WASHINGTON – The Museum of the Bible is without a doubt the most intriguing and most talked-about attraction in town. Since opening two months ago, more than 200,000 people have visited it. Its location is also the best in the city: Capitol Hill is a 10-minute walk. The White House is 10 minutes by cab. The gala in November marking the museum’s dedication was held in the city’s Trump International Hotel. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the president’s youngest son, Eric Trump, joined the gala. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated in a welcome message he sent to the ceremony that the museum represents “common values” between the United States and Israel.
The Museum of the Bible is a private institution – an initiative of the billionaire Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby chain. The Greens are known for their fervent evangelical Christian beliefs and achieved notoriety a few years ago when they won a court case allowing them, for religious reasons, not to pay for insurance policies that covered abortions for company employees.
A large part of the new museum collection is based on the Green family collection, including rare Torah scrolls, and is considered the largest private collection of ancient artifacts. Even so, the museum was dogged initially by skepticism regarding the authenticity of some of the items in the collection – mainly Dead Sea scrolls. Likewise, questions arose about whether some items on display were obtained through the illegal antiquities trade. The founders went to great lengths to rid the collection of these question marks.
It took four years to build the museum at a cost of some $500 million. It occupies a large historic building that was previously the Washington Design Center and was completely restored. The collection spreads across five stories, the top one offering a large archaeological exhibition coordinated with the Israel Antiquities Authority.
There is an upside to the establishment of the museum, it turns out. No other museum in the city comes close to matching the quality of the exhibits, the sophistication of the technology, the up-to-date vibe and visitor experience provided by the Museum of the Bible. Many of the visitors I encountered wandered around with their mouths agape. However, the content of the museum ... well, that’s a whole other story.
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A long line spread from the entrance on both days of my visit. Entry is free, but the bespectacled young man behind the counter asked, “How much do you want to contribute today?”
For an entire hour, I wandered the third-floor hall containing a small village, with scenery depicting olive trees, paintings of sheep, and real-life actors who recounted what it was really like to live in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago.
They ate tons of olives and figs, apparently. The floor was amazingly clean and Lake Kinneret looked like a colorful poster. One actor in a brown gown and biblical sandals introduced himself, in a heavy southern accent, as Jeremiah. He explained that Jesus seemed a strange character to his fellow villagers in the Galilee, but the miracles he performed left them in wonder.
Museum workers warmly recommended starting the visit from the fifth floor and working downward. This 350-square-meter (3,770-square-foot) floor contains over 700 artifacts that the Israel Antiquities Authority provided the museum on a long-term loan (from 10 to 20 years). The exhibit covers the history of the Land of Israel from the Canaanite period to Herod. Display items include clay jars, sarcophagi, oil lamps and a large stone from Temple Mount.
The exhibit is laid out with scientific care and archaeological rigor. If they had told me I was actually in a beautiful hall in the Israel Museum, I would have believed them.
The fourth floor is dedicated to the history of the Bible. It has a wing dedicated to their Dead Sea scrolls (with many caveats that the authenticity of the artifacts is not guaranteed); a short film in which a bearded actor playing Maimonides (the Rambam) explains the tradition of the Oral Law; some action-packed films starring Dave Stotts (“Drive Thru History”), who relates the biblical story from the Israeli desert through Rome to the Gutenberg Bible and the translation of the Bible into English – all while departing from exact science and moving into the realm of Indiana Jones.
Popularization peaks on the third floor with animated films about “the Hebrew Bible”; the Hollywood version of Jesus’ village; and a 12-minute animated short about the New Testament. The distance between the fifth and third floors seems like the distance between Nazareth and Washington.
The second floor is called “The Impact of the Bible.” It clearly deals with the bringing of the book to the United States, and the impact it’s had on the nation.
The most popular item on this floor is Elvis Presley’s Bible. It’s not exactly archaeology, but some older women had their pictures taken next to the glass display case with way greater excitement than was observed next to the stone brought from Jerusalem.
In the Manna restaurant on the sixth floor, some menu items came with creative names: “A Taste of Israel” with falafel and vegetables; “The Gospel” with tahini, roasted chicken and olives; or “Amazing Grace,” with lamb meatballs and chickpeas. I chose the black bean chili, which came with no smart name but was served with za’atar (hyssop) pita chips.
Dr. Miki Saban, director of national treasures at the Israel Antiquities Authority, explains that the museum’s founders asked the authority three years ago to present the Bible in light of archaeological research. He says there were some fears and disagreements regarding the collaboration, but the sticking point stemmed mainly from concerns that scrolls or artifacts were obtained through the antiquities trade. He adds that the authority’s officials were less worried about the identity of the museum founders, their religious faith and goals.
When the decision was made to proceed, the authority assumed responsibility for the exhibit’s content on the fifth floor, while the museum designed it. Thus, Saban says, authority officials made sure to also include altars and temples from the Philistines and Edomites who lived in the region, besides influences from Assyria and Babylonia.
