Who's Afraid of the Museum of the Bible?

Critics accuse it of threatening the separation of church and state; in truth, Washington’s new museum makes an invaluable contribution to American (and Jewish) cultural literacy.

Tourists from Mississippi enter the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. on December 5, 2017. Evelyn Hockstein/For the Washington Post via Getty Images.

Tourists from Mississippi enter the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. on December 5, 2017. Evelyn Hockstein/For the Washington Post via Getty Images.

Jan. 2 2018
About the author

Diana Muir Appelbaum, a writer and historian, is at work on a book about nationhood and democracy. Her museum reviews have appeared in the Claremont Review, the New Rambler, and elsewhere.

The loud noise that you can hear from the National Mall in Washington is the sound of brickbats pelting the glass roof of the city’s new Museum of the Bible (MOTB). The museum houses an enormous display of the history and archaeology of the Bible. Its collections are spectacular. Entrance is free. Christian philanthropists paid for it. Evidently, it is for some or all of these reasons that so many of the nation’s critics are outraged.

The Museum of the Bible is indeed massive, even if you exclude its two large restaurants, a rooftop Biblical Garden, a ballroom that seats hundreds, and a theater now hosting a musical about William Wilberforce, the English politician and deeply religious father of the anti-slavery movement. The exhibition space includes two narrative floors where artifacts and technology work together to present, respectively, the History of the Bible and the Impact of the Bible; major galleries devoted to special exhibits; special-effects galleries where the story of the Bible is told through immersive experiences; and a charming first-floor children’s museum where kids can face off against Goliath or sort loaves and fishes into baskets. Not to mention the Washington Revelations Flyboard Ride that takes you on a virtual tour of America’s capital—a city where biblical references turn out to be embedded in unexpected places.

In a calm, candid, and accurate review of the museum in the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott wrote:

The new attraction is an up-to-date version of an old-fashioned museum, telling linear stories in a complex and detailed way. It doesn’t foreground trendy ideas about multiculturalism, and it isn’t “thematic,” or focused on broad ideas at the expense of chronological clarity. [In its gallery Impact of the Bible,] it gives a straightforward account of American history, from the first colonists to the civil-rights era and beyond, through the prism of the Bible, but in a way that many visitors will probably find more compelling and accessible than the dense cultural stew on view at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.

So why the brickbats? From the silly but vehement, to the serious, to the book-length, let’s sample them.


I. Guilt by Association


First: the museum’s founders, David and Barbara Green, are evangelical Christians who earned a fortune running the Hobby Lobby craft stores that they manage together with their adult children. The family became notorious in some circles (and heroic in others) for winning a Supreme Court ruling to the effect that closely-held private businesses cannot be required by law to follow regulations—in this case, the requirement to include presumed abortifacients in employees’ health insurance—to which they have religious objections.

An outright aversion to the Greens’ Christian faith clearly animated the would-be novelist who wrote a scattershot review in the Forward grasping at any straw that could be connected, however remotely, to their Christianity and weaponized against it. “It seems egregious,” he fulminated at one point, “that while American Christians rightfully decry the oppression of Christians in the Muslim world, the Museum of the Bible is—unless I missed it—completely free of Arabic” (emphasis added). This, in a piece helpfully titled by his editors “We Went to the Museum of the Bible—So You Don’t Have To.”

Looking harder than the Forward’s critic, Dalia Hatuqa, who describes herself as “a journalist based in Washington, DC and the West Bank,” did find Judeo-Arabic texts written in Arabic script, and more Arabic in the special exhibitions on loan from Israel. Nevertheless, in an Atlantic essay titled “What’s Missing from the Museum of the Bible?,” she, too, found reason to complain that the museum largely ignored Islam and the Quran.

A related charge is that the museum has mustered its dazzling display of rare manuscripts and scholarly firepower as cover for an evangelical effort to turn Washington museum-goers into revolutionaries against the prevailing secular political order. Simply by being allowed to build so large a museum mere steps from the United States Capitol, chimed in the Forward’s agitated reviewer, MOTB could osmotically “undermine”—nothing less—hallowed American institutions like “the separation of church and state.”

For some critics, the museum provides cover for an evangelical effort to turn Washington museum-goers into revolutionaries against the prevailing secular political order.

