The Economist: More than a hobby

Steve Green, the man building the Bible museum in Washington, explains what he is up to

WHEN British Jews were asked to bring one treasure representing their faith to a Diamond Jubilee ceremony for Queen Elizabeth, four years ago, they chose a Hebrew Bible from 1189. Long admired as a rare manuscript, its true significance was discovered more recently when scholars pondered clues—distinctively English bookmaking techniques, an Anglo-Norman term for “seagull” in a list of non-kosher birds jotted in a margin—and concluded that this is the only known book to survive from the tiny, embattled Jewish community of medieval England. That history lends poignancy to neat pen-and-ink drawings hidden on a final page, showing two dogs hunting a lion: a coded lament over the persecution of Jews. In the year after that Bible was neatly dated by a scribe, England saw a wave of anti-Semitic riots, ending in the massacre of every Jew in the city of York.

Today that remarkable book lives in a business park near Oklahoma City airport, after its sale at auction last year for $3.6m. It is one of more than 40,000 biblical texts and artefacts, including fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and sections from the Gutenberg Bible, collected since 2009 by the Green family, billionaire owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft shops, in a buying spree without modern precedent. The finest items are destined for a 430,000 square-foot Museum of the Bible to be opened in Washington, DC, in the autumn of 2017. The project has inspired excitement among evangelical Christians. Along with ancient scrolls, Bibles and prayer-books, planned features include “The Nazareth Jesus Knew”, with costumed actors in a recreated first-century synagogue, village square and carpenter’s shop. There will be a rooftop restaurant serving “Foods of the Bible”, walk-through light-shows simulating the parting of the Red Sea, and—for restless teenagers—a flight simulator offering a swooping ride through Washington to see Bible verses on the capital’s buildings and monuments. A live video feed will bring images of an archaeological dig in Israel.

Sceptics worry that the new museum, housed in a converted brick warehouse just off the National Mall and to be topped with a swooping turf and glass roof to resemble an open book, will present a narrow, Sunday School vision of the Bible, downplaying debates about its origins, disputed passages and other ambiguities. Social liberals recall with suspicion the Green family’s victory in a landmark Supreme Court case in 2014, confirming the right of Hobby Lobby, as a family-run company administered on Christian principles, to opt out of a law obliging employers to offer contraceptives that may target fertilised eggs, such as the morning-after pill. The world of biblical scholarship and archaeology is best described as wary, as artefacts are bought up by the Green Collection and released for study by researchers who join the Green Scholars Initiative, a private academic programme.

Lexington visited the Hobby Lobby corporate campus in Oklahoma, and a discreet building labelled “The Book” where much of the Green Collection is stored. Selected treasures were explained by curators, including that medieval Hebrew Bible with its doodle of a cornered lion: a jarring, haunting cry of anguish to see in a bland conference room, eight centuries later. The host was Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and chairman of the Bible museum. Asked if his family’s buying-power alarms some, Mr Green readily agrees. Critics suspect a “proselytising” mission to push his family’s Protestant faith, he suggests, adding that: “If somebody that was of a totally different faith than me started doing this, I would question, OK, what is their agenda?”

Mr Green likes to say that his family are not collectors but educators. They have lent artefacts to travelling exhibitions and to museums as varied as the Vatican and the Creation Museum in Kentucky, with its tales of a 6,000 year-old Earth, denunciations of Darwinian evolution and dioramas showing ancient children with dinosaurs. But his new Museum of the Bible will not espouse any faith, he says. It will “present the facts of this book”, from its origins to its impact on world history, art and literature. A “narrative floor” will tell the Bible’s best-known stories but will not make claims about their truth: the goal, Mr Green says, is to be “respectful” of all visitors including atheists.

Read more at More than a hobby.