Star Tribune | Bible Museum brings color, controversy

The National Mall in Washington, D.C., may be best known for the Smithsonian museums, including the new National Museum of African American History and Culture that opened last week. If all goes as planned, another mega museum will open next fall just blocks away — the Museum of the Bible.

The 430,000-square-foot museum will offer everything from 3-D holograms of Bible figures to artifacts ranging from Dead Sea Scroll fragments to a tiny “Lunar Bible” that traveled with astronauts to the moon. There is nothing similar in the world, its planners say.

The $500 million museum also is likely to exhibit some controversy. Unlike other museums nearby — which are primarily publicly funded with independent research teams determining content — the Bible museum is a privately funded project led by evangelical Christian billionaire Steve Green, chairman of the Hobby Lobby retail chain.

The museum already is giving some hard-hat tours of the eight-story building under construction, including for journalists who belong to the Religion News Association last week. (I was among them.) It was billed as “an unparalleled experience, using cutting-edge technology to bring the Bible to life.”

With a rooftop view of the National Mall and the Capitol, it is an impressive structure intended to reflect the scale and sweep of its neighbors. Visitors will enter through 40-foot bronze doors, stroll through a re-created town of Nazareth, view rare artifacts dating to the time of Abraham and sample Bible-themed restaurant meals.

There is also a museum research arm, headed by Michael Holmes, a professor and former chairman of the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies at Bethel University in Arden Hills. Holmes, executive director of the museum’s Scholars Initiative, oversees a team of researchers and students from more than 60 universities who will have an opportunity to study some of the 40,000 artifacts that Green has purchased in recent years.

Holmes is excited about the work and insists that researchers will approach their work without a theological bias.

“We are trying to present the Bible in a respectful way,” said Holmes. “The goal is to be respectful of all or no faith traditions.”

But critics worry that the museum’s message will be slanted to reflect the beliefs of many evangelicals that the Bible has gone virtually unchanged since originally written and compiled — a view not shared by most scholars.

Some of the artifacts are also apparently part of a federal investigation into whether they were obtained under proper international protocol, according to media reports.

Despite its critics, the museum has plenty of admirers, who say it holds out a new opportunity to make the Bible’s history and impact come to life for new generations. Even for visitors who don’t believe in the infallibility of the Bible, the museum should be educational and entertaining.

Holmes, who first toured the construction site last year, looks forward to touring the completed project.

“I’m getting excited,” he said.

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