The Museum of the Bible: Why Are Archaeologists and Bible Scholars So Mad?

On November 17, 2017, the Museum of the Bible will open in Washington, DC, just south of the national mall. It promises to be the one of the world’s largest collection of biblical manuscripts, offering visitors a shrine dedicated to both the history of the Bible and the literature it contains.

One would expect biblical scholars nationwide to welcome such a museum with resounding enthusiasm. But this is not the case.

The idea of a Museum of the Bible elicits two very different reactions among biblical scholars and archaeologists. Conservative Evangelicals are responding to the Museum with open arms and open wallets. Other biblical scholars, however, have shuddered, bemoaning both the process by which some of the museum’s objects were collected and the proposed manner in which the museum will present the Bible to the public. In fact, the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham, Dr. Candida Moss, and Yale Divinity School Professor of Hebrew Bible, Dr. Joel Baden, have just co-authored a new book entitled Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton University Press), detailing Steve Green’s involvement in the antiquities trade, biblical education, and his forthcoming museum.

In order to understand these polarized reactions, we must first understand the two main, yet vastly different approaches to teaching the Bible and biblical archaeology.

Critical vs. Confessional Methodology

One reason for the binary scholarly reaction to the Museum of the Bible is rooted in methodology. It is not the case that academics in state and secular schools hate the Bible, while confessional scholars at private, Christian universities love it. This is a false dichotomy. Scholars in both groups have given their careers to teaching the significance of the Bible, its text, and its cultural context to students and the public alike, as the Bible and Christianity have made an indelible impact on the development of nearly every aspect of western culture, and thus the development of the world. All educated individuals should possess at least some knowledge of the stories and teachings found in the Bible, as well as knowledge of how the Bible came to be and its role and place in society.

Neither does the difference in scholarly reaction lie in the fact that biblical scholars at private Jewish and Christian schools believe what the Bible is saying, while those at secular and highly ranked private universities do not. This is also a false characterization. To be sure, there are plenty of devout Jews and Christians teaching at state universities and the nation’s top private schools.

The difference between confessional Bible scholars and those at state, private secular, and the nation’s highest-ranked universities is the approach they take to teaching the Bible. Whether confessional, agnostic, or atheistic, Bible scholars and archaeologists who take a critical approach (“critical” here meaning “analytical”, not “disparaging”) use a scientific approach to the textual and archaeological evidence. They employ reason, logic, evidence, and use replicable tests and experiments to arrive at their conclusions. Perhaps most importantly, they teach and publish the results of their research, even if those results conflict with their personal religious beliefs. This “critical method” is what the nation’s top colleges seek in the professors they hire.

So whether a scholar is personally a Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, or part of a Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox Jewish tradition, those who employ a critical methodology, whose research conclusions are based solely on the evidence under analysis, and not on the researcher’s personal religious beliefs or what they want to be true, are considered “critical scholars”.

The other approach is called a “confessional” approach. This approach serves an apologetic function that usually seeks to defend the researcher’s personal religious beliefs or those of the researcher’s employer. This explains why the small handful of university instructors and researchers, for example, who claim that the earth is only 6,000 years old and was created according to the biblical creation accounts, work for the likes of Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis or private, sectarian religious institutions. Scholars employing a confessional approach tend to work only for organizations that are seeking a predetermined result. It explains why scholars at, let’s say, a conservative Baptist seminary usually tend to produce research reaffirming conservative Baptist beliefs—they produce results that satisfy their employer’s beliefs, even when, or perhaps more accurately, explaining why their conclusions are often contrary to what the vast majority of critical biblical scholars conclude.

This confessional approach also explains why many conservative Christian colleges require their faculty members to sign “statements of faith”, making them promise never to teach or publish anything that is contrary to the school’s predetermined religious and theological beliefs as a precondition of employment. Those professors who do so are often immediately fired.[1] Their crime? They published or taught biblical or archaeological research based on the evidence that differed from what their respective confessional colleges had already agreed was true.

In fact, to aid in this endeavor of achieving only theologically agreeable research results, an overwhelming majority of these confessional colleges do not offer tenure to their professors. Because tenure protects researchers from being terminated for their academic speech, many confessional schools simply do not offer it. They opt instead to offer year-to-year or periodic contracts (e.g., renewable 5-year contracts). This allows a confessional college to rid itself of any professor who dares teach or publish results that are contrary to the confessional guidelines of the employer by simply not renewing the professor’s contract.

Such a confessional approach to teaching the Bible and biblical archaeology is not objective research—it is theological apologetics disguising as research, as the scholar’s employer has already predetermined the outcomes and conclusions of the so-called “research”.

Steve Green, Hobby Lobby, and Obamacare

Now that we understand the difference between critical and confessional research, we can better understand the first reason critical biblical scholars and archaeologists have been wary of the Museum of the Bible. Specifically, their discomfort arises from the man behind the museum, Steve Green, and many of the statements he has made regarding the approach his museum would be taking in its presentation of the objects in his collection.

The billionaire founder of the chain of Hobby Lobby craft stores, Steve Green is a devout Baptist, and his faith extends to his company. The Hobby Lobby website states that the company is committed to “Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles”.

These “biblical principles” include an opposition to birth control, which was the basis for Green’s lawsuit against the US Government’s Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). In the suit, Green’s lawyers argued before the Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. that “closely held”[2] corporations owned by Christians should not have to abide by federal laws they feel violate their owner’s religious beliefs. Because Mr. Green’s religious beliefs include an opposition to birth control, his lawyers argued that Mr. Green’s company, Hobby Lobby, should not have to provide coverage for contraception to it employees as part of Obamacare’s employer mandate to provide health insurance coverage—a provision the ACA demanded.

In June of 2014, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that, “regulations promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services requiring employers to provide their female employees with no-cost access to contraception violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Thus, Hobby Lobby did not have to provide health care plans that include birth control coverage to its employees because forcing a business owner, whose religious beliefs include an opposition to birth control, was a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.[3]

Proposed Mandatory Public School Bible Curriculum

His victorious opposition to Obamacare, however slight, made Mr. Green the poster child for the anti-Obama Evangelical right. But it was not Steve Green’s politics—at least not his views on Obamacare—that caused critical biblical scholars to oppose him and his Museum of the Bible. Rather, it was his views on Bible education in public schools—another crusade spearheaded by conservative Evangelicals—that startled critical scholars.

