All of this may serve to obscure, rather than clarify, the origins and status of the Mark papyrus. For while Wallace believed it to be owned by the Greens, and it had been seen on Obbink’s pool table, we are now told that it had been safely ensconced—if long unidentified—in the Oxyrhynchus collection at the University of Oxford since the turn of the 20th century.

Was the Mark fragment ever for sale? If it belonged to the Oxyrhynchus collection, it shouldn’t have been. It is, after all, a priceless artifact and valuable cultural property. But statements by both Scott Carroll and Dan Wallace continue to affirm that it had been offered for sale, even if the sale was never completed. Though he denies pressuring Wallace about the date of the manuscript, Carroll admits that he was the representative who was acting for the Greens. Who was compelling Wallace, Evans, and others to sign non-disclosure agreements if not the Green family? And if the Green family and its representatives did not at least have an interest in acquiring the piece, why would they know (or care) so much about it? Carroll (who left the employ of the Green Family and Museum of the Bible in 2012) has said that, until this week, he thought that the Greens had in fact purchased it. Most strikingly, according to Carroll, he was offered the papyrus for sale by none other than Dirk Obbink himself.

Obbink, according to Carroll, “regularly sold papyri to the Greens.” Carroll told The Daily Beast that he first saw this particular manuscript on a visit to Obbink’s office in 2011. “[Obbink] showed me with great excitement what he said was a late-1[st] but not later than an early 2nd century papyrus of Mark 1. It is the same papyrus that he just published. It was in a white fold of paper… On the corner of the pool table in his office on a stack of other papyri he was showing me for Green’s consideration. He went into detail about his confidence in the dating… He did not give any answer as to where it came from or who it belonged to. I asked him about the value and he hesitated and he said at one level it was priceless because it was singularly unique.” When we asked Carroll for emails confirming his story he told us that he had to turn over all of that information to the Hobby Lobby organization when he left. Dirk Obbink, in a brief response to our inquiries, stated that any story that he tried to sell the Mark fragment to the Greens “is not true.”

The Egypt Exploration Society, for its part, is claiming that the manuscript was never for sale and was “probably” excavated in 1903. A number of papyrologists have confirmed to us that this is almost certainly true. Yet proof one way or the other is difficult to come by. The inventory system for the Oxyrhynchus collection is incredibly opaque. The presence of the Mark fragment on Obbink’s pool table is unfortunately also not particularly helpful: Obbink, like many of the previous important scholars associated with the Oxyrhynchus Collection, is known to have kept selections of “special” manuscripts in his office.

On the academic blog Evangelical Textual Criticism, Elijah Hixson has asked, “could a papyrus that was not obtained through Grenfell and Hunt’s expeditions be published as an Oxyrhynchus papyrus?” In other words: could someone try to pass off a manuscript as having come from the Oxyrhynchus dump if, in fact, it really originated elsewhere? Again, the lack of exhaustive cataloguing means that such a thing is possible. Hixson further asks the important question of why someone would choose to publish it this way. Hypothetically speaking, and given the international laws that regulate the movement of antiquities, publishing a manuscript under the auspices of one of the world’s most famous and highly regarded collections would enable someone to avoid tricky questions about the manuscript’s legality and provenance. It is possible that illustrious collections could be used to launder less pristine artifacts. If that was proven to have happened it would throw the reputation of the entire collection into jeopardy. (It is worth noting that similar issues have been raised regarding another one of Obbink’s more spectacular discoveries, a set of previously unknown pieces by the ancient poet Sappho.) Of course, if the papyrus was authentically from the Oxyrhynchus collection, then if someone did offer it for sale, to the Greens or anyone else, that would be even worse.

It is also possible, of course, and indeed more probable, that “first-century Mark” was something of a red herring all along: that it was in fact always dated later, was always part of the Oxyrhynchus collection, and was never legally available for sale. It is a little strange, but not unlikely, that previous scholars had not noticed that this was a fragment of Mark when it was first inventoried. As Brent Nongbri, author of the forthcoming book God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts, told us: “They were sorting thousands of pieces in the days before [searchable databases]. Literary works not immediately recognizable to the team may just have been flagged as ‘unidentified literary text, first century,’ or something to that effect.” There are, Nongbri mentioned, aspects of the fragment that “would strongly suggest it was a Christian text” and, if it were dated to the first century, it would be “sensational from a book history point of view regardless of its contents.” It’s hard to believe that something so sensational would have been allowed to sit around, but this is not an unprecedented state of affairs.

If the manuscript was always at Oxford in the Oxyrhynchus collection, it would be Carroll and Wallace who have been mostly responsible for the public confusion surrounding the papyrus, back in 2012 and today as well. And certainly many academics have questioned Carroll’s credibility in the past. Then again, someone must have alerted Carroll and Wallace (as well as other Green affiliates who have known about the Mark papyrus) to the existence of the fragment in the first place, and perhaps misled them about its dating.

What we are dealing with, then, is really an extended game of “he said, he said.” What remains most vexing is the existence of these otherwise inexplicable non-disclosure agreements.

One can only hope that firmer information about the origin of the Mark fragment will be forthcoming from the EES. For now, however, the announcement of this significant discovery is swaddled in controversy. Online, the most frequently used adjective used by scholars is “troubling.” And, for the first time in over a thousand years, something about this ancient pile of garbage stinks.