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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Jan/Feb 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (44/1) is now on newsstands

Jan/Feb 2018 Biblical Archaeology Review cover

Jan/Feb 2018 Biblical Archaeology Review cover

On behalf of the Biblical Archaeology Society, I am pleased to announce the publication of the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (Vol. 44, No. 1). This is my first issue as Editor of the magazine. Our Founder and long-time Editor, Hershel Shanks, has been promoted to Editor Emeritus.

The issue has four feature articles.

The first is our annual “Digs” article, which I wrote. The article is titled, “Digs 2018: Migration and Immigration in Ancient Israel.” The article looks at the issue of migration and immigration in ancient Israel and in the Bible, demonstrating that throughout history, Israel was a land of immigrants, and the Bible’s teachings–both Old and New Testaments–command believers to support and defend these immigrants. The article concludes with a survey of many of the archaeological expeditions looking at issues of migration and immigration in the eastern Mediterranean, and provides a complete list of active digs in the forthcoming 2018 season, as well as scholarship information for those wishing to join a dig.

The second article is titled, “Jerusalem and the Holy Land(fill)” by Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University. His article reports on his excavations on Jerusalem’s Southeastern Hill—just outside the “City of David”—which has exposed a landfill from the Early Roman period (1st C. B.C.E. to 1st C. C.E.). This garbage provides insight into residents’ daily lives and habits during a politically, socially, and religiously tumultuous chapter of Jerusalem’s history—when Rome ruled, the Temple stood, and Jesus preached. The article is accompanied by a number of sidebar articles addressing specific subfields (bones, pottery, seeds, etc.) authored by many of the dig’s staff members.

The third article is entitled “Romancing the Stones: The Canaanite Artistic Tradition at Israelite Hazor” by the University of Haifa’s Danny Rosenberg and University of Evansville’s Jennie Ebeling. The article looks at the well-known basalt crafts tradition at Hazor. Interestingly, despite Hazor’s destruction in the late second millennium B.C.E. and Israelite resettlement of the city, the Canaanite basalt artisan tradition continued, and appears to have been adopted by the Israelites, as demonstrated by their continued basalt vessel production.

The final feature article in the issue is by UCLA’s Jeremy D. Smoak and is entitled, “Words Unseen: The Power of Hidden Writing.” The article takes a closer look at the Ketef Hinnom amulets discovered in 1979 in a late Iron Age (7th C. B.C.E.) tomb in outside of Jerusalem. While the amulet contains text similar to the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:24–26, Smoak asks why the text was written so small and was rolled up so that it was hidden from human eyes. This brief venture into miniaturization theory asks whether all written texts were created for human audiences.

The issue also contains the following departments:

FIRST PERSON
“A New Chapter” by Robert R. Cargill

CLASSICAL CORNER
“A Subterranean Surprise in the Roman Catacombs” by Sarah K. Yeomans

BIBLICAL VIEWS
“Neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male and Female” by Karin Neutel

ARCHAEOLOGICAL VIEWS
“Performing Psalms in Biblical Times” by Thomas Staubli

REVIEWS
“The World of Early Christianity” by Tony Burke, a review of “The Didache: A Missing Piece of the Puzzle in Early Christianity,” edited by Jonathan A. Draper and Clayton N. Jefford.

To subscribe, I encourage you to visit us online at http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/magazine.

Also, take a look at Bible History Daily (http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/biblehistorydaily) for additional features, including an exclusive post by The George Washington University’s Christopher Rollston about the so-called Jerusalem Papyrus (http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/jerusalempapyrus).

Check out our Dig website, that offers detailed information about dozens of excavations seeking volunteers (biblicalarchaeology.org/digs). Plus, read anecdotes and view photographs submitted by our 2017 scholarship recipients online (http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/2017winners).

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.

Remembering the Holocaust

Each year on the 27th of Nisan (this year April 23-24, 2017), Jews around the world observe Yom HaShoah (יום השואה), or Holocaust Remembrance Day, on which we remember the approximately six million Jews killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

We remember those who perished, as well those families who lost loved ones during this dark time in history.

But it is not only Jews who should remember this day; we should all constantly remember the evil that is possible in our nations when populist authoritarians seek to single out and target particular minority groups and blame them for what they believe to be the problems with our country.

When we say, “Never again,” this should not only be a rallying cry for Jews who must remain vigilant against those who, to this very day, seek their destruction, but it should also be a rallying cry for non-Jews, who must vow never again to stand idly by and hold the coats of those who would persecute Jews, or any minority group, in our midst.

It is good to remember. Today, let us remember those who died, and commit ourselves to taking the steps necessary to ensure that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again.

yad-vashem-jerusalem-israel_main

Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Jerusalem

 

Remembering the Armenian Genocide

Today, April 24, we remember the Armenian Genocide, beginning in 1915, where the Young Turks of the Ottoman Empire (soon thereafter the Republic of Turkey) oversaw the coordinated extermination of somewhere between 600,000 to 1.6 million Armenians, along with other Christian minorities.

As a proud son of the central San Joaquin Valley, a Fresno State alum, a frequent visitor to Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter, and a friend and ally of the Armenian community in Fresno, whose contributions have helped shape the cultural heritage of the city that raised me, I ask that you pause for a moment today to remember those who perished and those who lost loved ones during this horrendous, and all too often overlooked (and by some, even denied) catastrophe that was the Armenian Genocide.

