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Museum of the Bible returns medieval manuscript after discovering item’s theft

The Museum of the Bible will return this medieval Greek manuscript of the four Gospels to the University of Athens, where it has been missing since 1991. Photo courtesy MOTB

(RNS) — One year after the Green family — owners of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby and principal sponsors of the Museum of the Bible — agreed to pay a $3 million fine for illegally importing artifacts from Iraq, the museum is returning a medieval New Testament manuscript to the University of Athens after learning the document had been stolen from the Greek institution.

The return follows an investigation the museum is conducting on the provenance, or origins, of more than 3,000 items in its collection.

Late last week, the Washington, D.C., museum that opened in November 2017 announced it would return the medieval Greek manuscript of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life to the University of Athens. It marked “the first return of an artifact because of a provenance issue,” spokeswoman Michelle Farmer of DeMoss told Religion News Service.

The item, known as “Manuscript 18” and dating to the 1100s, had gone missing from the university’s library in 1991. It turned up seven years later a Sotheby’s auction in London, where it was purchased by an unknown owner. It wasn’t until 2010 that Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, owner of one of the world’s largest private collections of biblical texts and artifacts, bought the manuscript. The Green family, major funders of MOTB, donated it to the museum in 2014.

Jeff Kloha, chief curatorial officer, told RNS that the decision to return the item was easy. “We’re a Museum of the Bible, so it’s ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you,’” he said, citing Matthew 7:12.

Jeff Kloha. Photo courtesy Concordia Seminary

Kloha said the museum was following standards set forth by the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors. “We want to act in an ethical way, a nice way to help a sister institution,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to act responsibly and demonstrate we’re a museum” that adheres to standards.

Kloha noted that MOTB is seeking accreditation from the American Association of Museums, and that doing things according to standards is a part of that process. Accreditation reflects a museum’s professionalism, he said, “and also helps with lending partners” when approaching other institutions for the loan of items.

Manuscript 18 is currently on display through an agreement with the University of Athens and will be formally returned on Oct. 1. Kloha said the manuscript has been “digitized … and put online” for public viewing.

Kloha, who holds a doctorate from the University of Leeds in England, noted the many “points of locating” the manuscript from the early 1900s to the present. “This is such a clear-cut case when we talked with the University (of Athens),” he said. “(This was) not a random manuscript, but it had intimate connections with the university and belonged in that collection.”

One such connection was Spyridon Lambros, a 19th- and early-20th-century Greek historian who taught at the university for 23 years and donated the manuscript to the university. Lambros also briefly served as Greek prime minister from September 1916 to April 1917.

Following the Manuscript 18 donation, the museum listed the item on a database of New Testament manuscripts at the Institute for New Testament Textual Research at the University of Münster in Germany. That listing drew the attention of Theodora Antonopoulou, a professor of Byzantine literature at the University of Athens. Her research showed that the manuscript had been appropriated from the school without its permission. On determining that the item belonged to the university, MOTB officials arranged to return it.

Attorney Thomas R. Kline, a lecturer in museum studies at George Washington University as well as a consultant to the MOTB, said the return “reflects the (museum) board’s commitment to an (ethical) approach at the highest level.”

Such standards were highlighted after the 2017 agreement by the Green family to return thousands of artifacts that U.S. federal officials said were illegally imported, as well as pay the $3 million fine. Some academics argued the incident would tarnish the MOTB’s reputation but others conceded the difficulties of provenance inherent in assembling collections of ancient artifacts.

(Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct the year the Green family acquired the manuscript.)

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Mark A. Kellner

27 Comments

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  • The Green family built a museum on looting, supporting terrorism and theft. Yet they felt it was somehow “against moral principles” to respect employees to make personal choices about family planning.

    What a bunch of scumbags.

  • The MOTB has hired a team of professors and scholars to sort through the complications inherent in verifying, documenting, and acquiring such historical manuscripts. What happened? Manuscript 18, dating to the 1100’s, containing the four Gospel accounts of Jesus, seems to me a significant oversight, given it was missing since 1991.

    The Bible Museum also displays a printed facsimile, and digitally reconstructed, completed text of Codex Sinaiticus, A.D. 400, one of the two most valuable historical documents from which the historical Bible came. The other being Codex Vaticanus, A.D. 340. The two Codex historical documents, extremely early in Church history, preserve the historical accuracy of the texts handed down from the Second Century trained disciples of the Apostles, who carefully preserved the high ethical standards of historical documentations. The Bible we have today is what the earliest Christians had.

