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Museum of the Bible's artifacts bring questions, concerns from scholars

This soon-to-open Washington, D.C., museum has dealt with accusations of smuggled artifacts and forgeries

At a conference in 2014, Kipp Davis, a biblical scholar at Trinity Western University in Langley, Canada, publicly discussed the issues behind the many artifacts that will decorate the halls of Washington, D.C.’s planned Museum of the Bible. Over the past few months, these issues have been discussed in greater, more frequent detail as the opening of the museum nears.

According to Davis, six of the museum’s 13 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient religious writings found in caves near Qumran, are likely forgeries.

While Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and chairman of the Board of the Museum of the Bible, commissioned scholars to analyze the ancient texts that he has amassed in his own collection, Joel Baden, a Hebrew Bible scholar at Yale Divinity School, and Candida Moss, an expert on the New Testament at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, tell Science that many of these scholars were inexperienced.

There has yet to be a comprehensive catalog of the museum’s full collection published. Because of this, there are still many artifacts whose provenances have yet to be clarified.

Every historic artifact should be able to have accompanying information as to when and where it was excavated and which archaeologists excavated it. The issue with having an incomplete record for each artifact is that it limits the ability for scholars to be able to determine the validity of the artifact and whether it has any worth.

Furthermore, The Atlantic confirmed in July 2017 that Green purchased thousands of ancient artifacts that were smuggled out of Iraq in 2010 and 2011. As a result, Green agreed to pay a $3 million fine, while also forfeiting nearly 3,500 cuneiform tablets and clay seals.

In response to this news, Steven Bickley, the Museum of the Bible’s vice president of Marketing, Administration, and Finance, told The Atlantic, “We don’t have any concerns about our collection. The artifacts that were referred to were never in our collection.”

The Museum of the Bible’s Director of Collections and New Testament scholar David Trobisch also tells Science that the museum has not accepted every item offered from Green, who has one of the world’s largest collection of biblical texts and artifacts, totaling around 40,000 objects, according to The Atlantic.

“We felt that the records—not that they were wrong, but they weren’t enough,” said Trobisch.

Atop all of this, there are also scholars who worry that the artifacts in the museum will be used in order to attempt to deem the Bible historically accurate and immutable. While there will be 14 versions of the Bible displayed in the center of the museum’s history floor, Science notes that the museum does not delve into the history or significance of these variations.

The Atlantic further reported:

“[The Green family is] unlikely to promote their socially conservative views openly in the museum, but its exhibits may give them a prominent, seemingly authoritative platform from which to push back against what they see as the secular tide in American politics.”

Christopher Rollston, George Washington University’s Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures, tells Science, “People are going to see that which they want to see in these exhibits.”

The Museum of the Bible is located two blocks south of the National Mall. With free admission (and a $15 suggested donation), it will open its doors to the public on November 17.

The 430,000-square-foot museum will span across eight floors with a restaurant and “biblical garden” included. There will also be a performing arts theater, a grand ballroom, and event space. $42 million worth of cutting edge technology will also be featured with a digital entry arcade ceiling, a digital guide accessible through a smart phone app, and a 360-degree projection mapping employed in the 472-seat performing arts theater.

The cost of the museum totals $500 million.

Can the Museum of the Bible overcome the sins of the past? [Science]

Hobby Lobby Purchased Thousands of Ancient Artifacts Smuggled Out of Iraq [The Atlantic]

Inside the sprawling, controversial $500m Museum of the Bible [The Guardian]

Can Hobby Lobby Buy the Bible? [The Atlantic]