A door opens to the "Exodus" section inside the Museum of the Bible in Washington. The project is largely funded by the conservative Christian owners of the Hobby Lobby crafts chain. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The Bible Museum in D.C.: Turning Theology Into History?

Funded by a billionaire Evangelical family, and with construction costs of $500 million, the Museum of the Bible is the most intriguing and most talked-about attraction in town

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.

Alan Karchmer / Museum of The Bi
Alan Karchmer / Museum of The Bi

Elvis’ bible

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.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

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.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

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.

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