WASHINGTON, D.C.—Jeffrey Gladney teaches the Old Testament at Northeast Mississippi Community College in Tupelo, Miss.
To celebrate the holiday season, he brought his wife and children to the new Museum of the Bible in the nation’s capital—a 430,000-square-foot interactive experience that tells the history and impact of the Old and New Testaments.
“It’s like a refresher course to me,” he says. “It helps us have a visual image of what happened during the life of Jesus.”
The $500 million museum opened with much fanfare last month just two blocks from the National Mall and three blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The brainchild of Hobby Lobby craft chain owners Steve and Jackie Green, it is one of the largest museums about the Bible in the world.
It has more than 3,000 artifacts, including fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a first edition of the King James Bible, and a page from the Gutenberg Bible, the first major book to use moveable metal type in Europe. About 2,000 of those items are on loan from more than 41 other collections and institutions, including the Israel Antiquities Authority, which donated a one-ton stone from the Western Wall.
Museum executives and employees say their mission is to educate, not evangelize—and to welcome visitors of all faiths and cultures.
“You don’t have to love the Bible to think it’s an incredible story,” says Danielle Smith, social manager at the museum. “There’s an understanding that the Bible has impacted the world. You see it in literature, fashion, architecture. This is a book that should be known.”
On a recent morning, visitors cued up to walk through the entrance hall of the six-floor building, which is lined by columns made from Jerusalem stone.
“What better place to go to the kick off the season, because Jesus is the reason for the season,” says Denise Brown, visiting from Lynchburg, Va.
Brown, her daughter and aunt are taking in the view of the U.S. Capital and Washington Monument from the sixth floor of the museum.
“It’s always good to learn more about the Bible and see how the Bible originated,” says Mildred Johnson, her aunt.
At Smith’s suggestion, I begin my tour on the sixth floor, which houses the Manna restaurant by Chef Todd Gray. Manna has menu items with names such as A Taste of Israel, Amazing Grace, The Scholar’s Initiative, and The Gospel.
A galley lobby skylight has created a curved wall on the fifth and sixth floors. The two-story skylight is made of more than 350 pieces of glass and more than 170 pieces of steel to give the expansive view of the city.
There is also a 3,000 square-foot Biblical Garden with plants that would have been around in biblical times.
On floor five is a 472-seat World Stage Theater featuring 360-degree projection mapping and 17 projectors. The venue will welcome productions such as the Broadway musical “Amazing Grace.”
The fifth floor also houses the fine arts gallery, including a temporary exhibit called “The Art of the Gospels” by artist Makoto Fujimura. The next room is titled “The Living Dead: Ecclesiastes trough Art” with paintings by artists such as Italian landscape painter Bernardo Bellotto from the 1700s.
“The People of the Land” exhibit on that floor focuses on the history and archaeology of ancient Israel.
The exhibit includes items from ancient homes on the western hill in Jerusalem overlooking the Temple Mount—pottery, cooking pots, and pieces of fresco and stucco Roman-style murals. There are also limestone blocks from buildings from the First Temple period.
The fourth floor has the History of the Bible gallery.
Upon entering the room, a sign says that “the Bible moved from handwritten scroll to manuscript codices, to printed books, to mobile devices.”
“How did it grow and spread?” the sign asks, setting up the mission of the exhibit. There are displays on Hebrew Scripture, the Scripture in Greek, early Christian writings, Islam and the Bible, and more. There are various Bibles, including the Hebrew Bible, the Samaritan Bible, the Catholic Bible, the Protestant Bible, and the Eastern Orthodox Bible.
Four mini-theaters show various films about the history and impact of the Bible.
“We’re familiar with the story and text within the Bible, but we were looking to get a historical perspective and the historic impact of an ancient text,” says Logan Chilton, who is visiting from Houston with his wife and mother.
The third floor has Stories of the Bible and the Nazareth exhibit. On a recent day, a line of people waits to get into the Hebrew Bible exhibit, a 30-minute interactive experience. A tower of 12 large stones is stacked in the center of the room to tell the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River. Each stone marks the name of one of the tribes.
“You walk through the story of the Old Testament. It’s very evocative,” says Andrea Verbrugge, a Silver Spring, Md. resident. “You utilize all your senses.”
The New Testament exhibit has a theater with a movie. Next to that is the Word of Jesus of Nazareth, which recreates a first century village, complete with actors in the role of villagers talking about life during Jesus’ ministry.
Wooden plaques on trees describe daily life back then, including how villagers harvested grape for wine, how shepards tended to their flocks of sheep, and what meals were like.
An actor calling himself Jeremiah invites visitors into a structure built to look like a synagogue.
“We came here to read the Torah,” he explains. “This is a teaching place.”
Gladney and his family listen intently to the actor.
“I like how they act,” says his son Joshua, 9. “They had clothes like them. They talked like them. They asked a lot of questions.”
Says his father, also a reverend at Red Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church: “The Bible pertains to every area of life and the Bible Museum helped to reinforce that theology.”
Floor two has the Impact of the Bible galleries. “Introduced to the Americas by generations of immigrants, the Bible has had a profound impact on American history, culture, and politics,” a sign for the Impact of the Bible in America section says.
“It was a great reminder to see the roles the Bible has played in shaping the world,” Brown says. “It’s not something that we think of on a regular basis, although we know the importance of religious freedoms.”
Much of the exhibit focuses on the Bible’s role in helping to end slavery and to encourage the Civil Rights movement.
A replica of the Liberty Bell has a verse from Leviticus circling the top: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
The Impact of the Bible in the World section has displays on the Bible’s impact on human rights, health, math, science, art, architecture, music, stage and screen, language, and more.
There are even dresses from designers such as Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier and Gianni Versace.
The first floor has the Children’s Experience plus an exhibit with items borrowed from the Vatican Museums and the Vatican Library.
The basement houses temporary exhibits. Among them is one about how John Newton wrote the song “Amazing Grace” and another with sculptures by Gib Singleton depicting the 14 Stations of the Cross.
Read more at The Museum of the Bible debuts in the nation’s capital.