My Visit to the Museum of the Bible

IMG_1855During my last vacation I took a road trip to visit some “bucket list” sites that I wanted to see. Included in this trip was a visit to the new Museum of the Bible located in the heart of Washington, D.C. Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, is the founder and CEO of the Museum of the Bible. The Green family has one of the largest private collections of biblical artifacts in the world. The Museum, in part, was built to display part of this private collection.

The Museum has been under a cloud of controversy ever since the announcement that it would be built. One of the issues is the alleged illegal acquisition of some of these artifacts. It was reported last year that the Green family had to pay a 3 million dollar fine for approximately 450 cuneiform tablets and 3,000 clay bullae smuggled out of Iraq. The acquisition of many of their other artifacts is under a cloud of suspicion. Whether the Green family has acquired these artifacts by dishonest motives or whether they simply made mistakes due to naiveté or inexperience in the antiquities market, I will leave others to sort out. My understanding is that none of the artifacts of dubious provenance is displayed in the Museum.

The second cause of controversy stems from the fact that the Greens are overt evangelical Christians. Some have feared that they are trying to propagate a fundamentalist view of the Bible on an unwitting public. Now, I must say that it is impossible to present the story of the Bible from a completely unbiased point of view. One cannot have an unbiased perspective on the Bible, whether it is Jewish, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, or secular, or what have you. The fact that there is one large museum dedicated to one book (or if you will, collection of books) speaks volumes about the founders’ vision of the Bible as an important and influential book. The story of the Bible must be told from some perspective. However, in my opinion, some of the initial fears and accusations of a fundamentalist presentation are unfounded. I think the Museum has tried to be even-handed in its presentation of the Bible.

In what follows, I will relate my own experience of my visit of the Museum. While I claim some expertise as a biblical scholar, I will not claim any expertise as a text critic, paleographer, epigrapher, or archaeologist. The Museum makes use of many consultants and so I trust that the Museum has attempted to describe the artifacts as accurately as possible.

I arrived at the Museum shortly before its announced opening time of 10:00. I wanted to make sure that I had enough time to see all of the exhibits. I was allowed entry before the opening time. After passing through a high-tech security checkpoint I entered into a large, capacious lobby. I was directed to my left to the ticket counters. The suggested admission fee was $15. This is a reasonable fee compared to many other places that I visited during my trip. But the fact that this was a suggested fee suggests to me that the Museum is open to anyone, no matter what one’s capacity to pay is.

The Museum is six stories high with a basement. Also on the first floor is a gift shop with the usual fare of t-shirts, coffee mugs, knick-knacks, and books. Also on the first floor is a gallery featuring a collection of Renaissance art illustrating some of the ecumenical councils, facsimiles of some illuminated Bibles and Codex Vaticanus, and a sarcophagus “of Jonah” on loan from the Vatican Library. A movie was being shown in a back room which I did not stop to watch.

I next ventured down to the basement, where some of the temporary exhibits are held. Unfortunately, some of the exhibit halls were closed due to deinstallation. The only exhibit open featured bronze sculptures by Gib Singleton on the 14 stations of the cross. According to the sign, “Singleton sculpted each station to convey a spiritual and emotional connection to the soul.”

I then entered one of the elevators to go to the second floor. On the walls of the elevator were videos of the Holy Land. It was unlike any elevator I have been in, in my life. One could spend some time in the elevators just watching the videos.

The theme of the second floor is the “Impact of the Bible.” The first exhibit I entered featured the “impact of the Bible in America.” It traces the influence of the Bible from colonial America up unto modern times. It displayed numerous old Bibles, historical documents, and other artifacts which help to tell the story of the impact of the Bible in America. Among its oldest artifacts are a 1614 King James Bible, a 1599 Geneva Bible, a 1516 polyglot psalter, a 1588 Hugenot Bible, Bibles in Native American dialects, a redacted Bible for use by Negro slaves, a 1582 Rheims New Testament, and a 1743 German Bible.

The section focusing on the first Great Awakening in America in 1700s featured sermons by George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards, and a reproduction of George Whitfield’s field pulpit. The exhibit also featured a to-scale reproduction of the liberty bell (on which Leviticus 25:10 is inscribed around the top). Among the more impressive artifacts were a copy of Charles Thomson’s translation of the Bible (containing the first English translation of the Septuagint), Bibles published by Robert Aitken (the first Bibles published in America), a facsimile of Thomas Jefferson’s Bible, Francis Asbury’s ordination certificate (!), a signed letter by Charles Finney, Julia Smith’s translation of the Bible (the first woman to translate the Bible into English), and Billy Graham’s personal copy of the Phillips translation of the New Testament.

While this exhibit certainly tries to show the influence of the Bible in American history, it also acknowledges the use and misuse of the Bible. It explains how, for example, the Bible was used both by those who supported and opposed slavery. Nor does it try to paint all of America’s founding fathers (such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson) as devout Christians.

The next gallery I entered focused on the “impact of the Bible in the world.” This section featured various displays highlighting the Bible’s impact upon languages, literature, fashion, music, stage & screen, art, architecture, education, the calendar, health, work, science, everyday life, and so forth. This gallery also included a life-sized replica of the Gutenberg Press, and a section on how the Bible has been banned over the centuries by different groups. The section on art featured how Mary and the baby Jesus have been depicted in artwork through the centuries.

Also on the second floor is “Washington Revelations,” which is a virtual ride that takes you throughout Washington, D.C. highlighting some of the scriptural texts and imagery that is found on the landmarks throughout the nation’s capital. It costs an extra $5 to get into this venue. The “ride” lasts about 10 minutes. I personally did find it worth the money.

