Very unmysteriously, of course. And so when Dirk Obbink published the Sappho papyrus and refused to say anything about where it came from, people said, “Stop.” So a bunch of us–particularly, Roberta Mazza in Manchester, who’s writing a book now on this entire affair; Doug Boin in Texas; me in my own way; Bryce Jones, papyrologist from Canada; and a bunch of other people at the time, including a bunch of classicists, Francesca Tronchin and various people like that–all started saying, “No, we need to know where this came from.”
MS: Essentially, the question was, “Where did it come from?” And that was asked, you know, right away, and it was asked fairly loudly, and as I say, directly on the formal blog that had been set up to encourage scholarly debate. And the questions were slow to appear. The draft edition Professor Obbink had made available, but didn’t say anything about it at all. The first word that trickled out came from the broadcaster and author Bettany Hughes in London Sunday Times, and was followed up a couple of days later by Obbink himself in the Times Literary Supplement. And what they both said was that it had come from, you know, a panel of mummy cartonnage, or mummy mask, and a mummy was clearly involved. When that came out, the red flags started going up, because the date for the papyrus, according to Obbink, was late second century or early third century, the Common Era. And really, you don’t get papyrus being used in mummy cartonnage after the Ptolemaic period. And so there’s sort of a 200-year gap or so, where simply something didn’t fit. It wasn’t right and so the questions got louder.
EB: All kinds of fancy words here. So what is cartonnage?
LC: Basically it’s papier-mâché. So, we’ve all done that.
EB: Beautiful. I understand that.
LC: Okay, cool. So it’s a material that ancient Egyptians made mummy masks out of. And sometimes these strips of papyrus, they had bits of literature or philosophy written on them. So we spoke to Malcolm last week about how we repurpose papyrus, because it’s quite expensive. So it’s kind of the same thing here. So if you destroy the mummy mask and peel it apart, sometimes you can get this literature or philosophy that might be written on these. And some people think that that’s more important than, you know…
EB: Preserving a human, and their legacies? Is that what we’re talking about?
LC: Yes, exactly. And we’re going to talk about that a lot more in our next episode. It plays a key role in this whole story. For now, we’re going to take a quick break. We’ll hear more about this from Mike when we get back.
MS: The first story, as I say, involved mummy cartonnage of one form or another. One of the things that stood out was in the Bettany Hughes article from the Sunday Times, which came out about a week after the announcement was made, she made reference to the owner of the cartonnage being a high-ranking German officer, and that the owner of the papyrus had sort of tracked its provenance back to this unknown German officer. And that sort of, you know–who was it? Is this Nazi loot? Like all these questions arose in response to that. And then that part of the story got swept under the rug, and about a year after the announcement was originally made, Obbink revised the mummy cartonnage story. And gone was the idea that it came from a mummy, and in its place was a new version, which he said the anonymous owner of the papyrus had relayed to him that there had been a mistake in processing, a confusion. He thought he had disassembled the piece of mummy cartonnage, but he was wrong. It turns out that it was domestic or industrial cartonnage. And if you can put scare quotes around the words, “domestic” or “industrial cartonnage,” do so, because papyrologists don’t know what that refers to. It was a term that sort of is not in current usage in our scholarship. And so this new version, with the new kind of cartonnage, came with it a new provenance story. And it had been purchased, we were told, at a 2011 Christie’s auction, as part of a miscellaneous was of papyri that some of which had formerly belonged to a scholar named David Robinson, and some of which had come from another collection, and it was kind of a mishmash thing. But Christie’s didn’t really have good pictures, and so we couldn’t really verify this new story. We were left to take Obbink at his word.
AS: That story winds up evolving over the coming months. A scholar started to poke holes in various parts of it, parts that don’t add up. Obbink’s story changes through sort of a comedy, to the latest criticism. So it’s this very slippery story.
MC: Dirk Obbink put out a succession of sometimes contradictory provenance stories about the collection history of the fragment that he had. Up to six. No proof was offered of any of this. No documentation was offered. And while a number of classicists said, “Okay, that’s settled. We trust Dirk,” a number of us said, “We now don’t trust anyone.” We need to, because time and time again, when no documentation was offered, it turned out that there really was no documentation. Or when documentation was offered, such as in the case of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” the documentation turned out to be fake. So fake provenance documents, the most elaborate sort of faking of provenance that any, like, Florida amateur pornography dealer could possibly have thought of, or at least in this case, because that’s what he turned out to be. And then so a number of us said, “We don’t trust Dirk,” and you know what? That turned out to be right. Because the debates simmered along and there was no information about the Sappho. Volumes and volumes were published about it. Dirk Obbink gave a paper at an American–online, at an American institution that was published, along with several others by him, where he simply asserted that this had been in this old American collection. “Why didn’t it appear in any of their photographs or records?” a number of us asked. “Well, they obviously missed it,” he said. But they missed an entire sheet of Sappho, but catalog little scraps?
