A Walking Tour of the New Museum of the Bible

A half-billion-dollar philanthropically funded mega-project created one of the most unusual museums in the world.

It just opened in the heart of Washington, D.C., in easy sight of the U.S. Capitol. Overnight, it became the largest museum in a city of museums—and perhaps the most inventive anywhere at how it presents a big subject to a broad public. To bring this ambitious philanthropic dream to life, the Green family of Oklahoma (who run Hobby Lobby) provided the vision, much of the collection, and hundreds of millions of dollars, while 50,000 other Americans also made gifts. 

Just before the public opening, Philanthropy brought a rabbi and a pastor to the museum to tour a few portions as our eyes and ears. Following is a transcript of what they experienced, in the quiet at the end of a day, as curators hurried to put final touches on displays. Our rabbi is Greg Harris of Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland. Our pastor is Rob Schenck, a Protestant evangelical leader based in Washington, D.C.

Rabbi Harris: The first time I encountered the Bible in a serious way I was about 11 years old. I was at the house of my family’s rabbi, Irv Unger. We sat at his dining room table and read the beginning of Genesis. There were obvious questions that jumped out. As we examined them, the rabbi got up, went to his bookshelf, and pulled down another book. It was written by a rabbi 1,000 years ago, examining the same questions that I as a boy was asking. That was the first time the Bible really opened up to me. I realized that I was not alone in asking these questions. Generations before me had wrestled with similar thoughts sparked by the very same book. I’ve been engaged with the Bible ever since.

Now we’re entering the lobby of a huge museum entirely devoted to that book. The entrance design brings me immediately to Jerusalem. It feels like the Cardo, the ancient central street in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. But then you look up at the ceiling and see that overhead is an extended screen, displaying all kinds of iconography and religious art. It’s an elegant space.

2018_Winter_May_Photo1

Reverend Rob Schenck (left) and Rabbi Greg Harris (right) in front of the museum's nearly 40-foot-high bronze entry gates, which are scaled-up versions of the plates that printed the first Gutenberg Bibles.

Rev. Schenck: I like the ambience, the stone work, the light. It has an ancient texture. And we’re standing near this Bible passage on the wall, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” They’re using light as a medium here, and it’s quite powerful.

Do you realize, it’s estimated that an average person would need nine full visiting days to view all the content in this museum? Shouldn’t they have kept it to seven days?

Rabbi Harris: Really six. Because then you have to rest.

As we get on this elevator, I’m interested to note that the exhibit about to open on part of the first floor is about the Jews in Amsterdam 500 years ago. In 1492 the Jews were thrown out of Spain, and then out of Portugal, and a lot of them settled in Amsterdam where there was a thriving Jewish community. Its most famous resident was Baruch Spinoza, the rationalist philosopher who turned down teaching positions and made his living grinding lenses instead, writing philosophy on the side. He was eventually shunned by both Jews and Christians for his Bible criticisms. I’ll have to come back to explore that gallery.

Now we’re getting out of the elevator at the second floor, which focuses on the impact of the Bible on America and the rest of the world. Immediately we’re looking at a Bible that was brought here by the Puritans who sailed on the Mayflower. Obviously the Bible was a big part of the European migration to America. The Bible didn’t just come with them; their hunger for freedom and to apply the Bible to daily living was a central motivation for the Pilgrims to uproot themselves and move to a strange land in the first place.

On the wall to our right is a depiction of Native Americans looking out at a bay where the ships are arriving. So there’s a recognition that people were here in America before the Bible was. I’m from San Francisco, and on the West Coast there was a similar importation of the Bible with the Bible being brought up from Mexico by missionaries.

Rev. Schenck: There’s lots of evidence here that the Bible has been important in America since the very inception of our culture. Lots of reminders of how much the Bible is woven into the fabric of American civilization.

Here’s a Bible owned by William Bradford, the second governor of Plymouth colony. And not unlike the Bibles that Christians carry today, there are margins for notes abutting columns of Scripture. Interaction and interpretation and talking back has always been part of the formula. In this sense, Bible use hasn’t changed much in America.

