This piece is adapted from our coauthored introduction to The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction, eds. Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2019). We are grateful to the press for permission.
“The question is, why has a museum not been dedicated to the Bible? We just think that people ought to know it better.”
By Jill Hicks-Keeton
Professor of Religious Studies
University of Oklahoma
By Cavan Concannon
Professor of Religion
University of Southern California
So commented Steve Green, founder and board chair of the Museum of the Bible, in the days leading up to the Museum’s grand opening in Washington, D.C. in late 2017. President of the Oklahoma-based craft store chain Hobby Lobby, Green has long been vocal about his passion for the Bible. The entire Green family see themselves as tasked with fighting for Christian values, as they reckon them, and for “religious freedom,” most famously in their Supreme Court victory against the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. The Greens have long funded evangelistic efforts through charitable giving, including support for Christian ministries that seek to disseminate the Bible, particularly through translation efforts. They want people to know the Bible better. They also want to speak for and about the Bible to an America they believe has lost its biblical way.
Chances are you already know something about the Museum of the Bible (MOTB), which opened amid a flurry of celebration or suspicion, depending on who’s being asked. For any uninitiated, though, here’s a quick thumbnail sketch of the Museum and its larger organization. The MOTB’s origins stretch back to 2009 when Steve Green began the process of creating a Bible museum to house the family’s newly acquired manuscripts and dovetail with the family’s interest in promoting the Bible in the United States and beyond. In 2010, the Greens established the MOTB as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and in 2012 they purchased the Washington Design Center to house the future museum. When it opened in late 2017, the MOTB had a price tag of $500 million, not including the many millions of dollars that had been spent by the Greens and Hobby Lobby on acquiring many of the estimated 40,000 artifacts related the history of the Bible.
Located near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and within sight of the US Capitol and throwing distance of the Smithsonian Museums that line the Mall, the MOTB has a giant footprint—430,000 square feet of exhibit space spread over eight floors. Visitors enter the Museum through a massive re-creation of plates used in printing the Gutenberg Bible, the first Bible printed following the introduction of movable metal type printing presses in the 1450s. The foyer of the Museum is dominated by an impressive LED ceiling that toggles between images drawn from illuminated manuscripts and Christian art.
The Museum has three permanent exhibit floors: the Impact, Stories, and History of the Bible (floors two through four). The Impact of the Bible floor gives an account of the impact of the Bible on American and world history, covering historical events, social changes, and cultural influence. The Stories of the Bible floor houses three major experiential exhibits: a walking tour of some of the better known stories in the Hebrew Bible, a re-created first-century Galilean village with a short film about John the Baptist, and a film that purports to narrate the New Testament. The History of the Bible floor tells a story of how the Bible was transmitted and translated from antiquity to the present—what the MOTB calls its “path to universal access.” The floor culminates in illumiNations, an exhibit that houses a collection of Bibles translated into the world’s languages.
In addition to these permanent exhibits, the Museum dedicates space to a variety of temporary exhibits, some presented in partnership with other museums, such as the Vatican Museum exhibit on the first floor, or with archaeological institutions, such as the Israel Antiquities Authority exhibit on the fifth floor. The Museum also houses a theater, event spaces, a bookstore, a children’s play area, a Bible-research lab, a Bible-themed restaurant called Manna, and a rooftop garden featuring “biblical” plants.
These are, in a very cursory way, the “basics” of the MOTB and its physical footprint. But what the MOTB is is a question that has been up for debate since well before the Museum opened its doors. Green’s prepositional slip in the opening quotation above—Museum to the Bible—is interesting. Is this a museum? Or a monument? A combination? Or something else entirely? It’s complicated.
The answer to Green’s question of why there has not been a museum “to” the Bible is simpler. There has been. There are—many, in fact. A cursory Internet search turns up dozens of museums or museum exhibits dedicated to the Bible, biblical artifacts, or biblical archaeology. Better to ask: Why this museum of the Bible? And why now? And now what?
