About That Museum in Washington
By Alex Joffe
On a quiet street corner two blocks south of the National Mall and just above the busy highway that
is Virginia Avenue is the latest addition to Washington's cultural life, the Museum of the Bible.
But unlike the Smithsonian Institution, sprawled out across the Mall, this new museum is a private
venture, a labor of love by the Green family of Oklahoma City, they of Hobby Lobby fame. From the
outside, the building looks like a forgotten branch of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. Inside
is a state of the art museum, spread over seven floors and hundreds of thousands of square feet. But
the Museum of the Bible is more than that; it is a unique performance space that operates on
multiple layers to present an American Protestant perspective on the Bible, God, and History.
Some readers are doubtless ready to stop right here. That would be a mistake, not only because
they'd miss some witty insights, but because the museum itself is a serious place that deserves
consideration and respect, if only because of the questions it poses for us about the Bible. Who has
the right to interpret the Bible? The museum makes it clear that, following the Protestant
tradition, all people do. But using what tools? That's where things get complicated.
Entering the museum through its main door, flanked by tablet-like engravings, visitors are thrust
into a marble clad interior space that feels like the corporate headquarters of a global
<http://www.asor.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/1.jpg>Museum of the Bible. Photo by the
Giant touch screens and video displays hint at what is to come, as do the moveable pillars of the
Philistine temple in the children's room, 'Courageous Pages,' which junior Samsons can push apart.
Another important hint is the Vatican Museum room filled with manuscripts on loan; the museum has
been relentless and successful in developing partnerships with other institutions around the world.
On the one hand the strategy vastly expands the scope of the displays. On the other, this is a way
for an upstart museum to generate respectability and put itself on the map.
Respectability is an important issue, both for the museum and for its patrons. Any new cultural
institution in Washington needs to establish itself, and in a city dedicated to the Seven Deadly
Sins and then some, a Museum of the Bible is at a disadvantage. So too is the Green family, which
founded its first arts and crafts store in 1972. The chain now employs 32,000 people in 800 stores,
and is famous for stocking over 70,000 different crafting and home decor items. It is also famous
for winning its case in the Supreme Court, in which it argued that as a closely held corporation
with religious objections, it did not have to provide contraceptive coverage to employees as
otherwise mandated by the Affordable Care Act.
Reasonable people may disagree about this, but academics are not generally reticent. Nor have they
been restrained regarding the Green family's outsized interest in collecting antiquities. One of
these purchases was a collection of several thousand cuneiform tablets, looted in Iraq and exported
to the US through the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Labeled "ceramic tiles," the tablets were
seized by the Federal government and recently returned to Iraq. The Green family agreed to pay a $3
Cuneiform tablet seized by the US Government.
Overall the family has donated almost 3,000 items to the museum. While they do not run the
institution, they have shaped it, both conceptually and materially.
But it seems nothing is born without sin. The National Gallery of Art, which reposes on the Mall,
was founded by former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, then on trial for tax evasion, through a
trust he established which also happened to buy paintings that the Soviet Union had sold from the
Hermitage Museum. That inconvenient narrative is today completely forgotten. We might reasonably
insist on higher ethical standards in the 21st century but if we become too insistent all cultural
life on this planet will grind to a halt. Of course, the idea of a Bible museum (partially) built on
loot has a certain appeal, especially in Washington.
But I digress. As an archaeologist, the first stop was a gallery is devoted to 'The People of the
Bible,' interpreted as Canaanites and Israelites of the second and first millennium 'BC' (not BCE).
Photo by the author.
Objects on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority present aspects of life and society from the
Middle Bronze Age through the Roman period, enlivened with computer animations, a wholly
unobjectionable tour of some of the greatest hits of Israeli archaeology. Also unobjectionable are
special exhibits on theatrical performances of the Bible in Renaissance Florence and on Jerusalem
and Rome in the first century CE (not AD, go figure).
Still, the world of the Bible proceeds in one direction: the heart of the museum are Bibles, and boy
are there a lot of them. The Green family are indefatigable collectors of the word of the Bible in
every conceivable form, from papyrus fragments to Gutenberg Bibles to every edition of every modern
translation into every language. It is here that the narrative is most visible and that the museum
is at its best.