EB: Okay, so all of this is sounding a little bit sketchy.
LC: Yeah. And look, we’re not even through the first episode yet. It just gets even sketchier. We’re gonna take a little tangent now into the world of Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible, because, of course. I will let Ariel take it from here.
AS: Dirk Obbink was hired by the Green family and the Green family are the billionaire evangelical Christian owners of the Hobby Lobby retail craft store chain, and they are also the founders of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which is a $500 million showplace right near the National Mall. The Greens basically went on this massive buying spree, starting in 2009, to try to collect a lot of biblical manuscripts from antiquity all the way through the present. You have Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Torahs, early printed Bibles, and they amassed this giant collection and it’s on display for the public now in Washington, D.C. It opened in 2017. They are evangelical Christians, their larger sort of theological agenda is to prove that the Bible is an unchanging, unwavering document through the ages. And they seek to document that by bringing in Bibles from various eras. They hired Dirk Obbink as their top consultant for the purchase of papyri, and Dirk Obbink is not a bad person to go to, sort of notionally, because, again, he’s one of the world’s top papyrologists. And they wanted someone who could evaluate all the goodies that various dealers across the world were coming to the Greens to sell, because the Greens are billionaires, and they want to buy a lot of, you know, ancient manuscripts. And so you need someone who can sort of say, “Well, this is worth buying, this isn’t worth buying.” And Dirk Obbink winds up becoming hired to do two things for them. One, to help them decide what papyrus to buy. And number two, to help teach their young evangelical Christian scholars how to be papyrologists. And he’s doing that through various kinds of summer seminars.
MC: By 2014, the Museum of the Bible was on all our radars as a problematic institution that had a collection policy that appeared to be: “We’ll buy anything at any price.” The Green family who runs Hobby Lobby funds the Museum of the Bible, in Washington, D.C. And so the Museum of the Bible is an institution that itself holds a relatively small amount of artifacts, and then the actual collection of artifacts amassed by the representatives of the Green family, in the years, you know, around 2009 to 2012, resides elsewhere in America, and it’s far huger. There are untold amounts of manuscripts. And there were tales the people–their agents, such as Scott Carroll–simply going to places and buying everything that was there, hundreds and thousands of papyri or texts of any sort. And so this was coming on people’s radar as problematic from a collection point of view–collection practice–and problematic from a sort of museological point of view, because what actually was the Museum of the Bible doing there? And what story was it trying to tell? And how was it trying to insert the Christian Bible into the history of America in a way that lots of people didn’t really agree was the correct way? And how is it trying to insert Christianity into world history? And how is it trying to suddenly, or sometimes, overtly diminish the role of Judaism in the story, and sort of having a supersessionist view of religious history, in which Christianity superseded Judaism, which is an absolute “no-no,” if you like, in the way we look at the history of religions, and certainly the way we look at the history of Judaism and Christianity. So as soon as we noticed that some of these fragments, which appear to be from the same papyrus, which are called P-Green-Cole, then we knew that that Green Collection must be mixed up in this in some way.
AS: When Dirk Obbink first announced the Sappho discovery, that alone deeply unsettled the Egypt Exploration Society, which oversees the Oxyrhynchus Collection of Oxford. Dirk Obbink was one of the general editors of the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus, probably the most esteemed positions in all of papyrology. One of the general editors of the top of the biggest papyrus collection in the world–that’s a really big deal. It gives you tons of access, lots of prestige, you get to decide who gets to study the papyri. And they basically told him, “Look, you have to decide.” They call them out down to London, and they said, “I need you to choose between working for the Greens as a papyrus consultant.” They didn’t know he was selling stuff then. That would have been probably grounds for immediate fire. “You need to decide if you’re working for the Greens as a commercial consultant on papyri, or working for the Egypt Exploration Society as the general editor of our collection. You can’t do both.” They gave him an ultimatum, and I report this in my Atlantic article. What my Atlantic article found was that Dirk Obbink said, “Okay, I’m gonna stop working for the Greens. I’ll keep my job at Oxford. I don’t wanna lose that. Don’t worry about it.” So the Egypt Exploration Society said, “Okay, we’re not happy about what you did with Sappho, the fact that you’re involved with the commercial market, but you can stay on for now.” What Obbink didn’t tell the Egypt Exploration Society was that he, in fact, never stopped working for the Greens. He was still collecting about $6,000 a month from them, and still doing all the things that he was supposed to stop doing.
EB: You were right. It just keeps getting sketchier and sketchier. It’s like–I feel like we’re on like a, “Dun, dun, dun!” Some sort of like true crime investigation.
LC: Have you seen that TikTok fad, and it’s like, “Whoa-a-a-a.”
EB: Yes, yes.
