clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hobby Lobby got caught smuggling Iraqi antiquities, probably for its enormous new Bible Museum

The Christian craft behemoth is returning 5,500 artifacts it imported as “samples.”

Cuneiform tablets retrieved from Hobby Lobby
Credit: DOJ

It sounds like the misbegotten plot of an Indiana Jones movie: a fiercely evangelical Christian corporation comes under fire for smuggling priceless — but illegally obtained — artifacts into the United States in order to build a Bible museum, and potentially funding Islamic terrorism in the process.

But that’s more or less what happened Wednesday night, when the Department of Justice announced that the United States was formally filing a civil action to force Christian craft store chain Hobby Lobby to forfeit thousands of Iraqi artifacts it had obtained without the necessary clearance. As a result of the suit, Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit all of the artifacts in question — obtained in 2010 and 2011 — and pay a $3 million fine.

For those who have been keeping track of the goings-on at Hobby Lobby — the family-owned craft store chain that fought to not provide employees with contraception before the Supreme Court — this news hardly comes as a surprise. As early as 2011, investigators have been seizing shipments of “sample tiles” — Iraqi artifacts — to various Hobby Lobby offices or affiliates. These “samples” turned out to be priceless cuneiform tablets. In late 2015, the Daily Beast reported that there was an ongoing federal investigation into Hobby Lobby’s antiquities imports dating back at least to 2010.

The antiquities in question were likely intended for the Museum of the Bible: a multi-million-dollar, 430,000-square-foot behemoth set to open in November in Washington, DC, just off the National Mall. Funded by the Green family, Hobby Lobby’s owners, the museum is the most public example of what the Greens have repeatedly characterized in the press as Hobby Lobby’s “ministry”: using the profits gleaned from the business to share Christian ideals with the world.

In the past, this ministry has taken on a number of less bombastic forms: The Greens have placed newspaper ads reminding readers of the “real meaning” of Christmas, and have supported Christian institutions like Oral Roberts University, to which they donated $70 million. But the museum takes their ministry to another level.

The creation of the Museum of the Bible has been the Greens’ greatest challenge yet. It’s involved not just significant financial investment but also forced the family to contend with decades of established Biblical and archaeological scholarship — and a tightly regulated antiquities market often marred by looting and theft. Collecting has forced the Greens to take a crash course not just in Christian virtue but in academic ethics.

Building a museum collection can contribute to shady practices

Flush with Hobby Lobby cash, Steve Green quickly amassed one of the world's most extraordinary collection of Bible-related artifacts starting in 2009, a year before setting up the museum as a nonprofit. The collection of an estimated 40,000 items includes early translations of the Bible into English, pieces of the Dead Sea Scroll, and Torahs salvaged from Nazi destruction.

But museum scholars and archeologists have questioned the handling of some of these items, particularly antiquities from the Middle East. Legally and ethically, would-be buyers of antiquities are required to do due diligence when it comes to the items’ origins: essentially, ensuring that they are not buying stolen or unethically acquired goods. This is, in part, based on the idea that paying for the acquisition of stolen goods drives up looting and theft. In areas like Iraq, conflict has already made archaeological sites vulnerable. For example, ISIS and other militant organizations have reportedly developed looted antiquities as an income stream of up to $200 million a year.

The Greens, by all reports, seem to have done the barest minimum of due diligence. According to the Daily Beast article, the Greens met with Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor and cultural heritage specialist at DePaul University, as early as summer 2010 to discuss the ethical handling of their various sales. In October of that year, according to the DOJ report, the Greens retained an “expert on cultural property” (it’s unclear if this was also Gerstenblith) who warned them of the importance of due diligence.

Yet they proceeded with the sale anyway: 5,500 Iraqi artifacts, mostly clay bullae and cuneiform tablets, for $1.6 million. According to the DOJ report, Hobby Lobby did not communicate with or pay the owner directly; instead wiring money to seven different personal bank accounts to unidentified individuals. They misled customs officials as to the value and contents of the shipments, identifying them as “sample tiles” and identifying their country of origin falsely as Turkey and Italy.

Hobby Lobby has framed its actions as an unintentional oversight. In a statement released Thursday morning, Hobby Lobby said, "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. The Company imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items. However, since learning of these errors, the Company has been an active participant with the government’s investigation and supports its efforts to protect the world’s ancient heritage.”

It’s unclear whether Hobby Lobby has mended its ways

Such a statement would seem to contradict the Daily Beast and DOJ reports of Hobby Lobby’s extensive briefing. But it’s worth noting that the Greens’ approach to their Museum of the Bible has become more methodical — and even scholarly — since the date of the alleged crimes.

As art historian Noah Charney points out in the Washington Post, the museum’s somewhat unorthodox previous director Steve Carroll — who made museum curators everywhere wince by dissolving an Egyptian mummy mask in Palmolive oil to try to get to any textual fragments incorporated into the wrapping — left the museum in 2012.

Scholars like Manchester University’s Roberta Mazza have been consistently highlighting the danger of the Green family’s haphazard approach, from purchasing objects that had appeared (illegally) on eBay to Carroll’s Palmolive effect.

But last year, the museum hired his replacement, director David Trobisch, a former Yale professor and New Testament scholar who is well-respected in the secular world of academic Biblical scholarship.

Charney, who shared with Vox a preview of his forthcoming updated Salon article on the museum, wrote in the piece that Trobisch seemed to take Mazza’s concerns seriously, attending her panel about the Greens at a conference of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) shortly after becoming director.

“I came away from research for that [initial Washington Post] article thoroughly impressed with Trobisch,” Charney wrote.

Meanwhile, the museum has also changed its formal mission. 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.” By 2013, that wording pared down: "We exist to invite all people to engage with the Bible.”

It was a distinct turn of events. The self-consciously “Disney-esque” theme park Green had originally envisioned — in which visitors would be given tracts and encouraged to sing “Amazing Grace” — looked like it was turning into something altogether more complex and far more necessary: a museum about the complications of uncovering one of the most influential books of all time.

Among academics in most secular institutions, after all, the conversation about Biblical history is anything but taboo. While scholars may disagree about the historical context of, say, certain passages in the book of Isaiah, most creditable Biblical scholars agree with the fact that the Bible does have contradictions, both internal (between different books and passages of the Bible) and external (plenty of archaeological evidence refutes individual Old Testament claims).

The question of historical authenticity, for Biblical scholars, is often something of a red herring. The various authors of the Bible were far less concerned with literal history than many Christians are today.

“The Bible is a mixed bag when it comes to historical accuracy,” Casey Strine, a lecturer in ancient near eastern history at Sheffield University, told Vox. “In some cases we have good evidence it is accurate and reflects historical events. In many more cases, the evidence is too spotty for us to know. ... Still, in the overwhelming majority of cases the texts in the Bible just aren't concerned with historical accuracy. The authors weren't trying to write history and they weren't worried about getting all the details correct. No matter how many things people collect, they won't show us that the Bible 'gets it right' historically because [the Bible] isn't interested in that question.”

The numerous, genre-spanning texts that comprise the book we know today as the Christian Bible — from political histories to poetic psalms to political laments — come from a variety of historical and political contexts. This doesn’t make Biblical academia a necessarily anti-religious field — plenty of academics remain practicing Christians or Jews, and find ways to understand their sacred texts within context — but it does make it a challenging, often rewarding discipline.

With Trobisch at the helm, it seemed like the Museum of the Bible was heading for a more ecumenical, academic approach; one that welcomed the multiplicity of scholarly theories as to the origins of the varied books of the Old and New Testament, and was willing to engage critically with academic standards of scholarship and, yes, ethics. And it may well be that the Greens have indeed learned from the process of working with such academics since 2010. But it remains to be seen whether, when it opens, the Museum of the Bible will respect principles of scholarship, or whether they’ll have to come up, once again, with that chestnut beloved of students everywhere: the dog ate my due diligence.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.