An Explanation of Why I Oppose the Proposed Iowa “Bible Literacy” Bill

Iowa lawmakers recently introduced an election-year piece of legislation into the Iowa legislature. Mackenzie Ryan describes the bill in a recent article Iowa City Press-Citizen report:

House File 2031 would direct the state Department of Education to prepare material and teacher training for a high school elective course that focuses on the Hebrew Scriptures and the Bible’s New Testament. It would be a social studies class.

“Basically, I want to give students the opportunity to study the Bible from the perspective of its impact on history and culture,” said state Rep. Dean Fisher, R- Montour, who introduced the bill along with 11 other Republicans.

On Tuesday, July 30, a three-person subcommittee voted to advance the bill to the full Education committee for consideration.

In response to this legislation, I and two colleagues who teach Biblical studies at regent universities in Iowa–Prof. Hector Avalos of Iowa State University and Prof. Kenneth Atkinson of University of Northern Iowa–penned a guest editorial for the Press-Citizen, which can be read here. In it, we explain why we oppose such legislation.

In addition to the reasons mentioned in the letter, let me add a few thoughts that were too lengthy for the short op-ed.

First, our public high school teachers are already asked to teach too much for far too little pay. Are Iowa legislators really going to ask high school teachers to take the additional time necessary to receive adequate training in religious literature and Biblical studies in order to teach this course for the same pay? Are state legislators going to set aside extra money to train high school teachers how to teach the Bible as literature objectively? (Or, were the Iowa Republican sponsors of the bill just going to allow high school teachers to teach whatever denominational interpretation of the scriptures those teachers choose to bring into the classroom?)

THE PROBLEM WITH THE OPENING PARAGRAPH

Second, despite couching this bill as one establishing a “Biblical literacy” course, note that the opening paragraph of the legislation would allow a school district the option of offering a course on the New Testament alone. That is, each school has the option of offering a Hebrew Bible course, a Christian Bible course (i.e., an Old and New Testament course), or simply a New Testament course (option 2). Were option 2 to be chosen, it would cease to be a “Bible” literacy course, and would become a “New Testament” literacy course, as the New Testament comprises only 30% of the Christian Bible. That is to say, the Hebrew Bible is the complete Bible for Jews, and the Old and New Testaments comprise the Bible for Christians. However, a “New Testament only” course is NO ONE’S BIBLE. No Christian denomination views the New Testament alone as its Bible. Marcion of Sinope attempted this very thing in the second century CE, and he, his Bible (with no Old Testament), and his entire movement were branded heretics and excommunicated!

A “New Testament only” course is not a “Bible” course; it is nothing more than an attempt to teach the teachings and life of Jesus to public schoolchildren using taxpayer dollars.

THE PROBLEM WITH SECTION 2.2

There is also a problem with § 2.2 (pg. 2, lines 16-23) of the bill, which states:

A student enrolled in a course offered and taught pursuant to section 256.7, subsection 33, and this section, shall not be required to use a specific translation as the sole text for the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament of the Bible for the course, and may use instead a translation other than the text chosen for the course by the teacher, the school improvement advisory committee, the school district, or the state board of education.

This is one of the most problematic paragraphs of a highly problematic bill! This bill is being touted as a “Bible literacy” course. And regardless of the pros and cons of its text, the King James Version of the Bible has had the most impact on the English language because, among other reasons, it has been around the longest.

However, we don’t speak King James English anymore. So, this bill proposes that Iowa public high school teachers teach the Bible (which was originally written in Biblical Hebrew, Biblical Aramaic, and Hellenistic Greek) in English translation.

And yet, this bill states that students “shall not be required to use a specific translation as the sole text for the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament of the Bible for the course” (emphasis mine). This means that the state will be asking high school teachers to teach a Bible literacy class, in English, while students in that course are allowed to use different versions and translations of the Biblical text!

Anyone who has ever taught even a Sunday School class knows how difficult it is to read the Bible in a class where students are reading from different versions of the Bible–the King James Version, the New King James Version, the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the American Standard Version, the New American Standard Version, the English Standard Version, the New Living Translation, the Christian Standard Bible, and so on. And Heaven forbid some student choose to read from a paraphrase like Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Yet, according to the legislation, all of these will be permitted. This will be chaos!

(Insider’s note: The reason this clause was likely added to the bill was because many Christians–the King James Only movement–believe that the King James Version of the Bible is the only ordained, infallible, inerrant, authorized, etc., version of Holy Scripture, and that all other translations are in error (read: heretical). However, the Iowa educators sponsoring this bill know they can’t dictate that Iowa public schoolchildren learn the King James Version of the Bible, as teaching Iowa public schoolchildren King James English would look silly, and would likewise instantly betray the theological exercise this entire enterprise has been from the start.

So, they have written a bill that proposes a curriculum in a modern, readable English translation, but have included an exception that allows for students to use whatever translation they choose, making accommodations in advance for what will certainly be the theological objections of religious conservatives who would demand to use only their King James Version. That’s why section 2.2 is in the bill. It is a tacit admission within the text of the bill itself that there are already theological issues with this proposal, and that those issues are not coming from Jews and Muslims and atheists, but will be coming from conservative religious fundamentalists.)

There is still another problem with section 2.2 of this “Bible literacy” bill. Note that section 2.2 does not limit the student’s choice of a translation to an English translation. This is either a mistake on the part of the drafters of the bill, or a concession that they cannot limit translations to English translation for the same reason described above. Let me explain.

Many Iowans are devout, Spanish-speaking Christians. And for many of these Spanish-speaking Christians–Catholics and Protestants alike–the Reina-Valera, the dominant Spanish translation of the Bible and one of the top-ten bestsellers annually in the United States, holds the same authority to them as does the King James Version to “King James Only” Christians. Even for some bilingual public school students who speak English while in at school, asking them to read from any version of the Bible other than the Spanish language Reina-Valera would be the equivalent of asking a “King James Only” Christian to read from the New International Version–they would have serious, and constitutionally credible first amendment religious objections to such a requirement–objections that this bill has already conceded and attempted to remedy with section 2.2 of this bill!

The result, of course, is that we now could potentially have some students reading from the Spanish Reina-Valera, some others reading from the KJV, still others reading from The Message, and still others reading from the New American Standard verstion. When this happens the entire idea of a “Bible literacy” class becomes a cacophony of Bible-babble.

And of course, my children, the sons and daughter of a professor of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, will be learned in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. And because they can bring with them any version of the Bible they choose according to section 2.2 of this bill, they may very well bring with them to class the actual Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the Bible, and read from the actual Bible in their “Bible literacy” class. Hopefully their teachers will have taken Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and will be able to understand the contributions they are making to the class.

All of the above scenarios fall well within the parameters of § 2.2 of the present bill.

THE LARGER PROBLEM WITH THE BIBLE LITERACY BILL

Of course, there is still the larger underlying problem with this “Bible literacy” bill. The problem stems from a fundamental rule of translation:

“THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS TRANSLATION WITHOUT INTERPRETATION!”

This is true for any language, and it is not limited to religion. It is simply not possible to translate without interpreting. It is certainly not possible to translate religious scriptures without making theological value judgments while making said translation. Thus, the very act of reading a translated religious text to a classroom full of high school students is by nature a theological act, because the English text being read in the class required theological judgments to be made in order to produce the translation!

This is why some denominations produce their own English translations, and why so many Christians live and die, for instance, by the King James Version–they see other, variant translations as theologically flawed, not simply literarily flawed.

And in the end, this is the reason why I cannot support a “Bible literacy” class in public high schools, despite the fact that I teach Bible literacy for a living(!)–the very act of selecting passages from religious scripture and reading it to a class in translation is a theological act! I’ll explain how in a moment.

Understanding the holy scripture of any religion requires extensive training, preferably in the original languages in which the religious texts were produced. At the very least, teaching religious texts to students requires a thorough knowledge of all of the texts–not just the parts you like, the parts that inspire you personally–as well as a knowledge of how to teach these texts objectively so that the teaching of the literature does not cross over into proselytization and the teaching of the religion, and most troublingly from a legal perspective, why the student ought to come to believe in or adhere to the religious texts being taught in class.

The fact that a text is taught in a public high school classroom is a tacit endorsement of said text. It is why our public schools rightly teach courses on the U.S. Constitution and great works of English literature by Shakespeare, Dickens, and Salinger, but not all schools teach courses on Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, or Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book–many parents don’t want their high school students exposed to literature that challenges what they have been taught to this extent, at least not yet.

Some parents don’t want their kids exposed to Christian religious scriptures in public schools for the same reason that many Christian parents would immediately object to the Islamic Qur’an being read in the public classroom, even just as literature! To read the Christian Bible in the public classroom and expose students to it is to make a theological claim. It not only implies that Christianity shaped America (which it absolutely did), but suggests to some students that they should learn about the Bible and Christianity so that they can continue to shape America. Again, this is a theological, value judgment.

The Iowa lawmakers proposing this “Bible literacy” bill are arguing that the Bible teaches “American values”, and should be taught along with Shakespeare, Dickens, and Salinger. However, they are wrong on two counts. The first is simple: the works of William Shakespeare are not religious texts (except for some at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Dept. of English, who no doubt worship them as such).

The second issue with the claim that the Bible is the core of “American values” is rooted in the myth–the absolute myth–that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” I have written on this before here and here. The U.S. was founded by many Christians, but they chose not to found it as a “Christian nation”. They had already thought this through and knew better than to mention Jesus and/or Christianity in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution. They wanted religious education left to parents at home and to priests and preachers and rabbis and imams in houses of worship.

“BIBLE LITERACY” AND “AMERICAN VALUES” IN THE CLASSROOM: AN EXERCISE

Let me demonstrate for a moment how a teacher could frame a “Bible literacy” course in a public high school, if his or her intent was to demonstrate that “American values” came from the Christian Bible.

When I teach the Bible at the University of Iowa, I give my students the English translation, and then show them the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek that underlies the text. They don’t need to know Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, I just want to show them that these verses come from a context–a context that is not in America, and not in Europe, but a context that is in the Middle East about 2000-3000 years ago. And because these religious scriptures that came to be known as the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible became sacred to Jews and Christians, what is said in them indeed influenced the laws that were made throughout Europe and in the United States.

A public high school teacher could do what I do in my university courses. He or she could show students how the Bible influenced America’s laws and culture. In fact, they could show them the very verses from Holy Scripture that were used by European and American politicians to support civil legislation in the modern world.

SLAVERY

For instance, Iowa high school teachers could show their students where slavery in America came from. When we established the United States, slavery was legal. Interestingly, the Bible supported, defended, and positively influenced the ownership of slaves in the United States. This is because, of course, God himself told his faithful followers precisely how to make slaves in Leviticus 25:44-46:

Lev. 25:44–As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that YOU MAY ACQUIRE MALE AND FEMALE SLAVES.

Lev. 25:45–You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; AND THEY MAY BE YOUR PROPERTY.

Lev. 25:46–You may KEEP THEM AS A POSSESSION for your children after you, for them TO INHERIT AS PROPERTYTHESE YOU MAY TREAT AS SLAVES

Why was there slavery in the United States? The Bible says it is OK. GOD HIMSELF says it is ok. Read it yourself.

An Iowa public school teacher could also show his or her students how, far from some “I have a Dream speech”, the New Testament never rescinds these slavery commands, but, in fact, three times reinforces slavery in Colossians, 1 Peter, and Ephesians:

Col. 3:22–SLAVES, OBEY YOUR EARTHLY MASTERS IN EVERYTHING, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.

1 Pet. 2:18–SLAVES, ACCEPT THE AUTHORITY OF YOUR MASTERS WITH ALL DEFERENCE, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

Eph. 6:5–SLAVES, OBEY YOUR EARTHLY MASTERS WITH FEAR AND TREMBLING, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ

They could then show public high school students how God instructs his faithful on the proper way to sell one’s daughter as a slave, as sanctioned by Exodus 21:7-11:

Ex. 21:7–WHEN A MAN SELLS HIS DAUGHTER AS A SLAVE, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.

Ex. 21:8–If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her.

Ex. 21:9–IF HE DESIGNATES HER FOR HIS SONhe shall deal with her as with a daughter.

Ex. 21:10–IF HE TAKES ANOTHER WIFE FOR HIMSELF, HE SHALL NOT DIMINISH THE FOOD, CLOTHING, OR MARITAL RIGHTS OF THE FIRST WIFE.

Ex. 21:11–And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

So, if we want to know about “American values”, and we want to know where the idea that one human can own another human being came from, we can read the Bible, because it is the Bible that sanctions the making of slaves. As a bonus, the class could discuss how God allowed men to take on second wives (polygamy) in Exodus 21:10.

WOMEN

An Iowa public high school teacher could then turn to the role of women. The issue of equal pay for equal work for men and women is hotly debated today, but before that it was women’s suffrage–a woman’s right to vote–that dominated the national debate. When this country was established, women did not have the right to vote. But why was that the case? Why weren’t women afforded equality with men?

Once again, the Bible is an excellent place to turn to see why women always took a back seat to men. First, an Iowa public high school teacher could have students read Leviticus 12:2-5:

Lev. 12:2–Speak to the people of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and bears A MALE CHILD, she shall be ceremonially unclean SEVEN DAYS; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean.

Lev. 12:3–On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.

Lev. 12:4–Her time of blood purification shall be THIRTY-THREE DAYS; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.

Lev. 12:5–If she bears A FEMALE CHILD, she shall be unclean TWO WEEKS, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be SIXTY-SIX DAYS.

Apparently, according to God’s commands in the Bible, mothers who gave birth to daughters were unclean for twice as long as those who gave birth to sons. Likewise, a new mother’s time of isolation following the birth of a daughter was twice as long than had she borne a son. So from birth, giving birth to a son possessed an advantage.

The teacher could then have students read Leviticus 27:2-7, which states explicitly that men are quantitatively worth more than women:

Lev. 27:2–Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When a person makes an explicit vow to the Lord concerning the equivalent for a human being,

Lev. 27:3–THE EQUIVALENT FOR THE MALE SHALL BE: from twenty to sixty years of age the equivalent shall be FIFTY shekels of silver by the sanctuary shekel.

Lev. 27:4–IF THE PERSON IS A FEMALE, the equivalent is THIRTY shekels.

Lev. 27:5–If the age is from five to twenty years of age, the equivalent is TWENTY SHEKELS FOR A MALE and TEN SHEKELS FOR A FEMALE.

Lev. 27:6–If the age is from one month to five years, the equivalent for a MALE is FIVE shekels of silver, and for a FEMALE the equivalent is THREE shekels of silver.

Lev. 27:7–And if the person is sixty years old or over, then the equivalent for a MALE is FIFTEEN shekels, and for a FEMALETEN shekels.

But it is not just in the Old Testament that the value of women is less than that of men. The New Testament preserves the subjugation of women in its literature. For instance, 1 Corinthians 11:3 says the following:

1 Cor. 11:3–But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and THE HUSBAND IS THE HEAD OF HIS WIFE, and God is the head of Christ.

The teacher could then ask students whether it is ok for the women in the classroom to raise their hands and ask questions. When they look at the teacher with a perplexed look, he or she could have them read the literature present in 1 Timothy 2:11-14–an argument that is rooted in a historical Adam and Eve:

1 Tim. 2:11–LET A WOMAN LEARN IN SILENCE WITH FULL SUBMISSION.

1 Tim. 2:12–I PERMIT NO WOMAN TO TEACH OR HAVE AUTHORITY OVER A MAN; SHE IS TO KEEP SILENT.

1 Tim. 2:13–For Adam was formed first, then Eve;

1 Tim. 2:14–and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

We the high school students have a discussion about whether it is ok for women to have authority over men, either as Governor of Iowa, Mayor of an Iowa city, CEO of an Iowa corporation, or the Speaker of the Iowa General Assembly. And imagine the awkwardness when all of the wonderful women teaching in our Iowa public high schools read 1 Tim. 2:12: “I permit no woman to teach.”

But of course, the subordination of women is not limited to the public realm–it extends to the religious realm as well, as least so says 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

1 Cor. 14:34–WOMEN SHOULD BE SILENT IN THE CHURCHES. FOR THEY ARE NOT PERMITTED TO SPEAK, BUT SHOULD BE SUBORDINATE, AS THE LAW ALSO SAYS.

1 Cor. 14:35–IF THERE IS ANYTHING THEY DESIRE TO KNOW, LET THEM ASK THEIR HUSBANDS AT HOME. FOR IT IS SHAMEFUL FOR A WOMAN TO SPEAK IN CHURCH.

This text appears to be consistent with the literature found in Ephesians 5:22-24:

Eph. 5:22–WIVES, BE SUBJECT TO YOUR HUSBANDS as you are to the Lord.

Eph. 5:23–For THE HUSBAND IS THE HEAD OF THE WIFE just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.

Eph. 5:24–Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also WIVES OUGHT TO BE, IN EVERYTHING, TO THEIR HUSBANDS.

I guess it is possible that an Iowa high school teacher could explain that “just as Christ is the head of the Church” is actually a positive thing, but this would require the teacher to engage in some rather sophisticated theological explanation, which of course would be prohibited by law.

You can also imagine how the mothers and fathers of daughters in Iowa high school classrooms might feel to have this “literature” read to their children, not to mention how the women in the classroom might feel when they hear that the Bible is telling them to “be subject” to their future husbands. Of course, what it means to “be subject in everything” ventures into some conversations that I’m guessing most public high school teachers don’t want to have with their students!

It doesn’t take long to understand why women’s suffrage took so long in the United States. Women had to convince voters across the country that despite what the Bible clearly says, women should not be seen as subordinates to men. Women can exercise authority over men, are equal to men under the law, and should have every right and privilege that men do–again, despite what the Bible says!

OTHER “AMERICAN VALUES”

There are other bits of literature that we can read from the Bible that pertain to issues in the United States. For instance, Iowa high school teachers can show their students the proper way to commit genocide, as strictly prescribed by God himself in 1 Sam. 15:2-3:

1Sam. 15:2–THUS SAYS THE LORD OF HOSTS, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.

1Sam. 15:3–Now GO AND ATTACK AMALEK, AND UTTERLY DESTROY ALL THAT THEY HAVE; DO NOT SPARE THEM, BUT KILL BOTH MAN AND WOMAN, CHILD AND INFANT, OX AND SHEEP, CAMEL AND DONKEY.”

This text is often overlooked as an “American value”, because like slavery, it is a period in our nation’s history that we’d like to forget. But in the Midwest, and to our Native-American brothers and sisters, the biblical verses depicting God instructing his faithful exactly how to obliterate those peoples who fight against them and do not worship as they do as they attempt to conquer and settle the new land they believe to be given to them by God is as relevant today as it was two centuries ago.

It’s a difficult passage to read. In the above text, God tells Israel how to commit genocide.

Again, one might be tempted to explain, “Well, you see, what God did here is actually OK, because of the sin of Amalek…”, but as soon as one invokes “sin” or “disobedience” or “divine justification” for the genocide described in the literature, one is instantly engaging in a theological apologetic–the teacher is doing theology–which is prohibited by law. Furthermore, the fact that “God commanded them to do so, so it’s OK” is the same rationale that ISIS gives for what it does will not be lost on our public high school students.

And finally, when it comes to genocide and warfare, a public high school teacher might show his or her class one of the psalms from the Bible that celebrates revenge in the form of infanticide against the enemies of Israel in Psalm 137:8-9:

Psa. 137:8–O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!

Psa. 137:9–HAPPY SHALL THEY BE WHO TAKE YOUR LITTLE ONES AND DASH THEM AGAINST THE ROCK!

THE POINT OF THIS EXERCISE

By now, many of you should be saying, “Come now, professor Cargill, this is absurd! You are only choosing verses that cast Judaism and Christianity and God himself in a very negative light. Why aren’t you showing the positive verses in the Bible like the following:

Isaiah 40:31–but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Josh. 1:9–I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

John 13:34–I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

Psalm 23:4–Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.

Matthew 7:7–“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

Psalm 55:22–Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.

Proverbs 30:5–Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.

Psalm 119:114–You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word.

Psalm 119:115–Go away from me, you evildoers, that I may keep the commandments of my God.

1 John 4:7–Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

1 John 4:8–Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Nahum 1:7–The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him,

Philippians 4:13–I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

(I show these verses to my class, by the way.)

Here’s the point of the exercise:

As soon as someone makes the above comment–“Why are you showing the negative Biblical literature that makes God and the Bible look “bad” instead of the positive Biblical literature that is encouraging and inspiring and gives people hope, you know, the positive, good Bible verses?”–that person has made my point for me!

Teachers obviously can’t read the entire Bible in a “Bible literacy” class. This means the teacher must choose which verses from the Bible he or she is going to share with the class. And as soon as the teacher chooses one verse over another, he or she is making a value judgment about the Bible. The teacher is choosing how he or she wants to portray the Bible to his or her class.

Let me put it another way: BY SIMPLY READING BIBLE VERSES IN A PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL CLASSROOM AS PART OF A “BIBLE LITERACY” COURSE, TEACHERS ARE ENGAGING IN THEOLOGY! This is because the verses they choose to read in class are chosen in an effort to paint the Bible in a particular light.

Note the following: at no point in the above exercise did I theologize or preach or engage in any “religious” activity. All I did was read texts from the Bible: Leviticus 25:44-46; Colossians 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18; Ephesians 6:5; Exodus 21:7-11; ; Psalm 137:8-9, etc. All I did was read verses from the Bible, God’s holy word! And still, some of you–devout people of faith(!)–were offended. Imagine if a high school teacher had done that in your child’s classroom.

I simply read “Bible literature”. And this is my point: there is no such thing as a simple “Bible literacy” class. This is because there is no such thing as translation without interpretation. This means that any “Bible literacy” class necessarily involves theology because the verses that are read are a highly subjective selection, and the very act of selecting which verses of the Bible to read in class is a theological act!

The act of reading the Bible in a public high school is a theological act. It would be a state-sanctioned violation of the separation of church and state, and therefore unconstitutional. This bill should not be enacted into law. In fact, it should die in committee.

Robert R. Cargill, Ph.D.
Asst. Professor of Classics and Religious Studies, The University of Iowa
Editor, Biblical Archaeology Review

 

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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.

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