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New Book on Museum of the Bible: Guest Post by the Editors Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon

Many of you have heard about, read about, or even visited the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., founded and funded by the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, a highly committed evangelical family with a decidedly evangelical mission.  The museum has become controversial both in the public eye and among scholars.

An intriguing book came out last year about it, a collection of essays by scholars of Bible and archaeology that critique the museum on a number of grounds: The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction, edited by Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon (Fortress Academic, 2019).

The book has already made a splash, and so I have asked Jill and Cavan to do three posts on it.  This first one is a kind of introduction to what the museum is, and is jointly authored by the two of them.  After this we will have a post by each one individually focusing on different issues connected with the museum.

Jill is an associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma; I first met her when she was doing her PhD in New Testament at Duke.  Cavan is an associate professor of Religion at the University of Southern California; I first met him when he was an assistant professor in New Testament at Duke.  There sure is a lot of Duke going on around here….

Jill and Cavan have graciously agreed to respond to any comments/questions you have.  Here is their first post.

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When ancient manuscripts and modern Bibles are displayed in a multimillion dollar building along with a reproduction of the Liberty Bell, a Native American headdress that belonged to Billy Graham, and a jeep, someone has some explaining to do. It’s perhaps a humorous combination. But it’s also a serious intellectual knot to untangle.

Who—if anyone—owns the Bible? Who gets to be interpretive arbiter, authoritative speaker, or credentialed expert when it comes to a body of texts so revered and yet simultaneously contested? How do such claims to ownership of the Bible get made? And with what tools can the American public evaluate competing claims that clamber onto a national stage? The 2017 opening of the privately funded Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., has opened afresh these questions and more as this monumental and moneyed institution lays claim to the Good Book near the national mall.

As the Bible is no ordinary book, the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) is no ordinary museum. Scandal-plagued in the press and wrestled over on biblical scholars’ social media accounts and conference programming, the MOTB has been a hot topic of conversation among those who care about how the Bible is represented in the public sphere. Despite the persistent claims of MOTB’s staff and benefactors that it is primarily a non-sectarian educational and research institution, the evidence suggests that this institution actually presents the Bible from the perspective of modern evangelical Christianity. Along the way, it—perhaps accidentally—stereotypes Jews and Judaism, celebrates European colonialism, and clumsily offers the Bible as the cure to all of life’s ills. It does so in ways that are likely not immediately visible to the non-expert. Our book, The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction, is offered as a guide to the MOTB, its presentations, and its politics.[1]

Unlike in the Creation Museum in Kentucky, you’ll find no dinosaur bones in the MOTB. But there are skeletons in its closet. When the press has turned its attention to the Museum, it has focused on the numerous illegalities and failures of its acquisitions. Most of the Museum’s collection was donated by its founding family, the Greens of Oklahoma City, the owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores.[2] The Greens acquired their collection of Bible-related artifacts in a spending spree that stretched from 2009-14. Animated by a love for the Bible and aided by a string of shady “scholars” and middlemen, the Greens amassed a hefty collection, a large percentage of which was donated to the MOTB, earning the Greens healthy tax write-offs along the way. In addition to their collecting efforts, the Greens have bankrolled much of the reportedly $500 million price tag for the Museum itself.

Many of the objects donated by the Greens to the MOTB appear to have been acquired illegally or incompetently. In 2017, the US government seized clay tablets bound for the Green Collection in Oklahoma City which had been illegally acquired from Iraq. Just a short while later, the Museum’s collection of Dead Sea Scrolls fragments was shown to be composed of modern forgeries. One of the Museum’s scholarly advisors was caught selling papyri to the Museum from the private collection of the Egyptian Exploration Society, without the Society’s permission. Just last month, more artifacts in the collection were discovered to be illegally acquired and slated for repatriation.

Yet, less likely to draw splashy headlines are other matters that we as biblical scholars believe to be important: how the Museum defines “the Bible,” how its exhibits deal with the origins of biblical literature or other messy historical issues, how the institution uses its public platform and its resources. The collected essays in our volume analyze how the museum’s material is presented, historicize its efforts to intervene in biblical scholarship, and follow its money.

As readers of this blog are sure to know, “the Bible” doesn’t exist as such. There are multiple Bibles, competing accounts of their formation, varieties of interpretations of their meaning. It’s interesting, therefore, to consider how this very public institution defines what the Bible even is.

