The Truth Behind the Museum of the Bible Controversy

What was intended to prove the authority and reliability of the Bible has opened wide the doors to doubt.
Entrance to the Museum of the Bible, Washington, D.C.
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Those of us living in central Oklahoma heard often about Hobby Lobby president Steve Green’s plans to build a museum in honor of the Bible. Hobby Lobby’s pristine corporate campus is located in Oklahoma City. From time to time, Green has invited the public to attend Bible-related lectures at his corporate headquarters. I attended a lecture there on Shakespeare’s plays and the Bard’s use of the Bible.

In 2009, Green and his wife, Jackie, became interested in purchasing historical Bibles with the hopes of opening a Bible museum in Dallas, Texas. In time their interest expanded to Bible-related archaeological artifacts. Their collection became extensive. In 2010, Steve Green founded the Museum of the Bible as a nonprofit organization. In 2011, Mr. Green featured his earliest musings about what a future museum of the Bible would look like by his debut of “Passages: Treasures of the Bible” at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. This exhibit coincided with the 400th anniversary of the printing of the King James Bible. “Passages,” organized by professional curators, showed off 400 artifacts from Green’s private collection. Included in the artifacts were papyrus fragments, medieval illuminated manuscripts and a full-scale operating model of Gutenberg’s press.

In 2012, the organization purchased the Washington Design Center for $50 million as the location to house Green’s considerable collections. On November 17, 2017, Green’s dream of a Bible museum became a reality just three blocks from the nation’s Capitol. After eight years of development and an additional investment of $500 million, the building has been transformed into the high-tech, glitzy Museum of the Bible. Beginning that November, Oklahomans were primed for the grand opening. It was a major media event on all three local television stations in Oklahoma City. With a good measure of Oklahoma pride, the museum was heavily advertised as the exciting place to visit. In time, I will probably be one of the many Oklahomans to walk through its doors.

Now that the museum is open, it has drawn its share of backers and bashers.

The Backers

“Carol Haun has waited years for a museum dedicated to the Bible,” wrote Emily Cochrane of the New York Times. “On Friday, her prayers were answered” (November 17, 2017). In her piece, Cochrane explained that Ms. Haun is a Bible study teacher from Charlotte, North Carolina. “This will come under attack, and people’s agendas will clash. But let this place speak for itself,” Ms. Haun told Cochrane. “Really, I’m all about the Word, and for this museum to be here for people to see the beauty, it’s wonderful.” The museum does appear to be very impressive, and I suspect that many people share Ms. Haun’s view.

“The 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible … span[s] across eight floors with a biblical garden, grand ballroom, and a restaurant by Chef Todd Gray, called Manna,” wrote Michelle Goldchain of Curbed Washington D.C. Ms. Goldchain provided a 19-page photo spread from her tour of the facility. To enter the museum, visitors must pass through two 40-foot-tall bronze structures titled the Gutenberg Gates. Each gate weighs 12 tons and features the words of Genesis 1:1-31 in Latin as typeset in the first Gutenberg Bible. Once inside the museum, guests are introduced to a 140-foot-long digital arcade ceiling. This ceiling is “reportedly one of the largest horizontally mounted digital screens in the U.S.,” wrote Goldchain. “There are a total of 555 led panels hung there.” The first floor also contains a museum shop, a children’s gallery and two small galleries containing artifacts from the Vatican Museum and an ancient Bible.

The second floor contains three exhibits concerning the history of the Bible, how the Bible has been used, and its world impact. Floor Three showcases the stories of the Bible and what life was like in biblical times. The fourth floor displays ancient artifacts related to the Bible and copies of Bibles from different sects of Christianity. Floor five contains the World Stage Theater and three additional galleries. The restaurant, ballroom and gardens complete the structure.

“I can’t say that a 90-minute exploration of the Museum of the Bible a few weeks before its formal opening gave me a comprehensive view of the facility,” wrote George Weigel of the National Review on November 21, 2017. “But I did find a great deal that was impressive. And running through it all, I sensed a desire to reach out to the skeptical and even the hostile.” I have to admit my own interest to visit the museum has been piqued.

The Bashers

Those most skeptical about the Museum of the Bible appear to be academics. “Some remain skeptical that the museum’s viewpoint will be neutral,” wrote the Washington Post. “Steven Friesen, an officer at the Society of Biblical Literature, the largest association of biblical scholars, said there is a debate in the academic community about whether to do research involving the Greens’ collection” (October 16). The article showed that Friesen advises “fellow scholars to steer clear.”

What is Steve Friesen’s concern? “Friesen hasn’t seen the museum, but he believes from reading the website that its materials subtly promote a singular [evangelical Protestant] version of Scripture; indeed, the museum mostly omits discussion about how the Bible was compiled and which religious traditions believe which disputed books belong in the Bible,” wrote the Post. Talking with museum staffers about Friesen’s concerns they were told that “the place for discussing issues such as sexuality and abortion, which aren’t mentioned in the exhibits, might be at events hosted at the museum.” Yet Friesen thinks that “those events are meant to draw in influential people to hear the Greens’ opinions on the culture wars.” Friesen is not alone in his concerns about the Greens’ manipulation of events concerning the museum and their extensive artifacts collection.

