In Depth

Oxford professor arrested for theft of ancient Bible fragments

Academic has described the allegations as a ‘malicious attempt’ to harm his career

The mysterious disappearance of priceless fragments of ancient biblical papyrus has led to the arrest of an Oxford University classics professor on suspicion of theft and fraud.

Dirk Obbink, an associate professor in papyrology and Greek literature at the university, was detained by officers from Thames Valley police. 

The arrest concerns the alleged theft of papyrus fragments that had been housed at the Sackler Library in Oxford.

The Guardian reports that Obbink, 63, has denied any wrongdoing, and has said the claims are a “malicious attempt” to harm his reputation and damage his career.

Obbink was first accused of stealing and selling the ancient Greek texts written on fragments of papyrus in November 2019, according to the BBC. Obbink was suspended from duties at Oxford in October 2019, The Guardian adds.

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According to university newspaper The Oxford Blue, which first reported the arrest, 13 of the missing pieces have been located in the Museum of the Bible in Washington and another six in the collection of a man in California. Both are returning these fragments to Oxford.

The Museum of the Bible was founded in 2017 by the Green family, billionaire American evangelical Christians who own a chain of craft stores.

Carl Graves, director of Oxford’s Egypt Exploration Society, said the society had given statements to the police investigation about what had gone missing. 

Graves said: “These are early fragments of the gospels or biblical fragments. They are testament to Egypt’s early Christian heritage and are early evidence of biblical scripture. We don’t value them monetarily but they are priceless and irreplaceable.”

The ancient Greek texts written on fragments of papyrus were originally found during the early 20th century in the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus.

In a statement, Obbink previously told The Guardian: “The allegations made against me that I have stolen, removed or sold items owned by the Egypt Exploration Society collection at the University of Oxford are entirely false.

“I would never betray the trust of my colleagues and the values which I have sought to protect and uphold throughout my academic career in the way that has been alleged. I am aware that there are documents being used against me which I believe have been fabricated in a malicious attempt to harm my reputation and career.”

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