Many conservative Christians have engaged in a fight against what they call “secular/progressives”, who insist on an unbending separation of church and state. Some of these Christians want to introduce the study of the Bible (and specifically, their confessional understanding of it) into public school classrooms. And as the darling of the Evangelical right following his Obamacare victory, they looked to Steve Green to champion this cause. And, Mr. Green seemed willing to support this movement to bring a confessional approach to studying the Bible into public school classrooms.

In 2013, Steve Green was awarded the John M. Templeton Award for Biblical Values, sponsored by the National Bible Association.[4] In his acceptance speech, Steve Green made two statements that gave many biblical scholars cause for alarm. After describing his vision for the Museum of the Bible, Mr. Green talked about why knowledge of the Bible is important, and spoke about his future plans to educate Americans beyond the establishment of his museum.

First, he commented on the historical reliability of the Bible, stating:

“The manuscript evidence is overwhelming. So, the history has a purpose of showing the reliability of this book. The book that we have is a reliable, historical document.” (2:22)

Critiquing the claims of the historical reliability of the Bible using archaeological evidence is what most biblical scholars and archaeologists do. Archaeologists are continually uncovering evidence that is often contrary to at least some of the claims made in the Bible. These conflicts between the archaeological data and the biblical claims are valuable because they offer suggestions as to why the Bible preserves some of the claims that it does. Why does the Bible claim that Noah made an ark, or that God created all the world’s languages at once at the Tower of Babel, or that the first woman was made from the first man’s “rib”, or that Joshua sacked Jericho, if there is no evidence to support these claims and lots of evidence disproving them?

These answers give us insight into how the ancient Israelites viewed themselves and how they believed God was working through history on their behalf. But Steve Green’s claim that the Bible is a historically reliable document runs contrary to the archaeological record.

Scholars fear that the Museum of the Bible will portray a false narrative about the historical reliability of the claims made in the Bible. And because it will stand among the most prominent museums in the nation’s capital, scholars fear that visitors will assume that the Museum of the Bible is one of these government institutions and will believe that false narrative.

Mr. Green’s second problematic statement came in his proposal of a mandatory, public high school Bible curriculum:

“We’re working on a four-year, public school Bible curriculum. The first year would be a summary of all three of those sections: [the Bible’s] history, its impact, and its story. And then, the next three years, going in depth in each of those: a year for the history, a year for the impact, and a year for the story, in some order. That is what our goal would be so that we can reintroduce this book to this nation. This nation is in danger because of its ignorance of what God has taught. There is [sic] lessons from the past that we can learn from, the dangers of ignorance of this book. We need to know it, and if we don’t know it, our future is going to be very scary.” (4:40) [5]

One can see the confessional approach revealing itself at the end of Mr. Green’s statement. He does not simply claim that students should study the Bible’s impact on world culture; he adds at the end a theological belief that if students (and thereby Americans) do not know “what God has taught”, then America will somehow be punished by God! That is not an objective approach to studying the Bible. That is a sectarian, confessional doctrine that theologically assumes that the teachings of the Bible must be followed by a nation’s citizens or else it will be cursed by God!

In the same Templeton Award acceptance speech, Green went on to state:

“Someday, I would argue, it should be mandated. Here is a book that’s impacted our world unlike any other and you’re not going to teach it? There’s something wrong with that.” (5:46)

To be sure, Steve Green is entitled to his opinion that the Bible is a reliable historical document. But when he says that he is planning to develop a mandatory high school Bible study curriculum that propagates his religious opinion, he is imposing his religious beliefs on the taxpayer-funded public school students.

Criticism One: “Bible as History” instead of “History of the Bible”

This is what many biblical scholars fear—that Steve Green will use his money, influence, and status as champion of the Evangelical right to promulgate a confessional Bible curriculum in public schools that is not in line with the archaeological evidence.

Scholars fear that Mr. Green’s comments about the “historically reliable” nature of the Bible will also be pushed upon visitors of the Museum of the Bible. When Steve Green announced in early public comments that he was transforming his assemblage of ancient texts and objects into a Washington, DC Shrine of the Good Book, scholars feared that instead of portraying an objective commentary on the history of the Bible and its influence on America and western culture, Mr. Green would use the Museum of the Bible as a proselytizing tool in an attempt to convert Washington museum-going tourists to his conservative interpretation of Evangelical Christianity by offering to visitors an apologetic defense of the historicity of the Bible and its claims.

In short, scholars do not oppose a museum dedicated to the history of the Bible; they are terrified of a museum that promotes the Bible as history.

Criticism Two: Black Market Antiquities

A second major criticism of the Museum of the Bible has been a major point of concern for scholars, and specifically for archaeologists: the purchase of antiquities on the black market from unnamed sellers.

Steve Green and his authorized buyers have engaged in the purchase of black market antiquities—unprovenanced artifacts from anonymous, private collections—and many of these objects—among the most important and valuable in his collection—will soon be on display at the Museum of the Bible.

An unprovenanced object is an object whose origin, or provenance (from the Latin provenire, through French provenir, meaning “to come forth, originate”), and chain of custody is unknown or partially unknown.[6] Scholars and the Israel Antiquities Authority have condemned this practice for decades, as it encourages the looting of archaeological sites and emboldens those who would forge antiquities and inscriptions and attempt to sell them to unwitting treasure seekers for a profit.

The purchase of unprovenanced objects causes major problems for archaeologists. DePaul University archaeologist and Associate Professor of Anthropology, Dr. Morag Kersel, has written about this issue for over a decade.[7] As she has pointed out repeatedly, once an object has been ripped from its archaeological context, it is worth far less academically, as it can no longer reliably tell us anything about the people who made it.[8] This is because the archaeological context—the place in which it was found in the ground—offers archaeologists as much information about the object as the object itself, like clues as to who was using the object, what it was used for, how old it is, etc.

