A Museum for the Bible in a Religiously Diverse Land

There is no neutral or “universal” way to read—or exhibit—the Bible. What, then, can an American museum of the Bible strive to accomplish?

Biblically themed toys at the gift shop for the Museum of the Bible. Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Biblically themed toys at the gift shop for the Museum of the Bible. Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Jan. 22 2018
About the author

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the author of Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Library of Jewish Ideas; Princeton University Press).

It was inevitable that a Museum of the Bible (MOTB) located only steps away from the Capitol would come under intense attack, much of it even while its building was still under construction. For the presence of such an institution in our capital city draws attention to the delicate and never quite settled interplay between, on the one hand, the constitutional order and, on the other hand, religious institutions in the country that the British Roman Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton defined as “a nation with the soul of a church.”

To Diana Muir Appelbaum’s wise observations about the attacks and about MOTB itself (which I have not visited), I would like here to add some remarks about that interplay, and about the challenge of doing justice to the different ways the Bible is understood in a religiously pluralistic society.

That the Constitution mandates some separation of religion and state is well known. Federal and state officials, it reads, “shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” (Article 6). The First Amendment goes farther, famously decreeing that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Putting these two requirements together, we can see that the government (originally, just the federal government, not the states) could neither have a precise and explicit religious identity of its own nor constrain its citizens’ religious practice and expression. Separation of religion and state, that is, does not equate to separation of religion and society, or of religion and culture.

To many, this curious arrangement seems to necessitate that religion be defined as purely a matter of personal choice, a private affair without relevance to the public order established by the Constitution. This is not surprising. Given the predominant cultural influence of Protestantism in America, it makes sense that Americans would be especially inclined to associate religious identity with states of mind, personal experience, inward conviction, and the like, as Protestant tradition has so often done.

On groups like Jews and Roman Catholics, both of whom, in their different ways, have a less individualistic and more corporate sense of identity, the privatization of religion falls harder. But even in the early Republic, when (as Appelbaum points out) the Jewish population was minuscule and Roman Catholicism was weak and vulnerable, doubts were expressed about conceiving religion as merely optional. The best-known expression is that of President George Washington (an Episcopalian) in his celebrated farewell address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

One way of framing the concern raised by Washington is to compare monarchical and republican forms of government. Just as, in a monarchy, the character or virtue of the king or queen is a matter of the greatest concern to the body politic, so in a republic the character or virtue of the citizenry is a central concern and must not be regarded as only a private matter. For Washington, the source of virtue—the pre-political, non-state seedbed of the national character necessary to sustain the American experiment—lay in religion. Nor was his conviction a short-lived matter. Some 40 years later, Alexis de Tocqueville, the brilliant French visitor and observer of America and Americans, wrote: “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”

Of course, we all know—and I imagine Washington and Tocqueville did, too—individuals of spotless moral character who lack any religious identity, just as we know individuals with encompassing religious affiliations who act reprehensibly, sometimes even with the blessing and support of their religious communities. The question, though, is not about individuals: it is about the society as a whole. And it is not about a given generation, which may well be traveling on the residual momentum of commitments that have weakened or disappeared only in recent decades.

The question, rather, is this: can “national morality,” to use Washington’s language, be sustained over the generations “in exclusion of religious principle”? Or, to revert to Tocqueville’s focus, can “liberty”—including the liberty to be or not to be religious as one chooses—survive without a moral commitment that arises from outside of state institutions and undergirds them: specifically, the morality that is associated with faith?

Both in the Constitution and in the ongoing American political tradition, the relationship between religious affirmation and civic identity is thus a dynamic one; it resists any static, legalistic formulation. The secular or, better, non-religious character of the political order and the moral demands that arise from religious traditions exert pressure on each other to one degree or another, and either community can change course as a result of the pressure or persuasion coming from the other.

In our current situation, however, the balance has clearly shifted in favor of the political order, with that order understood as unresponsive to religious communities. Here again, the reason is readily at hand. In the last several decades, the state has become a vastly larger institution and now dominates vastly more of the nation’s life than it did in the times of Washington or Tocqueville or, for that matter, of our own grandparents. Correlatively, the notion that religion is at most a matter of the individual heart and properly exercised only in houses of worship has become the default position for many, especially among the intellectual elites.

If, then, the state takes a given position—such as the position that the life of a human unborn may be legitimately terminated at the unilateral decision of the mother—many now see the dissenting position as an illicit assault by private citizens upon the public order. So, given that David and Barbara Green, the founders of MOTB, insisted earlier on that their private company (Hobby Lobby Stores) should not be required by law to include abortifacients in its health plan, it was inevitable that their new philanthropic initiative would arouse suspicion, even animosity. That the MOTB could avoid the “brickbats pelting [its] glass roof,” as Appelbaum memorably puts it, is highly unlikely—whatever the funders’ personal intentions and however they may have amassed their personal collection.


