A Museum Review for You—A Review of the Museum of the Bible

You may or may not have heard that a Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, D.C. I have…feelings about putting a museum like this across the street from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a block from the FBI’s headquarters and from the U.S. Department of Education, and catty-corner from a State Department facility. The symbolism of that choice ought not be lost upon those of us concerned about separating church and state. (If you think it’s some neutral facility with no axe to grind, I have lovely real estate in the Everglades to sell you.)

Looking for field trip opportunities for the students at the congregation’s school, I went with our school director to the Museum to see whether and, if so, how students from our school might benefit from a field trip. Since we did the legwork, it seemed like a good idea to write up my impressions.

And, having written it up, why not share it with you?

Security

I haven’t been to a museum with security that is—or at least seems to be—as thorough as what I found at the Museum of the Bible. In addition to armed security and metal detectors, there were two large, white, honeycomb-shaped devices placed just before the metal detectors. Each device has several doors, and behind each door is a compartment into which visitors are instructed to place their bags. There’s clearly some kind of scanning process, but there’s really no information on what the machines are designed to detect. You put your bag in, close the door, walk through the metal detectors (and get the additional “please put your arms up” wand-detector scan if necessary), open a door on the back of the big white honeycomb device, and get your bag.

All of this seems more sophisticated than any other museum I’ve been to in D.C., including museums like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has been the site of outright violence against its staff. It might not be any more sophisticated or effective; I really don’t know, although it’s worrying that the “security theater” of our airports has now reached into our museums.

Are There Errors?

Let’s start with the first thing that I was trying to find: errors. I wasn’t necessarily hoping to find any. But with the prospect of potentially taking a large-ish group of students to a museum like this, knowing what is in the museum and where it might be wrong is important.

There aren’t a large number of outright errors, and the few that I found aren’t ones that a layperson might easily catch. For example, on a wall in front of an exhibit on the history of the transmission of the biblical text is what I suspect is an effort to represent the word “Scripture” in Aramaic. It should read ketuva—or rather, the word they seemed to be going for was ketuva (כתובא). The word on the wall actually reads as hakhachuva (הכחובא). Searches of both the Jastrow dictionary and the Sefaria database turned up no examples of hakhachuva or any likely permutations of it. The museum thus appears 1) to have misspelled the word it was trying to use, and 2) perhaps to have mistakenly attached the Hebrew definite article (-ה) to an Aramaic word.

Tanakh and an Apparently Misspelled Aramaic word on a background composed of a map of the Middle East

On top is the Hebrew abbreviation of Tanakh, for Torah – Nevi’im – Ketuvim (the three parts of the Hebrew Bible). Below is what I assume is meant to be ketuva (literally “a written thing,” no doubt meant to mean Scripture) in Aramaic. I can find no evidence of this spelling in Jewish literature.

Another error: there is an exhibit that purports to reconstruct a first-century Galilean town, and the entry to the exhibit more or less implies that it’s reconstructing Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth (its name is “The World of Jesus of Nazareth”). At the back of this exhibit is a full wall-sized tableau of the Sea of Galilee, created to give the impression that you’re standing on a hill in town overlooking the sea. The picture of the sea (it’s really a lake) is labeled with the names of towns that were found along the coast, allowing visitors to see how close a number of these towns were to one another. (Obviously, cities aren’t labeled like that in real life.)

The problem here? Nazareth is in the Galilee as a region, but does not have the particular view of the lake provided by the museum—or, in fact, any view of the lake at all! As best I could tell, the place one would be standing to have that particular view would be somewhere in Tiberias, which is about 30 kilometers east of Nazareth.

So, either the village is not supposed to be Nazareth (a point not made clear anywhere—and the museum’s website claims that it is supposed to be Nazareth), or the museum’s curators have decided geography is irrelevant and traded geographical fidelity for a nice “view” of the Galilee.

Here’s another issue: the reconstructed village of “Nazareth” includes a reconstructed synagogue. Excavation work hasn’t yielded archaeological evidence of a synagogue in Nazareth in the first half of the 1st century CE. Maybe there was one; maybe there wasn’t. We don’t really know.