Archaeological context is everything! It is why anyone who has ever participated in an archaeological dig witnesses all of the careful measurements, the attention to balks, the locus numbers, the bucket tags, the careful descriptions of the dirt in which it was found, the area, name, and location of the site, and all of the carefully prepared, constant photographs taken of the object in situ, that is, still in the ground exactly as it was found. All of these meticulous details assist in proving that the object came from a precise context. However, once an object is removed from its surroundings without such records, it loses all of this contextual data and becomes a decontextualized, unprovenanced object.

An additional problem with the acquisition of unprovenanced artifacts is that it has been shown to encourage the looting of archaeological sites. Because objects discovered in licensed archaeological excavations belong to the state in which they were discovered—the most important of which typically end up displayed in the various states’ archaeological museums—those who wish to collect antiquities often turn to antiquities dealers. And while some antiquities dealers are licensed by the state to sell legally obtained objects, many others engage in the sale of illicitly obtained objects, who in turn often collaborate with shadowy middlemen to acquire their goods (i.e., the “black market”).

Many of these illicit objects were stolen from archaeological sites or otherwise “appropriated” from collections in warehouses. When an antiquities dealer doesn’t have something a buyer wants, the dealer often says, “…but I know where I can get one”. This often leads to the black market and paid looters, who ravage archaeological sites in search for a coin or vessel or statue the collector desires. In order to avoid theft charges, the origins of the objects are often disguised and later forgotten, and the payments for such objects are often made in cash and to third parties in an effort to disguise the money trail from authorities.

While the elimination of the provenance of the object eliminates much of its archaeological value for scholars, many collectors simply don’t care about the object’s anthropological value; they just want a distinguished antique they believe to be from the Holy Land on their mantle at home. This is why, as Kersel states, the descriptions of these black market objects often include some nondescript reference to their origin like, “from the collection of Swiss gentleman” or “a family heirloom”.[9]

This demand from private collectors drives the supply of illicit antiquities on the black market. It is simple supply and demand, and as long as there is demand, there will always be those who will provide a supply of illegally obtained antiquities. And, as Baden states, “If Hobby Lobby is willing to buy them, people will be willing to loot for them because there’s a market for them.”[10]

Claims (typically made by licensed antiquities dealers) that the purchasers of illicit antiquities often act as saviors who ransom the looted artifacts from a continued life of shrouded anonymity on the black market so that they can be researched and published are unconvincing. This is because continued illicit purchases only fuel further demand on the black market, which inevitably encourages looting. It does not matter that a particular object had already been looted and is already on the black market; it is the sale of antiquities, both legal and illicit, that drives future looting, as stock must be resupplied. And yet, this stock is often difficult to acquire legally, and the prospect of cashing in drives the less scrupulous to supply that stock illegally. As University College London’s Dr. Alice Stevenson has argued, reducing the demand by banning the sale of antiquities and obstructing their transport is the only true way to begin to curtail looting. Furthermore, the damage done to potential and excavated archaeological sites by unscrupulous thieves far outweighs any benefits gained by the research and publication of these now decontextualized objects, which have been stripped of the valuable contextual data derived from a verifiable provenance.

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) have all established policies on unprovenanced antiquities that prohibit participation in the trade of undocumented antiquities, and prohibit activities that give sanction to that trade, including exhibiting unprovenanced objects in museums, publishing articles on them in their respective journals, and presenting professional papers on them at annual conferences. This is all done in an effort to discourage the looting of archaeological objects. The idea is that by refusing to participate in scholarly research, the unprovenanced objects lack the professional credibility needed to authenticate the objects—authentication that enhances their monetary value. Thus in theory, by not authenticating the illicit objects, their value is diminished, which results in lessened demand, which leads to less looting.

And it is this act of purchasing unprovenanced objects on the black market that has gotten Steve Green into hot water. From fragments of scrolls claimed to be from the Dead Sea region, to cuneiform tablets looted from war-torn Mesopotamian sites and museums in modern Iraq, Steve Green and his authorized buyers have purchased black market objects from shadowy sellers and dealers who demand to remain anonymous. Many of these objects are slated to be on display at the Museum of the Bible.

The Museum of the Bible has been vilified by scholars like Drs. Moss and Baden, and by journalists like Nina Burleigh, accusing them of promoting looting by offering top dollar for ancient manuscripts like purported fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Akkadian cuneiform tablets from ancient Mesopotamia.

Even the U.S. government got involved. The Museum of the Bible recently settled a formal federal antiquities smuggling complaint brought by the Department of Justice after customs officials in 2011 seized one of many shipments containing hundreds of smuggled cuneiform tablets that Steve Green had purchased from an antiquities dealer in the United Arab Emirates. Drs. Moss and Baden broke the story in The Daily Beast (and followed it up with an article in The Atlantic), revealing that “the label used to ship the tablets to the Green Collection offices reportedly described them merely as ‘handcrafted clay tiles’ worth about $300, which obscures both their historical significance and their true worth.” When caught, Museum of the Bible President, Dr. Cary Summers, described the mislabeled shipment as “improper paperwork”.

In reality, Mr. Green paid $1.6 million for the looted tablets according to the government settlement. He also took care not to pay the black market dealer directly, but instead electronically wired the $1.6 million to seven different personal accounts, all in different names, none of which were the name of the dealer, all in an effort to conceal the purchase of the illicit antiquities.

Thus, in addition to promoting looting by purchasing potentially stolen antiquities on the black market, Mr. Green and Hobby Lobby have also apparently attempted to disguise both the nature and the value of at least some of their acquisitions by falsifying customs forms. As part of its settlement with the government, the Museum of the Bible forfeited thousands of objects (1,500 cuneiform tablets, 500 cuneiform bricks, 3000 clay bullae, 13 extra-large cuneiform tablets, and 500 stone cylinder seals) to the U.S. government, and paid a whopping $3 million to the government, which is not technically a fine, but according to Cultural Heritage Lawyer Rick St. Hilaire, is a “forfeiture of proceeds” exacted for breaking multiple U.S. import laws.[11]

It is still to be determined what will happen with the Dead Sea Scroll fragments Mr. Green also acquired on the black market from dealers who were careful to disguise their identities and those they represent.