  • “The Green family built a museum on looting, supporting terrorism and theft.”

    Citation?

    Of course not.

    What a scumbag.

  • Re: “The Bible we have today is what the earliest Christians had.” 

    Uh … no, I don’t think so. If by “the earliest Christians” you mean “the very first people who followed Christ,” what they had as scripture were the Jewish texts … i.e. what would later be called the Old Testament. And they read those texts primarily in the form of the Septuagint (i.e. a Greek translation) or the Targums (Aramaic translations). That is not what modern Christians call “the Bible.” Not even close. 

    The New Testament texts weren’t even written by “the earliest Christians.” The oldest of them are the seven genuine Pauline epistles (1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon, Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Romans); they were written sometime between the mid-40s and the mid-50s CE. Paul was not, himself, one of “the earliest Christians” … he was a later convert, as he admitted and as related in Acts. The rest of the NT books were all composed in the following decades. It’s possible a few may have been written as late as 120-130 CE. 

    As for those texts themselves, even the very oldest manuscripts (or fragments thereof) are copies of copies of copies, etc., several generations removed from those originals. Some of those very-oldest manuscripts and fragments make clear that, even within the first couple centuries of the religion, those texts were in flux. For instance, rather famously, the oldest versions of the gospel of Mark end at what we call verse 16:8, with the women fleeing Jesus’ tomb. Were those very-early manuscripts incomplete copies of a longer original? Or were our verses 16:9-20 composed and added later on? (The latter is the most common conclusion scholars have reached.) 

    Note: Mark 16:9-20 is not the only probable later addition to NT texts. Another famous one is the Pericope Adulterae, or the story of the woman taken in adultery in Jn 8; it may have been added as late as the 4th century. That additions were injected into the NT isn’t even recent news. As long ago as the 17th century, Isaac Newton commented on two additions he’d detected (1 Jn 5:7 and 1 Tim 3:16). 

    So no … it can’t really be said that our Bible “is what the earliest Christians had.” It’s much more than that … and differs from it in ways we can only speculate on, at this point. 

  • It’s not possible the Gospels and the bulk epistles were written as late as 120-130 CE.

    The very oldest manuscripts and fragments make clear that, with minor textual differences, the copies of copies of copies preserved the original texts.

  • Bob Arnzen, it has been broadly publicized from investigative agencies, that the Green family, good fundamental Christians that they want everyone to know they are, falsified invoices, receipts, etc. and purposely mismarked boxes to elude discovery of their criminal enterprise. I particularly like the quote from the article: “‘This is an opportunity for us to act responsibly and demonstrate we’re a museum’ that adheres to standards.” They had their opportunity to act responsibly and within the law when they began their collection. I believe the fine should have been much larger. A year later, they are just now looking into provenance. I would say that these “Christians” have knowingly and willfully violated several of the Christian 10 commandments: 1. You shall have no other Gods but me. (They worship money over their duties to the public and humankind. This is obvious from their actions.) 2. You shall not make for yourself any idol, nor bow down to it or worship it. (Their idol is money. If they have so much of it, why do they need to cheat other countries of their rightful ownership of these items?) 8. You must not steal. (Obvious on its face.) 10. You must not be envious of your neighbor’s goods. You shall not be envious of his house nor his wife, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Obvious on its face.) How can anyone now believe that what is in that museum is authentic or doesn’t belong to someone else? What pathetic behavior.

  • “Bob Arnzen, it has been broadly publicized from investigative agencies, that the Green family, good fundamental Christians that they want everyone to know they are, falsified invoices, receipts, etc. and purposely mismarked boxes to elude discovery of their criminal enterprise.”

    No citations.

    No suprise.

    “I would say that these “Christians” have knowingly and willfully violated several of the Christian 10 commandments: 1. You shall have no other Gods but me. (They worship money over their duties to the public and humankind. This is obvious from their actions.) 2. You shall not make for yourself any idol, nor bow down to it or worship it. (Their idol is money. If they have so much of it, why do they need to cheat other countries of their rightful ownership of these items?) 8. You must not steal. (Obvious on its face.) 10. You must not be envious of your neighbor’s goods. You shall not be envious of his house nor his wife, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Obvious on its face.)”

    No citations.

    No evidence at all.

    How can it be, therefore, “Obvious on its face”?

