WASHINGTON, D.C.—Next month, a lavish museum will open its doors here, just a stone’s throw from the Smithsonian castle and the U.S. Capitol. Flanking its doors are 12-meter-tall bronze panels inscribed with Hebrew text from the Book of Genesis recounting God’s creation of the universe.
The grandiose new venture is bankrolled by the Greens, the billionaire family that owns the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores. Since 2009, the Greens, evangelical Christians known for their successful Supreme Court challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that health insurance plans pay for birth control, have amassed a private collection of 40,000 artifacts—both ancient and modern—relating to the Bible and the ancient Near East. The $500 million Museum of the Bible is a separate, nonprofit entity, but Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, chairs its board, and the family has donated hundreds of artifacts to the museum.
The museum’s first nonprofit filing with the Internal Revenue Service in 2010 described its mission as, in part: “To inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.” That has since been revised to: “To invite all people to engage with the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.” Scholars still worry that the museum will use artifacts to further an evangelical view of the Bible as historically accurate and immutable. “[If] archaeology is being used as a means of proving the historicity and accuracy of the biblical text, that is extremely problematic,” says Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and president of the Archaeological Institute of America.
Just as troubling to many scholars are questions about the origins of some of the museum’s artifacts. The Greens bought their ancient items on the antiquities market, which brims with looted material and forgeries. In July, these issues exploded into the news when Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit nearly 3500 cuneiform tablets and clay seals that were smuggled into the United States after the Greens purchased them. According to cultural heritage experts, these artifacts are very likely among the hundreds of thousands of objects looted from Iraq since the 1990s. The museum points out that only artifacts owned by Hobby Lobby—not any in its own collection—were targeted by the investigation. Still, an untold number of other artifacts in the Green collection— including some transferred to the museum—may also be tainted, Magness says. “Many [unprovenanced] antiquities surely come from illegal excavations or looting of archaeological sites,” she says.
Other concerns have nagged scholars in recent years, as the museum was getting off the ground. In the forthcoming book Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, Joel Baden, a Hebrew Bible scholar at Yale Divinity School, and Candida Moss, an expert on the New Testament at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, take the Green collection to task for having commissioned inexperienced scholars to analyze ancient texts. The duo also complains that the museum has not published a complete catalog of its objects, making it impossible for scholars to know whether it owns artifacts worthy of study, or how many may have problematic provenance.
The Museum of the Bible is trying to allay scholars’ fears and establish itself as a legitimate academic enterprise. In 2014, it hired as its director of collections the respected New Testament scholar David Trobisch, who has instituted an acquisitions policy in line with the museum world’s professional standards and brought in top scholars to advise how to display and explain ancient artifacts. And the museum is getting into the excavation business: It is funding an ambitious dig at Tel Shimron, a site in Israel where many different Near Eastern cultures met and interacted over the past 5000 years. “I was clear with them that we were going to follow the archaeology wherever it led, and they quite agreed that was the correct approach,” says the excavation’s director, Daniel Master, a widely respected archaeologist at Wheaton College in Illinois.
Scholars say they hope that the Museum of the Bible has learned from its founders’ early mistakes. “When you critique someone and they listen to that critique and make changes for the good, you should applaud that,” says Robert Cargill, an archaeologist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “We call that peer review.” Baden, however, worries that any improvements are cosmetic. Asking scholars to review exhibits is “an undeniably good step,” he says. However, Baden says, “Until they correct the sins of the past, they’re just perpetuating them.”
Last month, I visited the Museum of the Bible to try to discover whether its changes are more than skin deep. For advice and guidance, I brought along Christopher Rollston, who studies ancient Near Eastern religions and cultures at The George Washington University here, and is an expert on cuneiform tablets and other ancient texts. Seth Pollinger, director of museum content, led the tour. With parts of the museum still under construction, we donned hard hats and fluorescent yellow vests.
We started on the first floor, where a tapestry, dozens of meters long, depicts the Bible’s role in landmark events in U.S. history, from the first encounters between Native Americans and European settlers to the Civil Rights Movement. Across the room, displays delve into the Bible’s influence on everything from music and film to science and human rights.
The second floor immerses visitors in the Bible’s story, with the help of a voice-over narration and impressionistic depictions of Noah’s Ark and the parting of the Red Sea. The amusement park feel is by design: The exhibit’s creator worked at Disney’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida. Another exhibit offers a glimpse of first century Nazareth, in present-day Israel, where Jesus lived; during our visit, a painter was putting the finishing touches on a mural of the Sea of Galilee at sunset.
Finally, we reached the history floor, where questions of scholarship and provenance loom large. The artifacts were not yet in place, and many of the glass vitrines were encased in foam and tape. Pollinger pointed out one near the entrance that will hold the Gilgamesh dream tablet, a cuneiform tablet inscribed with a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Dating to the second millennium B.C.E. or before, the tablet tells how Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian king, receives a divine prophecy in a dream. Prophetic dreams are also a motif in the Bible.
Pollinger is quick to mention that the dream tablet has “clear provenance”—the Greens bought it from a private collection, although he doesn’t remember which one. Asked for more specifics the day after the tour, the museum declined to fill in the details. But based on Pollinger’s statement, Rollston speculates that the dream tablet likely has a documented history of ownership reaching back before the 1970 UNESCO convention that put limits on the sale of cultural artifacts. “Being part of a collection for a long time—it means that legally it’s kosher,” Rollston says. That’s the standard held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the British Museum in London, and most other institutions. When Museum of the Bible staff question an artifact’s chain of custody, it will not be displayed or described “until we know more,” Trobisch says. “In the past 2 years we did not accept all the items that the Green collection wanted to donate because we felt that the records—not that they were wrong, but they weren’t enough.”