But suffice it to say, this issue is not about “secular” scholars “persecuting” Mr. Green, Hobby Lobby, and the Museum of the Bible because they don’t believe in the Bible. This is about Mr. Green and the arguably complicit scholars working for his Green Scholars Initiative (now the Museum of the Bible Scholars Initiative) ignoring the repeated warnings of archaeologists and scholars, breaking the law anyway, getting caught, and jeopardizing the credibility of the Museum of the Bible.

A Possible Change of Direction for the Museum of the Bible

The two fears I detailed above—the portrayal of the Bible’s stories as historical fact in an effort to evangelize tourists, and the display of antiquities purchased on the black market—have worried scholars, and rightly so. The Department of Justice has already begun to remedy the problem of Mr. Green’s black market purchases punitively by penalizing Steve Green monetarily and seizing some of what he purchased. I was encouraged by Mr. Green’s public confession of “regrettable mistakes”, saying in a statement, “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled”.[12]

Still, claiming ignorance of international anti-smuggling laws that have been on the books since 1972 is no more an excuse than claiming I didn’t know I couldn’t speed because I just started driving.[13] We know from the Obamacare battle that Mr. Green has very good lawyers. But what is most disturbing, and suggests feigned ignorance on Mr. Green’s part, is that Green had retained a cultural property lawyer, DePaul University professor of law Patty Gerstenblith, as early as October 2010, who explicitly warned him, “that the acquisition of cultural property likely from Iraq, including cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals, carries a risk that such objects may have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.”[14]

With its opening only months away, the Museum of the Bible has been attempting to distinguish and distance itself from Hobby Lobby, Steve Green’s personal comments, and the federal lawsuit. Take note that the Museum of the Bible is never mentioned in the federal suit or the Justice Department’s press release. The museum points out that the smuggled tablets have been seized and will not be on display at the museum. And yet, other purchases like the Dead Sea Scroll fragments also acquired from the black market are still slated to be on display at the Museum of the Bible. Thus, the issue of black market purchases will continue to be a controversial matter plaguing the museum. Furthermore, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Steve Green and Hobby Lobby are the source of the $800 million used to establish the museum, its antiquities collection, and the Scholars Initiative that has researched and now published these black market artifacts on display at the Museum of the Bible.

However, scholars’ second fear—that of an unscholarly portrayal of the early history of the Bible and of the Bible’s stories as actual history—is an issue the museum’s curators may have already begun correcting. And it is this shift of methodology and narrative that may be the first evidence of a genuine shift of direction away from the views and actions of Mr. Green.

Let me explain.

While I was researching the Museum of the Bible, I reached out to Dr. David Trobisch, who in February 2014 was named the new Director of Collections for the Museum of the Bible following some administrative personnel changes. He kindly invited me to take a private tour of the burgeoning museum while it was still under construction.

Dr. Seth Pollinger, the Director of Content for the Museum of the Bible, led the tour. He has come to serve as an effective liaison between the academic community and the museum. He offered a wonderful tour of the construction site and I was impressed with the progress to date.

What surprised me were the many steps that the Museum of the Bible had recently taken to remedy the scholarly criticism regarding the portrayal of the Bible as actual history. In the past two years, the Museum of the Bible has begun consulting with a large number of highly reputable critical biblical scholars, asking them for input. And it appears that the Museum has not only listened to this input, but has acted upon it, and has abandoned its presentation of the early history of the Bible and of the biblical stories as history. Furthermore, the Museum has beefed up its History of the Bible exhibit on the 4th floor by adding many pre-biblical objects and replicas that place the origin of the Bible in its proper ancient Near Eastern context.

For instance, the Museum of the Bible will now display a replica of the Gilgamesh Flood Tablet as part of its exhibit. This is remarkable because it is an acknowledgment that the famous Mesopotamian flood narrative (with remarkable points of similarity to the biblical flood story) existed prior to the composition of the biblical flood account. The museum will then allow visitors to decide whether they believe the biblical flood story was based upon or influenced by the Mesopotamian flood tale.

The same is true for a replica of the Code of Hammurabi that will now be part of the exhibit. The museum will display to its visitors the existence of the early Babylonian law code that may have influenced the biblical law codes found in the book of Exodus. Visitors can again decide for themselves whether Hammurabi’s Law Code was the inspiration for at least some of the laws in the Bible.

Because the Museum of the Bible is not presenting these objects as apologetic “proof” of the Bible’s historicity and literary primacy, but is instead presenting these earlier ancient near eastern texts as precursors to the biblical text in its archaeological display, the Museum of the Bible lends academic credibility to its larger exhibition.

I was also pleased to see the improved approach taken in the presentation of the early stories of the Hebrew Bible. The highly stylized art in this gallery and the reminder to visitors that the museum is presenting the literature of the Bible (which is, after all, a literary text) is a welcomed approach. Rather than portraying this portion of the exhibit as “history”, the museum is now illustrating the famous stories of the Bible as literary accounts preserved in the biblical text, thereby alleviating scholarly critiques of portraying biblical stories as history.

Beyond this, the museum is quite beautiful. I was greatly impressed with the two-story grand entrance, which preserves the building’s original use as a rail car depot. The massive video screen along the entire first floor’s ceiling can be programmed to depict limitless digital images inspiring visitors to look to the heavens. The “first century life of Jesus” exhibition on the 3rd floor comes complete with stone buildings, a wonderful recreation of a synagogue, and costumed actors depicting what life was like in first century Nazareth. The collection of medieval manuscripts and Torah scrolls is moving, and the scribe who will be painstakingly copying a Torah scroll live in the museum reminds visitors of the patience and devotion required to produce these magnificent works of literary art. Finally, the beautiful theater space on the top floor is an architectural masterpiece, which will be host to Broadway plays and scholarly lectures alike.