Now we’ve entered a series of displays on religious tolerance in various American colonies. And here is our first Torah scroll. It’s open.

2018_Winter_May_Photo2

A 140-foot LED screen spans the ceiling of the entryway, showcasing Biblically inspired art in kaleidoscopic fashion. Through private support, admission to the museum is free, with a recommended donation.

Rabbi Harris: It’s a scroll from America’s founding era, used here though it was produced in Europe. And what’s interesting, though it will be lost on people who can’t read Hebrew, is that it’s opened to the first chapter of the Book of Exodus. That was a very powerful story for the pilgrims who left Europe for the new land. They were establishing their freedom by escaping tyrannies themselves, and you can be sure the stories about leaving behind domination by the pharaohs were meaningful to them.

Rev. Schenck: We’ve entered an area that discusses America’s religious Great Awakening, which helped fuel our Revolution. And look at this! It looks like a black folding box, but I know what it is! This is the portable pulpit of George Whitfield.

Whitfield was one of the great revivalists in America, famed for communicating with huge crowds numbering many thousands, and with a rhetorical skill that earned him admirers ranging from Ben Franklin to David Hume.

He was a magnetic speaker, but his message was too radical for much of the religious establishment, so churches generally wouldn’t let him near their pulpits. So he created and carried with him on horseback this portable pulpit. He’s estimated to have used it 2,000 times to deliver the gospel message to crowds of average people gathered in fields or village squares. Using it, his voice could project wide and far.

He was a tremendous innovator in many ways. He probably would have been one of the first televangelists if that medium had been available to him. Good for the museum for bringing this out, because it was a piece of advanced technology for the day, and part of a grand effort to democratize and personalize religion by bringing it to people where they were.

And here, close by, is an Aitken Bible from the Revolutionary era. It was the only Bible commissioned by Congress. From the very beginning, Americans were ferociously independent, and printing your own Bible was an assertion of independence from state authority. In Europe, the state church had to authorize all Bibles released to the public; printing your own Bible was prohibited.

2018_Winter_May_Photo3

The two top floors of the museum offer versatile conference space, a garden, a restaurant, a Broadway-grade theater, and stunning views of the U.S. Capitol and National Mall.

Rabbi Harris: That’s a crucial element of freedom of expression, part of proclaiming our independence. The new nation is asserting that religious freedom includes producing our own holy scripture.

By the way, the display here is similar to the Torah scroll we saw earlier. The Bibles we’re looking at are open to the story of Exodus. The curators are clearly underscoring the power of the Biblical narrative on the colonists, for both Jews and Christians.

Rev. Schenck: The Bible covers the full range of human experience, human emotion, human vice, human virtue. There are illustrations of wondrously good people, terribly bad people. I think that’s one reason the Bible has been so meaningful for many people over many generations.

That’s also why the totality of scripture is so important. When I went through Bible training in college, we were always told to take into consideration the full tenor of scripture, not just one isolated part. The complete picture is needed to render a fair judgment. We don’t always do that.

Right now we’ve entered a display on the Bible and slavery. As the museum makes clear, there were people who justified slavery using the Bible, and another group who used the Bible to condemn slavery and press very hard for its abolition. That illustrates the point. You can employ the Bible selectively in misleading ways. It demands better treatment.

Rabbi Harris: Another reason the Bible can be so provocative comes from the mix of lessons it carries. I was in a conversation recently with a scientist from the National Institutes of Health, and he was talking about the difference between facts and truth. Facts are the areas that he operates in within his lab. They are provable, you can repeat them. Truth is something that is convincing in a less mechanical way. We can find both facts and truth in the Bible. Sometimes they’re clear, sometimes they’re not. That’s the tension.

Rev. Schenck: Wow, now here is a Fisk Bible presented to Abraham Lincoln by a delegation of African Americans from Baltimore. The Bible has been hugely important to African Americans, so it’s nice to see that noted early, and done well.

Rabbi Harris: Thus far the museum has felt very open, very diverse.