But for archaeologists, Rollston says, provenance means something more: “We [want to] know that it was excavated on this day, during this year, by this archaeologist, at this archaeological site.” Without that context, Magness explains, “archaeological artifacts lose almost all of their value.” Many experts also feel that publishing or displaying artifacts with less-rigorous documentation promotes looting. “It’s a vicious cycle of illegal excavations,” says Daniel Fleming, who studies Near Eastern societies at New York University in New York City.
During our tour, Pollinger acknowledged that the museum has not adequately tackled the issue of provenance in its exhibits. “We may find that it’s good to clear the air up front,” he said. Rollston agreed. “If you name something and say it’s an issue, you are being really honest, really educational, and savvy in terms of protecting your own butts.” But the museum’s imminent opening—set for 17 November—leaves scant time for revisions.
The Museum of the Bible has already found itself in the middle of another scourge in archaeology: forgery. It owns myriad texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, and other scripts that are common targets for sophisticated forgers. Particularly problematic is its collection of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Found between 1947 and 1956 in caves in Qumran in the West Bank, the Dead Sea Scrolls comprise more than 800 documents written by scribes in the ancient Near East. They contain some of the earliest known versions of biblical passages. Only some of the scrolls were excavated by archaeologists. Others—including the first that came to light—were uncovered by Bedouin shepherds and sold on the antiquities market.
By 2001, scholars were confident that all authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments, from both excavations and the market, had been published. Yet since 2002, a few collectors, including the Greens, have bought a number of newly surfaced fragments. Last year, the Museum of the Bible published a volume on its 13 fragments, edited by scholars including Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who led the original effort to publish the scrolls. So far, it’s the only information the museum has published about any objects in its collection.
Kipp Davis, a biblical scholar at Trinity Western University in Langley, Canada, was another editor of the volume. When he examined the museum’s fragments, he immediately spotted red flags. All but one are biblical texts, whereas fewer than one in four of the previously known scrolls are. Moreover, the handwriting on some fragments is “tortured,” Davis says, unlike the smooth script of professional scribes. One of the museum’s fragments in Hebrew appears to include the Greek letter α, in the position where it serves as an annotation for a footnote in a 1937 edition of the Hebrew Bible.
Davis outlined these problems in last month’s issue of Dead Sea Discoveries. He concluded that six or seven of the museum’s 13 fragments are probably forgeries. (Other experts think they are all forgeries.) Davis says the Museum of the Bible has known about his concerns since 2014, when he publicly discussed them at a conference. He also mentioned them in his chapter in the museum’s recent volume and recommended that other scholars address the issue in their chapters. But he is disappointed that no sustained discussion of authenticity and forgery appears in Tov’s introduction, or anywhere else in the book.
Tov rejects Davis’s critique. “Irregularity of script is something we find in any published scroll,” he says. “I have not seen any solid analysis or arguments with regard to any particular document in the Museum of the Bible collection.”
Pollinger brought up the issue of forgeries as we approached a horseshoe-shaped exhibit that will house a rotating selection of the fragments. “We’ve redone our labels to talk about the evidence of why [certain scrolls] would not be authentic, to use it as a teaching moment.” Trobisch adds that the museum has commissioned studies on whether the ink was applied to fresh parchment or to ancient parchment that had accumulated grime, as expected in a forgery; it is awaiting the results. He said that although he, too, doubts that handwriting irregularities indicate forgery, “We are making sure that the scholarly debate can happen.”
The museum's exhibits do not endorse evangelical beliefs—but they tiptoe around subjects that challenge them. The Gilgamesh dream tablet, for example, is meant to show “how biblical traditions are rooted in the shared culture of the region,” according to a wall text visible during our tour. Left unmentioned is the fact that the Epic of Gilgamesh predates the Hebrew Bible by at least 500 years, which suggests that the Bible may have incorporated older legends. To learn that, visitors must go around a corner and read deep into a smaller, less prominent text. It notes that the Bible’s account of a cataclysmic flood was “written centuries later” than a similar account in Gilgamesh.
Learning about such earlier influences “might be problematic for some of the people coming here,” Rollston says, because many evangelicals are taught that the Bible is the direct word of God, unmediated by human influence. The lack of prominence of contrary viewpoints makes it possible for visitors to avoid a challenge to their beliefs. “People are going to see that which they want to see in these exhibits,” Rollston says.
The light touch is in keeping with what he calls the museum’s focus on “breadth, not depth.” In the center of the history floor is a glass case emblazoned with the words “Book of Books.” It will display 14 versions of the Bible: the Jewish, Catholic, and two Protestant books, along with those of eight Orthodox Christian denominations and the Assyrian and Samaritan Bibles. But the museum does not delve into the history or significance of the Bible’s many variations.
That gingerly approach is unlikely to win the hearts of scholars. But it is in keeping with how Trobisch frames the museum’s mission. “If we could provide a safe classroom, a safe space, for everyone interested in [the] Bible,” he says, “then we’ve achieved whatever we want to achieve.”