    “How can anyone now believe that what is in that museum is authentic or doesn’t belong to someone else? What pathetic behavior.”

    What a pathetic comment.

  • “The two Codex historical documents, extremely early in Church history, preserve the historical accuracy of the texts handed down from the Second Century trained disciples of the Apostles, who carefully preserved the high ethical standards of historical documentations.”

    A self serving assumption with no historical support. The kind of thing one says to pretend the problems of hearsay, deliberate editing and generational copying changed does not exist.

    Somehow we are to believe the Bible was somehow exempt from the same forces which affect all writings prior to the age of mechanized printing. Special pleading and wishful thinking at best.

  • The agreement described in this complaint does not suggest, nor does Hobby Lobby admit, criminal actions.

    It also indicates that Hobby Lobby agreed to a cleanup of its approach and procedures, which seems to undercut your assessment of their current behavior.

  • Oh, Bob. That’s so weak. They did not fight this. They paid the fine. Why would they admit to committing a crime? Just pay the fine and make it go away. They care about their reputation…not their character. Despite the warnings of an antiquities specialist in cultural property law that by purchasing the items, they were in danger of committing crimes, they went ahead anyway. Criminal intent. So, now that they’re trying to clean up their act, we should respect them? J.C. Watts said, “Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught.” Coach John Wooden said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are,” (Pavlo, 2012, accessed from https://www.forbes.com/sites/walterpavlo/2012/10/23/character-is-what-you-do-when-everyone-is-watching/#5d643071fc6d )

  • Well, no, not exactly. Your statements do not take into account several references that describe the historical formation of the Gospels. In Luke 1:1-4, there were numerous eyewitnesses documented from which Dr. Luke researched for historical accuracy. In John 21:24-25, the Apostle John had access to a vast number of eyewitnesses’ documentations that never made it into the final Gospel texts. Many of those were repetitious accounts. In Matthew 9:9-10, Matthew Levi was a Tax Collector, in the company of many other fellow Tax Collectors. He would document taxes collected from numerous citizens in that city and submit his report to the Roman Government. Documenting Jesus’ activities and teachings in many different cities was natural to him. So, he would have been writing a large number of pericopes. Jesus was a Rabbi, training his disciples in repetition and accuracy of memories experienced in Matthew 16:5-12. Jesus’ extremely high ethical standards would have ensured the accuracy of the written accounts. This high standard would also apply to those second and third generation disciples responsible for accurate copying of the texts for future generations of disciples.
    Yes, Mark’s Resurrection appearances, and the Pericope Adulterae were not in the original collection. They were part of the excluded collection that the Apostle John referred to. They were included in the text a few hundred years later. All of the other texts in the collection remained unchanged.
    The historical manuscripts’ textual variants are noted in the footnotes of most Bibles today. These amount to a little over 1 per cent of the New Testament. The accuracy of the texts have been quite well preserved over the centuries. PsiCop, these are some of the reasons I trust the accuracy of the NT we have today. The message of the Gospels is that Jesus will cleanse us of sins when we repent of our sins and receive Jesus Christ into our life. Have a blessed day!

  • The historical Codex Sinaiticus is dated at circa 400 A.D. The historical Codex Vaticanus is dated at circa 340 A.D. “Heresay?” No. not really. Oral Tradition was many eyewitnesses testimonies repeated over and over to many different people in the neighborhood. The experiences were described the same way, except possibly for a few extra details added or omitted as described in John 4:1-30, 39-42.
    In Luke 9:10-17, 5,000 people experienced Jesus’ power and told their stories to others. Do you suppose that some got it wrong, or changed it?? I don’t think so! Think about it! Hundreds of people correcting each other on embellished or modified details! Jesus came to offer each of us salvation from our sins through him. Have a blessed day, Spuddie!

  • “Oral Tradition was many eyewitnesses testimonies repeated over and over to many different people in the neighborhood”

    And is never particularly reliable for the truth of what is asserted nor the accuracy of the original story. You are trying to pretend the Bible is somehow different from every other written work of similar age and provenance in this regard. Especially codifed forms of oral tradition. You are engaging in special pleading here. Because I am absolutely certain you would never use such an argument for any other old written work.

    “Do you suppose that some got it wrong, or changed it?? I don’t think so! ”

    Belief has clouded any objectivity here and you feel the need to stretch facts and exaggerate in service of it. You do a disservice to your faith in such actions. Belief should not require suppression of obvious facts and attacks on rational thinking and methods. Those that do, undermine their own credibility.

