You never know what you'll find on eBay—like a rare New Testament papyrus fragment dating to around AD300. Opening bid? Just $99. "I thought, this can't be allowed to sell on eBay," Christianity scholar Geoffrey Smith tells the New York Times of the January listing. "It will just disappear into a private collection." So Smith reached out to the seller, got him to suspend the auction, and studied the so-called "Willoughby Papyrus." What Smith found: a few lines in Greek from the Gospel of John (possibly John I: 50-51) and unidentified Christian writing on the other side. Smith presented his findings at a biblical-literature conference in Atlanta, and an abstract of the talk said he planned to "entertain the possibility that [the secondary text] belongs to an otherwise unknown Christian apocryphal text." What's interesting: Smith believes the fragment comes from a scroll, not a codex, unlike every other known sample of Greek New Testament papyrus.
It seems both sides were written by the same hand, so we may have a piece of a scholar's private scroll. That presents a bit of a mystery to a religion professor at Princeton University. "If it was in a personal library, and then the same scribe turned it around to write the other text, what does that mean?" AnneMarie Luijendijk tells the Times. (See photos of both sides at Textual Criticism.) A blog post by papyrus expert Brice Jones quotes the eBay listing, which stated the fragment belonged to Harold Willoughby, a " well-known professor of Theology at the University of Chicago [who] at the time of his death ... had a library of over 3500 rare bibles." The seller claims to be related to Willoughby, who died in 1962. Now Smith is trying to persuade the seller to turn down "absurd amounts of money" and have the fragment placed in a research library. (A rare "wicked Bible" was auctioned this month.)