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An Illegal Archeological Dig in the West Bank Raises Questions About the Museum of the Bible

The Museum of the Bible has been funding a number of scholarly projects, including an illegal excavation in the West Bank that will certainly influence how the public understands the Bible and the ancient world.

Cliff at Qumran with entrance to “12th Dead Sea Scroll” cave during excavation, January 2017 (photograph by Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld, via the Hebrew University)

The Green family’s evangelical Museum of the Bible has been funding a number of scholarly projects, including an illegal excavation in the West Bank. This funding could potentially influence the direction of biblical scholarship and will certainly influence how the public understands the Bible and the ancient world.

The Museum of the Bible is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization directed by Steve Green, president of the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts store chain. As a registered nonprofit, the museum is exempt from income taxes but is required to file a Form 990 with the IRS, to justify its tax-exempt status and to provide the public with information about its finances. (These forms are available online from various websites, such as ProPublica.)

On its latest Form 990, for fiscal year 2016–2017, the Museum of the Bible reported a grant of $20,000 to World of the Bible Ministries of San Marcos, Texas, to “fund excavation and restoration efforts of Qumran cave complex in Israel [sic].” World of the Bible Ministries is run by Liberty University professor Randall Price, who co-directed an excavation in January 2017 at Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, with Oren Gutfeld of Hebrew University. This excavation made headlines worldwide for its claimed discovery of a twelfth Dead Sea Scrolls cave at Qumran. (The project continued with excavation of a nearby cave in January 2018.)

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in eleven caves at Qumran over the 1940s and 1950s, initially by Bedouin and later by archaeological excavators. The scrolls are of immense significance for the light they shed on early Judaism and Christianity: they contain many previously unknown texts written by and describing a religious sect living at Qumran, as well as the earliest surviving copies (some in fragments, some largely complete) of every book of the Hebrew Bible, or Christian Old Testament. Important research continues to be conducted on the scrolls by American, Canadian, European, and Israeli scholars.

Given the immense cultural, religious, and symbolic significance of the scrolls to so many people, it is not surprising that there have been decades of argument over who is their legitimate owner. Today, most of the scrolls are currently housed in the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem, with a few dozen in the Jordan Museum in Amman. Smaller numbers (many thought to be forgeries) are held by individuals or institutions in Europe and the United States. Israel claims a right to the scrolls because they are ancient Jewish manuscripts, but Christianity and Islam are also heirs to ancient Jewish tradition. In any case, religious or cultural ties do not translate easily to national ownership, and in fact the legal regime governing cultural heritage is based primarily in the idea of national sovereignty over the point of origin of that heritage. Because of the complicated modern history of the West Bank, where Qumran is located, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine all make claims.

Blank scroll fragment found in the cave (photograph by Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld, via the Hebrew University)

When the first scrolls were discovered, Qumran was part of British Mandate Palestine; when the remaining scrolls were discovered it was part of the Jordanian occupied West Bank. Since 1967, it has been occupied by Israel. Neither Israel’s nor Jordan’s sovereignty over the West Bank has been recognized by the international community, however. Some scrolls held by Israel were purchased in legal transactions in the years immediately following their discovery. Many others, however, were transferred out of the West Bank, from the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem to the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem, after Israel’s capture of the West Bank in 1967. In one notorious case, Yigael Yadin — a prominent archaeologist at Hebrew University — used his position as temporary military advisor to the prime minister to send a military intelligence unit to Bethlehem during the 1967 war to raid a dealer’s house and confiscate one of the best preserved scrolls, the Temple Scroll, which Yadin proceeded to study and publish. These transfers are a violation of the first protocol of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (to which Israel is a party), which calls on member states to prevent the removal of cultural heritage from occupied territory.

Like the ownership of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the legitimacy of archaeology in the West Bank has been constantly in question since 1967. In the last half-century, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Staff Officer for Archaeology of the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria (the military government that rules the West Bank outside of East Jerusalem) have conducted or licensed excavations at hundreds of sites in the West Bank. The 1954 Hague Convention severely restricts the archaeological activity that can be conducted in occupied territory, limiting it to salvage work where ancient remains are in danger, and then only to be conducted in cooperation with authorities from the occupied territory. But Israeli excavations in the West Bank — like the Museum of the Bible-funded Qumran dig — are routinely conducted unilaterally, without any Palestinian involvement. This means that all of these excavations, including the one at Qumran, are in violation of international law. There are also ethical questions about the use of archaeology, intentionally or not, to stake claim to Palestinian land and provide evidence of ancient Jewish presence there.