    “Think about it! Hundreds of people correcting each other on embellished or modified details!”

    Yup, that sounds fairly plausible given what generally happens to works of a certain age written in long dead languages translated constantly.

  • “account several references that describe the historical formation of the Gospels”

    None actually exist. Typical Christian scholarship skews towards confirmation bias when it comes to historical references. The rationale goes kind of like this:

    1. “I believe King Kong exists”

    2. “There is evidence the Empire State Building exists”

    3. “Therefore one must conclude King Kong existed and died on the Empire State Building”

    “Jesus’ extremely high ethical standards would have ensured the accuracy of the written accounts”

    Because he edited the Gospels, including the accounts of his own death. LMAO!

  • It’s not weak.

    It summarizes the agreement, which does not comport with your attack on the family.

    “They did not fight this. They paid the fine. Why would they admit to committing a crime? Just pay the fine and make it go away.”

    Clearly they did fight it or an agreement would not have been reached. If both the accused and the government settle, it is because neither had a sure bet case, and it beat losing outright.

    If the government was cock sure that it was a slam dunk, there would have been no agreement.

    And your accusations purport moral corruption and ongoing criminal behavior.

    Tsk, tsk.

  • “And your accusations purport moral corruption and ongoing criminal behavior.”

    I purport moral corruption, yessiree-bob. I’m not interested anymore in what they are doing today. I’ll let the government keep an eye on them. I won’t be voluntarily contributing in order to see their “museum.”

  • Okay, so we’re back to my original objection which is that “moral corruption” is unsupported.

    You’re certainly free to not support the museum.

  • Re: “Kloha noted that MOTB is seeking accreditation from the American Association of Museums, and that doing things according to standards is a part of that process.” 

    So, only after the Greens spent years vacuuming up every artifact they could find that was even vaguely connected with their precious Bible, and used them to fill up their pretentious “Museum of the Bible,” do they decide that, maybe — just maybe! — it’s time they figure out what they’re actually doing and start behaving ethically? 

    Have I got that right? 

    Or … maybe it’s because, a year ago, the Greens and their MotB was forced to concede their artifact-accumulating operation was a criminal enterprise ( https://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/2017/07/06/devout-christian-corporation-ran-an-antiquities-smuggling-racket/ ) and had to just freaking stop already? 

    Hmmmm. I dunno. 

    In any event, it’s clear that being “Bible believers” did not, as it turns out, make these people moral or ethical. Far from it, in fact … in their zeal to prove to the universe how much they love their precious Bible, they ran roughshod over antiquities laws and just did whatever they pleased, any time it pleased them. And that’s OK, because everything they did was for Jesus. Right? 

  • Re: “Oral Tradition was many eyewitnesses testimonies repeated over and over to many different people in the neighborhood.” 

    Oral tradition is nowhere near as reliable or fool-proof as you’d like to think it is. Oral transmission can be, and often is, quite faulty. Storytellers are prone to adapt their material to their audience at any given moment. This means the story they tell one group may be a little different than it was for the previous one, and will be even more different for the next. What’s more, as they tell the story, they may discover alterations that make it clearer or even correct flaws in it, that prior audiences uncovered. So over time, and as the story is re-told and re-re-told, the storyteller may “settle in” to a more consistent account than what s/he first told to his/her first audience. But that “final” version often can be very different from the original telling — and it’s still subject to revision if the storyteller thinks it’s necessary. 

  • Re: “In Luke 1:1-4, there were numerous eyewitnesses documented from which Dr. Luke researched for historical accuracy.” 

    No, there weren’t any “eyewitnesses.” The author of Luke claims he spoke with them … but there is zero evidence any such people existed or that he spoke with anyone at all. (You may think he carried out some kind of “investigative journalism” or something … but that didn’t exist in the 1st century CE, so to make such an assumption is anachronistic.) 

    Re: “In John 21:24-25, the Apostle John had access to a vast number of eyewitnesses’ documentations …” 

    Again, the author of John says that … but in reality, we have no idea what he actually had access to. 

    Re: “[Matthew] would document taxes collected from numerous citizens in that city and submit his report to the Roman Government. Documenting Jesus’ activities and teachings in many different cities was natural to him.” 

