Here now is the second of three posts on the Museum of the Bible, this one by Cavan Concannon, one of the editors of the newly released volume, The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction.  One of the most amazing lines in this post is the claim made by a representative of the museum that: “The Bible has been carefully transmitted through time.”   Wow!  OK then….   You gotta wonder what this fellow (whom Cavan quotes) is thinking….    What I myself am thinking is that he has a different definition of “carefully” from me….

Again, Cavan will be happy to respond to your comments.

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Proving the Bible: Archaeology, Objects, and Evangelical Theology at the Museum of the Bible

By Cavan Concannon

 

The Museum of the Bible (MOTB) is no stranger to scandal. In our previous post, we described how, in their quest for biblical artifacts for the Museum, the Greens have acquired looted objects, purchased forged Dead Sea Scrolls, and been forced to return thousands of artifacts in their collection. As Candida Moss and Joel Baden have detailed, the Museum has carefully managed the study of the objects in its collection, relying on non-disclosure agreements and the work of scholars untrained in relevant disciplines at evangelical Christian schools.[1]_ The Museum has also, according to Michael Press, funded an illegal excavation at Qumran in the West Bank, led by Randall Price of Liberty University.[2]_ Much has been written about the problems with how the MOTB acquired its collection and the ethical and legal lapses that have followed.

It is worth interrogating why the Greens have gone to so much trouble, financial and otherwise, to acquire and display artifacts related to biblical literature. When the question is asked, it is often answered with the simple observation that the Greens are evangelical Christians, and therefore are deeply interested in the Bible. In perhaps a Freudian slip, Steve Green has been quoted as saying his family’s museum is a museum to the Bible.[3]_ In my chapter of The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction, I argue that the answer goes beyond the Greens’ evangelical devotion to the Bible, as they understand it. The motivations for the collection and display of biblical artifacts can be found in how the Museum describes the role of archaeology itself. The discipline of archaeology, as it is presented in the Museum’s exhibits, is understood to vouchsafe the stability and accuracy of the biblical text.

 

Archaeology and the Bible

         The MOTB’s partner in the legally-questionable Qumran excavation, J. Randall Price, describes the role of archaeology as a source for proving the sacrality and historicity of the Bible: “Tangible things can assist faith in its growth toward God. Archaeology brings forth the tangible remnants of history so that faith can have a reasonable context in which to develop. It also allows faith to be supported with facts, confirming the reality of the people and events of the Bible so that skeptics and saints alike might clearly perceive its spiritual message within a historical context.”[4]_ Price’s quotation gives voice to a long tradition in biblical archaeology in which Christian scholars have tried to use archaeological evidence to prove the veracity of the Bible, under the presumption that the Bible must be historically accurate for it to deserve its place as Christianity’s sacred text. In addition, Price suggests that archaeology also saves souls. The act of proving the Bible’s accuracy will win people to the faith and soothe the worries of those already on the inside.

The quest for tangible proof of Christianity’s faith claims is not new. One can arguably see its origins in early Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land, perhaps most famously in the visit by Helena, the emperor Constantine’s mother in 326 CE. Since then many Christians have found spiritual insight from “walking where Jesus walked.” While pre-modern pilgrimage to “biblical” sites was mediated by local knowledge, the accounts of previous travelers, and church officials, the advent of archaeology as a systematic study of ancient sites changed the landscape. In the earliest modern excavations, archaeologists sought to find famous places and objects to anchor European narratives about the classical past. As modern biblical scholars began to question the origins and development of biblical literature, conservative and liberal Christians alike looked to archaeology for help. Liberal Protestants like Adolf Deissmann saw in archaeological remains a new “light from the east” that could enlighten academic biblical scholarship by offering new insights into the world in which biblical literature was written.[5]_ Conservatives, like Price, looked to archaeology much as fellow Christians look to young-earth creationist “science,” as a tool for proving that the Bible is accurate in the historical details that it provides. It is this latter tradition that is on display at the MOTB.

As regular readers of this blog know, the study of the past rarely produces certainty. The past is only accessible to our present through fragments of texts and worlds that offer but glimpses into the past. Archaeology has never been very good at providing certainty about the past. Archaeologists can say much about how places and spaces were lived in, how they changed over long periods of time, how some aspects of daily life were lived. Archaeology does not give us scientific access to past events, nor is it equipped to shed light on faith claims about the sacrality of the Bible. Those who claim that it does are looking for something other than what archaeology can provide.

 

Archaeology at the Museum of the Bible

The History of the Bible floor showcases the bulk of the Museum’s collection of artifacts from the early history of biblical literature. Here one finds objects from the Ancient Near East, the “Dead Sea Scrolls” owned by the Museum, and the early manuscripts and papyrus fragments of biblical texts. The collection here is a mix of authentic objects, forgeries, and modern replicas. The story that is told is what the Museum’s signage calls the “path to universal access,” the story of how the Bible was transmitted accurately from its origins to today.

Visitors to the History of the Bible floor are offered the chance to watch a video introduction to the exhibit space called Drive Thru History with Dave Stotts. The video features an Indiana Jones-like narrator taking visitors on a tour of the Bible’s history in his well-used Jeep, which visitors can see parked just outside the theater. Stotts, who is also featured in shorter video clips throughout the History floor, concludes the introductory video with a description of what archaeology brings to the study of the Bible’s history:

The Bible has been carefully transmitted through time, technology, and culture, from rare manuscripts to near universal accessibility. The Bible is continually being researched and more fully understood through new discoveries. Many people think that the further we progress from the ancient world of the Bible, the more disconnected we become from this old book. But actually, today’s science is helping us better understand how carefully the Bible has been transmitted through time. The latest technologies . . . are now providing an even greater understanding of the history of the Bible.

Stotts’ claim is remarkably similar to Price’s, namely that archaeology proves the accuracy of the Bible. Though Stotts does not go so far as to say that this is cause for (renewed) faith in the Bible itself, he offers a description of archaeology as a science that connects us more and more to a remarkably trustworthy and accurate book.

In my chapter, I dig deeper into the ways in which this description of archaeology works itself out in the Museum’s exhibits. But this example helps us to understand why it is that the Greens invested their money in both biblical artifacts and the Museum itself. It is not just that they love the Bible. They also want to prove to the rest of us that it is accurate and historical. The goal then of the Museum is not education but evangelism. The objects that the Museum and the Greens have acquired are displayed not for their historical value but as evidence for an argument against those who would say that the history of biblical literature and the formation of the Bible is much messier, complicated, and violent than the simple narrative favored by the Greens: from God to ancient humans and then, without error, to us.

[1] Candida Moss and Joel Baden, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 62-98.

[2] Michael D. Press, “An Illegal Archeological Dig in the West Bank Raises Questions About the Museum of the Bible,” Hyperallergic (June 20, 2018); https://hyperallergic.com/447909/an-illegal-archeological-dig-in-the-west-bank-raises-questions-about-the-museum-of-the-bible/

[3] Green said this in the context of an interview given to PBS News Hour’s Jeffrey Brown (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/new-museum-aims-to-get-visitors-thi nking-about-the-bible).

[4] J. Randall Price, The Stones Cry Out: What Archaeology Reveals About the Truth of the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1997), 28.

[5] Gustav Adolf Deissmann, Light From the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910).