Leave aside for the moment the question of whether the museum's tiny Dead Sea Scroll fragments
(purchased in the early 21st century) are real or not. To their credit the displays include
disclaimers that raise the question. Also leave aside the provenance of certain Greek papyri, which
may or may not be real, stolen, or unraveled after reuse as papier-mâché mummy masks. The structure
of the exhibit leads a visitor from the Biblical world of Israelites and Judeans to a world where
the Word stands alone. Throughout the exhibit, and indeed the exhibitions as a whole, the figure of
Jesus is rarely the focus. Instead, the word is the center, the Bible, as an artifact and concept;
it is the only reality in exhibits that mix ancient objects and simulacra.
The path is telling. A real Gilgamesh tablet and a replica of the Hammurabi stele illustrate the
Near Eastern foundations of the Bible and of writing. The Exodus is not mentioned but David is king.
There are replicas of the Tel Dan inscription and the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser but the Bible as
canon begins with the Dead Sea Scrolls, and with real and facsimile Greco-Roman papyri. The real
story, however, begins with Christian codices. There are lots, telling the story of the Bible's
translation into many different languages and its dissemination around the world.
Occasionally the translators even speak. Approach the niche holding a Latin translation and a video
image of an actor playing St. Jerome appears to humbly explains his background and problems in
creating the Vulgate. Maimonides does the same regarding his authoritative Biblical exegesis. These
special effects enliven a long wandering through 1,500 years of the Bible, through acres of
illuminated manuscripts and sectarian editions, in which certain issues are tactfully elided, namely
the splits within the church. The stewardship of the Catholic Church and the Papacy is graciously
acknowledged, but the enthusiasm displayed over Gutenberg, Luther and Erasmus makes the Protestant
narrative clear. A full size replica of Gutenberg's press shows the power of printing, while Luther
and Erasmus 'themselves' helpfully inform visitors about their efforts translating the Bible into
vernacular and scholarly editions, respectively. The Bible belongs to the world.
<http://www.asor.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/5.jpg>Recreated Gutenberg press.
But just as the Bible itself is not static, the museum is not simply the exhibitions of objects,
which mostly play it straight regarding narrative; mentions of God are few (and readers will ponder
whether these are references to the deity moving in History or to literary perceptions thereof). The
'Drive Through Theater' hosted by Dave Stotts, (a sort of Christian broadcasting version of Josh
Gates) is a light hearted, quick cut Discovery Channel (and History Channel, and Travel Channel, all
those channels) style trip through archaeological sites in Israel by jeep (and eventually Germany
The invented drama of Biblical archaeology in brought to life with a snappy soundtrack, much as it
is for the pursuit of ancient astronauts and Bigfoot. But so what? I've argued countless times that
without this sort of mostly harmless PR, Biblical archaeology would be in the same dire straits as
its global counterparts; neglected until highways and skyscrapers are built, and forgotten between
discoveries of ice men (or women) and pyramids.
The real drama happens in the multimedia displays, sound and light shows that Disney would envy.
Moving from room to room through a literal narrative from Creation through the Exodus, although
without a stop at Sinai to receive the Law, visitors are bombarded by light and darkness, waves of
sound, abstract figures and scenes projected on walls, and occasionally even mist. Guiding the
journey, possibly out of a misguided notion of 'authenticity,' is a narrator with a vague German
Jewish accent. It is a high tech Biblical pageant, abstract but powerfully presented.
Above it all, literally on the top floor, is the World Stage Theater. Here Jesus finally takes top
billing in a planetarium style show without Pink Floyd and lasers, as water turns into wine and
spills from ceiling to floor, and the money changers' coins ricochet around all four walls. The
theology is even more evident, as John tells Nicodemus that he must be born again.
Which brings us to America. Half of an entire floor is dedicated to the Bible in America, to its
significance to various traditions, controversies, and communities. Here, too, there is a story arc.
The story obviously begins with the first European settlers – and it is legitimate to complain that
the negative impact of these Biblically inspired peoples on the indigenous populations of North
America deserves much more attention. But the remainder of the exhibit does an admirable job
demonstrating the absolute centrality of the Bible to the self-conception of early American
communities, their contrasting traditions, and to the institutions they created, from higher
education (recall that Harvard commencement included a Hebrew oration until 1817), to slavery, where
Biblical arguments were used on both sides. The Bible was a central political document for the
Founders (and for their European counterparts); they did not simply see themselves as the New
Israelites but debated future forms of government through the didactic and moral lenses of the Bible.