The museum has also reserved permanent exhibit space for rotating exhibitions from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Vatican Museums that will provide access to artifacts that might not otherwise be available to visitors who cannot afford to travel the world.

Ultimately, I was most impressed with the fact that the Museum of the Bible appears to have listened to scholars—both consultants and critics alike, and learned from its past mistakes. This reflects what I believe to be progress and maturity in the administration’s understanding of, and approach to, the Bible. I think it is commendable that the Museum of the Bible heard the criticisms of scholars (and the complaint of the government), made needed changes, and took steps to improve the narrative of its exhibition based on these criticisms.

And this, as you know, is the essence of critical scholarship itself—a willingness to listen to the criticism of one’s expert peers, to learn from one’s mistakes, and to alter one’s methodology and conclusions based upon this corrective peer-review.

The Museum of the Bible appears to be slowly adopting the critical approach used by prominent museums around the world, and will present the evidence of the history of the Bible and its literature in its greater ancient Near Eastern context. This will allow visitors to see and understand the complicated, often messy, and much debated origins of the Bible. This decision to shift its approach in the presentation of its collections should be applauded by all scholars of the Bible, regardless of past, well-warranted criticisms of the museum.

The Museum of the Bible opens November 17, 2017. The museum still plans on displaying Dead Sea Scroll fragments purchased on the black market, and this issue will continue to keep many scholars from visiting the museum for fear of complicity in the very activities that ultimately brought the scrolls to the museum.

One possible solution would be an arrangement with the IAA where the ownership of the fragments would be deeded back to Israel in exchange for an agreement to display them on permanent loan at the Museum of the Bible. I would also suggest a robust scholarly educational program, which would bring archaeologists together with both confessional and secular scholars to discuss and debate these issues and the book that so many of us have given our careers to studying, and that has so significantly influenced the world in which we live.

Correction: This article mistakenly named The Atlantic as the publication in which Moss and Baden broke the story. They actually broke the story in The Daily Beast, and this article has been corrected accordingly.

Notes:

[1] Read the case of Prof. Chris Rollston in Nelson, Libby A., Tenure vs. Donors, Inside Higher Ed, Oct. 15, 2012. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/10/15/seminary-threatens-discipline-professor-offending-prospective-students-donors.

[2] A “closely held” corporation is defined as one that has a limited number of shareholders. They are typically private companies (i.e., their shares don’t trade publicly) often owned and controlled by members of a single family. The IRS defines closely held companies for corporate tax purposes as “one where more than half of the stock is owned (directly or indirectly) by five or fewer individuals at any time”.

[3] See the wording of the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby (2014) case, which marked the first time that the court recognized a for-profit corporation’s claim of religious beliefs. See also SCOTUSblog http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/sebelius-v-hobby-lobby-stores-inc/.

[4] https://nationalbible.org/2013-john-m-templeton-award/

[5] You can view Steve Green’s 2013 Templeton Award acceptance speech on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awrALVLc2zo .

[6] You may also hear the word “provenience” (with the extra syllable: pro-VĒ-nē-ən(t)s), which was derived from the word “provenance” (PRÄ-və-nän(t)s) later in English. Both words mean the same thing: “origin”.

[7] https://las.depaul.edu/academics/anthropology/Faculty/Pages/morag-kersel.aspx; http://traffickingculture.org/people/kersel/.

[8] See, for instance, Kersel, Morag, “The power of the press: The effects of press releases and popular magazines on the antiquities trade”, pgs. 73-83 in E. Meyers and C. Meyers (eds), Archaeology, Bible, Politics and the Media: Proceedings of the Duke University Conference, April 23-24, 2009, (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012).

[9] Kersel, Morag, “The Power of the Press: The Effects of Press Releases and Popular Magazines on the Antiquities Trade”, pgs. 73-83 in E. Meyers and C. Meyers (eds), Archaeology, Bible, Politics and the Media: Proceedings of the Duke University Conference, April 23-24, 2009, (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012): 80.

[10] Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Hobby Lobby’s $3 million smuggling case casts a cloud over the Museum of the Bible”, Washington Post, July 6, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/07/06/hobby-lobbys-3-million-smuggling-case-casts-a-cloud-over-the-museum-of-the-bible/

[11] According to 18 U.S.C. § 981(a)(I)(C), Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit monies that were generated by one or more violations of 18 U.S.C. § 542 (entry of goods by false statement), 18 U.S.C. § 545 (smuggling), and/or 19 U.S.C. § 1595a(c)(1)(A) (merchandise introduced into the country in violation of law). See http://culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com/2017/07/cultural-property-forfeiture-hobby.html.

[12] Connor, Tracy, “Hobby Lobby Fined $3M, Agrees to Return Smuggled Iraqi Artifacts”, NBCNews.com, July 5, 2017. http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/hobby-lobby-agrees-return-artifacts-smuggled-iraq-n779931. See also Chris Boyette, “Hobby Lobby to pay $3 million fine, forfeit ancient artifacts”, CNN.com, July 5, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/05/us/hobby-lobby-ancient-artifacts-trnd/index.html.

[13] 1970 The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property came into force in April 24, 1972. For more, visit http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13039&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html.

[14] Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of New York, “United States Files Civil Action To Forfeit Thousands Of Ancient Iraqi Artifacts Imported By Hobby Lobby”, July 5, 2017. https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/pr/united-states-files-civil-action-forfeit-thousands-ancient-iraqi-artifacts-imported.

On Celebrating “Western Civilization” – a thought in response to Steve King

There are basically two ways to celebrate “western civilization,” the cultural heritage that gave rise to Europe, Russia, the Middle East, parts of North, Central, and South America, Africa, Australia, and the United States of America.

One tactic is Iowa congressman Steve King’s approach, which seeks “homogeny” by encouraging the “restoration” of “our culture and demographics,” railing against immigration arguing, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” and declaring that white people have made more “contributions” to civilization than “any other subgroup of people.” This is the type of approach that causes the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, to tweet, “GOD BLESS STEVE KING!!!”

