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The Museum of the Bible opens in Washington, DC

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WHEN plans for the Museum of the Bible, which opens to the public in Washington, DC on November 18th, were first unveiled many predicted it would be a big, glossy advertisement for fundamentalist Christianity. The museum was founded and part-funded by Steve Green, a prominent evangelical and president of Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft shops that in 2014 persuaded the Supreme Court that it deserved a religious exemption from a requirement in Obamacare that employers provide their workers with certain contraceptives. Later that year Mr Green, who has said that the Bible is “a reliable historical document” tried, unsuccessfully, to insert a Bible course into public schools in Oklahoma City, where his company is head-quartered.

That did nothing to reassure those who worried that a privately-funded $500m Bible museum only three blocks from Capitol Hill would seek to press conservative evangelicals’ already-huge influence unduly. Nor did the institution’s original mission statement, which was to “inspire confidence in the absolute authority of the Bible.”

The museum, which says it is “non-sectarian”, has since rewritten this; its mission is ostensibly now merely to encourage visitors to “engage” with the Bible. And a tour of the museum suggests that is right. The 430,000-square-foot institution, which has a splendid redbrick façade and stone-and-glass interior to rival any of the world-class museums on the Mall two blocks away, is divided into three main sections: “History of the Bible”; “Stories of the Bible” and “Impact of the Bible”. None of its exhibits promotes biblical literalism, for example the belief that God created the world in six days. Nor does the museum espouse the conservative views on the wickedness of homosexuality or abortion that are so prevalent in political evangelical discourse. The museum pushes little dogma of any kind—it scarcely explains the Christian belief in Jesus’s resurrection, say, or salvation.

The museum has burnished its academic credentials by hiring some respected Bible scholars as consultants. Their influence is obvious in the excellent third of the museum that deals with the Bible’s history. Brief, fact-based, descriptions of how the Old and New Testaments came to be gathered, translated and spread throughout the world are scattered among a breathtaking collection of early scriptural artifacts, including a Gilgamesh tablet from from the second millennium BC and supposed shreds of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Some scholars believe the latter are fake; accompanying placards signal that controversy and that research on the scrolls is ongoing.)

In recent months, the museum’s haul of treasures has sparked new controversies. In July, after the Department of Justice accused Hobby Lobby of buying smuggled antiquities the company forfeited the items and paid a $3m fine. In a statement it emphasised that the museum was a separate entity.

But the museum has other flaws, which become evident in the sections focusing on bible’s “stories” and “impact”. They include a pretty, evocative re-creation of a first-century Jewish village and an immersive walk through the stories of the Hebrew Bible. These appear rather more faith-based, and so less academically rigorous. Throughout, there is a tendency to conflate Biblical story-telling with historical fact. For example a sign describing the prophets of the Old Testament states that “God chose the prophets to speak on God’s behalf to those with closed ears, blind eyes, and dull hearts”. Not much Biblical exegesis there. 

This points to another, associated problem. Though the museum boasts that it is non-sectarian this reliance on the words of the Bible, with little interpretation of them, is strongly Protestant: a belief in sola scriptura—the Bible alone—was one of the main reasons the Protestants of the Reformation rejected Catholicism. This may be one reason, alongside a wish to avoid controversy, that the museum steers clear of dogma: the Bible speaks for itself.

The emphasis on Protestantism belies the museum’s claim that it is non-sectarian. It also means that other religious traditions are given less prominence than they deserve. In a jog through the Bible’s influence on the world (sections include “Fashion”, “Art” and “Science”) the branches of Orthodox Christianity barely get a look in. The impact of the Bible on Islam (in which Abraham and Jesus are regarded as important prophets) is also largely absent.

The museum claims to welcome criticism. In 2015 Mr Green, chairman of the board, described the museum’s purpose in a speech to the National Bible Association. “It [the Bible] tells us how we should live,” he said, “and if we can encourage a sceptical world to reconsider a book that can change our world, that’s an exciting journey that we’re on.” The museum expects to receive up to 3m visitors in its first year.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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