We are likewise invested in a project of educating people about the Bible, its contents, formation, reception history, contemporary deployment, and/or its role in the public sphere. Like Steve Green, we think people should know the Bible better. For the most part, though, our methods, questions, priorities, sensitivities, ethics, and—sometimes—just plain information differ from what one finds in the MOTB today. Given its stature, vast resources, and location near the National Mall, the MOTB must be subjected to scrutiny because of the influence it stands to make in the nation’s popular understanding of the Bible.
The Museum, with its failures and foibles, presents us with an opportunity. It is, we think, an invitation for all of us to think hard and to think well about the Bible, the interpretation of the Bible, and the ways that people mobilize the Bible in our world.
We view the Museum as a teaching opportunity and a chance to think critically about how the Bible is studied, read, construed, and used. For these reasons, we have organized a collection of essays addressing the MOTB: The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction (Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2019), from which this article is adapted. The contributors are scholars, historians, and university professors with a variety of research interests across the fields of biblical studies, archaeology, papyrology, American religious history, and religion and public life. The goal of the book is twofold: to examine the Museum and its claims to speak for and about the Bible and its history and to think critically about how the Bible is used in the public sphere (along with what critical scholarship might say about those uses).
Along the way, divided into six thematic sections, we ask larger questions. Part I—“What’s the Bible Good For?”— interrogates how the Museum envisions the Bible as an agent for positive change in history, paying close attention to the Museum’s account of the use (and, according to MOTB, the “misuse”) of the Bible. What does the Museum teach about human deployment and interpretation of biblical texts, both historically and today? Furthermore, whose perspectives on or uses of the Bible in America are highlighted, celebrated, obscured, or ignored? Under what circumstances—and for whom—is the Bible considered good?
Part II—“The Museum of Whose Bible?”— addresses how the Museum adjudicates (or not) multiple claimants to “the Bible,” articulating and assessing whose Bible is represented in the Museum. Is it principally a Christian Bible? The Jewish Bible—that is, the Tanakh as interpreted and used by Jewish readers? Or the Hebrew Bible, the shared
texts of the Christian (Protestant) Old Testament and Jewish Tanakh that are studied by scholars of ancient Israel?
In “Christian Supersessionism and the Problem of Diversity at the Museum of the Bible,” I (Jill) argue that, despite its claims to being neutral and inclusive, the MOTB frames the Bible’s contents and history in Christian supersessionist terms. Because the MOTB uses today’s Protestant Bible as an anachronistic organizer of history, the Museum allows the Jewish Bible to be subsumed into the Christian Bible; rabbinic literature to be erased from view; Judaism to appear as an ancient phenomenon rather than a living tradition; and today’s Christian Bible to be artificially ascendant. The Museum’s attempts to capture diversity among Jewish and Christian Bible readers ultimately fail since MOTB opts for compression and unity rather than simultaneous multiplicity and the possibility of polyvalence.
The MOTB has had a public, complicated relationship with archaeology and the market for antiquities. One of the longest running controversies surrounding the MOTB relates to the legality of the items in its collection, most of which were donated to the MOTB by Hobby Lobby or the Green Collection. For example, in 2017 the US government filed a civil action against Hobby Lobby after confiscating ancient clay tablets that had been smuggled out of Iraq in 2010. The objects were seized by the government and eventually returned to Iraq. Hobby Lobby was also forced to forfeit $3 million. While the MOTB was not a direct perpetrator of this illegal activity, the fact that Hobby Lobby was not fined but forced to forfeit money to the government suggests that previously smuggled goods had passed through Hobby Lobby to the MOTB’s collection. As a result of such public controversies, the MOTB has faced fierce pushback from archaeologists and papyrologists. While these controversies have made headlines, less attention has been paid to how the MOTB uses and frames archaeological evidence in its exhibits. The chapters in Part III of the critical volume explore how the MOTB conscripts archaeology and archaeological evidence into its version of the history of the Bible.