Lizzie Wade, a reporter for Science who visited the museum before its official opening, raised a narrower faith-related concern, in this case about the Greens’ take on the Bible itself. Might they not, she asked, invoking what to her would seem two clearly illegitimate positions, “use artifacts to further an evangelical view of the Bible as historically accurate and immutable” (emphasis added)? Even more loosely, the news-and-opinion website Salon reprinted a warning that had appeared earlier in Alternet, an outlet considerably to Salon’s left; its author, while giving no indication of having set foot in the museum, located it as “part of a larger landscape of highly politicized evangelical museums” like Ark Encounter, a literalist attraction in Kentucky where the animals go in two-by-two. Although a pair of professors at Wheaton College painstakingly disentangled the literalism-cum-creationism of some strains of Christianity from the markedly more sophisticated approach followed at MOTB, the suspicion of guilt-by-religious-association lingers on.


What to say about these carpings? It is true, to begin with, that little Arabic writing is on display at the museum, and more broadly that the museum “fails” to focus on Islam or the Quran. It is equally true that the National Zoo fails to include aardvarks; that the National Gallery of Art does not own even a single painting by Sorolla, an artist of whom I am extremely fond; and that while museums have a duty to describe accurately whatever they choose to exhibit, no museum is obligated to explore every topic related either directly or indirectly to its theme.

In any case, the Quran, in addition to incorporating pre-monotheistic Arabian traditions, also draws heavily on Jewish and Christian (and Zoroastrian) sources, including the Bible and Midrash. All in all, and even setting aside the security precautions that would be required by an exhibit acknowledging such facts—many Muslims regard inquiry into this subject as sacrilege punishable by death—we may rest content with the response of the museum’s president, who points out quite reasonably that, given its name, the Museum of the Bible “is not about the Quran, it’s more about the Bible.”

And that is to pass over the Forward reviewer’s finding the absence of Arabic writings in a Bible museum to be fully as worthy of moral indignation as the “oppression”—that is, the persecution, murder, and ethnic cleansing—“of Christians in the Muslim world.”

As for the danger of public infection from an institution occupying space uncomfortably close to the Capitol, I’m tempted to name another close-by institution, similarly established by a private foundation, that promotes—also out of dark motives?—the legacy of the purported author of some very old and deeply revered texts displayed and acted out in costume dramas in a kitschy theater. I am of course describing the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Somewhat less risible is the fear voiced in Science and elsewhere that the Museum of the Bible might endorse the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and/or “immutability” that is associated with certain fundamentalist groups. The Greens themselves may initially have been responsible for fueling such concerns. In 2010, in the museum’s first IRS filing as a nonprofit, they described their mission as one of inspiring “confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.” But by 2012, with the hiring of professional staff members, they had walked back that self-definition, and critics, try as they might, have been unable to find actual examples of any such agenda in the museum’s core exhibits.

This has not deterred some hostile voices from characterizing MOTB’s scholars themselves as window-dressing, hired to conceal the underlying agenda. In evidence, Jill Hicks-Keaton of the University of Oklahoma, writing in Religion & Politics, pointed not only to the museum’s “implicit claims . . . about which biblical verses, books, or collections matter most” but also to its “denial” of having made choices in the first place. The simple fact is that, in making necessary curatorial decisions, all museums advance “implicit claims” about their displays. And far from denying anything, the museum’s scholars spoke at length with Hicks-Keaton about the complexities of narrative choice. As she herself acknowledges, moreover, the History floor is “saturated with input from biblical scholars.”

Still, the reporter from Science may not be completely wrong in asserting that the Green family’s deep faith in the Bible could subtly affect the tone and focus of the museum’s exhibits. As she put it, citing a wall text that discreetly omits to mention that the Bible may incorporate legends that predate it, some exhibits do “tiptoe around subjects that challenge” evangelical beliefs.

The problem is that, when it comes to tiptoeing, no major museum acts differently—and some have sinned much more egregiously than has the Museum of the Bible.

Take the 2012 exhibition, Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. There the Met didn’t just tiptoe; it expunged the Ottoman conquests from history. In room after magnificent room, artistic styles met and mingled with no discussion of how Islam had arrived in Constantinople in the first place, let alone how the Ottomans treated the people they had conquered. To the Met, all was multicultural harmony—just as it was in early 2017 in another major Met exhibition, Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under the Sun, whose confected portrait of a happily multireligious, multiethnic, and multilingual paradise mixed apologetics for Islamic suzerainty with a brazen slighting of Christian and, especially, Jewish degradation under Mamluk and Ottoman rule.

