This Friday, one of the most controversial new museums in recent memory will open to the public: Washington, DC’s Museum of the Bible, a gargantuan, 430,000-square-foot, $500 million building just off the National Mall. With six stories’ worth of exhibits — from fragments of ancient Near Eastern texts to personal Bibles of major figures in the American civil rights movement — the museum purports to tell the story of the Bible’s creation and dissemination, of how stories of one tribe of ancient Israelites, rooted in their place and time, became stories of profound and personal significance for so many.
But will it be successful?
Certainly, the Museum of the Bible’s current stated mission — “to invite all people to engage with the Bible” — is a worthy one. Regardless of your faith tradition (or lack thereof), the Bible is an important cultural document, and one whose history and influence should be explored. And there is no other museum of the same scale devoted to any kind of religious history in America.
But the way in which the museum’s founders have routinely disregarded basic principles of academic inquiry should make would-be visitors very, very cautious.
Telling the story of the Bible authentically means thinking critically: being willing to engage with difficult and often contradictory narratives. (Even among respected academics in the field, you can find as many different and well-argued accounts of the composition of each book of the Bible as you can find scholars.) It means engaging respectfully and carefully with both texts and artifacts and doing methodical analysis. All of which the museum’s primary backers have, thus far, failed to do.
The museum is very different from its original conception
Central to critics’ reservations is the background of the museum’s founders (and funders), and the way in which they have used (and, arguably misused) the artifacts in their vast, near-priceless collection.
The Museum of the Bible is the personal passion project of the Green family, the evangelical Christian family that owns craft arts and craft chain Hobby Lobby (you might recall them from a few landmark Supreme Court battles).
As religion professors Candida Moss and Joel Baden recount in their (highly worth reading) book on the Green family, Bible Nation, the Green family devotes a staggering percentage of its Hobby Lobby earnings — reportedly about half of the company’s pretax income — to evangelical outreach and faith-based charity work. Much of this outreach is specifically devoted to ministry; the Greens have, for example, placed newspaper ads in order to remind readers of the “real meaning” of Christmas, and have supported Christian educational institutions like Oral Roberts University, to which they donated $70 million.
When the Museum of the Bible was first founded in 2009, it seemed that Hobby Lobby’s president and the museum’s Chair Steve Green considered it an extension of the Green family’s evangelical ministry. In 2011, the museum’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax filings stated its purpose was “to bring to life the living Word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation, and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.” Early schemes for the Bible Museum seemed to reflect this ethos: For example, Green considered passing out pamphlets to visitors exhorting them to accept Christ. The original museum had a very clear evangelical purpose: to showcase the Bible’s value and lure viewers to Christ.
Today’s museum, which I was able to preview in a limited capacity earlier this fall, is a far less obviously faith-based institution. The mission statement only exhorts viewers to “engage with” the Bible, not to have “confidence” in its “absolute authority.” And the six floors of the museum, a sleek and glitzily designed structure, do provide a vast spectrum of exhibits devoted to a range of elements of biblical history. Exhibitions range from the straightforwardly informative (an exhibition showcasing different historic translations of the Bible from all over the world) to the kitschy (a recreation of a Palestinian village in the time of Christ, complete with costumed docents).
Different sections are devoted to different elements of the Bible. One floor, for example, explores the history and culture of the various eras in which various books of the Bible were written. Another is devoted to the Bible’s transmission as a book. A third is devoted to its impact: the different ways it’s been interpreted through time.
The museum’s handling of its acquisitions has been criticized
What accounted for the change in the Greens’ public approach? A number of factors — not least among them the practical realities of dealing with biblical antiquities — have caused the Green family and their collaborators to employ more subdued attitude.
The onetime Green Collection (since retitled the Museum Collection) from which the bulk of the museum’s holdings are drawn was gathered in a way that recalls the archaeological derring-do of Indiana Jones, rather than an academic or ethical method. According to Baden and Moss’s book, much of the 40,000-object collection was acquired without doing the necessary work to ascertain the objects’ provenance: i.e., the chain of ownership.
When it comes to antiquities, particularly from the Middle East, provenance is particularly vital for ethical as well as scholarly reasons. Knowing the chain of ownership of an item is necessary to ensure that it has not been smuggled or looted — especially important given that the black market in antiquities is a huge source of funds for terrorists organizations like ISIS. It also helps protect against acquiring objects that may turn out to be forgeries, which is a common risk.
But the Greens, and their unorthodox initial choice for museum director, Steve Carroll (who horrified careful archaeologists everywhere by dissolving an Egyptian mummy mask in Palmolive oil to see if there might be any valuable textual fragments incorporated into the wrapping), didn’t necessarily have either the scholarly training, or the inclination to be cautious. One of their particularly scroll fragments, an Egyptian early Christian fragment written in Coptic, may have been purchased on eBay from a seller who had not provided the objects’ provenance, and whose sale may have been illegal due to Egypt’s strict antiquities exporting laws.
