Hobby Lobby thinks the Bible can save America. Now its museum has to convince its critics.
Steve Green was 4 years old when he first encountered the Bible. He remembers sitting in a waiting room at a hospital, looking through a Bible picture book. He grew up in a deeply religious, evangelical family, and so his interest in the Bible only grew from there. His father, David Green, came from a family of preachers, and built his business, the craft giant Hobby Lobby, around that faith. Steve Green credits their $3 billion-plus success story to God, and the good book.
In 2009, after Steve Green had become Hobby Lobby president, and a few years before Hobby Lobby would win a high-profile Supreme Court case that said family-owned companies didn’t have to pay for contraception, Green began to acquire biblical artifacts. When he started, he explained in a later interview, he was just looking to buy an object or two. But then, he said, “we kept having opportunities being presented, and we just kept buying.” Within a few years, the Greens had amassed some 40,000 biblical artifacts and texts.
By 2013, in an acceptance speech for the faith-based Templeton Prize, Green was boasting that those artifacts made up the “largest collection in private hands.” In the same speech, he bemoaned that too few Americans today were exposed to the Bible. The nation was “in danger,” he said, “because of its ignorance of what God has taught.”
“If we don’t know it, our future is going to be very scary,” he said. But Green also promised to do his part to change that, by sharing his massive collection of artifacts with the the world.
Earlier this month, federal prosecutors announced that thousands of the Green family’s artifacts, imported by Hobby Lobby, may have been illegally smuggled out of modern-day Iraq. Federal prosecutors said an expert on cultural property law warned Green two months before the purchase that the antiquities may have been looted, but Hobby Lobby moved forward anyway, in a deal the Justice Department now says was “fraught with red flags.” The Greens are paying for it. In a settlement, they agreed to forfeit some 5,500 artifacts, pay a $3 million fine, and adopt stringent internal policies and training for all purchases going forward.
Green said in a statement that he was “pleased the matter has been resolved.”
But a number of antiquities experts, papyrologists and biblical scholars and professors say they do not see the matter as over, largely because the Greens are the funders and visionaries behind the $509 million Museum of the Bible. When it opens this November in Washington, D.C., just off the National Mall, it will display thousands of biblical texts and artifacts.
A museum spokeswoman said none of the smuggled artifacts were destined for the museum. But the Museum of the Bible collection is curated from the Greens’ collection and includes items similar to those that were smuggled, including cuneiform tablets.
This is not the first time the Greens have been scrutinized over the provenance of their artifacts. In 2014, a sharp-eyed papyrologist raised an alarm about another problematic piece in the Green collection — a papyrus fragment that had previously appeared on eBay — after seeing it in a traveling exhibition organized by the Museum of the Bible. (The museum maintains that the item has a clean provenance, stemming back to a U.S.-based university, but it was unable to find photographs of the fragment in university records, and some have since argued it may have violated Egypt’s cultural heritage laws.)
The question of artifacts aside, the coming Museum of the Bible has been plagued by other controversies, including concerns over its supposed evangelical bent and scholarship, its location, presentation and influence, and a Bible curriculum that pushes the Bible as a literal historical text.
PBS NewsHour recently visited the soon-to-open museum to take a look inside and speak to museum leadership — as well as its critics.
Aside from Steve Green, perhaps the most important person behind the Museum of the Bible is Cary Summers, who, like Green, is a successful evangelical businessman, though his experience lies more in the realm of tourist attractions than arts and crafts. Summers was previously CEO and president of Herschend Family Entertainment, which calls itself the country’s largest family-owned theme park operator. Among the attractions he’s helped launch: the Creation Museum in Kentucky, a much-protested museum that subscribes to a literal interpretation of the Bible to explain the world’s origins.
When we meet at the Museum of the Bible, which is still under construction, and where Summers holds the title of president, he wears a hard hat and proudly takes me around the museum’s eight levels. One focuses on the impact of the Bible, another its history, and a third on the many stories that have been told around it. The museum is enormous; spanning 430,000 square feet, it will be one of the largest museums in D.C. When it opens, it will showcase about a thousand biblical items at a time, rotating through artifacts from the Green collection as well as the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Vatican and other collections.
president of Museum of the Bible
“I’m in the industry 40 years, and it bowls me over,” Summers said as we walked from floor to floor, between the sound of hammers and men wheeling in dollies. “But God gave us the inspiration. We just followed his lead.”