MOTB is guilty of nothing so egregious. Emma Green, who wrote a clear-eyed review of the museum for the Atlantic, came closer to reality in describing its purpose simply as “a multi-faceted look at a limited narrative of history . . . dedicated to the story of the Bible.” This is indeed, as its president insists, a museum about the Bible, with special focus on its origins in ancient Israel and its role in the formation and history of the United States.

Yes, there are things the museum might have attempted to do but does not. It does not, for instance, explore the origin of the Book of Mormon, or sufficiently attend to Ethiopian Christianity, or focus on the fact that Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Christians made slightly different choices about which books to include in the biblical canon. Nor does it devote attention to textual criticism—though frankly, it’s hard even to imagine an interesting museum built around the scholarly investigation of such questions as the relationship between a word used once or twice in the Bible and the use of the same word in a surviving fragment of a cuneiform text. And yet a writer at Vox who happened to take classes in biblical criticism in graduate school was not alone in asserting that the Greens were to be faulted for not building such a museum.

In short, of making many superficial and easily rebutted complaints there has been no end—so many, in fact, that one begins to wonder whether these complaints are not themselves a cover for sheer prejudice against evangelical Christians, if not against a book that is still stubbornly held sacred by many millions, on the part of critics convinced that only a primitive and unenlightened mind could regard the Bible as anything more than a pastiche of stories and myths wholly uncorroborated in ancient or archeological sources.

Or do they perhaps cover a worry, even a fear, that an educated American, no matter how well armed with that settled assurance, might, upon visiting the museum, be shaken by a contrary discovery: that, for instance, the story of a Jewish nation emerging in the hill country of Judea three millennia ago is in fact substantiated by a surprising amount of archaeological and textual evidence?

To this aspect of the museum we shall return in due course.


II. Fake vs. Not-Fake: A Comparative Perspective


A species of more serious criticism of MOTB originates in the discomfiting fact that its stunning collection of artifacts represents the largest amateur foray into the antiques market since William Randolph Hearst ransacked Europe in the 1920s.

Hearst built a castle with spectacular views of Big Sur out of the bits and pieces of old palaces, but, decades after his death, crateloads of his purchases still sat unopened. Something similar has happened with the Green family.

In a warehouse in Oklahoma there are crates containing 5,500 cuneiform tablets and other ancient clay artifacts that were smuggled out of Iraq, purchased by the Greens, and shipped to the United States using customs forms describing them as “handmade clay tiles” destined for a crafts store. The smuggled artifacts were judged forfeit to the federal government and a $3-million fine was paid. At last notice, they had not yet been completely turned over to the government, apparently because the crates have yet to be sorted out.

The Greens started their Bible-related collecting spree in the early 2000s with the aid of poorly qualified staff; in less than a decade, they had accumulated a tremendous stash. Since then, theirs has been a steep learning curve. By 2012 they had let their early advisers go and begun hiring the professional scholars and curators who built the new museum’s displays. But the family labors under the shadow cast by earlier questionable or illegal purchases.

Like other collectors, the Greens are excited especially by the possibility of acquiring not just shards, coins, and architectural elements but extremely ancient biblical texts. Such texts do come onto the market from older collections, and some surface thanks to the hope of making a fortune that has inspired locals to clamber into caves and undertake illegal digs ever since the discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls by a Bedouin shepherd in 1946.

Other genuine ancient texts continued to emerge until about 1953, sold to collectors and museums by Khalil Iskander Shahin, an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem known as Kando. But in the 1990s, someone, almost certainly a highly trained scholar, began to create fake but authentic-looking texts on genuine bits of ancient papyrus or parchment. Eager collectors paid huge sums for these, and the stream of forgeries grew. This is the shady marketplace into which the Greens charged, armed with piles of cash, no expertise, and advisers who were not up to the task.

The marketplace into which the Greens charged, armed with piles of cash, no expertise, and advisers who were not up to the task, was shady. Unsurprisingly, they got snookered.