Nor is this the first time that archaeological work at Qumran has been politically problematic. In November 1993, the Israel Antiquities Authority undertook an extensive survey and excavation project in the caves around the Dead Sea. Called “Operation Scroll,” this project started merely a month before the Israeli army was to begin withdrawing from the area of Jericho — inevitably leading to accusations from Palestinian and international commenters of a last-minute antiquities grab on the way out. The January 2018 project was said to be part of a new Operation Scroll, but so far the only known activities involve excavations in two caves. The publicity for the new project, like the first Operation Scroll, insists that this is an urgent matter, a race against looters for new scrolls. But it has identified only one scroll cave, on the basis of a blank fragment rather than actual written scrolls, and with clear evidence that the cave had been looted 60 years earlier.

(Last year, Al Jazeera reported — based on a Form 990 for fiscal year 2015–2016 — that the Museum of the Bible was funding “settlement archaeology” in the West Bank. However, while the grants do involve at least one West Bank settlement, they have no known connection to excavations in settlements or elsewhere in the West Bank. The twelfth cave excavation at Qumran is therefore the first West Bank excavation known to be funded by the Greens. It was already known that the Museum of the Bible had a relationship with this project, since Fox News reported in February 2017 that the museum’s president Cary Summers was “volunteering” on the excavation. The Form 990 is the first proof that the relationship involves funding.)

A provenanced Aramaic magic bowl (1889) University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, excavated at Nippur (now in Iraq) (photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons)

It is not merely the Museum of the Bible’s funding of a West Bank excavation that is ethically dubious, however. There is also the matter of whom they are funding. Randall Price, the recipient of the grant and co-director of the excavation, is Distinguished Research Professor at Liberty University, founded by prominent televangelist and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell. Price is the main figure profiled in a February 2013 Atlantic article entitled “The Biblical Pseudo-Archaeologists Pillaging the West Bank.” As the Atlantic piece indicated, Price (who has also taken part in an expedition to look for Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat in Turkey) and evangelicals like him might have difficulty receiving permits to dig within Israel proper, but he has been able to dig at Qumran over many years because of looser restrictions within the West Bank licensing system.

The sponsorship of the Qumran excavation is part of a trend of the Museum of the Bible increasingly funding of projects involving ancient artifacts and texts. While the museum has publicly announced several of these “collaborative projects,” there has been little public discussion of the money involved. Over the five fiscal years between 2012–2013 and 2016–2017, the museum provided more than $2 million for scholarly research and publication to American individuals and organizations (including American branches of foreign organizations). Combined with direct funding of foreign organizations, the total amount surpasses $3 million. Within the academic study of the Bible and the ancient Near East, these are large sums of money, and they are rapidly increasing: over half of this money was awarded in the last fiscal year. The majority of the money has gone to research connected with the Museum of the Bible’s collection, or to conservative Christian institutions, or both. These institutions include Wheaton College ($775,000 over the last three fiscal years) for the excavation project it conducts on behalf of the museum at Tel Shimron, Israel; Azusa Pacific University ($63,000 over the last three fiscal years), at least partly for “biblical research and identification of connections with items in museum’s collection”; Abilene Christian University ($28,533 in the last fiscal year) and Tyndale House Cambridge ($222,386 in the last fiscal year) for study of the museum’s Codex Climaci Rescriptus; and $163,470 in 2016–2017 to the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (whose associate director, Josephine Dru, was until fall of 2016 the Museum of the Bible’s curator of papyri) — for multispectral imaging of Codex Climaci Rescriptus and other items in the collection.

However, other grants over the previous five years are notable for work on academic projects not directly connected with the museum’s collection: $72,000 for publication of excavations at Tel Miqne-Ekron in Israel; $90,000 to the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, a nonprofit that has funded the scholarly publication of the scrolls since 1991. At the University of Exeter, the Museum of the Bible has funded a Ph.D. student under the direction of Professor Siam Bhayro to study Aramaic incantation bowls from late antique Iraq in the longstanding collection of the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. And in 2016–17 the Museum of the Bible reported a grant of $38,413 to the university to publish the Aramaic magic bowls in the Museum of the Bible’s own collection. Already by 2011, the Green Collection claimed to have the “second-largest holding of incantation bowls in the world.” However, most Aramaic incantation bowls are unprovenanced, and hundreds suddenly appeared on the market starting in the early 1990s, apparently looted in the aftermath of the Gulf War. If the Greens acquired such a large collection within a mere two years (it is widely reported that they began collecting artifacts and manuscripts in 2009), it is almost certain that they must have acquired unprovenanced items looted and smuggled out of Iraq — in violation not only of Iraq’s antiquities laws but also of a UN Security Council resolution.