Now we’re entering a series of exhibits called “The Bible and the World.” It is not chronological like the section before it, but arranged around topics. The first one we encounter is human rights, about how the Bible has been used to defend the inherent dignity of human beings.

Just next to it is a display about science, with statues of Isaac Newton and Galileo and others who the church sometimes interpreted as challenging its authority. We’re really being asked to think at each stage of our visit so far.

Rev. Schenck: Look, here’s a display about humanitarian organizations inspired by scripture in some part.

Rabbi Harris: Yes, the Jewish ones are all still operating today.

Rev. Schenck: Here’s a replica of the original Gutenberg press. Of course, the Gutenberg Bible was the first book to be printed with movable type. I saw this earlier when some of the Green family’s collection of Bible artifacts was displayed at the Vatican embassy in D.C.

Rabbi Harris: So here is a display called “Banned and Burned.” It includes a large presentation on Kristallnacht, when the Nazis burned books and destroyed Jewish businesses and homes in 1938. This is painful, but I’m pleased it’s part of the display. This was the start of one of the darkest parts of modern history, when
6 million Jews were murdered.

And how the Nazis moved their country toward that is they burned Torah scrolls and books. Books are sacred. Books are sacred for what is inside of them, the content, the symbolism. And when you are burning books you are burning ideas, destroying ideas. That led to the burning of people not long after. But as I look at it longer, it seems like the curators are highlighting the overall oppression of believers, which I think misses the mark a little bit. The Kristallnacht experience should stand on its own. The display’s comparison with Christian oppression in antiquity does not resonate with me.

Rev. Schenck: This is a powerful section. My Christian hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer was awakened to the Nazi menace by Kristallnacht and the burning of a synagogue. He realized that he, and the church, had to act.

Embracing the Bible has always been costly. The first time I carried a Bible into a high school I was mocked for it. I remember sitting with my first Bible instructor who was also my Latin teacher and an off-hours Baptist minister. I can hear his voice, “Kids, this book will cost you.”

The People of the Book—Jews and Christians—have suffered, in different times and different degrees, because of our religious faith. That unifies us. Religious believers are often mistreated by others, and that draws us together.

Rabbi Harris: As we head up one floor now, to the part of the museum devoted to Bible stories, I’ll say the technology—which many say is unusually advanced in this museum—seems very unobtrusive. I have noticed it, in a lot of ways. There’s video in every section. Interactive displays. In each area there’s something to look at or play with. But it’s nicely integrated. I liked the electronic tabletop, for instance, that showed families all around the world saying grace, blessing their meal across a wide range of cultures.

The technology feels very integrated into the experience. It isn’t artificial, it’s appropriate. The technology is a tool for the visitor, not something to wow you and disconnect you from the artifacts that are here.

The message I’m getting so far is very open. That the Bible has been a big influence throughout history. That the Bible is complicated. That the Bible is relevant. That’s what I’m leaving this floor with.

Rev. Schenck: Yes, the message is that the Bible is important. Even I who handle the book virtually every day sometimes lose appreciation of that. Just by building a museum of the Bible on this scale, you loudly remind people of that.

I’m sorry this next big section on the floor we’ve just entered isn’t open this evening. It’s supposed to present stories from the Bible in timed episodes, which you travel through, one room after another.

People remember stories; they don’t remember abstract ideas or principles as well. We absorb accounts of people’s lives, probably because we identify with them. We have an emotional reaction, and that imprints on our memories in a way nothing else does. That’s why storytelling is one of the most powerful mediums of communication. And the Bible is one of the very greatest collections of potent stories.

Rabbi Harris: Yes, storytelling is built into who we are as human beings. All the way back to cave paintings we are storytellers and receivers of stories. The Bible is a bestseller partly because it’s a narrative book with a huge diversity of stories in it.

Of course there are also legal formulations, and straight descriptions, and family histories. There is poetry in the Psalms, legalities in Leviticus, and more. There are many different ways of communicating, and not everyone is going to connect through the same channels. That’s part of the genius of the Bible; it transmits its messages in many ways.