The other approach is to invest in the study of the humanities—history; social sciences; anthropology; ancient languages like Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic; modern languages like French, Spanish, Italian, German and English; music and art history—and to understand that America’s strength comes from its cultural and racial heterogeneity—from its adoption and incorporation of the best of the world’s discoveries, inventions, theories, philosophies, and contributions—into the grand experiment we call America.

To be sure, we must invest in science and education. Research and technological development allow us to solve problems and cure diseases that give us every advantage as a nation, and which bring us respect and gratitude from other nations who benefit from our capacity to afford and accomplish such innovative achievement and progress.

But we must also invest in the humanities—the study of those cultural histories from around the world that formed and shaped our own American culture.

One cannot rail against the demise of western civilization and then vote to cut funding for education and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

We must invest in art programs and music programs and language programs that allow Americans to learn America’s true history and strength—that we are a nation of immigrants and of religious and philosophical plurality. No one race defines us. No single language defines us. No sole religion defines us. No lone philosophy or political party defines us. America’s strength is in its diversity—of ideas, of beliefs, and yes, of its people—and not its religious, ideological, or racial homogeneity.

We must fund the NEH. We must fund humanities education.

That is, unless you want everyone in America to think, believe, and look like Steve King.

On Political Correctness, its Abuse, and the Modern University

Legendary English comedian John Cleese recently recorded a BigThink.com video where he discusses the role of political correctness in society. (The YouTube version is here). I agree with John Cleese. Political correctness is a good idea when it discourages people from being mean or nasty to those who cannot necessarily change their condition or status, be it race, gender, ethnicity, body size and shape, mental or physical disability, etc.

But when it comes to ideas, that is, thoughts that are conceived and then spoken aloud, I think that these are appropriate to consider, debate, critique, and at times, mock. Of course, I want to hear all ideas, as there might be something new that I haven’t considered that might be useful to me or humanity. I should never be so stubborn or foolish to think that I am the sole proprietor of truth, or that my thoughts and beliefs have somehow achieved a privileged exemption from criticism based on the fact that they, for instance, are religious or traditional.

But when an idea is harmful to society, or when the idea is easily and has been repeatedly debunked with facts and evidence and logic and numbers, and when an idea has been shown to marginalize certain individuals or groups, then these ideas can and should be critiqued. If the one espousing the defunct, harmful idea continues to espouse the idea, then that is his or her right, but it is also our right as responsible citizens to continue to assail the idea (not the person, but the idea) with logic, reason, and even mockery, as public humiliation is often the only thing that persuades one espousing a defunct idea to cease its propagation. This goes for all ideas, including political, philosophical, economic, ideological, and religious claims–no idea is exempt from critique! And while the debate over some ideas will continue for millennia–fate vs. free will, which economic or political system is superior, how to handle certain ethical issues, etc.–many other ideas should be retired from mainstream discourse with the understanding that there will always be someone or some group that will continue to cling to outdated, debunked ideas.

Political correctness is a good idea when it is limited to the physical characteristics or status of an individual or society. But when political correctness seeks to prohibit the critique of ideas, and attempts to characterize any critical analysis of an idea as “offensive”, then political correctness has gone too far. This is true especially for university campuses, which exist, in part, to expose students to new ideas, foreign concepts, and different ways of thinking that are often unfamiliar or even exotic, and with which a particular student may disagree, and where all of this is done in a safe, creative, developmental, experimental environment where students can learn and try out new ideas and concepts, arguing for and against several newly introduced issues without paying the social penalty for nonconformity to the societal majority’s opinion.

Universities are the practice fields of the world’s future players. Like professional athletes, citizens of the world’s communities should be exposed to every possible scenario on the practice field, so that they can learn and plan to respond effectively as professionals when it’s game time. And part of being a responsible professional is learning how to behave professionally when interacting with others. Political correctness aids individuals in treating other individuals and communities with respect and dignity. In this regard, political correctness is a good thing.

However, to hide behind the shield of political correctness when one’s idea is criticized and when its flaws are laid bare is to misuse political correctness. And of course, it is this abuse of political correctness by the far left that those on the far right criticize and then use to mischaracterize all political correctness as the censorship of free speech in an effort to dismiss professionalism and common courtesy during civil discourse so that they can continue to espouse harmful beliefs, make false accusations, promote detrimental policies, and prop up discredited ideas.

There is a place for political correctness, but that place is not the censorship or critique of ideas.

If you are so sensitive that you characterize any idea, any thought, any different way of thinking, or any critique of your own thoughts, claims, or firmly held beliefs as “offensive”, then you have failed in your development as a responsible citizen. I recommend that you enroll in a university, even if only for a short time, so that you can at least be exposed to different ideas in a safe, inclusive environment. And I hope that you do not choose a university that actively seeks to shield its own students from critiques of ideas and beliefs in the name of political correctness, but rather one that encourages the free exchange, debate, and critique of ideas, for this is the only way one learns to handle the wild, crazy, bigoted, unsubstantiated, false, intentionally harmful, nonsensical, illogical, debunked, and irresponsible claims that are made every day in society.

It is the exposure to, consideration of, and the espousal or dismissal of–and not the shielding from–bad ideas that makes individuals smarter, our society better, and allows civilization to progress beyond a censorial tyranny that constantly invents new ways of being offended to mask the fact that the discredited claims they are perpetuating can no longer be defended with evidence, reason, or logic.

 

Read a chapter of “The Cities that Built the Bible” for free

Robert Cargill with Yuval Peleg (ז״ל) at Qumran in July, 2013.

Robert Cargill with Yuval Peleg (ז״ל) at Qumran in July, 2013.

My new book, The Cities that Built the Bible, won’t be released until March 15, 2016, but you can read an excerpt for free online today. In fact, you can read the complete text of Chapter 9: Qumran, including the end notes.

Click here to read part of the Introduction and Chapter 9: Qumran.

The book argues that we wouldn’t have the Bible we have today without these cities, which I explore in the book, and that a knowledge of the history and archaeology of these cities helps us better understand the text of the Bible.