LC: And it keeps going up, with “Bad Romance.”
EB: This is it.
LC: That’s what this story feels like. It’s just like going higher and higher and higher. “Whoa-a-a-a!” We’re gonna be breaking glass by the end of it.
EB: You’d have to pay for that. But I am curious. We’re talking about the Greens a lot. What exactly was Obbink doing for the Greens?
LC: Okay, so one of his jobs, that we know of, was to help them buy papyri for their collection and date it appropriately.
EB: And he was getting paid for this?
LC: I don’t know, but Ariel mentioned that he bought a castle in Waco, Texas, and I just don’t know if Oxford pays their professors that much.
EB: How many Oxford professors have a castle in Texas? Raise your hand if you’re an Oxford professor listening, and you have a castle in Texas. Invite us there, please.
LC: Anyway, all of this came to a head around a fragment of the New Testament.
MC: A few years before the Sappho papyrus was published, we call it P. Sapph. Obbink. And then there’s P. Sapph. Green, for the Green Collection, because we make these little P. signals. So P. Macquarie means the papyrus in the Macquarie collection. P. Sapph. Obbink means the Sappho papyrus owned by Dirk Obbink from a mysterious source. Well, that’s what I call it. But I mean–so three years before P. Sapph. Obbink was published, there was a debate between two American scholars of church history, Dan Wallace and Bart Ehrman. And Dan Wallace is very much on the side of: “We need to trust the New Testament accounts.” And Bart Ehrman is very much on the side of: “Well a lot of these are forgeries, so whatever you’re talking about.” But in the course of this debate, where Bart Ehrman was hammering on about, like, we didn’t even have any early copies, then it was suddenly revealed that there was a first century copy of the Gospel of Mark that he’d seen, a papyrus copy of the third century that would obviously then be within decades of the writing of the Gospel. And I must admit, my reaction was, “Well, that’s a lie.”
AS: This discovery of a potentially first century fragment of the Gospel of Mark is announced by a Green family-affiliated scholar, at a debate in the University of North Carolina in 2012. And it’s super exciting for scholars, like again, if you’re an evangelic scholar, a devout scholar of Christianity, the idea that there might be a fragment that close to the life of Jesus is just mind blowing, right? Because if you can show that that fragment basically reflects the verse of the Gospel of Mark on that fragment, basically parallel with verses of the Gospel of Mark that you read in churches today, if you’re a believer, that’s really exciting, because they would argue that it shows that there’s evidence that the Bible really hasn’t changed that much over time, that the Bible isn’t the messy work of human hands, but is god-given, is the unfiltered word of the almighty, which is what a lot of devout Christians believe. There was a lot of excitement surrounding it. But again, the same questions were raised. Where did this fragment come from? The Green-affiliated scholar said, “Well, you know what, fair question, but I’ll tell you what. You might think that there have been questions around this first century Mark, but let me tell you our expertise is, who certified that it’s first century, and he’s the best papyrologist in the world. He’s Dirk Obbink. So you guys have nothing to worry about. Dirk Obbink says it’s first century, and if he said it’s first century, that’s first century.” I mean, who’s going to contradict Dirk Obbink? Dirk Obbink told the Greens a story about provenance for the first century Mark fragment that also wasn’t true. So Dirk Obbink is coming under pressure from his overseers at Oxford to publish a fragment of Mark. It turns out that they have a fragment of Mark that they want him to publish, that appears to be very similar to the one that he sold to the Greens. So once he publishes this fragment, the Greens see it, they’re like, “But wait a second. That’s the one we bought. Why is this being published in a series of books that are about fragments from the Oxford Collection? That doesn’t make sense. We bought this, basically. So this doesn’t make sense.” And at this point, one of Obbink’s former researchers realizes, from his end, that the alleged first century Mark is in fact part of the Oxyrhynchus Collection, and in fact, doesn’t date to the first century at all. It’s second century–you know, second, maybe third century. And so at that point, this is, you know, Oxford and the Museum of the Bible and the Greens are becoming suspicious, because there’s photographic evidence that this fragment was in the Oxford Collection at least since the 1980s. That’s when they first started making a photographic record. So there’s no way that it wasn’t part of that collection. And then eventually, Oxford and the overseers of the Oxyrhynchus Collection group, known as the Egypt Exploration Society, began working with the Museum of the Bible in D.C., comparing photographs, comparing notes, and realizing this full 17 of the papyri that the Green family bought from Dirk Obbink were stolen from the Oxyrhynchus Collection at Oxford. And that’s when the investigation, the police investigation, begins.
