Last month, the Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, DC. The museum, a massive 430,000 square foot interactive experience, had a price tag of more than $500 million, and was primarily supported by the Green family.
The Green family are most famous for owning the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores, and for their fight against Obama-era policies that led to a religious freedom battle in the Supreme Court, a battle that Hobby Lobby won.
The opening of the Museum of the Bible has been controversial for a few reasons, from the glitzy, sleek way it tries to present itself, to the questionable motives of the Green family, to their highly suspect methods of acquiring artifacts. It has all been the topic of some heated discussion, especially in Washington.
One point of debate is the authenticity of its Dead Sea Scroll fragments. The original Dead Sea Scrolls, which are the earliest known surviving pieces of the Old Testament, were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in caves in Qumran, an area in the Judean desert.
About 900 scrolls, most of them scraps or fragments, were discovered and dated to be about 2,000 years old. The Israeli Antiquities Authority keeps most of these scrolls and fragments. They display them in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. For decades after the scrolls were discovered it was practically impossible for a collector to obtain even a scrap.
Things changed in 2002, when suddenly at least 70 new fragments appeared on the market. The Green family reportedly purchased their 13 pieces between 2009 and 2014. This was a time when they were busy amassing some 40,000 artifacts through antiquities trading.
Scholars have been questioning the authenticity of many of these scrolls since they began first appearing in 2002. The scrolls in the possession of the Green family, now on display in the Museum of the Bible, are included in those with questionable authenticity.
Artein Justnes, a professor of biblical studies at the University of Agder in Norway, is one of the experts warning that the Green family’s scroll fragments are likely forgeries. On his website, he and other experts detail a survey of the scroll fragments that have appeared on the market since 2002 and explain that at least 90% of them are fake, including the ones at the Museum of the Bible.
Justnes is not alone. Kipp Davis, an expert on the scrolls at Trinity Western University in Canada, has been trying to warn Christians, and even the Green family specifically, about the forgeries. He was quoted as saying, “The evangelical movement is really getting played here.”
In 2014, the Greens hired Davis to prepare their Dead Sea Scroll collection for publication. As Davis examined the 13 pieces several things became apparent. He noticed that even though the parchment itself looked ancient enough, the writing itself did not look right. It looked stretched out in some places, and squeezed in others, as if it was written to fit the misshapen fragments. Some of the ink had bled in places, and in others it looked clearly like the scribe had struggled to write it, as if they were writing on an already weathered surface. One fragment had what appeared to be a copied annotation out of a 1937 edition of the Hebrew Bible, a blatant anachronism.
All of this led Davis to believe that at least six of the Greens’ 13 fragments are forgeries. The experience of studying these fragments actually reminded Davis of other fragments he had studied just a few years earlier, which he and other scholars determined were also forgeries.
Justnes, the scholar mentioned earlier, believes that all 13 of the Green family fragments are forgeries. He points to the “brutal and hesitant” style of the writing, where authentic scrolls tend to have a much more smooth and refined writing. “They don’t look like authentic Dead Sea Scrolls,” he said.
Not all scholars are completely convinced that the scrolls are fake, but even those scholars not convinced still admit that they could be. But there are still more issues with the museum. Some scholars were also worried that the Green family’s staunch evangelical Christian faith could alter the manner in which the Bible is portrayed by the museum.
Steve Green, the current president of Hobby Lobby, “in the past has made it very clear that he wants to use the museum as a proselytizing device to make more Christians,” said Robert Cargill, who is an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa. He told LiveScience, “When you’ve got a mission like that, it’s not good science, it’s not critical method, it’s an evangelical tool.”
Green does seem to have backed down from his previous position, telling NBC News, “It is not for me to push my agenda. It is our role to just present the facts of this book and let the visitor decide.”
I, personally, am not totally convinced by Green's words to NBC, but in its review of the museum The Associated Press remarked that the exhibits do tend to avoid interpreting the Bible and avoided delving into issues like evolution and marriage. Based on some of the other reviews of the museum though it seems like the museum just avoids delving deeply into any hard topics at all. It conveniently skirts around having to talk about modern conversations about gay marriage and contraception and the impact on those conversations from a biblical perspective. They took the easy way out, rather than really presenting all the facts as Green said in the NBC News interview.
Cargill himself was able to visit the museum and tour the exhibits prior to the grand opening, and he did remark that it seemed like the museum staff had indeed been making changes based on criticisms they received. On his blog he noted that the museum displayed a replica of an ancient Gilgamesh Flood Tablet, a tale from ancient Mesopotamia that has many similarities to the biblical account of the flood. Cargill told LiveScience, "[The museum] may have been established as an evangelical device, but there's been a shift in direction. They're moving toward a more critical, objective presentation of the material."
While that may be true, the Green family still seems to have spent millions of dollars on what could very likely be forged Dead Sea Scrolls. There is also the matter of the $3 million and thousands of cuneiform tablets, clay stamp seals, and other artifacts that the Green family/Hobby Lobby had to turn over to the United States government after it was discovered the artifacts were smuggled out of Iraq.
I cannot help but see this entire project as a shinier, glitzier, over-stuffed version of Ken Ham's Ark Encounter Museum. It desperately screams "Christianity is relevant, I swear!" and "Look at the proof of our religion's truth in these scraps of old paper!". I remain unimpressed.