Chapter 9 specifically looks at Khirbet Qumran, a city that is important because of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls–a discovery that sent shock waves through the academic and religious communities. I’ll explain what impact this discovery had, and along the way, highlight the fascinating backstory including the multiple legends, outlandish stories, eccentric characters, and a first-person account of the unbelievable cybercrime legal saga surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls.

So help yourself to a free excerpt of The Cities that Built the Bible. And remember that you can preorder the book today at citiesthatbuiltthebible.com.

Cover of The Cities that Built the Bible by Robert R. Cargill, Ph.D.

Text of Speech by Dr. Robert Cargill to Madera South High School Graduating Class of 2015

MADERA SOUTH HIGH SCHOOL STALLIONS
COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS – JUNE 4, 2015
DR. ROBERT R. CARGILL, UNIVERSITY OF IOWA

Good evening.

I want to thank Mr. Lile for the invitation to speak to you this evening.

It is indeed good to be home. And I know that I’m home because my name is Robert, and yet ever since I’ve been back in Madera, everyone keeps calling me “Bobby”. On TV, I’m Robert. When I write books, I’m Robert. In the classroom, I’m Dr. Cargill. But in Madera, I’m Bobby. And it makes me smile, because it’s good to be home.

And please allow me to be among the first to congratulate the 2015 graduating class of Madera South High School, the best high school in Madera.

Now, Mr. Lile has informed me that you are not permitted to use your cellphones to text or take pictures during the ceremony. But, since no such rule was given to me, I’d like to take and text some pictures for you. What do you say we take one cool-looking graduation photo?

I’ll post this picture on my Twitter, which is @XKV8R, that’s X-K-V-8-R, later this evening, and you can re-tweet or save it from there. Got it?

OK, now remember, this picture is going to live forever, so don’t do anything that some prospective employer is going to question, OK?

OK, here we go. 1, 2, 3. #MaderaSouth2015

Dr. Robert Cargill snaps photos of the 2015 graduating class of Madera South High School. PHOTO BY JACK PORTER/BIG VALLEY NEWS (More: http://www.bigvalleynews.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7367) Dr. Robert Cargill snaps photos of the 2015 graduating class of Madera South High School. PHOTO BY JACK PORTER/BIG VALLEY NEWS (More: http://www.bigvalleynews.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7367)

Tonight is a special night—a night for celebration. I even wore my favorite blue dress.

You’ve worked hard for many years, and you’ve earned this diploma, and so tonight we celebrate and honor your achievement.

Now, it is at this point in a graduation speech where the speaker traditionally bestows upon you pieces of advice that are supposed to make your lives a bit more successful. But I’m not going to tell you to “be all that you can be”, or “reach for the stars”, or to “think outside the box”, or to “wear sunscreen”, because you’ve heard all this before.

What I will tell you is what I’ve learned as a fellow Maderan, who has been “out there”.

I’ve learned that you should be nice to older people, especially your grandparents, and not just because they put money in your birthday cards.

Be generous with both your time and money.

Be on time. Showing up is half the battle, and showing up on time is another third.

And be nice. Be kind. I’ve traveled all over the world, and you simply cannot realize how much being generous, being kind, and being on time pays off in life.

And I’ve also learned that you should never, ever forget where you came from.

Never forget Madera!

Listen to me. I was exactly like you 24 years ago. I grew up in Madera, and like most other people I knew, all I wanted to do was get out of Madera. And not just to Fresno. I mean I wanted way out.

But I have learned that this feeling is not unique to Madera. It is the same feeling that every 17- and 18-year old feels in every city, in every state in the country, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York—everywhere!

You’re young, you’re full of hope and potential, and you’re ready to launch out from here and see the world. And that’s good. But never confuse a sense of adventure with a rejection of your hometown.

This place is a special place. And before too long, you will find yourself wanting to return to your home, to your family, to your friends, and to DiCicco’s.

Even those of you who swore that you would never come back to Madera will do exactly that, and this is a good thing!

You will use the education and experiences you gained working and traveling elsewhere, and will return to make this city—the City of Madera—a better place.

Because this city was made what it is today by those who have given their lives to make Madera a better place.

Take, for instance, your principal, Mr. Lile. Now, I went to high school with Mr. Lile, and, let me dispel a rumor you might have heard: back then, he had great hair!

And Mr. Lile and I graduated and went on to see the world. But here’s how much Mr. Lile loves this city: after giving his time and energy learning and practicing the craft of education as far away as Honduras and Dubai, he then returned to Madera to give his time and energy and life to serving you, and to serving the City of Madera, to make this place a little better than it was when he was a kid.

And this has been my experience with so many Maderans who contributed to my growth and education. This is what Bill and Pat Schawrtz did for me, and my first baseball coach, Ken Turner, and my Jefferson Junior High teachers Gary Espenship and Jeannie Lakeman all did for me. And when I was younger, it’s what my John Adams Elementary School teachers, Connie Barsotti and Jan Duke, did for me. I remember them both fondly and I miss them both very much.

And wherever I go, whether I’m writing a book, or appearing on the History Channel, or doing archaeology in Israel, or lecturing at the University of Iowa, it is all a result of the education that was begun here, and of the values that were instilled in me here, in Madera.

Like you, I am a Maderan. This is my hometown. I grew up in a house at 2305 Howard Road, across from Lions Town & Country Park. I played football on this field. I played baseball on that field, Mel Parker Field.

And I’m telling you all this for this reason: I am 42 years old, and I haven’t achieved anything that you can’t also achieve.

I am simply you, 24 years from now.

I’m that Madera kid who played little league on Field One for the Lions, who got Big Gulps at the 7-Eleven on Howard, before it was a Starbucks, who went to the Madera Fair, who got sugar cookies at Perlongo’s Bakery, and who had birthday parties at Madera Valley Bowl in Parkwood.

My great-grandparents and my grandfather, Ray Cargill, who served in the United States Army Air Corps during World War 2, are all buried at Jay Chapel. And both my parents, Len Cargill, and Sharon Costáles, spent their careers contributing to making Madera a better place.

I have been fortunate to experience tremendous successes, and to meet fascinating people, and I have experienced tremendous failures in life. And it was my Madera family and my Madera values that helped me through it all!

