As priceless Israeli artifacts head to a controversial DC Bible museum, some wonder why
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As priceless Israeli artifacts head to a controversial DC Bible museum, some wonder why

Israel’s Antiquities Authority is making some of the holy land’s most precious ancient finds available to a vast evangelical institution set to open next year just off Washington’s National Mall. But whose aims will the exhibit serve?

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

The Museum of The Bible (Courtesy)
The Museum of The Bible (Courtesy)

WASHINGTON — Since Hobby Lobby president Steve Green moved to open a massive Bible museum near Washington’s National Mall, suspicions have been voiced by a choir of those familiar with the project’s originator.

Green is known for his large donations to evangelical colleges and for launching a public school curriculum in Oklahoma based on a literal teaching of the Bible, making him a controversial figure in the debate over defining the boundaries between church and state.

He is also the son of David Green, Hobby Lobby CEO and founder. Together, they run their privately owned business in accordance with an evangelical Christian ethos, which includes them closing more than 600 of their stores each Sunday.

Perhaps most famously, they successfully challenged US President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare reform package in the Supreme Court — specifically, its provision mandating companies to provide employees insurance plans that include access to emergency contraception. By a 5-4 ruling, the nine-member panel agreed that the mandate impinged on family-owned corporation’s religious freedom, striking down the relevant part of the Affordable Care Act.

Illustrative photo of a Hobby Lobby branch in Mansfield, Ohio. (photo credit: CC BY Fan of Retail/Flickr)
Illustrative photo of a Hobby Lobby branch in Mansfield, Ohio (CC BY-Fan of Retail/Flickr)

With the landmark case in America’s rear-view mirror, some expressed concern over how Green would guide his $400-million budget to unveil the Museum of the Bible in the fall of 2017, and whether his vast collection of more than 40,000 artifacts would be used as evangelical propaganda.

“The proximity of the museum to the world-class Smithsonian and the Capitol has raised eyebrows. How will it fit in among the venerable institutions lining the Mall? How will it function in a multicultural city? And what version of the Bible will we get?” wrote art historian Noah Charney in the Washington Post last year. “To many in the scholarly community, the museum seems like an oversize piece of evangelical claptrap.”

The collection on exhibit will include some of Israel’s most precious archaeological artifacts, including selections from the Dead Sea Scrolls, cuneiform tablets from Abraham’s time, materials from the First and Second Temples, and various other antiquities that go back to the Canaanite period.

A manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on September 26, 2011 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on September 26, 2011 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In August 2015, the Israel Antiquities Authority agreed to a multi-year agreement with the museum, under which it will have a 4,000-square-foot top-floor exhibit featuring a selection of ancient artifacts excavated in Israel. The IAA has not yet announced which exact artifacts will be on display.

“It’s an opportunity for Israel to have a dedicated space in Washington where we can exhibit archaeological material from the IAA that will be seen by millions of people,” Jacob Fisch, executive director of the New York-based Friends of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, who organized the deal, told The Times of Israel.

Why the partnership?

Green’s history and interests raise the question of how materials from Israel will be used in the museum’s presentation of the Bible. American University professor of religion Martyn Oliver said Israel’s role in evangelical theology could be a reason for Green’s interest.

According to Evangelism, the establishment of the State of Israel follows the biblical prophesy that says the gathering of Jews in Israel is a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Martyn Oliver (Courtesy)
Martyn Oliver (Courtesy)

“There is a question to wonder about,” Oliver told The Times of Israel. “Is there a theological motivation for the partnership? Or is it just, the museum’s curators are thinking, ‘They got the best stuff. IAA is an extraordinary organization with an astounding collection and we want the best stuff for our museum.’

“Or is it an ongoing thing of support for Israel that we see from some evangelical Christians that is related to a theological belief that the establishment of the State of Israel forecasts the Second Coming?” he added. “I don’t know.”

The assortment of ancient artifacts could theoretically present Jewish history in the Holy Land as a way to cast the mass return of Jews that accompanied the State of Israel’s establishment as an antecedent to the end times. It’s also possible that artifacts could be used to suggest evidence that there will be a return of Christ.

Fisch dismissed the notion that the IAA’s materials could be used that way and maintained that the agreement allowed his organization to have complete control over the exhibit and how it is displayed.