Unsurprisingly, they got snookered. It’s useful to bear in mind, as the art critic Menachem Wecker observed in his review of the Bible museum, that similar things happen to collectors, and to collections, all the time. To take one American instance, in 1965 the oil millionaire Algur H. Meadows opened the Meadows Museum in Dallas with works by Chagall, Degas, Modigliani, Picasso, and other big-name artists, 44 of which turned out to be forgeries.

Within its large collection of manuscripts, the Museum of the Bible owns a total of thirteen text fragments purchased from collectors who bought them from relatives of Kando in the early 2000s. The date is important. Major museums now restrict their acquisition of artifacts to those legally owned prior to the 1970 UNESCO convention limiting the sale of newly discovered cultural artifacts. (The reason for the UNESCO ban was simple: the existence of buyers incentivizes treasure hunters who destroy the sites they ransack.) In the case of the museum’s thirteen fragments, the Greens’ claim is that a Bethlehem family had owned the fragments since the 1950s, making them legal under the terms of the convention.

Some of the small number of scholars qualified to have an opinion on the thirteen fragments describe them as forgeries; others say that they appear to be authentic. At the museum, they are displayed with captions describing them as possible forgeries. Some reviewers of the new museum have seemed genuinely disappointed when artifacts are not found to be fake.


To gain comparative perspective on this issue of fake and not-fake, you might exit MOTB and head down the block to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

There, in the dramatic foyer of an exhibit titled Nation to Nation: Treaties between the United States and American Indian Nations, you’ll find the Two-Row Wampum Treaty on display. Featuring two rows of dark shells with rows of white shells above and below, it is clearly labeled as a replica of an original ceremonial belt made to commemorate a 1613 treaty between the Dutch and the Iroquois. This replica belt introduces the exhibit, whose theme is three centuries of treaty promises made and broken.

Genuine treaties are on display at the National Museum of the American Indian, just as real animals are on display at Kentucky’s Ark Encounter. But there is no evidence that such a thing as an “original” two-row wampum belt ever existed. Nor is there any evidence of the existence of a 1613 treaty beyond a claim traceable to a document forged in the 1960s by a historian who collected and wrote about old manuscripts. But to know this, you have to have read the Journal of Early American History. At the Smithsonian, the 1613 treaty is presented simply as fact, and you will need to search hard to find a critic holding the museum to account for its misleading presentation.

For another example of flexible adherence to scholarly standards, take Religion in Early America, a one-year, temporary exhibit produced by Smithsonian curators and on view now at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. By coincidence, the Smithsonian exhibit covers a period and topic also covered in MOTB’s Bible in America gallery. The two exhibits are about the same size, and display many of the same kinds of artifacts; each, for example, has a copy of the first book printed in the thirteen colonies: The Bay Psalm Book.

At the Smithsonian, the curators present a narrative of early-American religious diversity and tolerance:

Christianity existed from the beginning alongside other traditions. Judaism was practiced from Charleston to Boston. Islam and African traditions were brought by enslaved people.

The Smithsonian misstates the facts. In the thirteen colonies, there were only five Jewish communities, only five places where Jews could “practice” such essential customs as gathering for group prayer or burying their dead in a Jewish cemetery. These were Savannah, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport. An occasional Jew lived elsewhere, but Boston, for example, would not tolerate a community until the 1840s.

As for Islam, the Smithsonian illustrates its narrative of early-American diversity by displaying the Bilali document: a remarkable Arabic manuscript written by a West African slave at a Georgia plantation who recorded what he remembered of Islamic law. It is a poignant testimony to the horrors of enslavement and lost identity. But it dates from the 19th century. In early America, which is what the show is about, no evidence has yet surfaced that an enslaved Muslim was able to practice or transmit his or her faith.

In contrast to the Smithsonian, MOTB offers an accurate account of America’s religious beginnings. In addition to the discussions that line the walls—they concern the complex interactions between European newcomers and native peoples, the issue of slavery, and the arguments on behalf of liberty of conscience—three display cases occupy the center of the room, and the tale they tell is nowhere near so cheerfully multicultural as the Smithsonian’s.