In addition to its exhibitions, the museum will also include three library spaces, an art gallery, a 475-foot theater and a TV studio, from which they will launch four television series. It will host a restaurant called “Manna” from celebrity chef Todd Gray, and a cafe called “Milk and Honey” that will be open even when the museum is not. An eight-room hotel inside the museum will have high security; guests may include visitors from the Vatican. “They’re friends of ours,” Summers said, noting that the museum has also purchased air rights for the roof.
The museum was designed to be grand from start to finish. Soon after visitors enter through 40-foot bronze doors that depict text from Genesis 1, they will come upon the longest woven tapestry in the United States, which the museum commissioned to show the Bible through time. On an upper artifacts floor, they can peruse fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls, 1st editions of the King James Bible, and a letter written by Martin Luther shortly before his excommunication.
When I visit, artisans are busy working in the center of the museum on a life-size replica of the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, where Jesus is said to have slept the night before his crucifixion. Summers said no two trees in the garden will look alike, the stones hand-painted to look as they did in the first century, and that a replica of a Nazareth synagogue where Jesus is believed to have read from the scriptures will also be exact. (Summers told me he had just returned from his 109th trip to Israel, where he helped build the open-air Nazareth Village museum and also has a cottage.)
Already hanging in that section was an elaborate Trompe-l’œil painting of the tree on Mount Arbel, an area where Jesus was believed to do most of his ministry. “Whatever happened there changed the world forever,” Summers said as he gazed at the painting.
Summers’ theme park background is also clear throughout the museum. Among the planned showpieces are a virtual reality exhibit where visitors can transport into a fresco of the Last Supper; a flying theater ride where visitors can “fly” over Washington and see where biblical texts are held; and a changing electronic mural inside the museum’s theater. (It will open with the musical “Amazing Grace,” which will run most evenings.)
Summers said the museum has four patents pending on their electronics, including for personal tablets that will take museum-goers on personal tours, guided by the voices of Catholic Cardinal Seán O’Malley and evangelical pastor Rick Warren, who has said he does not believe in evolution.
When I ask Summers about his consulting gig at the Creation Museum, he at first sought to minimize his involvement, saying he only volunteered his time. But he acknowledged that he helped the museum develop its controversial “Ark Encounter,” which includes a life-size Noah’s ark complete with dinosaurs, and also tried to sell the state of Kentucky on the museum’s merits when secularists tried to shut it down.
“I personally do” support the message of the Creation Museum, he told me. “I believe in creation. God created the world. I disagree on the topic of evolution.”
But Summers said these and other hot-button topics won’t be addressed at the Museum of the Bible. What will be addressed, he said, is how the Bible can and has served as a moral (even if not literal) guide for how to live. Some of this will be addressed on a lower “impact” floor of the museum, which will show the Bible’s influence on fashion, the government, the prison system, healthcare, music and more. (Think U2 frontman Bono’s “Psalms” album and the Bible’s impact on the founding fathers.)
As we leave the museum, Summers tells me the timing of the museum’s opening is apt, given the instability in the world right now.
“Horrific actions are being taken against people,” he said. “And the Bible is the oldest book that provides a moral compass. [It’s] 3,000 years old. And it continues to offer insight into what life is about. It’s, ‘Wow: Have we ever in history been where we are today?’ I think there is a need to put the Bible back in a global conversation.”
According to a 2014 Pew religious landscape study, about a third of Americans say they read from the Bible about once a week, while nearly half say they seldom or never read it.
Before I go, Summers leaves me with a paraphrased quote from the Book of Esther, which he said sums up how he feels about being involved in the Museum of the Bible.
“We are,” he said, “called for in such a time as this.”
When the Museum of the Bible filed a 501(c)(3) to become a new nonprofit in 2011, it described its mission as “to bring to life the living Word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation, and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.”
This mission seemed to reflect the personal beliefs of Green, who, in that same 2013 awards speech, described the Bible as a “reliable historical document” that was “true.”
Over time, though, that evangelical message softened. In 2012, a new filing said the museum was being founded to “invite all people to engage with the Bible” through “museum exhibits and scholarly pursuits.”
Today, museum leaders, including Steve Green, say the goal is not to proselytize. Summers reiterated this point when we met, insisting the museum would present the perspectives of different faith traditions (including other Christian faiths and Judaism, though not Islam), and that they would not try to translate or interpret the Bible for visitors.
