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Maximal Museum of the Bible

February 26, 2015



Museum of the Bible (Museum of the Bible and SmithGroup JJR)

Even people who know me well may not be aware that my first salaried job in journalism was at the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS), a small nonprofit in Washington that published the magazines Biblical Archaeology Review and Archaeology Odyssey. I worked at BAS for about a year and a half and edited articles for both magazines. Odyssey, devoted to the remains of the Greek and Roman civilizations, was basically a side project—Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) was the main event.

The subject may seem like a niche one. However, BAR—a secular publication—had a circulation of well over 100,000 at the time, swelled by public interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls and by Sunday and Hebrew schools around the country that used the magazine as a teaching aid.

My job, and my colleagues’, was to turn manuscripts by scholars into illustrated articles a layperson could understand. We spent a lot of time trawling online photo archives like Art Resource for images of ancient mosaics, ossuaries, and cuneiform tablets. We also spent days, even weeks, with each manuscript we received, carefully turning academic prose (often written by non-native speakers of English) into clear and digestible copy.

Little did we know, when we started, that we were bit players in a debate that had polarized the world of Biblical scholarship: the fight between the Minimalists and the Maximalists.

The Minimalism vs. Maximalism debate has to do with the historicity of the Bible, specifically the Bronze and Iron Age societies described in the Old Testament. “Minimalists,” as the clumsy nomenclature has it, downplay the historical value of the early Bible stories: Abraham was not a real person, the stories of King David and Solomon were likely written centuries after the events they recount and cannot be taken at face value, and so on. “Maximalists,” on the other hand, see the Bible as a largely reliable account of the Bible lands before about the 6th century BCE as well as after.

Every academic discipline has its schisms, of course; as Shaw famously said, the debates are so vicious because the stakes are so low. But this is not quite true of Bible scholarship. The Bible is a sacred text to millions of people, including many scholars, Christian and Jewish. For those who believe its word is divine, there would appear to be a strong incentive to find proof of its historical veracity, even if the material record should conflict with the text.

Archaeological evidence is not crystal clear—dating is tricky, and suspected forgeries abound. Still, it won’t surprise you to learn that many of the leading “Maximalists” teach at Christian institutions, while “Minimalists” tend to be on the faculty at more liberal and/or secular universities. (The divide is not absolute, however, and there are Christians and Jews on both sides of the question.)

Which brings us to the Museum of the Bible, under construction right now in D.C. (I reported on its quite tasteful renovation for Architectural Record.) Steve Green, the museum’s board chair and the president of Hobby Lobby, has amassed a huge collection of Biblical manuscripts, cuneiform tablets, and other artifacts. This is known as the Green Collection, and scholarship around it will be a linchpin of the new museum. Green has hired scholars to lead the museum’s research and education arms, and sought out expert advice as he purchased the items in his collection.

Naturally, one of my first questions when I learned of the museum project was whether both the Maximalist and Minimalist views would be represented. Steve Green is a Southern Baptist, and the rest of the Green family is Pentecostal. He has said before that he believes the Bible is a reliable historical document. I wondered if we were going to see the Biblical patriarchs described as historical figures, and contentious issues like the united kingdom of David and Solomon presented as established fact along Maximalist lines. (Maximalists see Israel in the 10th century BCE as a grand and powerful kingdom, while one Minimalist went so far as to call Jerusalem an insignificant “small hill town” during the same period.)

Green has hired three scholars at the museum. The director of the Green Collection is David Trobisch, a respected New Testament scholar who has taught at Yale Divinity School and the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Michael Holmes leads the Green Scholars Initiative. He has a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary and specializes in New Testament textual criticism. Jerry Pattengale, the museum’s education director, holds a doctorate in ancient history.

So contrary to the fears of some early critics, the Museum of the Bible’s founders have engaged scholars with solid (more than solid) academic credentials. But notice: both of the Bible scholars focus on the New Testament. Pattengale is known for pioneering “purpose-guided education” at the evangelical Indiana Wesleyan University. And looking at the museum’s roster of board members, a pattern starts to emerge.

There’s Carlos Campo, the former president of Pat Robertson’s Regent University. There’s Robert E. Cooley, the former president of the evangelical Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and Rev. Bob Hoskins, the founder of OneHope ministry. Gregory S. Baylor is a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that advocates for the rights of Christians on university campuses. Evangelical pastor and author Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life) is on the board too.

The group is not monolithic in every way: Campo is half Cuban (and happens to be George Clooney’s cousin), and there are a couple of women on the board, including the founder of Auntie Anne’s pretzels. But an evangelical Christian faith seems to be the common denominator.

I’m no longer worried the museum will take an overly Maximalist approach to the Old Testament. That seems moot, wherever Trobisch and Holmes may stand on the question, and despite their obvious expertise. Now I’m worried the museum will show the Bible through an evangelical Christian lens and, as a result, will privilege the New Testament over the Old (the Hebrew Bible). If so, it would give short shrift to the books that make up most of the Bible—the Proverbs, the Psalms, the suffering of Job and Daniel in the lion’s den. The rich artistic and literary traditions that have sprung from the Bible may be neglected or bowdlerized, if they are uncomfortable for evangelicals, or if they don’t adhere to a Christian narrative of salvation.

The museum has revealed very little about the contents of its exhibits, no doubt because they are still in development; we know that Green’s preeminent treasures include a number of Dead Sea Scrolls (dating roughly to the era when Jesus lived) and that the museum is building a replica of a village in first-century CE Nazareth, neither of which allays my concerns.

I really hope the Museum of the Bible does not turn out to be an evangelical Museum of the New Testament. A scholar who visited the museum’s traveling exhibit on the Bible through the ages, Passagesfound it “decidedly Protestant in conceptualization, positioning Jewish scriptures as incomplete antecedents to Christian scriptures and collapsing the sweep of Jewish history—no matter how recent—into an uncontested ‘past.'” Passages also portrays Catholic history, she writes, as being full of inaccuracies that the Reformation “corrected.”

If this is the case and the museum sticks with this approach, it will find as limited and self-selecting an audience as its critics fear.

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