Reconstruction of a first-century synagogue at the Museum of the Bible; photo from Bible History Daily, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/artifacts-and-the-bible/museum-of-the-bible-visit/

Reconstruction of a first-century synagogue at the Museum of the Bible; photo from Bible History Daily, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/artifacts-and-the-bible/museum-of-the-bible-visit/

In any case, the museum’s “Nazareth”  includes a reproduction of an early synagogue. Over time, these structures became important religious sites with mosaic floors, etc. The reconstructed synagogue at the museum very plain, with stone benches along the walls and a small closet on one end intended to be an ark that would hold a Torah scroll. (By the way, it’s also unclear that a Torah scroll would have been so central in a synagogue in the first century.) The reconstruction itself is relatively accurate, but its existence in Nazareth and its presumed use (public reading of the Torah) are both speculative.

Reconstructed first-century synagogue

A reconstruction of a first-century synagogue; photo by Ian W. Scott, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Oddly, the synagogue “building” was not, as far as we were able to see, labeled as such. I discovered this accidentally, through a conversation with our school director that went something like this:

Me: (pointing at the small closet) Well, I guess that’s where the Torah is supposed to go.

Her: Where?

Me: The little closet built into the wall. That’s supposed to be an ark.

Her: This is a synagogue? How do you know?

I knew immediately upon walking in the room that the curators had intended to reconstruct a synagogue because I’ve studied the period and its archaeology. If you didn’t have that background information, you’d be forced to guess what you were standing in. That was the position our school director was in, even after several trips to Israel, including brief work on an archaeological dig site and a study-abroad year. There were no signs anywhere marking anything about the structure. (See the photo immediately above for a reconstruction in Nazareth of a first-century synagogue. For more on the structure and use of first-century synagogues, see https://www.bibleodyssey.org/places/related-articles/first-century-synagogues.)

The rest of the “Nazareth” exhibit—indeed, most of the rest of the museum—was well marked. But these three problems are particularly noteworthy because they are essentially undetectable by laypersons and are examples of speculation at best and outright errors at worst.

Interpretation Is a Problem

While there aren’t many glaring errors, there are areas throughout the museum that set forth as facts propositions that are actually better treated as speculation.

The museum has been somewhat dogged by the question of the provenance and authenticity of the artifacts in several of the collections. In particular, there has been controversy surrounding how the museum obtained several parchment fragments that some believe are from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The museum admits in its display of these items that there is an ongoing debate as to the authenticity of the fragments. But the museum’s placement of these items—in the Hellenistic/Dead Sea Scrolls area of the exhibit that surveys the history of the transmission of the biblical text as we know it—makes it clear that the museum’s curators believe that the fragments are authentic Dead Sea Scrolls.

If they are forgeries, they are good ones. The museum treats them more or less in the way one would treat such items if put on display in a museum, including keeping the display relatively dark to prevent degradation of ink and parchment. It is reasonable, however, to question the wisdom of having the fragments on display in an area where 1) there is no obvious ban on flash photography, and 2) visitors are provided with the ability to turn on some additional indirect light to illuminate the small pieces of parchment. And, again, the museum’s curators have clearly accepted the conclusion that the parchment fragments are authentic Dead Sea Scrolls, which is a bit of a leap given ongoing and substantial scholarly debate about these items.

The museum uses a considerable amount of floor space—several special exhibits and portions of the permanent exhibition, including all of the second floor—to showcase the history of the Bible’s influence on culture and society. The interpretation of these themes and of the items purporting to reflect those themes can often best be described as tendentious. As an example: one of the special exhibits displays numerous pieces of art, much of it late-Renaissance painting. The items in the exhibit are centered around the themes of the book of Ecclesiastes—impermanence, human pleasure and its fleeting nature, etc.—as identified by the exhibit’s curators. The placards describing each work advance an argument that Ecclesiastes actually inspired the artistic pieces in the exhibit.

But given the origin of the artistic works and the cultural influences at work in the late Renaissance, it’s as likely that the artists were inspired by classical philosophers like the Stoics, whose works also discussed the fleeting nature of life and its sensual pleasures. None of Ecclesiastes’s themes are original to it, let alone unique to it. There’s nothing provided in the exhibits that identifies why, for example, Ecclesiastes’s meditations on impermanence have anything at all to do with a painting of a melon with a fly on it. I couldn’t help but conclude that the exhibit was constructed by looking for works of art that proved the point the curators wanted to make.