    If you think this, then you obviously know nothing about the Greco-Roman world. It’s anachronistic to think ancient tax collectors were literate. Sure, it may seem a sound assumption to you, as a 21st century American, but at that time it was not always the case. Many tax collectors were only functionally literate … they were able to write down numbers in a primitive ledger, but little more than that. And honestly, not much more than that was expected of them. Why do you think tax collectors were so widely hated? It’s not just that people objected to taxation … it’s because tax collection was a “seat of the pants” operation in which the collectors weren’t strictly audited and often were guilty of graft and extortion. 

    You really need to study ancient history before you run around telling people what the ancients actually did. Especially when one of the people you’re telling your (erroneous) version of ancient history to, actually HAS studied it (and has a degree in history). 

    Re: “Jesus’ extremely high ethical standards would have ensured the accuracy of the written accounts.” 

    Jesus — if he existed — was most likely an itinerant apocalyptic preacher who wandered the hinterlands of Galilee, speaking to whatever villagers he could reach, and whose closest associates were illiterates (or in the case of the tax collector, barely-literates). If he’d actually been interested in “the accuracy of the written accounts,” as you claim, he’d have remained in and around the largest cities — where large crowds would have heard him — and brought some scribes (i.e. people whose profession it was to write things down) into his inner circle. 

    Again, by saying bilge like this, you betray your own ignorance of Greco-Roman history. 

    Re: “The historical manuscripts’ textual variants are noted in the footnotes of most Bibles today. These amount to a little over 1 per cent of the New Testament.” 

    Yes, they’ve been noted. But dismissing them as “a little over 1 per cent of the New Testament” doesn’t mean they don’t matter. As it turns out, they absolutely matter; each and every individual change matters a great deal. Each of those alterations tells us about not only what had been written previously, but about those who made those changes. In a lot of cases their agendas can be laid bare. 

    Re: “PsiCop, these are some of the reasons I trust the accuracy of the NT we have today.” 

    You have no idea what you’re talking about … at all. You’re just regurgitating standard Christianist apologetics, none of which has the slightest thing to do with actual history. Your apologetics is merely a rationale for why you believe what you believe. That it’s a collection of anachronisms, distortions, and outright lies doesn’t matter to you — but it does, to me. 

    You can repeat your lies at me until you’re blue in the face … but I will remain nowhere near stupid enough to swallow any of it. It’s a steaming load, heaved right out the back of the barn. You need to stop spreading these lies; they’re stinking up the place. 

  • What “anger”? What “bitterness”? What makes you think I’m guilty of either? And why are you even asking me that? You do realize, of course, that even if I were, in fact, “angry” or “bitter” (or both), that doesn’t change the factual basis of what I said to you. 

    In the simplest possible terms: You just don’t know what you’re talking about. If I feel anything, it’s pity for you. You have a brain — which I assume you believe your deity gave you — but you refuse to use it. 

  • My apology. I misunderstood a few of your words that seemed to be a bit harsh to me. My trust is in Jesus Christ of the Gospels, who came into my life and changed me for the better many years ago.

  • Re: “My trust is in Jesus Christ of the Gospels, who came into my life and changed me for the better many years ago.” 

    It’s fine to trust your Jesus — but ask yourself, who is it that you’re really trusting … him, or the gospels? The one may have little or nothing to do with the other. 

  • PsiCop, thanks for the clarification. My trust is in Jesus Christ who cleansed me from my sins and gave me a new life filled with joy.

  • There are many gems in the Bible still concealed to the world. After all God spoke to the ancient in this Hebrew language. There is no need to collect the high cost items if they know where to find those anointed preachers and scholars. For example:

    In 1916 Barany in the Nobel Prize lecture on the function of balance of human body: “….. Only a few years later, in 1874, three men arrived, all at the same time, at a theory concerning the semicircular canal apparatus, which is even today, broadly speaking, is correct. … these are the founders of the theory of the semicircular canal apparatus.” September 1916. (cited from H. Shore)

    What does the Genesis or Torah Hebrew language consider as the ear’s hidden function?
    • The Hebrew word for “ear” is AZN (אֹזֶן). [Hebrew is read from right to left.]
    • AZN derives from the same root word of words “weigh scale” ( מֹאזְנֵ֣י) and “balance” ( מֹאזֵן)
    • The root word is spelled AZN (Aleph – Zayin – Nun, pronounced ozen) appears, with variations, 15 times in
    the Old Testament Bible (as in LV 19:36.)

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