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.
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.
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. 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.
 The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction, edited by Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon (Fortress Academic, 2019).
 For more background, see Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton Univ. Press, 2018).