The Museum is situated blocks from the National Mall, with a view of the US Capitol, in a former refrigerated warehouse. The renovated building comprises five floors of exhibits, interactive and immersive experiences, and event space. The three permanent exhibits comprise three floors, each devoted to a particular theme: the impact, narrative, and history of the Bible, respectively. The Impact floor traces the Bible’s “impact” on American history and on broader cultural and artistic realms, the latter characterized by an eclectic assortment of featured objects. The Narrative floor offers visitors a walking tour of the Hebrew Bible, a recreated Nazareth village (called “the world of Jesus of Nazareth”), and a film purporting to narrate the New Testament. The History floor features the Museum’s collection of ancient manuscripts and artifacts and tells the story of how the Bible was made universally accessible through the work of copyists, translators, and colonists. Other floors feature temporary exhibits, event spaces, a concert hall, and a biblically-themed restaurant. While visitors fly virtually through D.C., talk to actors dressed as ancient Jews in a re-created Nazareth Village, or eat lunch in a rooftop garden featuring ‘biblical’ plants, they are also encountering a particular story of the Bible and its history.

We look beneath the kitsch and beyond the scandals to what ideological work is being done—whose Bible takes center stage, how the Bible is perceived as an actor in history, how critical fields such as archaeology and text criticism are represented, and what the MOTB’s strategic partnerships reveal about the institution’s influence outside of its D.C. walls. The Museum is, further, something of a teaching opportunity for us and a chance to think critically about how the Bible is studied, read, interpreted, and used. We intend our analyses of the Museum to spark curiosity and critical thinking not only about this institution but also about the Bible itself, along with the possibilities and potential pitfalls of its public study and popular representation.

In the next two guest posts, readers will get a taste of the two particular issues that we editors are personally and professionally interested in: the question of diverse representation of Bibles in the Museum, and the function of archaeology.

[1] The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction, edited by Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon (Fortress Academic, 2019).

[2] For more background, see Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton Univ. Press, 2018).


Proving the Bible Is True: The Museum of the Bible. Guest Post by Cavan Concannon
Did the Benefits of the Christian Community Win Converts? Readers’ Mailbag.

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    janmaru  July 13, 2020

    The Bible appeals to popular taste rather than elevated arts. A museum of the Bible could only be appreciated in a knowingly ironic or humorous way.
    There are several reasons why nobody should take it seriously.
    First, the flipping of the pages may sound offensive and also aggressive, second, any show up might be understood quite ambiguously: is it God seeking attention? Who craves attention to such an extent that He would go into a hysterical fit and flood everybody.
    I might be in poor taste because of excessive sentimentality but hammering rooms full of Greek vases is not going to fragment knowledge but periscope it.

    Is this melodrama?

  2. Robert
    Robert  July 13, 2020

    “Who—if anyone—owns the Bible? … How do such claims to ownership of the Bible get made? … this monumental and moneyed institution lays claim to the Good Book …”

    There’s an obvious theme here of ownership, which I read was actually an earlier title of your book: Who Owns the Bible?

    I don’t think you would claim that anyone who attempts to interpret parts of the bible necessarily makes an implicit claim of authoritative ownership, but if they do so on such a large scale of the whole bible, well that’s another story. It’s similar to a book idea that Bart had once about how the early church laid claim to the Jewish scriptures.

    • Avatar
      Jill_HicksKeeton  July 13, 2020

      One of the ways this museum in particular is making a claim to ownership over interpretation is its self-presentation as disinterested, as merely representing “what the Bible says.” Without naming it, the MOTB representatives who repeat this line are doing a sort of evangelical Protestant biblical interpretation akin to sola scriptura.

    • Avatar
      -Randy-  July 13, 2020

      I think it was made clear what was meant by that phrase, who owns the right to claim that one version or interpretation is the correct one, the one to base museums and exhibits upon.

  3. Avatar
    doug  July 13, 2020

    Thank you Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon. I’m very much looking forward to your next posts.

  4. Avatar
    PBS  July 13, 2020

    Thanks for the interesting post & ones to follow. Accepting your claim that “Many of the objects donated by the Greens to the MOTB appear to have been acquired illegally or incompetently,” has anyone involved with the MOTB responded and/or attempted to refute these apparent realities?

    • Avatar
      Jill_HicksKeeton  July 13, 2020

      Thanks for the question. Yes, there have been press releases from the MOTB regarding the acquisitions issues. The uncritical story the MOTB tends to tell is one with a redemption arc: that the Green family was inexperienced and led astray by bad actors but has now partnered with folks who are helping them make it right, particularly regarding provenance. But many scholars who are not paid by the museum are not satisfied with this answer.

      • Avatar
        Forrest  July 19, 2020

        I’ve read where the Greens were warned early on this kind of thing would happen if they were not more intentional.

  5. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 13, 2020

    I greatly appreciate efforts like yours. Looking forward to reading more. Odds are I’ll buy your book(s). Amazon? This Bible museum is yet another effort to “control the narrative” in a tendentious and disingenuous fashion. Not a good idea at all to let Evangelicals control ANY narrative!