The museum most often displays it curators’ willingness to adopt interpretations that can charitably be described as “something of a reach” when the cultural authority of the Bible is challenged by historical events. Some examples:

  • The history of Galileo’s trial is spun so that it isn’t connected to religion, but to elitism among Aristotelian scholars—as though the Catholic Church didn’t engage in excommunication, but simply denied him tenure in the philosophy department at the local university.
  • The exhibits that deal with slavery dedicate much more space to the role of the Bible among abolitionists than among enslavers in the United States.
  • Various aspects of American life are characterized as “New Models of Biblical _____”: biblical leadership, or authority, or whatever, even as we are talking about what Roger Williams did instead of what anyone in the Bible itself did.
  • An item about “social injustice” and the role the Bible played among those seeking to remedy injustice strikes one as somewhat tone deaf, given the sponsorship of the museum by organizations and persons who advance agendas largely rejected by social justice organizations.
  • At times, the museum heavy-handedly advances the idea that the Bible inspired Americans to adopt ideas of religious liberty, a point that is stated but never proved.
  • The museum soft-pedals the actual critiques of religion advanced by several of the U.S.’s Founders, and gives the merest hand-wave to negative effects of the religious traditions that follow the Bible. (Except for Islam, which is never really mentioned at all.)
  • A display features video recordings of various scholars and scientists who provide visitors ways to maintain religious faith in the face of challenges to the Bible’s authority.

In each case, the facts are stretched—often quite far—to prevent negative conclusions about the moral authority of the Bible.

Note that we did not see either the “Stories from the Hebrew Bible” presentation (about 30 minutes long, with a 20 minute-long line) or the New Testament presentation. A recent article in the Washington Post discusses Jewish leaders’ reactions to the museum, which I generally agree with and which briefly discusses the Hebrew Bible presentation and the museum’s approach to Jews generally. (See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/12/27/washingtons-huge-new-bible-museum-talks-a-lot-about-jews-so-why-are-some-jews-so-skeptical/?utm_term=.657cf622622d&wpisrc=nl_most&wpmm=1.)

Propaganda Is Also a Little Bit of a Problem

One area of the museum depicts all the active languages in the world and shows which of them have Bible translations, which have partial translations, and which have no translations at all. The display, called IllumiNations, is sponsored by an organization of the same name that seeks to alleviate “Bible poverty” by 2033.

Unless your goal is broader than simply making a book available, the notion of “Bible poverty” is ridiculous. And the prominent place given to that particular display makes plain the museum’s general agenda, just as the museum’s location amidst dozens of government agencies makes the agenda plain: forcing a particular view of the Bible into public discourse. That is frankly an idea that I find worrying, but it’s the museum’s underlying premise: the Bible is a force for good, and it should be celebrated as such in a location central to the functioning of the United States.

Food

I didn’t eat there. There are two restaurants that are probably pretty good, as they are being run by experienced restaurateurs with good reputations in the city. I know our school director stayed behind for a bit to get something to eat, so I’ll ask her what she thought and maybe update this when I find out.

Aesthetics

The museum is visually well done: it’s aesthetically very pleasing, well set up, etc. That’s true even of the gift shop, the overall decor of which reminds me as much of a Brooks Brothers store as anything else. You could pay a lot less on Amazon for virtually every book there, a few of which are genuine scholarly works, and several others of which present relatively reputable evangelical biblical scholarship; I can’t imagine wanting a shirt or…whatever, but some people clearly would.

Peel the surface away, however, and some of the aesthetic gloss gets a little dull. In several areas of the museum, speakers play audio recordings of Hebrew being chanted or read. Standing in a foyer area just outside the entrance to the “History of the Bible” section that discusses the history of the transmission of the biblical text, we heard a recording of a woman singing the Ashrei prayer, which is primarily composed of Psalm 145 with two or three verses from other psalms thrown into the mix. The chanting of the prayer was clear and crisp—the singer was clearly well-rehearsed—but the prayer was sung using Adonai. If the museum intended to be welcoming to all, it misses the mark here: I can imagine some Orthodox Jews being concerned with both the failure to use any of the possible circumlocutions for Adonai and the voice of a woman being used for the recording. (To be clear, neither of these offended me or my companion, though we were sort of bizarrely tickled to hear something we knew so well being played in a not-very-Jewish place.)

