Today marks the grand opening of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The Museum of the Bible is free and boasts a massive collection of artifacts and biblical manuscripts. It includes a special exhibit on my first dig site, Khirbet Qeiyafa., called “In the Valley of David and Goliath.”
The museum website states the building has 430,000 square feet of space providing an immersive, high-tech experience on “the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.” Features include a 472-seat theater with immersive visuals and sound, several smaller theaters, a café and restaurant, a biblical garden, recreations of biblical places, and many interactive displays. It is clearly made to provide a grand experience and the designers, in the words of Jurassic Park‘s John Hammond, “spared no expense.”
This CGI preview shows some impressive looking displays. I even caught a glimpse of what appeared to be replicas of Sennacherib’s wall panels depicting the conquest of Lachish, my second dig site.
This new museum drew controversy before its grand opening when its chief benefactor, Hobby Lobby founder Steve Green, was discovered to have imported many Middle Eastern artifacts with unknown origins and improper documentation. While it appears this was done out of naiveté and over-eagerness, the museum faces the real prospect that portions of its collection are fake or looted. The museum manuscript collection includes several unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls, but many scholars are convinced some or most are modern-day forgeries. These issues have threatened the museum’s reputation before its grand opening.
The Green family and the museum have responded about as well as one would hope, paying a large settlement and bringing in credentialed experts to assist in evaluating and vetting the collections. The museum website includes a page that discusses these issues and states new policies to counter these problems in the future.
The Museum of the Bible was originally conceived as a way to promote specific theological and apologetic viewpoints of the Bible. In light of the clouds hanging over its collections, and on the advice of some scholars, the museum decided to take a more objective approach. Exhibits and displays focus less on theology and more on the facts of textual transmission, history, culture, and impact of the Bible. In short, it’s intended to be more “we report, you decide.” While I likely agree with some theological viewpoints of the founders, I believe this a wiser approach. Presenting the Gospel is work for a church, not a museum. Organizations with specific theological agendas run a high risk of over-interpreting available facts. Conclusions that may just be possible have sometimes been presented as certain in attempts to define opinion (or misinterpretation of Scripture) as orthodoxy. Remember when the Catholic Church tried to mic drop on Galileo?
If the Museum of the Bible continues in its new course, I believe it has tremendous potential to promote discussion and understanding of the most influential book in history – the Bible. I plan to arrange a visit at my earliest opportunity. It’s free, but be sure to reserve tickets in advance!
Artist construction of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. (Courtesy of The Museum of the Bible)