For example, in “Theopolitics, Archaeology, and the Ideology of the Museum of the Bible,” I (Cavan) demonstrate that the Museum deploys archaeology and archaeologists in order to prove the historicity of the Bible, that is, the claim that the Bible records events in the past as they actually happened. Close analysis of the “Drive Thru History” videos that guide visitors through the History of the Bible floor, the presentation of first-century life in the Museum’s reconstruction of ancient Nazareth, the MOTB’s funding of archaeological excavations in the West Bank, and the rhetoric of MOTB docents who lead visitors through Museum exhibits reveal that the Museum uses archaeology in an attempt to authenticate the Bible’s miraculous stability and transmission.
Part IV—“Materiality, Text, and the Production of Scripture”—attends to the material and textual history of the Bible and the ways these histories intersect with the collection practices, research initiatives, and narrative of the MOTB. Though most people commonly think of the Bible as a single book that has endured through history or as a library of stories, the reality is that the Bible on the average person’s shelf is a construction produced through the work of modern scholars, who assemble the text of the Bible by comparing and collating thousands of ancient manuscripts. This work, which modern biblical scholars call textual criticism, does not receive attention in the Museum’s exhibits. But the MOTB is nevertheless involved in the field, both because of its history of involvement (in connection with the Green Collection) in the acquisition of biblical manuscripts and its financial support of and connections to evangelical text critical scholars, groups, and institutions.
Part V— “Christian Nationalism and the Bible in America” —contains two complementary chapters treating the Museum’s presentation of the Bible in America. They assess from different perspectives whether, how, and to what degree the Museum represents (or not) the Christian nationalist beliefs that famously attach to the Green family. They also pay close attention to how rhetoric about Bible engagement is used in efforts of persuasion.
The final part—“Religion, Politics, and the Museum’s Hidden Partners”—addresses MOTB’s strategic partnerships. The chapters in this part reveal the tension between the Museum’s current (nonreligious and apolitical) mission statement and its financial and material alignment with conservative religious institutions and political organizations. The two examples highlighted in these chapters are particularly noteworthy for their absence from MOTB’s publicity materials and website. The reverse is not true: these organizations tout their connections to the MOTB as a way of legitimizing their ideologies. With these chapters, then, we see how the MOTB is allowing itself to be
leveraged for religious and political ends.
Whatever the MOTB decides to do with its resources, collection, and space, it is important for scholars to document the history of this institution. No matter what happens within the Museum or its broader organization, this volume captures and chronicles a formative time in the Museum’s existence—one that must be grappled with for anyone invested in the public understanding of the Bible and its study. Our hope, then, is that this collection of voices will endure as a critical introduction to the MOTB. At the same time, we know that we have not exhausted the perspectives that could be brought to examining the MOTB. We hope this collection spurs further conversations from many other stakeholders for whom the Bible is an important object of analysis. We hope that other scholars from many different backgrounds and contexts will bring their critical insights and interest in biblical literature and its reception to the study of the MOTB.
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-think…).
See Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).
For more on how various Green family members continue to use connections to the MOTB to construct themselves as biblical experts, see Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon, “On Good Government & Good Girls: How the Museum of the Bible's Founding Family Turned Themselves into Bible Experts,” The Revealer (March 20, 2019); https://therevealer.org/on-good-government-good-girls-how-the-museum-of….
On the exhibits housed on the Stories of the Bible floor, see 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; https://www.bibleandcriticaltheory.com/issues/vol15-no1-2019/vol-15-no-….
The foreword is authored by Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden. In addition to the present authors’ respective chapters, the volume contains chapter contributions by Marc Zvi Brettler, Mark A. Chancey, John Fea, Terrence L. Johnson, Ludvik A. Kjeldsberg, Jennifer Wright Knust, Mark Leuchter, James R. Linville, Roberta Mazza, Margaret M. Mitchell, Sarah F. Porter, and Stephen L. Young.
The controversies keep piling up. As recently as June 2019, information continued to surface on shady acquisitions practices by Hobby Lobby (Brent Nongbri, ““First Century” Mark, Dirk Obbink, and Hobby Lobby,” Variant Readings [June 23, 2019]; https://brentnongbri.com/2019/06/23/first-century-mark-dirk-obbink-and-…).