The Provenance Problem
Why a cloud hangs over the new Museum of the Bible
When visitors enter the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., they'll pass between two 40-foot-tall bronze slabs stamped with verses from the first chapter of Genesis. It's supposed to feel as if you're walking into the Bible itself. Inside they'll find six floors and 430,000 square feet dedicated to emphasizing the importance of the Bible's role in history and its continued relevance in modern culture. There's a 500-seat theater, a Scripture-themed flight simulator, an interactive children's section, an imaginative recreation of Jesus' hometown, a restaurant called "Manna," and a Bible-inspired garden complete with waterfall.
Not to mention biblical artifacts. Lots of them.
The museum is the passion project of Steve Green, the billionaire president of Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts chain store. In 2009, the Green family bought their first biblical manuscript (an English translation of Psalms dating to around 1400), and in the years that followed Green and his emissaries traveled throughout the Middle East and spent millions acquiring artifacts, including Torah scrolls and fragments of New Testament papyri, building a massive private collection estimated at some 40,000 items, most of which are stored in a warehouse in Oklahoma City, where Hobby Lobby is based.
The audacious buying spree drove up prices in the biblical antiquities market and, according to a 2010 New York Times article, "set dealers buzzing in the staid world of rare books."
Biblical scholars took notice as well, and started asking questions, chief among them: What exactly was Green buying, and from whom? The answers weren't forthcoming, because most of the sales happened "out-of-auction and off-book, behind closed doors," Candida Moss and Joel Baden, both biblical scholars, write in their new book, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton University Press), a deep investigative dive into how the family-run corporate giant aims to promote a view of the Bible consistent with evangelical Christianity.
The faith of the Green family became part of the national conversation when Hobby Lobby sued the federal government over certain birth-control provisions in the Affordable Care Act, a case the company took to the Supreme Court and won in 2014.
As the lawsuit was working its way through the courts, Green's biblical collection was growing exponentially. Moss, a professor of theology at the University of Birmingham, in England, and Baden, a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Yale Divinity School, document the many stumbles of that effort, and they depict Green as naïve and those around him as unqualified. Rather than reaching out to the "world's leading textual scholars," as the museum's website asserts, Green often tapped Christian academics who hadn't previously worked with ancient texts. This is less of a surprise when you discover that, in the beginning, Green saw the Museum of the Bible as an extension of his evangelical mission — at one point, he even considered passing out cards to visitors encouraging them to accept Jesus as their savior. Over time, he was persuaded that the museum would be more warmly greeted if there was an effort to appear nonsectarian.
That carelessness would come back to haunt the project. In July, the company agreed to return more than 5,000 items and pay a $3-million settlement after the Department of Justice accused Hobby Lobby of smuggling antiquities that had been taken from Iraq. It didn't help Hobby Lobby's reputation that the items, many of them cuneiform tablets, had been placed in boxes marked as tile samples and mailed to the company's headquarters. It was an embarrassment for Green, and a black eye for a half-billion-dollar museum just a few months shy of its opening.
But it was more than a passing public-relations headache. Because the Green collection consistently failed to properly account for the treasures it had purchased, the company couldn't lay its hands on many of the smuggled items. In fact, they might still be in the company's warehouse. And because nearly all the artifacts in the nonprofit museum were transferred from Green's private collection, there's a chance that the Christian Smithsonian, as it's been called, might be showing off essentially pilfered goods.
The Museum of the Bible has tried to distance itself from the debacle, asserting in a statement that the museum "was not a party to either the investigation or the settlement."
That may be technically true, but the museum and the company could hardly be more closely entwined: Steve Green is the chairman of the museum's board, and his plan all along was to purchase artifacts in order to build a Bible museum. In a statement issued after the settlement, Hobby Lobby said that those working on the collection "did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process" and therefore made "regrettable mistakes."
One of those mistakes had to do with the purchase of a fourth-century papyrus fragment, written in Coptic, from the New Testament book of Galatians. That fragment was put on display at the Vatican, along with other Green-owned pieces, as a sort of preview of the yet-to-be-built museum. Among those who saw the 2014 exhibit was Roberta Mazza, a lecturer in classics and ancient history at the University of Manchester. She wasn't impressed. "What I saw in Rome was not exciting from an academic or public point of view," she says. "It was a lot of crap, to be honest."But she did take notice of the Galatians fragment. She remembered that the fragment had been previously offered for sale by a mysterious eBay seller based in Turkey who went by the handle MixAntik. Brice Jones, a papyrologist at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, had blogged about that eBay listing in 2012, pointing out that if the artifact had been smuggled out of Egypt — which seemed likely, given that it was written in Coptic, a language native to Egypt — there would be "sensitive legal issues" involved in any potential purchase. That was a nice way to say it was probably illegally smuggled.