There are, nonetheless, real dangers that would be posed by any museum focused on the Bible, and to some of these I would now like to draw attention. My point is not to join those seeking to discredit the MOTB, nor is it in any way to question Appelbaum’s judgment that “in making necessary curatorial decisions, all museums advance ‘implicit claims’ about their displays”—a judgment with which I am in complete agreement. My point, rather, is that the very format of a museum—any museum—occludes certain key aspects of the role of the Bible in the various communities that revere it.

Let’s begin with that slippery word “Bible.” Appelbaum cautions us that the MOTB does not “focus on the fact that Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Christians made slightly different choices about which books to include in the biblical canon.” A case—though not an incontestable one—can be made that the differences among Christian canons are of small import; but is the decision to include the New Testament really only a “slightly different choice” that Christians have made? The very different structures of Judaism and Christianity as they have developed over the past two millennia answer with a resounding no. Nor is it the case that Christians and Jews read the Old Testament/Tanakh the same way. (“Tanakh” is the Jewish term for what in modern times has come to be called, neutrally, the “Hebrew Bible.” The absence of a common nomenclature is itself instructive.)

For one thing, as the Jewish tradition has developed over the centuries, it has focused primarily on the Pentateuch, whereas Christians have more often focused, say, on Isaiah and Psalms rather than on Leviticus or Deuteronomy.

This, in turn, reflects a very deep division between the two biblically based communities about the status and authority of Mosaic revelation in what Christians tend to call “the economy of salvation” and about how the biblical prophets are to be interpreted in light of it. When Appelbaum writes, regarding the “effort [in the MOTB] to recount the Hebrew Bible starting with creation and ending with Ezra,” she provides a telling example of exactly this very large difference. “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,” she tells us, “will not learn that here.” The more encompassing point they are not learning is that conceptions of the Bible that most Americans may think of as religiously neutral are, in fact, derived from Christian theological affirmations.

There is, indeed, no neutral way to read the Bible, no mode of reading (including that of modern historical criticism) that is free of presuppositions and simply takes the text at face value. Even within a given corpus, such as the Pentateuch, the decision as to which passages will and which passages will not receive the heaviest treatment always involves some normative claim.

Is, for example, the episode in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 properly conceived as “the Fall of Man,” so that it constitutes a passage of central religious importance to the drama of redemption? For reasons again readily found in the New Testament, Christians are more likely than Jews to think so. Again: when we speak of “the commandments,” do we mean all of the commandments (which rabbinic tradition enumerates as 613) attributed to Mosaic mediation, or only those in the Decalogue, which Christians tend to call “the Ten Commandments” as if there were no others that are still binding? Each answer reflects a set of religious commitments, even if both have subtly morphed into a supposedly non-confessional cultural heritage.

This is not to deny commonalities in how Jews and Christians interpret the scriptures they share. But the differences are also important; whenever the term “Bible” includes the New Testament, the differences in how the two traditions have tended to read the Hebrew Bible fade, and, accordingly, the observer is subtly but seriously misled.

Even that phrase, “read the Bible,” is problematic. For Jews, the study of the Tanakh has not only prioritized the Pentateuch (or “Torah,” “Ḥumash”); traditionally, it has also been conducted in tandem with a set of authoritative interpreters, ranging from an ancient Aramaic translation to the midrashic comments of talmudic rabbis and into the disputatious world of the medieval commentators and their modern continuators. An analogy (though not a strong one) can be found in the Roman Catholic affirmation of both scripture and tradition, each incomplete without the other. When, therefore, an institution largely strips away the traditional context and concentrates on the Bible alone, it reflects and reinforces willy-nilly the priorities of Protestantism in some version or another—even if, again, this is done as part of a good-faith effort at presenting the Bible as a key item in the American cultural heritage (which it is).

In this instance, what is occluded is not only the content of Jewish interpretation (in all its variety) but also, and in some ways more ominously, the social practices by which Jews have historically encountered their Bible. What Jews mean by talmud torah (“the study of Torah”) and what Christians mean by “Bible reading” or “Bible study” are different in ways to which museum exhibits, even exhibits that include traditional Jewish artifacts, cannot do justice.


It must again be stressed that there is nothing nefarious in this. In fact, from what Appelbaum reports, it would certainly appear that the MOTB is eager to avoid bias so far as possible. The display of a copy of Moses Mendelssohn’s translation of the Bible into Judeo-German certainly gestures toward a larger world of interpretation than that of American (or other) Protestantism, and the presence of exhibits from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Bible Lands Museum in Israel, and the Vatican Museum all speak to the same eagerness to avoid religious bias.