He says they were given free rein regarding the content. Saban stands behind the choice of artifacts and says he’s proud of the way they’re displayed. There’s nothing in the descriptions that say anything that isn’t scientific or isn’t agreed upon by Israel’s leading archaeologists, he notes. And nothing there, Saban stresses, vouches for the historical validity of the Bible stories or backs this particular version.
“It’s clear to me that we’re giving them the scientific side,” Saban says. “I’m well aware that in other wings of the museum – upon which we have no influence – there’s great popularization and appeal to the audience that doesn’t recognize the Bible at all. I’m aware that some of this looks like Disneyland and there are wings in the museum in which the Bible is portrayed as a historical story. But that’s not what we’re saying. It’s part of the deal – and that’s acceptable to us.”
According to Saban, the collaboration between the Antiquities Authority and the Bible museum is the most extensive it has undertaken with any other museum abroad. “Our interest is in exposing the archaeology of the Land of Israel to a wide audience,” he says. “The new Bible museum gives us excellent exposure in an amazing place.”
Beyond that, Saban – who stayed in Washington and helped work on the exhibit – says he is also impressed by the museum in his guise as a critical archaeologist.
“They were faithful in reenacting the day-to-day. It’s true that you can tell the Bible story in all kinds of ways, and they chose their way – but that’s their business. We were careful about scientific accuracy on our floor, and what happens on the rest of the floors is not my business.”
Museum President Cary Summers sent Saban a letter praising the authority team, stressing the importance of the archaeological exhibit to the museum’s success. He also noted that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence – a devout evangelical Christian – focused on the “Israeli” floor when he visited the museum, and was very impressed by it. Summers added that in the museum’s first month, some 3,400 stories were published about it in the U.S. and international press. He says these stories reached an audience of 6 billion people. It’s hard to ask for greater exposure than that.
A one-dimensional story
Joel Baden from Yale Divinity School is considered one of the museum’s most prominent critics. He told Haaretz that the Green family is a group of fundamentalists interested mainly in presenting the idea that the United States is a Christian country founded on Christian principles, and needs to return to its roots. He said that once you know that, you can clearly see the collection is one-dimensional. There is barely a hint about the Bible in the Middle East. They don’t show how it was written or who wrote it, he complains. There’s no biblical critique. The museum founders may have a ferocious love of Israel, but they focus on a Bible that was written 1,000 years after the destruction of biblical Israel, he notes.
Baden explains that he understands the desire of the Israel Antiquities Authority to gain the great exposure the museum provides. But he worries that the authority is deliberately ignoring the museum’s message. He says the authority lends legitimacy to the museum without influencing its message. It may be hidden and carefully packaged, but the message is most assuredly there: That the Bible is the most wonderful thing ever. It’s an opportunity for the Greens to celebrate their faith and to get visitors to believe, he claims. He adds that, ultimately, it’s a museum about religious faith.
Prof. Jill Hicks-Keeton of the University of Oklahoma’s religious studies program is an expert in the New Testament. She says that despite efforts to cover up what was done, the museum presents a clearly Protestant approach. She says the museum is using the Antiquities Authority to get its own authority. The museum then delivers a different message on the other floors, telling one story without objections and without opening it to other audiences.
She notes that the information in the museum is very limited – for example, about Islam, which is also part of the biblical story. Hicks-Keeton explains that the Koran refers to many biblical characters (including Abraham, Noah and Moses) as prophets, as well as Jesus and Miriam from the New Testament. The museum may seem to be presenting the evolution of the bible and its influence, but the Muslim chapter is almost completely absent.
Hicks-Keeton adds that the choice of Washington and the specific location near the Capitol is no coincidence. She says they’re looking for broad recognition. They want visitors to come and take it seriously – not like Disneyland but, instead, comparable to the established Smithsonian Institution. She adds that the museum paints itself as neutral, but its message is political – an effort to turn theology into history.
Dr. Mark Leuchter, the director of Jewish studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, believes the great danger is that visitors will mistake the museum for a scientific institution. He says the museum founders believe that anyone who criticizes the Bible is against God. He says this approach is misleading. They did consult with academic experts, but not in an intellectually honest manner, according to Leuchter. He says they’re not being fair in how they present things. The fact they have archaeological exhibits from Israel doesn’t prove that the Bible is real, he notes – just as the presence of snowflakes in Canada doesn’t prove the existence of Santa Claus. Leuchter charges that the museum is using the Antiquities Authority’s artifacts to hint that the events of the Bible really happened. He calls that empty rhetoric, adding that the Greens’ form of Christianity treats Jews as a prologue to the real thing.
In the museum store, on the way to the exit, a boy about 6 years old sat on the floor and screamed: “I want a Bible! I want a Bible!” His mother mumbled something in an attempt to calm him down but he continued shouting, “I want a Bible! Nowwww!”