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Greek New Testament papyri are among the oldest and rarest traces of Christian scripture. Only about 130 have been recognized by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany, which registers New Testament manuscripts of all types and oversees the effort to reconstruct the Greek initial text from surviving variants.
They are also a new entry into the growing — and, many scholars say, ethically questionable — online marketplace in ancient papyri.
“History doesn’t belong to one person,” said Brice C. Jones, a papyrus expert who tracks online sales, and who wrote about the eBay listing on his blog the same day Dr. Smith noticed it, inadvertently sending bids shooting up.
“Collectively, globally, it’s ours,” continued Dr. Jones, who also communicated with the seller, who wishes to remain anonymous. “It needs to be available for research, to be put on display.”
While the original provenance of the Gospel of John papyrus is not known, Dr. Smith said that ownership appeared to comply with the Unesco convention, which declares that cultural property legally acquired before 1970 cannot be subject to repatriation claims. (Virtually all papyri come from Egypt.)
Dr. Smith declined to identify the seller. But in the text of the listing copied on Dr. Jones’s blog, the seller said the papyrus had been in the private collection of Harold R. Willoughby, a professor of early Christianity at the University of Chicago who died in 1962.
The seller, who identified himself in the listing as a relative of Mr. Willoughby, told Mr. Smith that he had found the papyrus only recently, after opening a suitcase of Mr. Willoughby’s possessions that he had acquired in 1990 and stashed in his attic.
The fragment, which was encased in glass, “literally fell out of a stack of letters,” the seller said in the listing.