Museum of the Bible Chairman Steve Green (via museumofthebible.org)
Museum of the Bible Chairman Steve Green (via museumofthebible.org)

“All the material that comes from the national treasures of the IAA, everything is curated by IAA,” he said. “All the texts, all the labels, everything. It’s an exhibition that is completely curated and under the control of the IAA, and hosted in Washington, DC, by the Museum of the Bible.”

He further said that the agreement was forged due to the opportunity presented by the museum: a gargantuan eight-floor, 430,000 square-foot building steps away from the National Mall and two blocks from the National Air and Space Museum, a prime area for tourists.

“Our decision to make these kinds of alliances is based on… How can we benefit the archaeological heritage of the Land of Israel through exhibits like this? That’s really the main thing,” Fisch said.

‘We have an opportunity to have a gallery in the nation’s capital for the next 10 years… Millions of people will come and learn about Israel and the history of Israel’

Asked if the IAA had any reservations about partnering with Green, he said he was unaware of the museum’s chief funder or his involvement with the museum, and that he’s interacted only with Cary Summers, the museum’s president, and other curators. “We work with the organization, not with specific donors or funders,” he said. “I don’t even know if any of this trickles into the agenda of the museum. Not the way the agenda was described to the world, certainly.

“We at the IAA are an apolitical organization that has a mission to make Israel’s archaeological heritage known to the world,” he added. “And if we have an opportunity to have a gallery in the nation’s capital for the next 10 years that will be visited by millions of people, you can’t make it up. Millions of people will come and learn about Israel and the history of Israel.”

Oliver, the American University professor, said the IAA had practical reasons to find the prospect of a partnership with the Museum of the Bible attractive. “This is going to a premier place in a premier spot, and for most people who visit, it will be the first time they’ve even heard about the IAA,” he said. “There’s no better advertising opportunity, I’m sure, than this.”

Will the museum be different from Green’s past endeavors?

 

Despite the questions about how the museum may use Israel’s archaeological finds, Oliver said Green has taken certain steps “to be serious about the Bible as a historical phenomenon,” but not without some caveats.

“The scholarly team they’ve hired both for acquisition and for the study of their artifacts, as far as I can tell, is completely above board. These are very serious people,” he said. “On the other hand,” said Oliver, “the people they’ve hired to create the display of the museum are the same folks who designed [one of the exhibits at] the Creation Museum. I see that and I think, really? How are they going to work together?”

Summers, who was hired to oversee the launch of the museum, was previously a consultant for The Ark Experience, LLC, which designed the Noah’s Ark exhibit at the Creation Museum. The designing firms hired by the Museum of the Bible, however, are different from those who worked on the Creation.

The Creation Museum, which is located in Petersburg, Kentucky, is run by a creationist ministry, Answers in Genesis, that uses the facility to promote a literal interpretation of the creation narrative from the Book of Genesis.

Green has also had a relationship with the Kentucky museum, and in 2012, he and Summers brought a traveling exhibit of rare Bible manuscripts and artifacts from the Green Collection to be displayed there.

The differences reflected in the scholarly team and other stakeholders in the project, Oliver said, reflect the question most close observers are following: How will Green’s “own conservative, literal, theological perspective about the Bible” be negotiated with “a historical approach that sees it as a historical phenomenon” once the museum opens?

Based on Fisch’s interaction with the museum’s organizers, he said he’s confident it will be an appropriate home for the IAA’s artifacts, none of which has been exhibited in Washington, DC, since 1993, when the Library of Congress held the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“It’s a museum of the highest standards, of the highest scholarly level,” Fisch said. “That’s the only thing that guides us. It’s very straightforward, and an accredited museum is an accredited museum.”

Nevertheless, Oliver is waiting until 2017 to make any definitive assessments about the museum’s treatment of the Bible and its ancient artifacts: “The question, for me at least, is will the Greens seek to square belief with history?”

This story was updated on May 3 to correct a quoted claim that the Museum of the Bible hired the same designing team as the Creation Museum. While MOB’s president, Cary Summers, was a consultant for part of the Creation Museum’s design, the designers hired by MOB were not associated with that project.

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