Religious liberty as a Biblically inspired political virtue is also touted, as are the Biblical
origins of the Civil Rights and Human Rights movements. But at a certain point the exhibit becomes
'The Bible in the World,' and the Biblical origin of everything dissolves into a vague celebration
of religious morality as foundational to modernity and civilized society. This is a fair claim but
the Bible itself is no longer a clear focus. Still, as a museum aimed at Americans, it is more than
fair to point repeatedly and proudly at the Bible as the document, the experience and lived reality,
upon which America was founded.
Pride is the crux of the question. There is every reason for Americans of all faiths to have pride
in the nation's Biblical heritage. It is also legitimate for the Green family, who are in the
background throughout the museum. Their collections are the rock on which the museum is founded but
their role is not trumpeted.
But to understand their role we need to understand the psychology of collecting. I've suggested
elsewhere that collecting is about power, obviously to possess, but also to create a uniquely
individual relationship or intimacy with the past. Ethics are usually rationalized away by arguments
regarding salvage and preservation (which academics dismiss all too readily in pursuit of their own
form of possession).
But with the Greens and the Museum of the Bible I think things work differently. Most collectors
display their goods sparingly or not at all, until perhaps the end of their lives when items are
resold or gifted to a museum, an act of lustration for the collector and collection alike, as well
as of commemoration. But the Greens have chosen to exhibit parts of their collection now. Unethical
collecting decisions are on display for all to see, except that their stated rationale is to bring
the word of the Bible back to the people. This act of democratization is at once phenomenally
altruistic and, consciously or not, an effort to cover or justify ethical failings. They answer to a
higher authority, and occasionally to the Department of Homeland Security.
For academics there is another issue, the loss of public authority over the Bible. The intellectual
monopolization of the Bible by academics in the post-World War II era coincided with the gradual
collapse of Biblical literacy in America, along with many mainline denominations. With this went an
important part of the language of American identity, conversation, and consensus. The Bible in the
Public Square was taken over by professors.
Inevitable or not, this was not healthy in social or political terms. Invocations of the Bible,
religion, or God in politics today, earnest, banal, or grotesque, are condemned instantly. And yet
this cuts Americans off from not only a vernacular but from history; the agony – national, personal,
and spiritual – that Abraham Lincoln expressed in his Second Inaugural Address is explicable /only/
by reference to the Bible:
"Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass
away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two
hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn
with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years
ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.""
Academics have hardly been faithful stewards of the Bible any more than other forms canonical
knowledge; efforts to reclaim the Bible on the part of faith were also inevitable. If these also
lead to more earnest engagement with the Bible as literature, tradition and morality on the part of
academics and intellectuals, all the better. Unfortunately, I see the opposite occurring; Biblical
reclamation will be met with further academic approbation, which will only increase the distance
between academia and society, heightening mutual suspicion and alienation, and setting up at least
one side for a nasty surprise. As Lincoln said, "Certainly there is no contending against the Will
of God; but still there is some difficulty in ascertaining, and applying it, to particular cases."
Much more could be said, about the replica Biblical village complete with re-enactors, about other
multimedia Passion Plays, and about the museum's collection of over 2,000 Torah scrolls from extinct
Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa, and especially Eastern Europe. Just how they
got to Washington is far from clear, and the idea of that a Christian museum should become a
/Genizah/ or repository for Jewish documents raises more questions than could possibly be answered here.
The families and church groups visiting the Museum of the Bible are unlikely to be troubled by such
issues or converted to one denomination or another, but they might have elements of their faith, in
the Bible and in America, reaffirmed. They are also likely to come away interested in Biblical
history and archaeology. Many will go on to the Air and Space Museum for other sorts of
reaffirmations, in technology and the human imagination, or to the National Gallery, filled with
silent tributes to religious faith and to beauty itself. None of these are unalloyed goods, but that
is the nature of museums. The good that one comes away with depends in part on what one goes in with.
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