The theme of the third floor is “stories of the Bible.” This floor features three venues. The first is the “Hebrew Bible Experience.” This is a 30 minute immersive sight-and-sound experience that narrates the story of the Hebrew Bible. We were first ushered into a room with benches. We watched a video narrating the creation story and fall in Genesis. Then I looked to my right and saw the wall move back revealing a corridor with the narrator inviting us to journey forward. I found myself silently mouthing “wow!” We walked through the corridor visually relating the story of the flood until we came to another room with benches. We sat down and heard the narrator recounting the stories of Genesis. This process repeated itself as we journeyed from room to room hearing about the story of the Hebrew Bible. The narration focused heavily on Genesis and Exodus. The stories of Joshua and Judges were related very cursorily. In one room we got a brief narration of the story of Ruth, and in the final room the rest of the Old Testament story was related very cursorily. I found the treatment of the Old Testament to be uneven. Why give so much more attention to the story of Ruth than to Joshua and Judges, for example? At any rate, while I did not learn anything new from this venue, I found the experience a bit thrilling as it appealed to my sense of adventure. I would do it again, just because it was so much fun. I won’t spoil the surprises in store for anyone who wants to visit.

The next venue featured the “world of Jesus of Nazareth.” An antechamber had a display of the second temple, a replica of the famous mural of Alexander the Great, and a few ancient artifacts from the first century A.D. There was also a small theater that showed a brief video about the life of John the Baptist. The main attraction in this section is the reconstructed first-century Jewish village. The visitor is suddenly transported back in time to experience what life was like in Jesus’ time. One small room featured Jesus’ teaching in parables. It displayed some artifacts of things that Jesus used to illustrate his parables. Among the other reconstructions included a wine press, a room featuring the kinds of foods people ate, a kitchen, breadmaking, clothing manufacturing, a well, a mikveh used for ritual purity, an olive press, a synagogue, and a view of the Sea of Galilea. The third venue is the New Testament theater. I did not get to go into this venue but apparently it shows a film narrating the story of the New Testament.

The theme of the fourth floor is the “history of the Bible.” This was the floor I should have started with as it contains most of the ancient manuscripts that the Museum is famed for. The battery on my camera died about a third of the way through this floor, so I am going to go on memory without the aid of my pictures. The first section I entered featured ancient archaeological artifacts, many of them facsimiles, that have helped shed light on the biblical world. These artifacts included the Gilgamesh tablets, the treaty of Esarhaddon, the Hammurabi Stele, the Merneptah Stele, the Tel Dan Stele, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, the Mesha Stele, the Lachish reliefs, the Nebuchadnezzar Cylinder, and the Cyrus Cylinder. The next section featured some Dead Sea Scrolls including a large display of the Great Isaiah Scroll, which was found in cave 1 at Qumran, and the Copper Scroll.

The room opened up to reveal numerous displays of manuscripts, some of them facsimiles. One of the highlights is the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, which is an uncial palimpsest dated to the 6th to 8th century A.D. Other manuscripts included a fragment of a gospel codex from Oxyrhynchus, pages from the Bodmer Papyrus, a facsimile of Codex Vaticanus, and various ancient translations in languages such as Ethiopic, Armenian, and Syriac. Other displays highlighted the differences between a scroll and a codex, the differences between the various Old Testament canons, and a miniature model of the second temple and ancient Jerusalem.

The gallery features a variety of medieval manuscripts (and from here on I am going purely by memory). This section features manuscripts in various translations. It also includes numerous illuminated Bibles. The Museum highlights the impact of the printing press on the history of the Bible, the role of the great translators of the Bible (such as John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Martin Luther), and the history of the English Bible. One display that I found quite impressive is that the Museum displayed a copy of each of the English translations from Wycliffe to the King James Bible: the Coverdale Bible, Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the Bishop’s Bible. They also had a section dedicated to the King James Bible, the most successful English translation of all time. The gallery included numerous other editions and translations of the Bible up until the present day. I found it a bid odd to find on display editions of the Bible that I have on my shelves at home. The Museum also had a glass display of dozens of Torah scrolls.

The fourth floor is filled with multimedia exhibits. You can watch short clips of the Drive Thru History dude (Dave Stotts) talk about the history of the Bible. Or can stop and watch Jerome or John Wycliffe or Martin Luther explain their translation theories. Or you can work with several interactive screens that explore various manuscripts. There are various other video clips throughout the Museum. Overall, I think the Museum does a good job of showing the various aspects of the history of the Bible.

The final exhibit on the fourth floor is called IllumiNations, which highlights the fact that the Bible has been translated into hundreds of languages around the world, and it awaits translation into many other languages.

The fifth and sixth floors do not have much to see. There is a theater which takes up part of both floors. There is also a gallery for temporary exhibits on the fifth floor, but on my visit it was not open. On the sixth floor is the Manna Restaurant. It is a little bit pricey and it serves what I assume to be Mediterranean style food. If you want something a little exotic, it is worth a try. The sixth floor also contains a “Biblical Garden” which is basically an outdoor eating area adjacent to the restaurant. The top two floors have a large glassed in corridor from which you can get a view of part of the city. You can see the capitol building and Washington monument from here.

The Museum is open from 10:00 to 6:00. There is a lot to see and learn in the Museum and a Bible nerd like me could spend the whole eight hours there. The Museum is large, capacious, and state of the art. The displays are well-done and impressive. I would visit the Museum again. I did not get to see everything while I was there, and with the rotating exhibits, there will be new things to see in the future. In my estimation, a visit to the Museum of the Bible is well worth the trip.

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