Visiting D.C.’s Museum of the Bible

To take certain commentators’ reports at face value, the Museum of the Bible in downtown Washington, D.C. is just one small step removed from Ken Ham’s Creation Museum and Ark Encounter—an expressly sectarian environment cloaked in pseudo-neutrality. At least, that’s the line peddled by Candida Moss and Joel Baden, longtime critics of the project and authors of “Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.” Echoing Moss and Baden, Vox writer Tara Isabella Burton similarly accuses the museum of “routinely disregard[ing] basic principles of academic inquiry” in a way that “should make would-be visitors very, very cautious.”

But these commentators would be wrong, and their various grievances likely say more about their own fixations than about the museum itself.

For one thing, the Museum of the Bible definitely isn’t the tawdry Smithsonian knockoff these critics describe. Purely as a matter of design, this is a slick, high-tech experience on par with any of D.C.’s other museums, even if its subject matter isn’t technically as “glitzy” as the rockets of the Air and Space Museum, or as ancient as the dinosaur skeletons of the Natural History Museum. Laden with touchscreens, video displays, and large-scale effects (the 140-foot screen that spans the ceiling of the main entry hall is particularly eye-popping), the museum is clearly working hard to define itself as a contemporary, relevant space. (I wouldn’t have minded some dusty glass cases and inscrutable papyrus fragments here and there, but I recognize I’m probably in an old-fashioned minority.)

The museum’s permanent collection fills three major exhibition floors—focusing on the impact of the Bible, stories from the Bible, and the history of the Bible, respectively. The “Impact of the Bible” gallery traces the impact of biblical themes and concepts throughout the Middle Ages, the American Founding, and subsequent social movements throughout American history. (Notably, this isn’t an unqualified celebration of the Bible’s impact; a significant amount of display space is devoted to the pro- and anti-slavery arguments drawn from the text during the Civil War.) The “Stories of the Bible” floor, for its part, relies heavily on theme park-style interactive exhibits (including a life-size reconstruction of Nazareth as it might’ve appeared in Jesus’ day). And last but certainly not least is the “History of the Bible” gallery, which covers the assortment and dissemination of scriptural texts across time.

Perhaps the museum’s single most striking exhibit is a massive chamber filled with translations of the Bible into different languages. Nestled beside these existing volumes are shelves of empty notebooks, symbolizing those languages for which translations are still needed. On and on run these rows of notebooks, enveloping the visitor in a cocoon of blank pages—a testament both to the world’s profound linguistic diversity and to the need for translation efforts to continue.

But what about those scathing reviews?

Speaking as someone who’s read Moss and Baden’s argument against the museum in “Bible Nation,” theirs is not a particularly compelling critique. For instance, Moss and Baden spend many, many pages stewing over the museum’s importation of certain artifacts through a process that turned out to be fraught with improprieties. (The museum paid a hefty fine and returned the items in question.) Yet one wonders whether Moss and Baden routinely muster the same indignation over the British Museum’s longtime (and controversial) possession of the Elgin Marbles, or whether the international sale of artifacts is ultimately preferable to their destruction at the hands of ISIS vandals. Nor does it strike me as inherently objectionable that the members of the Green family—the evangelical owners of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain and principal benefactors of the museum—have their own firm beliefs about what the Bible represents. No one will ever be a genuinely disinterested party, particularly on a topic this weighty.

It’s not particularly hard to track down the source of progressives’ animus; many likely have a bone to pick with the Green family over their non-museum activities. In 2014, the Greens prevailed over the government in a controversial Supreme Court case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, that held the government could not compel Hobby Lobby to provide certain forms of contraception to their employees through their insurance plans. Hobby Lobby’s reticence stemmed from its owners’ belief that certain forms of hormonal birth control are potentially abortifacient—a belief that, you guessed it, is grounded in the Greens’ understanding of the Bible. The pieces fall into place from there: if you think Hobby Lobby was a legal abomination and that the Greens are delusional, how will you feel about anything that appears to promote their notions of the Bible?

At bottom, there’s really no need to relitigate old grudges; one can make sound criticisms of the museum that aren’t just pretextual grousing against the Greens. For one thing, the museum suffers from a real dearth of material on early Gnostic texts, on the circumstances surrounding the Muratorian Fragment and the Synod of Hippo, and on the many normative debates regarding canonicity. There’s a fine exhibit showing the variance between different versions of the Bible across religious traditions (who knew the Ethiopian church’s canon included so many different books?), but important questions over the criteria for inclusion or exclusion aren’t squarely presented. Moreover, for all the fuss over smuggled tablets, it’s a bit jarring to realize that there really aren’t that many actual artifacts on display. Many of the display cases are filled with facsimile papyri or glass reproductions of ancient stelae—an understandable move, given that many such items are already prominently displayed in other museums, but a shade disappointing nevertheless. And I’ll give Moss, Baden, and their compadres this much: even if the museum doesn’t have an explicitly evangelistic bent, it does feel rather like a Protestant megachurch (the beige marble walls might have something to do with this).

But none of this is to say that the Museum of the Bible isn’t worth visiting (particularly given the low price of admission—free, with a suggested $15 donation). This is a high-quality—if not quite definitive—museum that largely accomplishes its mission: highlighting its subject matter and encouraging visitors to engage. And that’s worth celebrating.

(photo credit: Museum of the Bible)

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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