It will be a museum of biblical proportions: a massive, 430,000-square-foot, six-storey exhibition dedicated to the Good Book. At an estimated cost of $660 million (Canadian), just for the physical structure, the Museum of the Bible is slated to open in Washington, D.C., in November. While impressively ambitious, it sparked some initial controversy centred on the motivation behind the museum and the provenance of its artifacts. Organizers believe their academic, non-sectarian approach to presenting the Bible has answered any criticism.
Dead Sea Scroll fragment from the book of Genesis, part of the museum s collection.
The passion behind the project belongs to Steve Green, an evangelical Christian from Oklahoma City. Green is president of Hobby Lobby, an American arts and crafts retailer that boasts $4 billion in annual sales. Green has amassed one of the most comprehensive private collections of Biblical artifacts. Green — who has written religious books, including The Bible in America — viewed the museum as not only an opportunity to display his historic pieces but also as a chance to expose more people to the Bible. The museum will hold about 40,000 historical pieces, including 13 fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls donated by Green.
WHAT IS IT?
To reveal what life was like in Nazareth 2,000 years ago, the museum has recreated a bustling village including the sights, sounds, and smells.
Occupying a dramatically renovated warehouse two blocks from the National Mall, the museum promises visitors an “immersive and personalized experience as they explore the history, narrative and impact of the Bible.” The floor devoted to narratives, for example, will feature the recreation of the village of Nazareth including homes and a synagogue to represent how people lived in the first century. The museum will likely have about 1,000 artifacts on display but the plan is to use modern technology to make it less stodgy than it sounds. A preloaded, hand-held mobile device will guide visitors, who can personalize the information provided.
A theatre will show a movie called “Drive Through the History of the Bible.”
Cory Summers, president of the museum, says the goal of the museum is straightforward. “It’s to engage people in the Bible. That’s it. It’s real simple,” he says. “How you take it and how you run with it, that’s up to you. We’re not trying to tell you what to do with what you see but we at least want you to find it interesting, educational, engaging, and then where it goes from there is your call, not ours.”
A Gutenberg Bible fragment, containing the complete epistle of Paul to the Romans, in Latin, from Mainz, Germany, ca. 1454. Printed by Johannes Gutenberg and Johann Fust.
A Bible owned by Elvis Presley, presented to him on Feb. 20, 1977.
The museum possesses the second-largest collection of Dead Sea Scroll fragments, the largest collection of Torah scrolls (including some that survived the Spanish Inquisition and scrolls confiscated in Nazi Germany), biblical texts on papyrus and medieval manuscripts. The museum will also display rare printed Bibles including fragments from the Gutenberg Bible. It has items from several private collections as well as archeological artifacts on loan from the Louvre and the Israel Antiquities Authority. About one-third of the collection will be centred in Judaism and the Old Testament.
New Testament, in German, translated by Martin Luther, Wittenberg, Germany, 1524.
Despite the array of historic items, Summers says what excited people most during touring exhibitions was a Bible once owned by Elvis Presley. “It sounds funny but it’s true,” he says. That Bible, which contained handwritten notes, isn’t part of the museum’s collection but it does have another Elvis Bible. Summers said the museum also has a signed Babe Ruth Bible — “With his lifestyle, you’d never guess he had a Bible” — and the original manuscript on which Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to Battle Hymn of the Republic.
A proto-Jewish prayer book, or siddur, in Hebrew, parchment, Middle East, early 800s.
When the museum was proposed, some observers believed it would espouse fundamentalist Christian beliefs under the guise of historical study. At the outset, Green said the museum was to “bring to life the living word of God … and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.” The museum backed off that mission and Summers now says the museum is strictly an academic undertaking. “This is about the Bible, it’s not about faith tradition,” he says. “None of this gets into apologetics at all. We really try to avoid that.”
Green acquired so many artifacts in a short period of time — reportedly acquiring 10,000 items since the museum was established as a non-profit in 2010 — that some academics questioned whether each piece was authentic and how they were acquired. To alleviate concerns, the museum hired biblical scholar David Trobisch to oversee the collection and work with a team of 30 researchers and curators to vet each piece. He told the Washington Post that “we will not display any items found in the collection where we have no provenance records.”