In another location, we heard recordings of two male voices reading (not chanting, just reading) portions of the biblical text in Hebrew. One of the voices sounded for all the world like a very rehearsed Midwestern man reading Hebrew with relatively flat affect and no accent. The other voice sounded like an American who had rehearsed trying to sound like an Israeli, or maybe someone who has learned Hebrew from an Israeli but who hasn’t spent enough time in Israel to really pick up an accent. If you’re accustomed to hearing Hebrew spoken fluently, these recordings sound strained and overly rehearsed.

Of special note as a “you should definitely do this” is a kind of sound pod that is dedicated to playing excerpts from recordings of popular music that use biblical references in their lyrics. Many of these use lyrics draw directly from one or another version of the Bible, and some of the music is very, very good popular music, including Son House’s “John the Revelator,” Sam Cooke, some early Rolling Stones, etc. Left to my own devices, I could see sitting through the entire playlist—nearly forty five minutes!—just to hear what was coming next.

Cost

There’s no fixed admission charge for individuals/families, though there is a recommended donation of $10 to $15. Some of the special exhibits are free; others require payment of an admission charge of $8. (There is a per-person admission charge for large groups to enter the museum itself.) Notably, while as an individual you don’t have to pay the donation, the ticket-scanner employees positioned themselves in such a way that I felt somewhat “directed” toward the ticketing counter. (I didn’t actually act on that feeling, but I noted the positioning.)

As noted above, I didn’t use either of the restaurants or the associated coffee stand, so I don’t know what pricing is like for those. The museum store, as noted above, is priced about the way one would expect a museum gift shop to be priced: a bit too expensive if you were looking to buy in a non-impusle situation. For example, the museum charged $99.99 for the Nestle-Aland 28th Edition Greek-English New Testament; as I’m writing this, Amazon sells this volume for $65.44 and Barnes & Noble carries it for about $70. Another volume, Invitation to the Septuagint, is available for $36 at the museum (the list price) but runs for $28.77 on Amazon. Of note is that the books for sale skew heavily toward evangelical preferences: most of the scholarly-type volumes come from InterVarsity Press, which publishes textbooks and other volumes aimed at an educated evangelical Christian audience. I noted happily, however, the presence of Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed, which takes for granted the Documentary Hypothesis, the scholarly conclusion that biblical books are composed from multiple written sources that were redacted together to create unified texts that nevertheless betray signs of their redaction. The exhibits touch on biblical criticism, but do so very lightly, so that encountering Friedman’s volume at the museum store is a little bit surprising.

The Bottom Line

So, is this a place worth visiting? I’d give a very, very qualified “yes,” depending largely on what exhibits are available when you go and your tolerance level for potentially supporting an institution whose mission is a little worrying for many liberal Jews. As a Humanistic Jewish rabbi, I’m not going to suggest you go poking around in the Bible stories sections of the museum. These are treated as being basically true, and that’s problematic. I’d also suggest being very aware that the museum views through rose-colored glasses the significance of the Bible and soft-pedals around disputed issues, including the authenticity of artifacts and texts and the Bible’s primary meaning as a “source for good.” The museum presents with a number of historical blindspots that would go unnoticed by many.

At the moment, the museum provides an opportunity to see artifacts and encounter information about the Bible that most people would not otherwise get much access to, especially if one’s encounter with study of the Bible is limited to the occasional church or synagogue visit or cable television show. If one were looking for a truly even-handed approach to this material, there are many other museums (including the Field Museum in Chicago and the British Museum in London) with comparable material and much less ideological agenda—though none of them are in the D.C. area.

If we were to take children from a Jewish school there, we would be highly selective of the parts of the museum visited and would ensure that we had created activities to guide viewing of the exhibits and discussion afterward. The museum’s exhibits simply should not be approached without being very aware of the curators’ relatively subtle ways of framing somewhat controversial positions as facts. And the bottom line is still that the museum isn’t a neutral institution, and makes its goals clear for those with eyes to see and ears to hear (Mark 8:18). (Let’s all appreciate the irony of the rabbi citing the New Testament as a critique of a largely Christian-funded museum attempting to bring the Bible into government and broader American society.)

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