Here now is a final guest post on the Museum of the Bible by Jill Hicks-Keeton, one of the two editors of the recent book that contains a number of evaluative essays by a range of scholars.  Her title asks the driving question of her post and her first word answers it!

Many thanks to Jill and her co-editor Cavan Concannon for providing these three posts.  If they have sparked your interest — check out the book!

Jill will be happy to respond to your comments and questions.

 

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Can the Bible Organize History?

By Jill Hicks-Keeton

No—but the Museum of the Bible makes an intrepid, though misguided, effort. By its very name, the Museum of the Bible must privilege certain literature: texts that became biblical. The institution is structurally organized around the category “Bible.” Yet, as readers of this blog will already know, none of the biblical writers thought they were writing something called Bible, as moderns know it today.[1] In my work analyzing the exhibits at the Museum of the Bible (MOTB), I am interested in what we miss when the category “Bible” is used to shape history. Who is included? Who’s left out? What is lost?

 

Using today’s Bible as a lens through which to define the contours of history from antiquity to today leads to a Christian accounting of history at the expense of Judaism. This is because, through happenstance of language and other factors, Christians came to use the word “Bible” to refer to the New Testament, literature from the first and second centuries CE that Christians believe to be the continued revelation of the God of Israel. On the other hand, Talmudic literature produced by rabbis in the first few centuries CE, believed by Jews to be the continued revelation of the God of Israel, did not come to bear the moniker “Bible.” The MOTB has thus taken an anachronistic sorting criterion and used it to determine which literature—and therefore whose story—gets represented.

 

In my chapter for The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction, I argue that the Museum prioritizes Christianity as the finisher of history, leaving Judaism in the dustbin. One of the principal exhibits I analyze occupies what is called the Stories of the Bible floor, where we can—according to the MOTB website—“walk through the stories of the Hebrew Bible, immerse [ourselves] in first-century Nazareth, and listen to the story of how the followers of Jesus grew into a thriving community.”[2] The first of these, which entails retractable walls and theatrical smoke, is intended to represent scriptures shared by Christians and Jews.

 

As we enter this Hebrew Bible exhibit, a narrator confidently announces: “Tanakh, Old Testament, Septuagint, Hebrew Bible. It has many names. It contains many books, but tells one story.” What we have here is an initial attempt to represent Jews (Tanakh), Christians (Old Testament), Catholic Christians (Septuagint), Protestant Christians along with biblical scholars (Hebrew Bible) followed by an immediate funneling of diverse bodies of literature with various interpretations into a single story with a univocal representation. As my collaborator Cavan and I have argued elsewhere,[3] the MOTB’s tour of the Hebrew Bible weaves a tale that sounds astoundingly similar to how the apostle Paul interpreted Israel’s scriptures in letters to the Galatians and Romans now memorialized in the New Testament. Abraham, Ruth, and Isaiah—among others—are recruited in this exhibit to highlight the opening up of God’s promises made originally to Israel to have universal application.

 

Once we leave the Hebrew Bible exhibit, we have two choices for where to go next on the Stories of the Bible floor: (1) The World of Jesus of Nazareth, or (2) The New Testament. Alarmingly, it’s possible for visitors to walk out of this exhibit floor without any notion that the literature belonging to the Jesus movement was but one strand of tradition that built on Israel’s scriptures. Rabbinic Judaism, which in many ways is analogous to Christianity but whose literature isn’t “Bible,” is wiped off the historical map. In this museum, Jews are seemingly left in antiquity, frozen in time, superseded by Christians.

 

While we find actors playing ancient Jewish characters in the Nazareth exhibit, up one floor in the History of the Bible exhibit is a modern Jewish sofer who copies text of the Hebrew Bible while guests are invited to observe. But there is history to be had before we make it to his artistry. This floor is organized around what the Museum calls “the path to universal access.” The MOTB introduces its fourth-floor History of the Bible exhibit with this placard:

 

“Long ago, before the Bible was gathered into one book, it began as a collection of oral traditions and writings accessible only to a few people. Embraced by many communities with different traditions, the Bible moved from handwritten scrolls to manuscript codices, to printed books to mobile devices. Today the Bible thrives worldwide. How did it grow and spread?”

 

Notice that before we begin in the beginning, we know where we’re going. This exhibit is going to explain how we got where we are today, and it ends with IllumiNations—a celebration of evangelical Christian translation and Bible distribution efforts. In other words, the MOTB has constructed and communicated a telos of the Bible’s formation; the end goal, as this exhibit frames it, is for the traditions of ancient Israel and Judah to overcome particularity and reach a global audience. In order for this to happen, the exhibit’s narrative arc implies, the Bible needed Christianity.

 

The Museum’s public relations team and other representatives have consistently refuted the notion that the MOTB prioritizes the Christian Bible. Yet, as the collected essays in our edited volume show, this institution is fundamentally evangelical, in ways consistent with the Green family’s religious expression. Now, of course there is nothing inherently wrong with Christians privately funding a museum that represents their particular perspective on the Bible. The problem arises for biblical scholars like me when Christian theology is represented as history. And the Bible should be, I think, an object of study rather than an organizer of history. There is too much to lose otherwise.

 

“Could it be different, though?,” you ask? Is there a solution to the problem of diversity at the MOTB? Yes. There are at least a couple of options. One alternative was imagined by some of my firecracker undergraduate students in an introductory biblical studies course. Last year in my “Biblical Literature” class at the University of Oklahoma (a class, incidentally, populated by some students who attend church with the Green family), I challenged my students to work in groups to assess a current MOTB exhibit, design a renovation to reflect what they had learned in class, and then pitch it to the rest of us, who were play-acting as MOTB board members. The group who tackled the “Hebrew Bible” exhibit came up with an exciting idea for an overhaul. They wrote and recorded three scripts for narration—one offering a Christian accounting of the Old Testament, one coming from a Jewish perspective talking about the Tanakh, and one representing scholarly analysis of these texts. Their idea was that visitors would go through the exhibit multiple times, with different headsets, and that the entire point would be to communicate the diversity of approaches.

 

It’s a creative attempt to solve the problem. Where it does not quite land, though, is that it yet remains difficult to capture the diversity not only between traditions but also within them. The brand of Christianity that dominates the MOTB, the available evidence suggests, is white evangelicalism. My own conclusion, then, is that the Museum of the Bible can’t be fixed. It can merely be saved. Call it the “Museum of the Evangelical Bible,” and let’s call it a day.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] See esp. Timothy K. Beal, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: the Unexpected History of an Accidental Book (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011); Eva Mroczek, The Literary Imagination Jewish Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Judith H. Newman, Before the Bible: The Liturgical Body and the Formation of Scriptures in Early Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[2] https://www.museumofthebible.org/museum/explore.

[3] Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon, “‘Squint against the grandeur!’: Waiting for Jesus at the Museum of the Bible,” The Bible & Critical Theory 15:1 (2019): 114-29.