Ask some contemporary Americans about the Bible and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s for someone else, for a different type of person. That has a rigidity I’m not interested in.”

But that’s not really accurate. It is the job of clergy today to bridge that, to translate the Bible from being just an old book to being relevant to a person’s life. People are still asking all the age-old spiritual questions, but not enough people know that the stories of the Bible can help.

Rev. Schenck: An awful lot of people who think they have no interest in the Bible can be surprised by their sudden interest in it when they encounter it differently. I think the majority of people who come to this museum are likely to already have some interest in the Bible. But maybe other people will come as well, maybe as museum aficionados, or persons interested in the technology, or just as tourists.

Rabbi Harris: Let’s jump up to the history floor next.

Rev. Schenck: This is nice to see. A display on the history of writing, of written language. That is the fundamental technology of the Bible. Writing implements. The alphabet. Written words. The Bible was the document, far more than any other, that drove people to acquire and advance these communication skills.

The exhibits go as far back as cuneiform. It’s important to think about what the Bible looked and felt like when it was originally written and read for the first times. Christians can get an idea that the Bible only looks one certain way. For example, only after a lot of personal study did I finally shed the idea that the Ten Commandments came down from Sinai on big sheets of stone. They probably looked more like what I’m seeing right here, a shard with cramped lettering etched into it.

Now here is a collection of ancient Bible fragments written on papyrus. These are exciting displays. We can see actual surviving pieces of text on papyrus, clay, stone, paper, various media. All very rare and precious.

Rabbi Harris: I’ll tell you what I’m noticing in this section—the background sounds. There’s a very obviously American accent reciting Hebrew. After listening for a while I realize they’re having a diversity of speakers with different accents all read Hebrew verses. It’s very subtle. Very Hebrew-friendly. There’s something deeper going on here. Now as we move into a section about different types of Bibles, showing which books are included in the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Bibles, the architecture of the space is starting to feel very different. By the time I reach the back of the room there are vaulted arches, it’s very church-like, catacomb-like.

Rev. Schenck: This is one of the more aesthetically pleasing spaces in the museum so far. Very artistic, from the low arched ceilings to the texture of the carpet. Stained glass, shadows, lights that flicker. The lighting is dark. I think they’re trying to recall the settings where scribes producing Bibles by hand would have worked.

Meanwhile we’re surrounded by Bible scripts on fragments, leaves, and codices. We’re seeing volumes, pages, artistic renderings of graphic illustrations in Bibles, colors. The message I’m getting across this floor is continuity. There is a continual process of these same words being transmitted from stone to papyrus, from papyrus to vellum, vellum to paper, and so on.

Rabbi Harris: This is also about translation. We have St. Jerome over there. He was an early translator in Jerusalem. This space definitely gives us a sense of the wide range of people touching the Bible, the range of places where the Bible lives, the range of languages the Bible was used in.

Notice this display on the Aleppo Codex? The important early versions of the Bible, called codices, are named for the cities they were found in—in this case Aleppo, Syria. Biblical scholarship is like a game of telephone—you want to find the earliest version you can. That’s why the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery was so significant, and what’s very special about the Aleppo Codex.

Rev. Schenck: This display will give visitors a different association with the name Aleppo. A positive one. The only time many young people may have heard of the city before is through news about it’s terrible suffering today, because of the Syrian civil war. But Aleppo was previously a great center of culture.

And further back in the room, here is a picture of John Wycliffe. Protestants revere him as the man who brought the Bible directly to the people, by translating it into vernacular English for the first time. Before that, you had to be a scholar of Latin or other ancient languages to access God’s word directly. For most Protestant Christians, the story of the Bible starts with Wycliffe’s English translation.

And speaking of Protestant heroes, here is a Bible signed by Martin Luther, in Latin.

Rabbi Harris: That’s a showstopper for geeks like us. I wonder how this floor is going to resonate with the average visitors. I think we’re standing in the midst of 150 books. It’s an incredibly important part of the museum for the substance of the message.