Candida Moss, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and Joel Baden, professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School, have coauthored a book titled Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, which chronicles the Greens’ family history, their extensive purchase of Bible manuscripts and artifacts from the modern antiquities market, and their involvement in school education programs. “The task of this book is to describe, explain and understand the ways in which the Green family is seeking to bring its biblical worldview to America,” write Moss and Baden. “With their antiquities collection, their scholarly investments, their curriculum, their museum and their iconic status in modern America, they are among the most influential and powerful Christians in the United States.” Their book is well researched, well written and easy to follow.

While Moss and Baden respect the Greens as “the real deal,” the writing duo works hard to explore all sides of the story and not pass judgment. Yet their conclusions can be read as very condemning. “It is possible to read the story of the Greens and [Museum of the Bible] as a case of well-intentioned self-deception and large-scale naiveté,” they write. “It is likely that they are truly unaware of the way that their religious commitments undergird virtually every aspect of their activities: They believe they are engaging in nonsectarian efforts …. [H]owever, they have also ended up misleading their constituents and stakeholders at virtually every level. They have promoted a Protestant Bible curriculum in the guise of secular education. They have created a museum that speaks the language of religious pluralism but, in fact, rehearses the standard Protestant story of the Bible.”

This is just part of the list of missteps Moss and Baden feel the Greens have made. The tone of the book is not ax-grinding but a sincere investigation into what the Greens are attempting to achieve with their museum and other activities. The book is worth reading.

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Bible? ‘No Such Thing’

The Greens and their museum have created confusion. “When the [Museum of the Bible] was first conceived, it was intended to ‘inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible,’ according to documents filed in 2010,” wrote William Saletan of online magazine Slate. “But then, scholarship and dialogue intervened. The original vision of Steve Green … an outspoken conservative evangelical, gave ground to the reality that ‘the’ Bible—a single, clear, definitive text—is a myth” (November 21). That is a powerfully charged criticism laid on the steps of the museum. Mr. Saletan went on to explain that his statements were based on what he learned at a press lunch organized by the Faith Angle Forum.

“‘There is no such thing as the Bible,’ David Trobisch, the museum’s director of collections, said matter-of-factly last week as he sat next to Green,” wrote Saletan. “With Trobisch and other scholars guiding the process, the Museum of the Bible became a real museum, exploring the messy history and shifting contents of the Judeo-Christian canon.” That is an unbelievable statement about a museum that was originally billed as the showplace to honor the Bible as the reliable and authoritative Word of God.

“Green’s reputation as a conservative crusader has aroused skepticism of the museum. Critics portray the 430,000-square-foot building … as a propaganda showcase,” wrote Saletan. “But what I found was a surprising degree of frankness, even agnosticism.” Saletan’s reaction to the museum lends credence to the many questions Moss and Baden pose in their book. What is Mr. Green up to?

“If you want to find the cartoon Bible, eternal and infallible, you can find it in quotes from Scripture on purple banners along the walls. ‘Every Word of God is pure,’ says one. ‘The law of the Lord is perfect,’ says another. ‘The Word of our God stands forever,’ says a third. But start poking around in the exhibits, and things get interesting,” stated Saletan. It is interesting that museum staffers don’t disagree with Saletan’s assessment. The museum’s Twitter site explains: “Our mission is to invite all people to engage with the history, narrative and impact of the Bible.” This means that it is up to each visitor to decide what he or she thinks about the Bible.

True Museum of the Bible

Steve and Jackie Green have written a book titled This Dangerous Book. It is about their family and their experiences with planning and purchasing their museum’s artifacts. They also write a considerable amount of material on their love for the Bible. I don’t doubt their sincerity and willingness to be giving people. However, they have strong evangelical roots.

Evangelicals—like the many other modern Christian denominations including Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists—talk Bible, but don’t do Bible. Most evangelicals are also avid dispensationalists. Basically, dispensationalists believe that the history on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament represents past dispensations that don’t matter today. That the Old Testament has great stories to educate us, but modern believers don’t have to obey the Ten Commandments—all that matters today is the New Testament gospel of Christ. Even there, though, most Christian denominations don’t know what that gospel is.

Many Christians today believe that Christ did away with the Ten Commandments. But Jesus himself said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matthew 5:17). “The only man the Bible claims to be good is Jesus,” write Steve and Jackie Green in their book. But here again: What did Jesus tell the lawyer that called Him “good master”? “Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God” (Luke 18:19). For many modern Christians, the Bible is a mere curiosity—something to be treasured in a special box or museum. It is a book for inspiration—not a guide to live by. (The general lack of “Christian” Bible literacy is stunning; for example, a 2010 Pew Research poll found that evangelicals ranked barely higher than atheists in familiarity with the New Testament.)

When it comes down to it, what is the most important “museum of the Bible”? It is God’s people, who know, understand and apply His Word—people that are “the pillar and ground of the truth.” The Bible is actively working in the lives of God’s people. The true servants of God are the only true “museum of the Bible” on Earth today. When you find God’s people, you find the reliable and authoritative Word of God in action (Jeremiah 1:18; chapter 7; Isaiah 56:3-5). Now that is the museum you should really want to see.

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