Besides funding institutions, the Museum of the Bible also reports grants to individuals — most of which are non-itemized scholarships. One grant, however, is itemized in some detail: in 2016–2017, the museum awarded $225,311 to an unnamed individual as a “research grant for Early Christian Lives, Proteus/Ancient Lives, and Imaging Papyri projects as well as establishing a research center.” All of these projects involve the Oxyrhynchus papyri, the largest group of papyrus documents from the ancient world. They consist of fragments of several hundred thousand texts from an ancient garbage dump at the site of Oxyrhynchus (modern Al Bahnasa) in Egypt. Most of the papyri were found in excavations at the site in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, conducted on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) in the U.K. The Museum of the Bible purchased several Oxyrhynchus papyri that had been gifted to American institutions in the early 20th century and later deaccessioned. However, most of the papyri from the site are still owned by the EES and housed at the University of Oxford.

Oxyrhynchus papyrus (also known as Papyrus 39), a third-century fragment of the Gospel of John (with John 8:14-22); now in the collection of the Museum of the Bible (screenshot from Museum of the Bible video “The Oxyrhynchus Hymn”)

The unnamed individual who received the grant from the Museum of the Bible is presumably Dirk Obbink, an American-born papyrologist currently at the University of Oxford. Obbink is the principal investigator for all of the projects named on the Form 990. Obbink’s relationship with the museum has been public for years, though the exact nature of it has never been clear. Obbink is listed as Papyrus Series editor for the museum’s publications with the prominent Dutch academic publisher Brill, and has been paid by the museum as a consultant, but in comments to Megan Gannon of Live Science in 2015, Obbink suggested that the Greens had more direct control over his work. Unlike many other collaborations, this arrangement was never made public — there is no press release on the Museum of the Bible website. It was also unusual in that the grant was made to an individual rather than an institution. (In a statement to Hyperallergic, the EES declared that “the EES has not, and has never had, any arrangement of any kind with the Museum of the Bible.”)

This funding arrangement may shed some light on the issue of the rumored “First Century Mark.” Starting in 2012, rumors circulated among biblical scholars of a fragment of the New Testament Gospel of Mark dating to the first century CE. This rumored First Century Mark would be significant as the earliest known version of the text, and one dating shortly after the book would have been written (it is generally dated by scholars sometime in the middle decades of the first century CE). It was thought that the Green family owned or was trying to purchase this fragment, but no firm evidence was ever put forward about this. Last month, the EES posted a note about a recently published Oxyrhynchus papyrus, confirming that this was in fact the rumored First Century Mark — except that it dated to the late second or early third century, and was owned not by the Museum of the Bible but by the EES. The publication of the fragment was edited by Dirk Obbink. The Museum of the Bible’s funding of Obbink’s Oxyrhynchus projects might have some bearing on puzzling aspects of the case, such as why it was believed that the fragment was owned by the Museum of the Bible. (If in fact the Green family is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars funding Oxyrhynchus-related research, then they may have a proprietary attitude toward that research even if they do not own the fragments themselves.)

Why does all of this matter? The Museum of the Bible is an evangelical Christian institution. Its original mission statement, on its first Form 990 given in 2011, declared that the museum’s goal is “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.” While this has since been modified, and the museum is careful to check its displays with consultants to remove language of exclusivity, there is still an implicit Christian — and particularly Protestant — bias throughout the museum’s narrative. The museum and Green maintain that they want to be “nonsectarian” and “let the facts speak for themselves,” but the museum’s own exhibitions undermine these claims. In its walls the Bible is understood first and foremost as the Christian Bible; Jews are just bystanders in a Christian world, or else they are props. And the Bible is seen as historically correct, without nuance.

With its increasing funding of scholarly projects in biblical studies and related fields, the museum has increasing power in determining the direction of that scholarship — what material is studied and what isn’t, and how that material is analyzed. Perhaps even more significantly, the museum will become the main way in which millions of people interact with biblical scholarship. The public will get a distorted view of what biblical scholarship actually does, or should do. And, through the museum’s various collaborations, its vision of the Bible is one that is increasingly endorsed, even if implicitly, by academic scholars. Then there is the museum’s willingness, even eagerness, to acquire and fund the study of unprovenanced antiquities. Most of these items are probably either forged or stolen. Their acquisition has involved the violation of the antiquities and customs laws of several countries as well as of international law. And these objects have often been looted from war zones, where their purchase funds continued violence.

If there is a battle between Museum of the Bible funding and scholarly ethics in the study of the ancient world, then it appears that the money is winning. Hands down.

Editor’s note and correction: The article previously claimed that the Museum of the Bible was partnering with Siam Bhayro and his students on the publication of the Vorderasiatisches Museum collection. Siam Bhayro has clarified to Hyperallergic that the MOTB has provided a scholarship for a single student to study material in this collection; otherwise, Exeter’s research on this collection has received public funding. The MOTB previously included the “Aramaic Magic Bowls Project” (a project to publish the Vorderasiatisches Museum collection) on its Collaborative Projects page, but since the time of writing the Aramaic Magic Bowls Project has been removed from that page. Meanwhile, Bhayro refused to say whether or not he has received funding from the Museum of the Bible to study the Aramaic magic bowls in its own collection.

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