This last portion of the room is exciting for me. It’s a big display of about 50 Torah scrolls. Too bad, though, that they’re behind a glass wall. It’s a very beautiful display, but they feel locked away. The Bible wasn’t written to be locked away. It was written to be read and acted upon by people. So I have mixed feelings.

Rev. Schenck: We’re almost at the end of the portions we’re going to be able to sample today. Maybe we could reflect a little bit on what we’ve seen?

Rabbi Harris: Good idea. Let me start by saying I’m pleasantly surprised by the openness of interpretation from the first floor to the top floor. I think it is inviting to everyone. Different parts of the museum will resonate with different people. The scholarly aspect that we just left is dry in presentation but very exciting if you have a connection to that type of intellectual history. Other parts are very accessible and will be popular. It’s quite a mix.

When I heard the museum hired different companies to design different floors, I worried it might feel disjointed. And each floor is indeed a very different experience. But the design prepares you, and lets you know you’re going to get something different in each place, so it doesn’t jar.

It didn’t feel like they steered around controversies or promoted selective interpretations. While we have spent four hours here and still did not see the entire museum, I’ll say this: It is certainly not just an evangelical museum.

Rev. Schenck: I’m glad to hear Greg say what he just did. I was apprehensive about how the museum would engage visitors who are not evangelical. I have to admit to a lack of confidence in my own people. But I’m delighted by the balance. And my impression is that evangelicals will still be quite comfortable, and often thrilled, here.

Like Greg, I see the different designs as a plus, as an asset. I compare it to my experience visiting museums in Rome and Venice a month or so ago. At some of those museums, the collections got a little monotonous. I thought, “I’ve seen enough statues, enough mosaics, enough tapestries. And look! Here’s another floor of tapestries.” The diversity and change will help keep everyone’s interest piqued, through different kinds of stimuli.

This is a very appealing tourist space. It’s designed well ergonomically, it’s aesthetically pleasing. I’ve even noticed that they seem to have a good fresh-air system. I think people will find this an attractive place, even if the Bible isn’t terribly interesting to them.

Rabbi Harris: The floor about the impact of the Bible is approachable for everyone. It’s a thoughtful way of presenting a museum story—not just letting objects speak for themselves, but helping the viewer appreciate them in different contexts. I think this museum will challenge all types of people. It will have an effect for a long time.

The question I walk away with after this short visit is, simply, what are we going to do with the Bible in our own lives? How are we going to move from a codex to a printed book, to a translated book, to a lived book in our own age?

All visitors to this museum will be stretched to understand the Bible in a broader way. That’s what I think the museum wants to accomplish—which is totally different from what I thought it was going to be. Surprising people in these kinds of ways is something that other museums could learn from the Museum of the Bible.

2018_Winter_May_Photo4

A history floor displays over 500 artifacts, chronicling the translation and dissemination of the world's most popular book.

Rev. Schenck: One surprise for me is that I expected the technology to be over-the-top. It’s not. And I’m glad, because that would be distracting. You don’t want to remember screens and laser shows and sound vibrations. You want to leave here knowing the Bible better. I feel that way, and I’ve been studying the Bible for 30 years. If I can learn something new here in a few hours, then I think visitors will be very surprised at what they absorb.

Greg mentioned to me earlier that Jews are very conscious of who has gone before them, that there is a past. Christians are not as conscious of that, we are not oriented to think as much about the past, we think of the future, of Jesus coming again. But the past is extremely important to understanding the present and projecting where we are going in the future. So, for me, the history component of the Bible is really important.

Rabbi Harris: On the whole, it is a fabulous space and a wonderful presentation. It’s really an incredible museum.

Any Bible museum is going to have controversies. Controversy around its collections has gotten lots of press. But that will just be a footnote as the museum moves forward.

Rev. Schenck: Being so close to the U.S. Capitol, the museum could have taken on a nationalist American presentation, and I’m glad I haven’t seen that. Being in proximity to so many icons of American exceptionalism, there’s a danger of associating the Bible just with American ideas. But this museum makes it abundantly clear that the Bible transcends any particular culture, society, government. The Bible will be around even longer than America will be around.

download link source