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Hobby Lobby, which smuggled antiquities for Bible Museum, will return the artifacts to Iraq

This only adds to the controversy around DC’s Museum of the Bible

Some of the cuneiform tablets confiscated by the DOJ.

Hobby Lobby will return 3,800 illegally obtained ancient Near Eastern artifacts to Iraq, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced on Tuesday.

The news comes almost a year after the Department of Justice filed a civil action to force the Christian craft store chain to return the artifacts, which were designated for the Museum of the Bible, sponsored by Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green.

“It is a great honor for me to return so many priceless cultural artifacts to the people of Iraq,” said acting ICE Director Thomas D. Homan in a statement earlier today, later adding, “This ceremony should serve as a powerful reminder that nobody is above the law.”

Hobby Lobby has always had something of a double role on the American landscape. On the one hand, it’s a wildly successful crafting chain. On the other hand, it’s an evangelical Christian behemoth that devotes a major portion of its income to promoting evangelical causes (including being at the forefront of a major Supreme Court case over contraception). Green’s efforts to use some of that Hobby Lobby fortune for the Museum of the Bible have reflected some of this ambiguity. The museum’s development as a whole has been characterized by tensions between academic and confessional aims. This latest legal decision is just another piece of the puzzle.

Hobby Lobby’s legal woes began last year

Between 2010 and 2011, Hobby Lobby acquired thousands of priceless ancient Near Eastern and biblical artifacts. However, the Justice Department alleged that Green and his team had failed to do due diligence when it came to the provenance of some of those items. Getting a clear sense of the chain of ownership of an artifact is considered vital not just because it helps ensure a given item’s authenticity. It also helps circumvent the antiquities black market, a major source of funds for terrorist groups like ISIS.

After the DOJ filed a suit last summer, Hobby Lobby apologized for its actions, saying, “The Company was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process. This resulted in some regrettable mistakes.” It has not made an additional statement since ICE ordered the return of the items.

That said, Hobby Lobby seems to have gone to great lengths to conceal the means by which it acquires items. When the company attempted to import the items to the United States, it did so without identifying their contents. Items were shipped to Hobby Lobby headquarters and misleadingly labeled “sample tiles.”

The Museum of the Bible has attracted controversy over its methods

More broadly, Hobby Lobby’s at times unscholarly methods, and the methods of the team behind the Museum of the Bible, have frequently caused controversy. (A full account is given in the book Bible Nation by Joel Baden and Candida Moss, which tracks, among other things, how the museum funded often unqualified scholars — and sometimes even undergraduates — to do highly specialized translation work, and actively withheld information about its holdings from secular scholars.)

As I have written previously, the museum started with a straightforward evangelicalization mission — early ideas for the museum included pamphleteers exhorting visitors to accept Christ as their lord and savior. It’s since taken on a more ecumenical, academically focused approach. And since 2011, the Museum of the Bible has replaced its unorthodox director, Steve Carroll — who once appalled scholars by dissolving a mummy’s wrapping in Palmolive oil — with the rather more reputable New Testament scholar David Trobisch.

That said, a number of critics have identified both minor and major inaccuracies in the museum’s presentation of historical fact.

Perhaps ironically, the Iraqi artifacts — most of which seem to be administrative records from a not-yet-located Sumerian city known as Irisagrig — would have added little to the Bible Museum’s collection. The museum’s holdings, including early printed Bibles and (potentially forged) Dead Sea Scrolls, generally focus on the Bible’s creation, spread, and influence, and deal less extensively with the ancient Israelites’ relationship with other ancient Near Eastern civilizations.

Yet the fact that scholars know so little about Irisagrig (including its location) makes the pieces exceptionally valuable and worthy of study. (The lack of scholarly information about Irisagrig, furthermore, bolsters the chances that the artifacts were from a looted site rather than a legitimate excavation.) The pieces, in other words, may be of even more scholarly importance than many of the Bible Museum’s holdings. Certainly, they deserve to be studied and displayed in a museum.

Just maybe not this one.