Earlier this summer, that recklessness caught up with the Greens. In July, Hobby Lobby admitted to having illegally imported ancient Near Eastern cuneiform tablets — labeled, somewhat unconvincingly, as “spare tiles” — to Hobby Lobby stores in 2010 and 2011 and agreed to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit the antiquities in question. The antiquities were almost certainly intended for the Green collection and, ultimately, for the museum. At the time, they characterized it as part of the museum’s growing pains: “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.” Meanwhile, questions abound about other Dead Sea Scrolls in the collection, some of which may very well be forgeries.
It’s fair to characterize some of the Greens’ early approach as an underestimation of the “complexities of the acquisitions process.” In their defense, they replaced Carroll with the museum’s current director, David Trobisch, a New Testament scholar who had previously taught at Yale Divinity School, and appointed an interfaith board of well-regarded scholars in an advisory capacity.
But it’s important to note that, despite the high profiles of many of the academics on that panel, their role is largely advisory. They are paid to offer their expertise (and, perhaps more pertinently, the legitimacy of their names), but the Green family is not obligated to listen. Likewise, while many are eminent scholars and theologians in their own right, they are not specialists in papyrology (nor, for that matter, is Trobisch, whose background is in New Testament theology).
The Greens’ approach to scholarship hasn’t been exactly scholarly
Questions of provenance and authenticity of biblical documents — cinematic as they are — may be obscuring a wider question of general academic approach. In one of the most striking revelations in their book, Moss and Baden reveal that the Green-funded scholars program, the Green Scholars Institution, served to attempt to recruit often-unqualified, untrained, but religiously sympathetic students and faculty to do work (such as analyzing papyri fragments) for the museum.
The idea, according to Moss and Baden, was to prepare a new generation of scholars to work in biblical studies, a laudable goal. But in practice, it meant providing time, funds, and priceless artifacts to those unable to recognize or make the most of what they had been given.
For example, Jennifer Larsen, a Classics professor (whose research specialty is sexuality in Ancient Greece, not anything related to papyrology) at Kent State University was chosen to transcribe a Greek fragment from the Green collection with her students, who, according to Moss and Baden, didn’t even read Greek. Moss and Baden report that “secular” scholars were often labeled by Green as anti-Bible — for holding views that were roughly consistent with a great deal of typical, rigorous biblical scholarship.
In 2013, Moss and Baden report, Green gave a speech before the conservative-leaning Council for National Policy, explaining that he sought out scholars who would simply “present the evidence without being adversarial,” accusing some scholars working on materials and texts that seemed to conflict with biblical accounts of “making that up.”
From early reports of the museum’s content, it seems that the museum today appears an uneasy patchwork of the Greens’ original idea and the influence of the more methodical scholars they have consulted. An exhibition in the “Impact” section shows the different ways in which the Bible has been used, for example, to both justify and oppose slavery in America: The Museum features one version of the King James Bible provided to enslaved people — with passages that were seen to encourage rebellion against unjust authority conveniently — alongside artifacts from the Christian abolitionist movement. Such an exhibit shows the profound diversity of the ways in which the Bible has been used politically, and the willingness of people to read into the text precisely what they want to.
But elsewhere, on floors devoted to the history of the Ancient Near East, scholarship seems to come second to ideology. In a room dedicated to the Exodus narrative (in which Moses led the Jews out of exile in Egypt), there is absolutely no mention of the fact that almost no reputable scholar believes such an exile, or exodus, ever occurred, even as other plaques with (authentic) historical information about Ancient Egypt serve to imply that the exhibit is therefore historical in nature. A casual viewer could easily come away with the impression that the Egyptian exile and exodus were, in fact, historical events.
The handling of the Green Scholars Institute shows a profound disrespect for academic inquiry
This uneven tone may reflect the Green family’s somewhat haphazard approach to collaborating with scholars.
When I attended a press event at the museum earlier this year, the various scholars and experts on the board, including the University of Leicester’s Gordon Campbell, an expert in the history of the King James Bible, emphasized the serious scholarly nature of their mission: to help visitors to the museum understand the Bible’s cultural and historical significance in a systematic way. “[We’ve got to] trick people into reading the Bible in the same way you trick people into reading Shakespeare,” said Campbell then, referring to the Bible’s importance in any comprehensive study of the humanities, “it’s good for them!"
But the ways in which Campbell thinks the Bible is “good for” students may not be the same way in which the Green family thinks the Bible is good for them.
What is so galling about the examples in Moss and Baden’s book, and about the Museum of the Bible’s struggles more broadly, is that they show the profound ignorance, on the part of the Green family and those who have enabled them, of the way academia — and the humanities more generally — actually works.