    • Avatar
      Jill_HicksKeeton  July 13, 2020

      Thanks for your interest! The study of the museum is also a study of white evangelicalism in our present moment.

      The book is indeed available on Amazon, and also from the press directly: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781978702820/The-Museum-of-the-Bible-A-Critical-Introduction

      • Lev
        Lev  July 14, 2020

        In the UK we hear and see reports of US white Evangelicalism – it’s terrifying!! We have our own problems with fundamental evangelicalism here, but it seems to be a proto or lite version of the monstrous machine that backs Trump and his agenda.

        How do you guys cope with it all? Especially the cognitive dissonance where evangelicals are supposed to uphold New Testament values, yet behave with such greed, arrogance, authoritarianism, and rabid nationalism?

        • Avatar
          Lindylou  July 14, 2020

          You are right Lev, it seems to be an increasing problem in the UK. I have been wondering recently how much this is being driven by influences from the US.

  6. Avatar
    Nichrob  July 13, 2020

    I just downloaded your Nook book. Have been following this issue extensively. Thanks for taking the time to post on Bart’s blog. (No question, just thanks in advance for your time…)

  7. Avatar
    Stephen  July 13, 2020

    I’m afraid the MOTB is the set piece in an alternative universe in which Hicks-Keeton & Concannon, Moss & Baden, and Ehrman can hardly be said to exist. The inhabitants of this alternate universe will visit DC, take in the monuments and museums, and because of its choice location and confirming ideology, consider the MOTB part of a whole.

    Nevertheless the attempt to rescue the Bible from the fundamentalists is a noble effort which I support wholeheartedly.

    • Avatar
      Cavanconcannon  July 13, 2020

      Thanks, Stephen. The MOTB was designed to resonate with evangelical theology, much like Christian Heritage tours of DC or the faux-history of Christian Nationalists, like David Barton, or fundamentalist Christian apologists. While the MOTB maintains a veneer of disinterestedness, its exhibits do help up the volume of these other voices within evangelical culture. That makes it more important that its exhibits be analyzed carefully for the messages they convey.

  8. Avatar
    Poohbear  July 14, 2020

    We love these wacko ‘Christian’ groups, a way to tar Christianity itself. The cheap shot.
    But yes – who owns the bible?
    Ever wonder why the Tanakh gives details of Jewish history? Ahab, the Assyrians, Solomon’s public works etc.. This fusing of historical stuff such as Samuel and Kings, with spiritual stuff, like Psalms, Proverbs etc. preserved the bible when Jews didn’t observe it – it was a national book. It belonged to all Jews, regardless of the bible’s offensive demands and Bronze Age oddities.
    The bible belongs firstly to those touched by it, such as the story of Jesus. It belongs to the mocker with its talking donkey and snake. It belongs to those forming their own doctrines with its mystery. It belongs to the believer through the fulfillment of its prophecy to this day.
    In short the bible belongs to us all. And God’s great gift is that one day we all will receive what we want, just as we all read what we want.

  9. Avatar
    Matt2239  July 14, 2020

    The MOTB debate quickly exposes the political divide that lies just beneath the surface. The Hobby Lobby folks are very much first amendment activists, having won a controversial Supreme Court decision about whether they could be forced against their religious beliefs to provide birth control for their employees. I suspect some of the angst that that win caused is now being channeled toward their Bible museum. There’s plenty of room for diverse views in Washington. The Smithsonian for decades had an evolution display that they knew was wrong, but they liked the way the skeletons seemed to progress from ape to man. They didn’t care they were arranged out of chronological order. The progression of man continues to be the iconic representation of evolution, but its original sequencing was fraudulent.

    • Avatar
      Cavanconcannon  July 15, 2020

      Thanks for your comment. It is the case that the Green family are big proponents of “religious freedom,” though it is worth emphasizing that they have a very particular viewpoint on what that phrase means. If you are interested, Tisa Wenger has done very important work on the history of that phrase as it has worked through the history of the US. As to the Smithsonian exhibit you mention, I don’t have any insight onto that, except I would say that the both-sides logic at play here is problematic. The MOTB offers a theologically-driven narrative, while evolutionary theory is open to change and development as the science evolves (and as museum budgets allow for the expense of revision).

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 14, 2020

    Very interesting. Keep going! Thanks.