Instead, he said, he worried they’d get criticized for not proselytizing enough. “Some are disappointed we are not taking a more vigorous approach, being here in Washington,” he said.
In 2015, 2.3 billion people identified as Christian, making them the world’s largest religious group, according to Pew Research. In the U.S., 70 percent of Americans consider themselves Christian, and roughly a quarter of those people are evangelical.
Similar concerns have been voiced by religion scholars and historians, including R. Marie Griffith, who directs the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.
Griffith first got a peek into the museum when one of her doctoral students visited one of the Museum of the Bible traveling exhibits, which, since 2011, have gone to Oklahoma City, Israel, Cuba, the Vatican, and many other places. These previews of the museum have since reached half a million people. If that exhibit is any guide, Griffith said, she’s troubled by the evangelical bent she’s seen.
“It’s really driven specifically by an evangelical worldview that sees the Bible as inspired by God,” she said. “And then there’s also a very strong nationalist message, where it wants to suggest that the Bible kind of foretells the creation of the United States. There are incredibly strong claims about the Bible’s relationship to the nation.”
Griffith, among other scholars, has called for a more diverse board of influencers to balance out the Greens’ evangelical worldview, including “scholars who have wrestled with how these texts were produced over time,” she said.
Much of the board of the Museum of the Bible is evangelical, including Green, Summers, and the evangelical pastor Warren, as well as Robert Cooley, a former president of an evangelical seminary, and Mark DeMoss, who is now running the museum’s PR, and who is the former chief of staff to Jerry Falwell Sr.
But it also includes secular heads of major corporations, and Green argues that the museum’s scholarship team, which comes from universities and seminaries around the globe, is more diverse; in an email, he wrote that it’s one-third Jewish, one-third Protestant, and one-third Catholic, and includes experts in papyri and cuneiform; Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Egyptian and Ethiopic texts; Coptic, medieval, Middle-Eastern, early Jewish and early American artifacts.
In 2015, the museum also hired David Trobisch, a respected liberal academic and New Testament scholar, to oversee the museum’s texts and artifacts — a hire many saw as a bid to alleviate outside concerns from scholars. By phone, Trobisch told me he was skeptical about working for the museum at first. “I’m a well-educated scholar. I would have a hard time working with any church or faith community who are not truthful about what the Bible really is,” he said, meaning a community that pushed a literal interpretation of the Bible.
But he said he felt better once he saw that the collection also planned to represent other faiths, including the Jewish tradition, through gestures such as by displaying fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Hebrew manuscripts once used by the Jewish community in China. To him, it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with artifacts he couldn’t anywhere else.
Trobisch also told me he wasn’t initially aware of provenance problems among some of the artifacts. Even once those were flagged, starting with the same 2014 traveling exhibition that sounded alarms for papyrologist Roberta Mazza, he assumed there were just a problematic few pieces among the 40,000 items in the collection.
Trobisch did not respond to requests for comment after news emerged last week about the thousands of supposedly looted artifacts.
The Justice Department’s announcement about the Hobby Lobby artifacts early this month set the academic and cultural community abuzz. The scale, in their eyes, was enormous, the story salacious: 5,500 artifacts, allegedly looted from Iraqi archaeological sites, bought by Hobby Lobby from multiple antiquities dealers with money wired to a number of bank accounts and then smuggled into the U.S. with misleading shipping labels.
Historical sites have become increasingly vulnerable due to conflict and terrorism, and ever since the UNESCO 1970 Convention — an international treaty made at another time thefts from archeological sites were on the rise — museums and artifact collectors have been expected to to do far more to establish the provenance of items, to prevent illicit trafficking of cultural property.
Hobby Lobby, however, insisted their misstep was a matter of naive acquisition; a statement from the company said they “did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process.”
But antiquities experts, including Deborah Lehr, founder of the Antiquities Coalition, which works to stop cultural racketeering, firmly pushed back on that idea. Lehr told PBS NewsHour that Hobby Lobby was “a sophisticated importer” and that they “know very well that you have to designate the country of origin and the appropriate tariff line when bringing these into the country. This was not done.”
Instead of being declared as antiquities, the artifacts were declared as clay tiles and samples.
Additionally, the items were declared as coming from Turkey, instead of Iraq, which would have required additional permits, she said.
Whether it was deliberate or a case of naiveté, the Green family did acquire thousands of artifacts in a remarkably quick period of time, which left others besides Lehr suspicious.