One of these cases, New England, explains that Puritan colonies favored Reformed interpretations of the Bible and “banished individuals who challenged these interpretations.” A second, Middle Colonies, points out that while the colonies from New York to Maryland were generally tolerant, in Maryland, Protestants overthrew the preponderantly Catholic founding government and made the Church of England the official church. In early America, religious tolerance meant minority faiths were allowed to establish and attend churches of their choice, but in many states even after the Revolution, everyone had to pay taxes to support the official church and the salaries of the official clergy. In the third, Southern display case, the curators explain that “the rights of non-Anglicans” were legally restricted.

So much for comparative museological standards of accuracy and honesty.


III. Evangelizing the Country?


Finally we turn to the most strident critics of the Museum of the Bible: two professors of religion, Candida Moss and Joel Baden, whose Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, came out while MOTB was under construction. Their sight-unseen condemnation of the Greens’ alleged effort to promote “the rights of religion to try and influence public values and political choices” has informed and influenced many reviewers who cite the book as their authority.

Moss and Baden assert that “for the Greens, there is no contradiction between exercising their constitutional rights to religious freedom and attempting to evangelize a country.” But, they contend, the Greens have forfeited those constitutional rights, and have done so by posing as a family that had “quietly gone about its private business” until galvanized to action by being forced to pay for employee health insurance covering contraceptives. The truth, Baden and Moss claim, is that the Greens “had been religiously motivated political activists” for years.

Actually, it’s not so easy for Americans to forfeit their constitutional rights, and it’s equally hard to imagine an interpretation of the First Amendment that doesn’t protect the right to evangelize without using public funds. But, that aside, Moss and Baden’s book is filled with similarly bad arguments, some of which are big enough to drive a chariot through.

Thus, in Chapter 1 of this four-chapter book, Moss and Baden portray the colorful operators who sold the Green family on the idea of starting a collection as a prelude to some sort of museum, and give us details of the buying spree that began in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. They briefly mention that the 2008 collapse brought an unusual number of authentic artifacts onto the market as families suddenly pressed for cash quietly sold Grandpa’s collection via private dealers. But this fact alone should have complicated the authors’ sweeping claim, widely repeated by others, that much of the Greens’ ancient manuscript collection is illegitimate. Instead, after offering a few details, Moss and Baden quickly shift to dark innuendo about artifacts that change hands “without too many questions asked.”

The second and longest chapter of Bible Nation is devoted to the Greens’ Scholars Initiative, a program to get students excited about ancient texts by giving individual professors access to unpublished and rare manuscripts on condition that they will decipher the texts with student participation. In the program, students pore over unfamiliar alphabets in an attempt to identify letters written in ink so faded as to be almost invisible.

Moss and Baden allege malfeasance—on the grounds that there is little educational value to this sort of activity. Parenthetically, one might note that what students do for the Scholars Initiative doesn’t sound all that different from encouraging undergraduate volunteers to sit under a tree in Costa Rica keeping a tally of monkey droppings, or to sift gravel in an archaeological dig—except, of course, that parents pay thousands of dollars to give their kids the latter opportunities. But our authors are after bigger game. They want to show that the Greens have stood to make enormous sums of money from the Scholars Initiative.

How so? By buying a rare manuscript at an unusually low price, Moss and Baden explain, and then sharing it with a scholar who uses student labor to get a published paper out of it, the Greens increase the manuscript’s value so greatly that, thanks to the hefty tax write-off on donations of appreciated holdings, they actually make a profit when they gift it to the museum. Such tax write-offs, write Moss and Baden, are in fact “a substantial part of [the Greens’] reason” for buying ancient manuscripts in the first place, especially after they learned that buying rare manuscripts could be “financially profitable.”

Certainly a manuscript can turn out to be far more valuable than the seller knew—like the painting that your sister spotted at an estate sale that turns out to be a genuine Monet. Note, however, that your sister can “profit” from that Monet only if she sells it. If she donates it instead to a museum, she can deduct the appraised value from her tax bill. But how often does that happen? The assertion that the Greens expect it to happen so routinely that profit is their true motivation for becoming manuscript collectors is quite a leap—one might almost say a leap of (bad) faith.

And from there to the claim that the Greens’ entire manuscript collection, their decades of donating buildings to charity, and their construction of a museum at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars from a family that gives half of Hobby Lobby’s pre-tax earnings to charity—that all of this is driven by the desire for tax deductions is as absurd as it sounds.