  11. Avatar
    RickR  July 14, 2020

    I’m glad The Museum of the Bible is getting so much publicity. It calls peoples attention to the Bible, and opens up discussion. You can go on Wikipedia and get both sides. Here’s one side: “Lawrence Schiffman, an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls and professor of Hebrew and Jewish studies at New York University stated, with respect to the Museum of the Bible:[41]

    The overarching narrative is the impact of the Bible … its own internal history of how it came together, spread and was passed on. It exudes one of the best things about art culture in this country. Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Ethiopic, Orthodox — all of them are here. There’s a message of shared culture and respect that the museum exudes. Everyone who comes here is going to go out with that message.

    So I say, let’s have more controversy. I’m so glad we have MOTB.

    • Avatar
      Cavanconcannon  July 15, 2020

      It is probably worth noting that Prof. Schiffmann is a paid consultant at the MOTB, so he isn’t exactly giving you an unbiased “other side.” Controversy is great, but it only works to everyone’s advantage if it is done in good faith. Also, Wikipedia is really not the best source of information on any controversy.

  12. Avatar
    plparker  July 15, 2020

    Does the MOTB take a position or have an exhibit presenting views on creation vs. evolution or young earth vs. old earth?

  13. Avatar
    Diane  July 16, 2020

    Thanks for doing this series! My interest in this topic was piqued at the 2019 SBL Annual Meeting New Testament Textual Criticism panel, which was so explosive it set off multiple fire alarms! I’ve already acquired “Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby” and am halfway through it, and will move on to your book when I’m finished, though I have to take exception to Moss and Baden’s swipe at Dr. Ehrman; he has explained multiple times through multiple media that his loss of faith came about because of the problem of theodicy, not because of which word or letter of any text came first.

    My question may be answered in your later posts–have either of you suffered professional repercussions because of your book, and do you know if Moss or Baden have?

    • Avatar
      Jill_HicksKeeton  July 17, 2020

      I was a presenter in that fire alarm panel! An audience member approached me afterwards and asked whether I had ever met a Christian before. Clearly he had not picked up on the Baptist preacher style of my talk.

      If there are repercussions because of the book, either I am unaware of them or I haven’t experienced them as negative.

      • Avatar
        Diane  July 17, 2020

        Oh yes, you did the presentation on the tour inside the museum, correct? I didn’t recognize your name at first. My partner and I were sitting close to a contingent of (evangelical?) Christians, and we could see them on the edge of their seats, then practically levitating off their chairs at certain points! I find the whole concept of “Evangelical scholarship” to be puzzling to the point of being oxymoronic.

        I am anxious to read your subsequent posts…and your book.

  14. Robert
    Robert  July 17, 2020

    “I have to take exception to Moss and Baden’s swipe at Dr. Ehrman”

    Candida and Joel took a swipe at Bart? Was this at SBL? Two against one; no fair!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2020

      Ha! I have no idea!

      • Avatar
        Diane  July 17, 2020

        In their book “Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby” they state:

        “…Eldon Epp argued that the “original text” of the New Testament was essentially beyond our reach…Epp’s ideas opened doors to a new direction in text criticism, one that emphasizes, rather than attempts to eliminate, the diversity and complexity of the manuscript evidence. In its mass-market form, this approach has been presented as a threat to cherished Christian notions about the authentic witness of the Bible. In the hands of the popular scholar Bart Ehrman, author of books like “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,” the mere existence of thousands of fragments of contradictory material becomes a faith-killer. How can scripture be inerrant when we can’t even know what scripture originally said?”

        This seems to me a mischaracterization of the professor’s view. Perhaps Dr. Ehrman sees it differently.

  15. Avatar
    JeffreyFavot  July 18, 2020

    This topic should’ve read, “Liberal skeptics angry because they can’t control the Narrative about the Bible at a private Museum”. News flash, the Bible wasn’t compiled for anyone but the believer. As if there’s an obligation to represent a view other than what Bible believing Christians actually believe. Then there’s the bigotry, hatred, and intolerance written as such things as “White Evangelicalism”, as if conservative Christian views aren’t worldwide, and ethnically diverse. Why should the Green family represent any thing but what they believe in? I’ve been to MOTB, it’s nothing that you’re describing in this post. I find it very misleading, bigoted, and hateful.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2020

      Hey, it’s their money! If they want to use it to propound their particular religious views of course that’s their business. But to say someone should not be allowed to critique their misuse of the Bible seems a bit extreme. Surely they’re not the only ones allowed to express their views!

  16. Avatar
    clerrance2005  July 20, 2020

    “Along the way, it—perhaps accidentally—stereotypes Jews and Judaism, celebrates European colonialism, and clumsily offers the Bible as the cure to all of life’s ills.”

    Please, could you expand a little on ways/manner their activities depicts the celebration of European colonialism?

    • Avatar
      Jill_HicksKeeton  July 22, 2020

      We invite you to check out the book for that!

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