Mazza, the papyrologist who recognized the worrisome fragment in a traveling exhibition as one that had been on eBay, said she was not surprised by the news of the settlement because of how quickly the Greens had acquired their artifacts.
“It is impossible to amass a collection like that in such a short time in the context of a legal market which is very and rightly restricted,” she wrote in an email.
Either way, Hobby Lobby has now said that they will now try to remedy their actions by setting up policies on how to buy new artifacts, hiring outside customs brokers, and submitting reports to the government on its purchases.
As for the Museum of the Bible, a spokeswoman said no looted items were destined for the museum, and also that it adheres to the current museum industry guidelines, which have strict rules about acquisitions.
But Joel Baden and Candida Moss, two theology professors who have long been following Hobby Lobby’s biblical ventures, and who are coming out with a book about the company this October, say promises by the Greens (and punishment by prosecutors) about future acquisitions miss the point.
“In the future they have agreed they will have oversight in their purchasing. But the issue isn’t the future. It is the past,” said Moss, who is a professor of the New Testament at the University of Notre Dame. “There are 40,000 artifacts [they acquired], and very little understanding of where they came from. They’re not in the market for more artifacts. What we need is vetting: good faith transparent efforts to locate the histories of those artifacts,” she said — meaning those that were not included in the investigation.
So far, the museum has only released highlights of the artifacts they will host, which is standard for new institutions. But they have not provided provenance information about those items, which seems to buck tradition. (See the MET Museum’s listings here.)
The museum is not yet open, however, and Michael Holmes, a professor of early Christian writings and head of scholarship for the museum, said they were still working on getting provenance information together for upcoming publications.
Holmes acknowledged there were items with incomplete provenance in the museum collection and said he was wrestling with how to handle them.
Mazza, the papyrologist, said the museum needed to declare the provenance of all its antiquities, and also replace their key staff members with more serious scholars.
“Museums and cultural institutions are serious enterprises,” Mazza, the papyrologist, wrote in an email, “while the Greens and their team seem a group of (dangerous) amateurs.”
The Greens’ desire to elevate their faith in modern culture goes beyond a brick-and-mortar museum in Washington. In the past, this has included the Supreme Court case on contraception, Christian bookstores, and sponsored trips to Israel. It’s included the museum’s traveling exhibitions, which appeared in cities around the world. And it’s included the launch of a bible-based curriculum, which Green wrote in an email to NewsHour was designed to teach high schoolers around the world the “history, narrative and impact of the most influential text ever written.” The curriculum will also be on display at the Museum of the Bible.
One version of that curriculum is already available online for private and homeschooled students in the U.S.; another version developed by the museum and Israeli educators, which does not include Christian New Testament passages, is being used by 100,000 children in Israel. Green also tried to get the curriculum into public schools in Oklahoma City, not far from Hobby Lobby corporate headquarters, but that plan was shelved after heavy opposition from legal groups and religious scholars.
In an independent review of the public school curriculum in 2015, biblical scholar Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, wrote that the course had “a long way to go before being appropriate for a public school classroom” because of the combination of a “religious purpose, pervading sectarian bias, and frequent factual errors.”
Among his critiques were that the curriculum favored the Protestant (read: evangelical) form of the bible, and also promoted the belief that the bible was “literally, historically accurate and ‘reliable,’” as Green had expressed in his 2013 speech accepting the Templeton Prize.
(Christians in the United States are very divided about how to interpret the Bible, according to Pew; about a third say it should be taken literally, a third say it’s the word of God but that not everything should be taken literally, and another third say it’s not the word of God at all.)
A desire to spread the Bible’s teachings in public schools seems to come from Green’s own childhood : “Unfortunately, I did not have a Bible curriculum available in the public school I attended,” Green wrote to me, and said he was grateful to have gotten exposure to it at church.
Now, that curriculum, with some tweaks, will be available to the public on one level of the Museum of the Bible. Instead of focusing on the Bible’s impact on culture, it will delve into the history and narratives around the Bible, in an “engaging and scholarly way,” a museum spokeswoman said.
Asked if he was nervous to have the museum opening in light of the scrutiny over the curriculum, artifacts, scholarship, and more, Summers laughed. “It’s the most controversial topic in the world,” he said. “It’s the biggest-selling book; most banned, destroyed, influential book … We will irritate everybody.”