Since no schools are forced to buy the Greens’ new Bible curriculum, one struggles to see the harm of it—except perhaps to those horrified by the thought of the Bible’s influence on America.

Next, in Chapter 3, we learn that the Greens’ staff has produced a Bible curriculum. The allegation here is that the family dreams nefariously of “seeing the Bible taught across the country—not just as literature, or for its historical value, but as the core of where America came from and what its values ought to be.” It appears to be a pretty good curriculum—some schools in Israel are said to be using it—but since no school systems are forced to buy it, and no schools to teach it, one struggles to see the harm, except perhaps to the sensibilities of those horrified by the very thought of the Bible’s influence on the core of what America is and what its values ought to be.

Chapter 4 is devoted to airing the authors’ suspicions about what the museum would be like, once built. Mercifully, the reader is now free to go and see for himself or herself.


IV. The Museum Itself


Despite all of Moss and Baden’s animadversions and vituperations, Bible Nation does offer, here and there, interesting glimpses into the evolution of a grand project. The project seems to have started with a vague notion of buying artifacts to create a traveling show that would generate Bible-based enthusiasm and belief, but in the fullness of time has resulted in what I and others would now unhesitatingly evaluate as one of the best museums in Washington, period.

This is why I have been so intent on rebutting uninformed and highly prejudicial attacks on the presumed motives of the museum’s founders and by implication on the integrity of its offerings—and why I want to conclude by returning briefly to those offerings. In doing so, I’ll also attend to the museum’s treatment of, in particular, the Hebrew Bible, and to the question of what its exhibits have to say especially to Jews.

To put the case succinctly, the History of the Bible floor at MOTB opens with the best exhibit about ancient Israel on view in any museum in the world. I include here the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, whose archaeology wing presents so kaleidoscopic an array of ancient Near Eastern cultures as to make it hard to pick out the specific Israelite story that visitors presumably go to the museum to find. At MOTB, we are given a scholarly and nuanced treatment of the interactions and influences among ancient kingdoms and peoples organized in a way that enables visitors to follow the development of an Israelite people, culture, and nation.

To accomplish this, MOTB combines genuine artifacts with replicas and niches devoted to single topics. (In one of the latter, wonderful images of ancient synagogues in the land of Israel illustrate the development of organized worship far from the Temple Mount.) Here and elsewhere on the floor you are given the option of a deep dive or history-lite. In the latter form, you can Drive Thru History in a series of lively videos narrated by an Indiana Jones type who jokes about his difficulties with the stick shift in his vintage Jeep as he leads you on a trail of biblical episodes displayed on large screens, with seating areas surrounded by artifacts. Or you can build your own tour by engaging with the objects at your chosen pace and delving into topics that catch your fancy. Captions manage to be simultaneously scholarly, accessible, and brief; technology and artifacts work together.

Later on the same floor, things heat up, especially as the Reformation and the battle between Protestants and Catholics get under way—but even here you bump into Jewish artifacts, Jewish history, and Jews even in areas where you might least expect to. Toward the end of the section on the new vernacular Bible translations sparked by the Reformation, I happened upon Moses Mendelssohn’s 1780 translation of the Bible into Judeo-German—that is, German rendered in Hebrew letters.

On the immersive Stories of the Bible floor, two young staffers invited me into the World of Jesus of Nazareth, earnestly describing the labor invested by Israeli scholars to make certain that Galilean life in the year 1 CE was accurately represented. You step onto the street of a first-century Galilean village that is authentic down to the replicas of farming implements, mikveh, and synagogue. Gospel passages are printed on the faux-stone walls of the houses.

Two neighboring exhibits then present Hebrew Bible and New Testament. At the pre-opening, populated by media and donors, five of us entered Hebrew Bible at the same time: myself, a Mennonite couple, a wire-service reporter, and a reporter from a major Jewish publication. The 40-minute show began with a curatorial promise to paint “an authentic portrait of a family, a people, a nation, and a religion.” As the dim room filled with flashing light, a male voice with a faint Israeli accent said, “Let there be light.” We followed stories through the Tanakh in a series of corridors, alternating with wide spaces, the first of which was obviously Abraham’s birthplace of Ur.