In my own theological studies at both the undergraduate and doctoral level was taught in a variety of Bible-related disciplines — from archaeology of ancient Israel to New Testament criticism to Byzantine history and theology — by a variety of professors from a variety of religious traditions. Some were avowed atheists. Some were Jesuit priests. What they all shared was an understanding of how to ask appropriate questions about the materials — be they fragments of texts, the ruins of a house in Jerusalem, or complete documents — within their contexts. How does this item and the way it has been constructed reflect its time and place? Who made it and why? What does it tell us about the needs of the community it is for?
None of these questions are in the least adversarial. Rather, they are collaborative: seeking to engage with texts and ideas (like, say, those of the Bible) precisely because they are a vital part of Western history.
One example suffices to explain why the Greens’ conception of “adversarial” is directly at odds with an authentically scholarly museum. In 2012, regarded Harvard academic Karen King reportedly discovered a papyrus fragment that seemed to suggest that some early Christian groups believed that Jesus may have had a wife. After the piece drew support from scholars, King later learned it was a forgery and had to retract her work on the fragment.
Moss and Baden report Green speaking publicly about his horror about King’s fragment before it was proven to be a forgery,
Yet in so doing, Green made a fundamental mistake. He conflated the value of an artifact, the significance of its content, and the veracity of that content.
Let’s say the artifact were genuine. What would a newly discovered, verifiably ancient piece of papyrus saying “Jesus had a wife” actually mean, and how might a museum conceivably showcase it?
Well, it wouldn’t mean Jesus had a wife, nor would it mean Jesus didn’t have a wife. It would have meant, at some point after the death of Jesus, people were talking about whether he had a wife or not. It might have illustrated debate in early Christian communities about the nature and meaning of marriage. It might mean that a splinter group of early Christians who did believe this, existed in isolation. It might mean that some random guy at some period in time was just making a joke. In other words, just because there is a piece of paper making a claim, does not mean it is accurate, even if that piece of paper is very old and that thing is very exciting.
A museum with hypothetical access to such a document might, for example, choose to feature it in an exhibit about early Christianity, alongside other papyrus fragments dealing with other debates going on at the time. Such an approach would highlight the level of internal debate among a community that had not yet solidified its faith into a formal religion. Or they might choose to highlight it alongside other “heretical” ideas from across history, showing that Christianity has never been a monolith, and that many self-professed Christians had beliefs at odds with official doctrine.
In each case, a museum’s choice to display an item in its context is also a choice about how to engage authentically and methodically with that item.
The Museum of the Bible’s approach shows why we need the humanities
The problem with Green’s overall approach is that, as the museum’s founder, he has a say in the narrative of the museum, which transcends any individual object in the collection. That narrative — the placement of objects, the choice to group certain objects together, and so on — will determine a viewer’s experience or understanding of them.
Realistically, many if not most visitors to the museum won’t have a strong background in biblical history, theology, or related fields, making it difficult to discern where history ends and ideology begins. If they don’t already know, for example, that there is little historical evidence for the Egyptian exile, they may be convinced by the museum’s convenient placement of accurate historical information about ancient Egypt alongside the biblical account of Moses. They might come away thinking that the museum proves that Moses’s exodus happened just like it’s written in the Bible.
If they do so, it is because they have been failed — not just by the Museum of the Bible — but by educational institutions that have not equipped them with the tools with which to assess it. In the public imagination, the humanities have been so routinely undervalued. We have a vague cultural respect for “hard” science, for “STEM subjects,” but not for the humanities, which teach us to ask crucial questions like, Who is making this assertion? Who made this item? Why? or even, Why did someone decide to group all the objects in this museum exhibition together? These questions all fundamentally boil down to one bigger question: How can I tell when something someone is telling me is bullshit?
Without these questions, you end up with a population without the tools to process information about the intersection of faith, religion, history, identity, culture, and practice. You end up with people throughout the political and faith spectrums who, when it comes to anything to do with even the cultural or historical aspects religion, cannot tell valid questions and facts and historical truths from, well, bullshit.
The very approach of the Greens — from their scattershot approach to archaeological provenance to their seeming inability to tell a papyrologist from a textual critic to their dislike of “adversarial” scholars — suggests that they have little to no interest in educating themselves about these questions.
Which is a shame, because these are exactly the questions we, as a society, need to learn how to ask.
If only there were a place we could go! A place where we could learn about the history and cultures of the different eras that each contributed to the formation of the Bible as we know it today? A place where ordinary people and keen students and even schoolchildren could learn about some of the methods that go into making scholarly decisions about when something was written, especially when that something has influenced so much of human history? A place where we could understand the different ways in which the Bible has been interpreted and disseminated throughout human history? Where important artifacts are presented to us with thought-provoking commentary that helps us understand the bigger picture.
Like, say, a museum?