So how did a fragment that two years before was for sale from a dubious dealer on eBay end up in Green's Vatican exhibit?
No one knew. Or at least no one was saying. Mazza asked the company how it obtained the fragment, and she says she's never received a detailed answer. "Every time we ask for documented provenance, no piece of paper whatsoever has been provided," she says. "But you cannot say 'Oh, but I bought these from a trusted dealer' without giving proof."
Along with knotty questions about provenance, there are equally tangled questions related to authenticity. On the fourth floor of the museum, there is an impressively grand section dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient manuscripts, including from books of the Hebrew Bible, that were hidden in caves for centuries until they were stumbled on in 1947 by a Bedouin boy. For Christians, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide a chance to see the type of Bible that Jesus himself would have read. The scrolls have been among the most sought-after ancient manuscripts and can fetch millions.
Green owns at least 13 previously unpublished Dead Sea fragments. Last year an analysis of those fragments, Dead Sea Scroll Fragments in the Museum Collection (Brill), was published, becoming the first and so far only scholarly book to result from Green's collection. But a number of biblical scholars believe that most if not all of the Dead Sea fragments sold since 2001 — which would include those purchased by Green — are modern forgeries. In a recent article published in the journal Dead Sea Discoveries, Kipp Davis, a research fellow in Hebrew Bible at Trinity Western University, concluded that at least six of the 13 fragments owned by Green are almost certainly fake. He writes that an "accumulation of puzzling correspondences and alarmingly suspicious features in these fragments should at least disqualify them from discussion" as genuine artifacts.
Davis isn't just a random naysayer: He's a co-editor of the 2016 book on the 13 fragments Green owns, and currently receives research funding from the Museum of the Bible.He had doubts about the fragments from the beginning, he says, and those doubts have only gotten stronger over time. While he believes that six are clearly forgeries, he's also not sure about the other seven — they may turn out to be nothing more than slightly more clever fakes. And he's been warning the Museum of the Bible for the last year not to try to pass them off as real. "I strongly urged them that, if they intended to include texts that were modern forgeries, that they should be flagged or preferably featured as part of an exhibit on forgeries," he says. "It's disappointing if they chose to ignore the issue or minimize it."
Any questionable fragments will indeed be flagged, according to Michael Holmes, the director of the museum's Scholars Initiative. Holmes, the former chairman of biblical and theological studies at Bethel University, is a widely known scholar with a long publication record. He was brought on by the museum in 2014, according to Moss and Baden, to bring an "added veneer of scholarly credibility," a characterization Holmes doesn't deny. "I didn't have any idea what I was getting into," he says. "I've done what I can to regularize the situation." That's included, Holmes says, stopping the publication of other scholarly volumes based on the collection until issues of provenance and authenticity are resolved.
Resolution has been slow in coming. After museum officials initially assured scholars that there was a clear line of provenance for the disputed Galatians fragment, Holmes says now they're no longer sure. "It was bought from a dealer in good faith, and the dealer provided certain information," says Holmes. "That information turned out to be incorrect." Whether that dealer purchased the fragment from eBay is still unknown, according to Holmes. As a result, he says, it won't be seen in the museum.
Even the most prestigious scholars can get blinded by their eagerness to obtain a rare biblical treasure. Last year Karen King, a professor of divinity at Harvard University, admitted that the fragment dubbed the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" that she touted as a major scholarly discovery in 2012 was almost certainly a forgery, though she did so only after the evidence against its authenticity became impossible to dismiss (the fragment came from a Florida man who, among other pursuits, had previously worked as a pornographer). Scholars have also raised doubts about another Dead Sea Scroll fragment from the book of Leviticus purchased in 2010 by the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. At this month's annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, one panel titled "Avoiding Deception" will be devoted to the topic, a sign that it's become a widespread concern among scholars.But what sets Green's collection apart is, in part, its size. This isn't about one or two or even a dozen artifacts, but rather tens of thousands. And, as the museum expects millions of visitors to pass through those monumental bronze gates, it seems poised to become a mandatory stop for tourists to the nation's capitol, right alongside the Jefferson Memorial and the Air and Space Museum. Whether, after a ride on the flight simulator and lunch at Manna, any of those visitors will care about arcane issues like provenance remains to be seen.
Holmes doesn't push back against the argument made by Davis and others that some, if not all, of the collection's Dead Sea fragments might turn out to be forgeries. The week before the opening of the museum, he still wasn't sure which fragments, if any, would be displayed, or how exactly they would be marked. What's more, he worries that because the smuggled items the collection probably contains still haven't been identified — and may never be — ethical concerns will linger for years to come. "See how that puts a cloud over us?" he asks.
Tom Bartlett is a senior writer at The Chronicle.
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