As we waited for the video and special effects to start, the Jewish journalist looked around and asked: what’s this one supposed to be? When I answered “Ur,” he drew a blank, thereby confirming the claim of the museum’s founders that most Americans know nothing about the Bible—and simultaneously making the case for why, among the proliferating museums and monuments now crowding the National Mall, this particular museum is so necessary.

Can a museum built by evangelical Christians present the Hebrew Bible in a way that will seem neutral if not congenial to Jews?  At MOTB, the answer is either a firm or a qualified “yes.”


Can, then, a museum built by evangelical Christians present the Hebrew Bible in a way that will seem neutral if not congenial to Jews? On the floors devoted to the History of the Bible and the Impact of the Bible, the answer is a firm yes. It is yes again, with caveats, in the multimedia galleries devoted specifically to the Hebrew Bible and to the World of Jesus of Nazareth.

To explain my qualifier, it may help to return to an earlier point: any 40-minute effort to recount the Hebrew Bible starting with Creation and ending with Ezra will require choices about which stories to tell and which to omit. The stories of Ruth and Bathsheba might or might not make the cut in a Jewish museum, but they’re here, taken straight from the Hebrew Bible. Still, visitors unaware that Bathsheba and Ruth were chosen because the first chapter of the first gospel in the New Testament identifies them as ancestors of Jesus will not learn that here. On the other hand, what they will hear is an account of the Tanakh that places special emphasis on the Exodus, and a historically resonant question posed at a dramatic moment: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

A final word in this connection about special exhibits: the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Bible Lands Museum in Israel, and the Vatican Museum each filled a special exhibit hall at the museum for its opening, and each has contracted to send a regular stream of special shows that will be curated by their own staffs. For the opening, the Bavarian State Library contributed a gallery’s worth of exquisitely illuminated medieval manuscripts, while the Vatican for its part chose to send replicas. This winter, a special exhibit has been sent by Amsterdam’s Ets Haim Library and the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana (the Jewish collection of the University of Amsterdam). Next year the Hebrew University will send an exhibition. These contributions alone make the museum an invaluable addition to American cultural literacy.

The trip to Washington is also worth the journey just to see In the Valley of David and Goliath, a special exhibit on display last year at the Bible Lands Museum in Israel. It shows finds from Khirbet Qeiyafa. That heavily fortified hilltop town, about 20 miles from present-day Jerusalem, guarded the approach to Judea from the Philistine coast at the very end of the 11th and beginning of the 10th centuries BCE: the era, that is, of Kings David and Solomon. Qeiyafa features an unusual city wall with a pair of heavily fortified gates built of giant stones, suggesting that it may be identifiable as the biblical town of Shaaraim (“Two Gates”).

Along with the monumental building in the town center, the dates of the artifacts and the bits of writing discovered at Qeiyafa make this the latest in a series of dig—the excavations at the City of David in Jerusalem being the largest and the most spectacular—that have propelled the hitherto disputed idea of a centralized Judean monarchy from the pages of the Bible into the realm of archaeologically attested history. Among the notable finds from Qeiyafa on display at MOTB is a stone architectural model of a building with a doorway recessed in three steps, a style that, in the view of many scholars, echoes the doorways described somewhat obscurely in biblical passages depicting the palace and Temple built by Solomon.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has filled a special gallery with artifacts including oversized jars labeled LMLK (“l’melekh” or “belonging to the king”) that held taxes paid in kind to ancient Judean kings; a royal Israelite column capital from Megiddo; and examples of the remarkable Judean shekel-weights that brought uniform standards of measurement to marketplaces throughout the Judean kingdom. The final display case holds three small, earthenware oil lamps. The first, dated 3rd-to-4th century CE and embossed with an incense shovel and seven-branched menorah, is labeled Jewish; the second, 4th-to-5th century and embossed with a Byzantine cross, is Christian. Both were unearthed in Jerusalem. The third, from 8th-to-10th century Caesarea, is labeled Islamic, setting things in accurate chronological order.

In sum, the artifacts on loan from Israel corroborate the existence of powerful, centralized kingdoms as described in the Bible. And that, of course, is part of what the Museum of the Bible brings to the conversation: evidence that the Israelite kingdoms existed, displayed where all America, and all the world, can see it.

More about: Arts & Culture, Christianity, Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Museum of the Bible, Museums