MC: It was only by the good agency of Mike Holmes, who’s heading up the Scholars Initiative of the Green Collection, who was able to say to the Oxyrhynchus Society people, “Look, here’s a receipt in which Dirk Obbink sold us this papyrus.” The Egypt Exploration Society had been suspicious before then. back in 2016, they’d become worried and they tried to lower Dirk Obbink’s access to the collection, because there were whispers on the wind of something happening. But once Mike Holmes was able to show them a receipt that said, “I’m selling this and four other New Testament papyri and some others to you,” then the Egypt Exploration society had no choice but to accept what we had all thought unimaginable: that Dirk Obbink would be trying to sell papyri from the Oxyrhynchus Collection to not only the Museum of the Bible or the Green Collection, but to other people. I should say that this is still alleged. Professor Obbink absolutely denies that any of this happened, that there’s ongoing legal action and legal cases, which is why a lot of people still kind of comment on it. But from the outside, it seems highly likely that material was taken from the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus Collection, and was sold by Duke Obbink to these other groups. So there had never been any first century Mark. It was always second/third century Mark. It had never been owned properly by Hobby Lobby, because the entire time it had been sitting in the magazines of the Egypt Restoration Society, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus Collection, in Oxford, in the circle library. It, along with a number of others, but a number of other papyri actually physically had been transmitted to America and were now sitting in places in California, and had been taken from this collection. But it was quite devious. Whoever exercised this deviant expertise had gone to the trouble of removing record cards from the Oxyrhynchus Collection records and the photograph so that no one would know they were over there. What they didn’t know was that some brightspark a while ago took a complete microfilm copy of all of that. So they were able to go back and check. Speaking of the Bible, holy shit. So if all of this might have happened with the fragment of Mark, where does this leave us with the Sappho fragments that Obbink said he discovered in 2014? What does all this stuff about the stolen fragment of Mark have to do with Sappho?
LC: Yeah, so this is the point of the story where we really found ourselves wondering whether the provenance story involving the mummy cartonnage and the high-ranking German officer was true, or if other provenance stories that Obbink offered might, you know, also be a little bit contested.
EB: Yes, very, very, very diplomatic. I appreciate that.
LC: Thank you.
EB: So where did the Sappho Obbink found come from?
LC: This is the time when we give you probably our only cliffhanger of the season.
LC: So we’ll answer all of these questions in our next episode. We’re really sorry to leave you hanging. If you’re interested in learning more about Hobby Lobby and the Green family, Behind the Bastards actually has a really cool episode on this that they did in February, and we’re gonna link it in our show notes for you, so that’s definitely something worth checking out if you want to hear a little bit more about Hobby Lobby.
EB: In the meantime, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Malcolm Choat: So people say, “Okay, well, what’s up with the Sappho then?” Because this is the same person that is now almost highly likely, if not proven, to have stolen papyri from the Oxyrhynchus Collection and tried to sell them, or actually sold them, to other people. And people started picking holes in the provenance narrative, the many collection histories that Obbink had put forward for the Sappho papyri.
Ariel Sabar: And so the fact that Dirk Obbink is now accused of faking provenance to sell biblical fragments to the Greens raises questions about whether he might also be faking the provenance of the Sappho fragments.
Usama Gad: We talked about the mummies as our ancestors, or our, you know–they are full of humans, but they are deceased. They are not commodities. To commodify these mummies, it was a practice, again, of colonialism.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our next episode will be released on the 14th of January. We know, it’s a very long time to wait for that cliffhanger. However, we will be releasing a bonus holiday episode next fortnight, so keep an ear out for that. As always, stick around until the end of the podcast to hear our original song for the pre-2004 discovery, Fragment 58, written and performed by us, with some help from our friend of the pod, Carolyn Ruvkun.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps other people find the show, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts. Or, if you have the means, you can support us on Patreon. We have tons of bonus content there, including bonus episodes on lesbian poets, if you’re really craving some bonus Sappho content over the holidays.
LC: Thank you so much for our new patrons this week: Zoe, Marta, Ryan, Bailey, Caitlin, and Lyra. We are so grateful for your support. If you were wondering what to get us for Christmas…
Leesa/Ellie: All we want for Christmas is you…to be a patron in 2021.
LC: You’re welcome. You’re welcome for that impromptu performance.
EB: I’m like, “I-i-i-is you!” Just kidding.
LC: Oh my god, please. Please layer it over like that. You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte. Our artwork is by Istela illustrated. Music is by Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody. Special thanks to Old Songs, Malcolm Choat, Ariel Sabar, Mike Sampson, and Usama Gad for sharing their knowledge with us today.
LC: If you enjoyed this story, and you’re looking for something to read or gift over the holidays, Ariel has a book about “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” called “Veritas” that you can purchase. Please shop local. We also encourage you to head over to Usama’s site, everydayorientalism.wordpress.com, which we’ll link in the show notes, for more information on decolonizing the field of papyrus. You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website in the “About” section, under “Guests.”
EB: And now, Fragment 58. Well, the first iteration anyway.