I myself was asked to serve on a team of scholars to review the script and visuals of the exhibit about the overarching biblical narrative from creation to the time of Ezra that Appelbaum mentions, with an eye to answering three questions:

  • Do you notice any inaccurate statements?
  • Are any impressions misleading?
  • Do you think there are any significant omissions (even within our limitations of space and time)?

I declined only because of scheduling. Some highly respected Jewish scholars accepted the invitation. If, as Appelbaum suggests, the Greens “got snookered” in the past by “possible forgeries” that turned up on the often-murky antiquities market, the voice of academic specialists in biblical studies will make this less likely to happen again.

The fact remains, though, that even with the best of intentions and the most respected consultants, a museum cannot but advance “implicit claims,” as Appelbaum stresses. And precisely because “Bible” is an inherently community-specific category—there is not, and there never has been, a universal “Bible”—those claims cannot do equal justice to all religious communities. Jews in particular need to bear that in mind.

And there is another miscommunication that any museum devoted to the Bible is likely to encourage, whether intentionally or not. This has to do with the fact that museums display artifacts, but artifacts are mute. What they mean has to be stated in words; contemporary interpretation is inevitable. Contrary to what many in the general public believe, archaeological remains, though they may illuminate the cultural world behind the text, seldom validate narratives within it.

More than that, what has historically been most important about the Bible is not at all the realia that it mentions, or even the events it narrates. Rather, what has historically been most important about the Bible, and remains central to the believer, is the speeches it records, especially God’s promises, commandments, rebukes, consolations, self-descriptions, and the like—speeches whose veracity can never be confirmed or disconfirmed by mere objects or even by reconstruction of the broad cultural backdrop. Archaeological research can sometimes shed light on whether a given event narrated in the Hebrew Bible took place (actually, this rarely happens). But whether the narrator’s theological interpretation of it and whether the words of God or of the human figures were said and were accurate—on this the archaeologists are, or ought to be, as mute as the objects displayed in a museum.

My guess is that few visitors to the MOTB will properly appreciate the import of this key fact. Some, I suspect, will simply think the exhibits confirm their faith, as if modern biblical scholarship posed no challenges to religious assumptions that believers need to face, or offered no valuable resources to them.


But there are some things that a museum can do to promote a sense of the inevitability and tentativeness of biblical interpretation in the light of modern knowledge and, coordinately, a sense of the processes by which the Bible came to be. Here again, attention not simply to artifacts but to the text as a unit of meaning is essential. In this regard, Appelbaum concedes that the MOTB does not “devote attention to textual criticism—though frankly,” she adds, “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.”

With that example, who could quarrel? But I can imagine an exhibit—and perhaps the MOTB has one, or will have one—that would juxtapose, say, a replica and translation of the cuneiform text of the Babylonian king Hammurabi’s Code with sections of Exodus that it resembles so strikingly and, in many scholars’ minds, not coincidentally. Such an exhibit would help dispel the widespread notion (especially powerful among believers) that the Hebrew Bible was radically discontinuous with its Near Eastern antecedents and contemporaries, and would convey a sense of the complex cultural dynamics of the world in which it was produced. (Exhibits that juxtaposed texts from late Second Temple Judaism with texts from the New Testament might have the same effect on those who imagine that Jesus and the early Christians stood in radical opposition to the Judaism of their time—a conception that proved a significant source of anti-Semitism over the centuries.)

In the same room with the texts from Exodus, the curators might also display laws in Deuteronomy that seem to revise those of Exodus. The overall effect, then, would be to trace a process of adaptation and reformulation from Hammurabi to Exodus to Deuteronomy, thus conveying a sense of the dynamism of biblical tradition—that is, of the tradition internal to the Bible.

Finally, I can imagine a display in which a rabbinic text seeks to harmonize the discrepancies between the two versions of the same biblical law. This would invite reflection on how traditions have conserved texts that historians relegate to different periods as if the later material simply replaced the earlier, once and for all, and on how traditional interpreters have sought to honor the whole canon of scripture. Ideally, such reflection would also impart a sense of the compositional processes underlying the ostensibly static phenomenon known as the Bible—and, more importantly, a sense of the important continuities between the traditions internal to the Bible (which helped produce the Bible) and the postbiblical traditions that have kept the Bible alive long after canonization took place.

It should, in sum, be possible for a museum to promote to a high degree an understanding of the Bible as a central item in American culture, as a source of truth and authority for Christians and Jews in their different ways, and as the object of enormously productive (and, for some, challenging) academic study in the modern mode. How well the MOTB does this now, I cannot say. But Diana Muir Appelbaum’s splendid essay makes me eager to find out for myself.

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