I, too, am a Maderan.

And if I can do it—a kid who grew up just down the street—then you too can have successes in your jobs, in your businesses, in athletics, and in your relationships.

So ask yourself: what will you be? What will you become?

Because being from Madera is an asset, not a liability.

Like many of you, I too was intimidated by other kids who were from big cities, who graduated from much bigger, and many times, private high schools. I went to public schools, Fresno City College, Fresno State, and UCLA. And many of the people I was competing with for admissions into colleges and graduate schools, for scholarships, and later for jobs were from wealthy families, who attended private prep schools, and then went to Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Dartmouth. And like you, I know that it’s an uphill climb competing against people who have had many advantages in life.

But let me tell you what I’ve found. I found that when I was applying for admission into a program, or for a job, the interviewing committee notices that some people are advantaged over others. And they can see when someone has had the best of everything, while others have had to work their tails off every day to overcome the fact that their families weren’t wealthy, or they weren’t from big cities. They recognize that you had to work hard. They recognize that you may have experienced the death of a parent at a young age, or have disabilities, or served your country in the military, or had to raise kids.

And they not only recognize it, but they soon realize that it is often the candidates from the small towns, the blue-collar kids, who have already proved that they can work hard and have what it takes to succeed in college, in jobs, and in life, who are often the better candidates.

You must continue to work hard. I’m a tenure track professor at a Big Ten research university, The University of Iowa, and I regularly admit that I’m not the smartest person at the university. I’m not even the smartest person in my department. But I make absolutely sure that no one will ever, ever outwork me.

Now, I’m also not going to say, “You can be anything you want to be,” because to be honest, it’s not true. Some of you cannot and will not be certain things, just like I cannot, and will not ever dunk a basketball.

But while you can’t “be anything you want to be”, you can be many things that you might think are out of your reach right now. Just because you didn’t do well in math doesn’t mean that you won’t get the hang of it two years from now, and become an engineer. Just because you didn’t have a lot of friends in high school doesn’t mean that you won’t have many, good, real friends in college. Just because you didn’t go on a lot of dates in high school doesn’t mean you won’t find a wonderful partner and live a happy life. And just because you use a wheelchair to get around doesn’t mean you can’t be voted Prom King! Where is Lucio Garcia anyway?

So while you can’t do anything, you should still dream big, set lofty, but attainable, incremental goals, and continue to prepare yourself for success.

Because you live in a magic time in history, and in a place where many, many things are possible. And what you can’t see at this moment is that a series of events is about to unfold in each of your lives, and a number of opportunities are about to present themselves to you. And while you have no way of knowing what they will be, or when they will occur, what you can do is put yourselves in the best possible position to be ready for when those opportunities arise.

You have already taken the first step; you have completed the necessary requirements to graduate from Madera South High School, and if I might add, the best high school in Madera!

But graduation from Madera South is not the end of your journey as a Stallion, it is just the beginning, because like me, you will take what you have learned here in Madera, along with the friends and relationships you have made, and you will work even harder to make your goals a reality, beginning today.

Well…maybe tomorrow, because tonight—tonight, we celebrate!

So be proud that you grew up in Madera. And be proud that you are a graduate of Madera South High School. Never forget the work you had to do to make it this far, and use this taste of success you experience tonight as incentive and motivation for your next great adventure.

Congratulations to all of you!

Have fun and be safe tonight!

Iowa City Press-Citizen reports on the making of “Bible Secrets Revealed” for History

University of Iowa assistant professor Robert Cargill is pictured in his office this week. Cargill, an archaeologist and biblical scholar, is a consulting producer and appears on a six-part History Channel series that debuts next week. / Josh O'Leary / Iowa City Press-Citizen

University of Iowa assistant professor Robert Cargill is pictured in his office this week. Cargill, an archaeologist and biblical scholar, is a consulting producer and appears on a six-part History Channel series that debuts next week. / Josh O’Leary / Iowa City Press-Citizen

The Iowa City Press-Citizen has a front page story today on my role in the History channel’s newest six-part documentary series, “Bible Secrets Revealed,” which begins airing Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 10/9c.

Josh O’Leary, a reporter for the Press-Citizen, authored a story which touched on many rather personal aspects of my life, including my childhood, my time in Los Angeles, and my work in television and archaeology. Many thanks to him for the interview and article.

The story also includes a video clip where I (and my Movember beard, which raises awareness for prostate cancer and other men’s health issues) share a few comments about the making of the documentary series.

For more about the documentary, read here and here and here and here and here.

And don’t miss episode one of “Bible Secrets Revealed: Lost in Translation,” which begins airing Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 10/9c.

And tweet your comments live with the hashtag #BibleSecretsRevealed.

“Bible Secrets Revealed” to air on History Nov 11 at 10/9c

"Bible Secrets Revealed" Title Image (Courtesy Prometheus Entertainment)

I invite everyone to watch History on Monday, Nov 11 at 10/9c and each of the next six Mondays thereafter to view a documentary, “Bible Secrets Revealed“, that analyzes many of the difficult claims made in the Bible. (You can get a sneak peek here.)

Those who have attended seminary or have ever taken a critical religious studies course on the Bible may be familiar with some of the issues addressed in this six-episode series. But this documentary is attempting to bring to a wide audience those issues in the Bible that may not be so simple, or even obvious, to most readers.

Conservative or progressive, Catholic or Protestant, Shi’a or Sunni, Reform Jew or Orthodox, theist or atheist, ardent believer or agnostic – this documentary is tailored to examine the Bible from all angles. It allows the viewer to wrestle with the information and encourages discussion both of the biblical claims and of the scholarly claims made in each episode. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all addressed as each faith assumes a knowledge of the Bible and the stories contained therein.

The documentary has assembled a cast of some of the world’s best scholars, who walk the viewer through different views on many of the Bible’s more difficult texts, including those texts that didn’t make it into the Bible.

So please watch “Bible Secrets Revealed” on History on Monday, Nov 11 at 10/9c. And feel free to live tweet your comments at #BibleSecretsRevealed, or you may leave your comments here.

%d bloggers like this: