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As the New Museum of the Bible Opens, Questions About its Scholarship Remain

The Museum of the Bible has the potential to reach a much greater audience than any individual scholar and there is real concern that it will selectively use scholarship to promote an evangelical Protestant view of the Bible and religion.

A cuneiform tablet forfeited by Hobby Lobby (via the United States Department of Justice)

WASHINGTON, DC — “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This passage marks the beginning of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. It also marks the entrance to the Museum of the Bible, opening November 17 in Washington, DC. The doors of the museum are flanked by two, 40-foot bronze panels recreating the printing beds for the opening chapter of Genesis from the Gutenberg Bible, the first mass-produced Bible. Monumental text appears to be a common display strategy in museums. In another museum opening this month, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, artist Jenny Holzer has created an installation of inscribed stone panels — with passages from the Mesopotamian creation myth, the medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, and the French philosopher Montaigne’s Essais. Like Holzer’s panels, the Gutenberg gates testify to the power of the word.

But what word, exactly, are they a testament to? The Bible is a central text for multiple religious traditions. However, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish traditions — let alone Eastern Orthodox, Ethiopian Christian (and Jewish), and others typically less familiar to us in the West — do not agree on just what the Bible is, which books are properly included, their order, their precise contents, or even how they are divided into chapter and verse. Just whose Bible(s) will be presented at this museum? Will it provide an academic approach to the Bible or a religious one — will it be a museum about the Bible or a museum celebrating it?

The museum is just one of several Bible-related initiatives sponsored by the Green family, the owners of the Hobby Lobby chain. These initiatives have received piecemeal reporting over the last few years, but are discussed together and in greater depth by biblical scholars Candida Moss and Joel Baden in their book Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, published this October. As Moss and Baden demonstrate, these other Bible-related ventures — an Israel tour for students, a Bible curriculum, and more — reflect not just a Christian engagement with the Bible, but specifically an evangelical Protestant engagement. This means that these ventures emphasize the complete historical accuracy of the Bible (its inerrancy) and focus on proselytism. This is not surprising, since the Greens themselves are famously evangelical. For many years they have been at the forefront of Christian philanthropy in the US.

The Ark Encounter (all photos by and courtesy Riley Hay)
The Ark Encounter (photograph by and courtesy Riley Hay)

Unlike other evangelical Christian educational projects, like the Creation Museum or the Ark Encounter, or the many touring exhibitions, or local Bible museums that dot the country, the Museum of the Bible is not geared solely or even primarily toward other evangelicals. It is located not in the Bible belt, but in Washington, DC, a mere two blocks from the National Mall. The museum and its collection feature collaboration with several scholars from the secular academy. Leading biblical scholars and papyrologists, like Emanuel Tov of Hebrew University and Dirk Obbink of Oxford, are working on the museum’s ancient texts. The museum is sponsoring a major excavation at the site of Tel Shimron in Israel; Moss and Baden report that the Greens have committed $4 million to this project. The Museum of the Bible has also partnered with several other major institutions, and will include exhibits with material from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Vatican, the Louvre, and the State Archive of Rome ], as well as scholarly libraries from the Bodleian at Oxford to the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Some experts worry how the Green family’s sponsorship may affect the analysis and conclusions of scholars affiliated with these projects. This is a serious issue, but I believe the greater concern is one of legitimation. The Museum of the Bible has the potential to reach a much greater audience — and have a much deeper impact on society’s understanding of the Bible — than any individual scholar can dream of. Based on preliminary information on the museum brought to light by Moss and Baden, there is a real concern that the museum will use scholarship selectively to promote a Christian (and specifically evangelical Protestant) view of the Bible and religion. And that background scholarship might give a potentially evangelical project the veneer of objectivity.

How will these issues be reflected in the presentation of the museum itself? Steve Green has asked that critics wait to view the museum before passing judgment.) He is correct. “It is unfair,” Moss and Baden themselves admit, “to criticize the shape and contents of a museum that no one has yet seen.” But one thing we can consider is the nature of its collection.

Despite the various displays created in partnership with other institutions, the core of the museum’s collection comes from Hobby Lobby. The museum and Hobby Lobby are legally separate organizations, but both are run by the Green family. The Greens began purchasing antiquities and biblical manuscripts eight years ago, and quickly amassed a collection of an estimated 40,000 objects. Experts have warned that it would be difficult to (legally) acquire such a large collection in so short a time due to issues of provenance. With antiquities, as with works of art, provenance is key — not just for determining the authenticity of an object, but also for assuring that a purchase is legal. (Many nations — including most in West Asia — have prohibited private ownership and export of antiquities for decades.) For antiquities, provenance involves both a legal origin, usually an excavation, and a legal chain of custody. It governs how researchers and museums engage responsibly and ethically with artifacts. But there are serious questions about the Greens’ collection.

This year we have seen not one, but two, different legal cases involving Hobby Lobby and their acquisition of artifacts. In the first, the U.S. Department of Justice determined that Hobby Lobby had smuggled more than 5,000 artifacts, mostly cuneiform tablets and clay sealings, into the country. The artifacts were falsely declared “tile samples” (with an ascribed value of a few hundred dollars) on several shipping labels and invoices, and the Greens were not able to provide a valid provenance for these artifacts. In a settlement, the Greens agreed to forfeit more than 3,000 objects and pay a sum of $3 million. Steve Green and Museum of the Bible president Cary Summers have both pleaded innocence, suggesting that merely improper paperwork and inexperience were at fault. It should go without saying, however, that these illegal actions violate general museum standards.

The Green collection’s problem with unprovenanced artifacts is not confined to this example, either. Moss and Baden highlight some other questionable items: thirteen Dead Sea Scroll fragments, some or all of which are likely modern forgeries; an early papyrus fragment of the New Testament book of Galatians which had its earliest known public appearance on eBay. But, as they suggest, this is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the case of the “world’s oldest Jewish prayer book (siddur).” The Greens have given it great prominence: it was shown to Benjamin Netanyahu before being unveiled at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem in 2014. But its provenance is unknown, and other institutions avoided purchasing it for years because of this. And indeed, initial scholarly analysis suggests that, while the pages are likely authentic, they may have been authored by different people at different times and only combined together much more recently (presumably because these separate texts would be worth more combined into the purported “world’s oldest siddur”).

It is difficult to determine exactly how prevalent unprovenanced artifacts are in the Museum of the Bible’s collection, because of the museum’s lack of transparency to date. This failure to disclose provenance is typical of private collections. But most private collections are not the centerpiece of a major museum.

The second legal case has received much less attention, but is equally serious as the first. Less than a month after the Justice Department case was resolved, five Israeli antiquities dealers were arrested on charges of tax evasion and money laundering. The dealers had, over a period of five years, issued false receipts and invoices for $20 million of antiquities purchases to an American buyer — ultimately named as Hobby Lobby. Among these antiquities were artifacts that Hobby Lobby forfeited in the Justice Department settlement. The false receipts allowed both Hobby Lobby to smuggle the artifacts into the United States, and the dealers to avoid paying taxes on millions of dollars of unreported sales.

A leaf of Codex Climaci Rescriptus from the Museum Collection, on display in Oklahoma City in 2011
(photograph by Denysmonroe81 via Wikimedia Commons)

As it turns out, tax schemes are a notable part of the Green family’s business model. Moss and Baden document at length how many of the Greens’ purchases (not just antiquities, but also things like real estate) are ultimately intended for donation to charity. In fact, the Greens have developed a formula for purchasing antiquities based on the ratio of appraised value to purchase price (3:1) to insure a large profit when they write off the donation for taxes. This sort of donation is common in the art world. But what makes the Greens’ donations unusual is that they are donating the bulk of their collection to the Museum of the Bible, the museum they founded and are running. That is, the Greens are collecting huge profits by donating artifacts to themselves. Remarkably, this scheme is (as far as I know) perfectly legal, although it is ethically dubious. And the Greens’ donations allow for laundering of artifacts. Hobby Lobby was only forced to relinquish some 3,000 of the 5,000-plus smuggled artifacts involved in the Justice Department investigation. The rest, about 2,000 artifacts, could not be seized by authorities, even though they had been smuggled into the country, because Hobby Lobby had donated them and so no longer legally owned them. It is not certain to whom Hobby Lobby donated the artifacts, but the likeliest answer is the Museum of the Bible. In other words, the Greens were able to keep these artifacts because they had donated them to themselves. These facts make it increasingly difficult to believe protestations of innocence from Steve Green and Museum of the Bible staff.

This difficulty is especially apparent when we consider the Greens’ recent activities. Moss and Baden note that Hobby Lobby has purchased artifacts at a much slower rate over the last five years. But they have not stopped. Recent reporting on the museum collection’s purported Dead Sea Scroll fragments referred to three additional fragments not included in last year’s publication — three fragments not previously mentioned anywhere. Despite the scandals, despite the likelihood of forgery, despite the likelihood of illegal activities associated with unprovenanced artifacts, it seems that the Greens are continuing to purchase them.

If you go to the Museum of the Bible, pay attention to what story of the Bible the museum tells. Is it inclusive? Is it academic? Above all, pay close attention to provenance. When you look at an artifact, remember to ask “Where is this from?” and “How did this get here?” We can only hope, now that the museum is officially opening, it is more forthcoming with answers.

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