To learn more, visit the Armenian Genocide Museum & Institute webpage or visit the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex atop the hill of Tsitsernakaberd memorial in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.

The eternal flame burns at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan (photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images via IB Times).

 

 

On ISIS, Sex Slavery, Rape Culture, and Religious Fundamentalism

I recently read a disgusting story involving ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State/Da’esh and the plight of female sex slaves traded between its members. I relayed the following story to my class and asked them for their initial thoughts on slavery, but specifically on sex slavery and the exchange of female sexual slaves between men.


The story stated that a wealthy ISIS operative owned a female slave. (This is apparently not uncommon in this culture.) This ISIS operative then sold two of his daughters in marriage to another ISIS operative to be wives for him. (Again, remember that polygamy, or having two or more wives at once, is not unlawful in this culture. There is some question about having two sisters as wives at the same time.)

To one of the daughters he sold in marriage he also gave his female slave as a gift to the daughter to be her slave. However, when that daughter could not bear children for her new husband, she gave her husband that same female slave to have sex with him and bear children for him. The female slave bore him two children, but his wife claimed both boys as her own children.

Later on, one of her husband’s sons by the wife’s sister (his other wife) also had sex with the female slave.


This was the plight of one woman–a sex slave–as told in the story.

I placed the above story on a powerpoint as I read it to my class. I then asked my class for their reactions to this story.

“Barbaric!” said one student.

“Horrible!” said another.

“Who would do that?” asked yet another.

One exasperated student chimed in, “How is this legal? How is this not banned by Islam?”

“Well, this is the problem with Islam!”, replied another male student. “They have slavery and they don’t respect women.”

Most students were disgusted. One student was near tears. “How could they treat women like this?” she muttered. “Those poor women. They never had a chance.”

Another determined student bellowed from the back of the room: “This is why we need to defeat them. ISIS. We can’t let this happen!

And before I could respond, he continued: “And this is why we have to keep them from coming here to the United States. Any religion that allows THIS in its so-called “holy book” should not be allowed in this country!”

And there it was. I stood silently, looking down at the ground.

After a deliberate, silent pause, I looked up, looked around the class, and then said, “Note that I didn’t include any names in this story. Let me replace the words ‘ISIS operative’ and ‘female slave’ with some actual names and I want to ask you the same question.”

I clicked on my laptop and the following story appeared in place of the earlier one.


The story stated that a wealthy MAN NAMED LABAN owned a female slave NAMED BILHAH (Gen. 29:29).(This is apparently not uncommon in this culture.) LABAN then sold two of his daughters (LEAH AND RACHEL) in marriage to another MAN NAMED JACOB to be wives for him. (Again, remember that polygamy, or having two or more wives at once, is not unlawful in this culture. There is some question about having two sisters as wives at the same time.)

To RACHEL he also gave his female slave, BILHAH, as a gift to RACHEL to be her slave (Gen. 30:3). However, when RACHEL could not bear children for JACOB, she gave JACOB BILHAH to have sex with him and bear children for him (Gen. 30:4). BILHAH bore him two children, DAN AND NAPHTALI, but RACHEL claimed both boys as her own children.

Later on, one of JACOB‘s sons, REUBEN, by RACHEL‘s sister (LEAH) also had sex with BILHAH (Gen. 35:22).


“Now how do you feel about this account of sexual slavery?” I asked the class.

The students stared at the screen, some with wide eyes and open jaws.

Our boisterous student protested from the back of the classroom: “That’s not the same! That’s a long time ago. That’s a completely different context.”

“Actually,” I replied calmly, “It’s the exact same story, just with the names changed.”

“Yeah, but…” one student chimed in, “…this is different. This is from the Bible. This is different.”

“You’re right!”, I responded, “This is the birth of ancient Israel.”

I continued, “Isn’t it fascinating that the twelve tribes of Israel are the result of a polygamous marriage–a man married to two women at once, in fact, two sisters, which is explicitly banned in Lev. 18:18: (“And you shall not take a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.”)–and two sex slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah.”

I reiterated: “The twelve tribes of Israel are the product of one man, two wives, and two sex slaves.”

“OK,” one student interrupted, “…but this was God’s plan. God was OK with this. God didn’t punish this. This was part of his plan.”

I retorted, “First of all, you’re right. Gen. 25:6 says that Abraham had sex slaves (concubines).”

I continued: “In Exod. 21:10, God says you can have multiple wives: “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.” So does Deut. 21:15-16: “If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn.”

“In Deut. 22:28-29, God says that if you rape a woman, you are not put in prison, but God says you must pay a fine to her father, and you must marry her and never divorce her: “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.”

“In Num 31:17-18, God says you can slaughter a city in battle, but spare the virgin women and force them to be your wife: Num. 31:17: “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

“In fact, this one was so popular, the Bible talks about it a second time in Deut. 21:11-14: “Suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.” But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”

“So yes,” I continued, “The Bible says that God commanded and/or allowed all these various forms of marriage.”

“Second,” I continued, “That’s exactly what ISIS would say. ‘This is God-ordained. God is OK with this’.”

Some students smiled, recognizing the crux of the lesson I was giving that day. Others sat silently, slowly absorbing the logical paradox and the cognitive dissonance they never before recognized. They saw that what they condemn today in Islam as practiced by ISIS is the very same practice that produced ancient Israel, at least according to the Bible.

Some students refused to see it. Others saw it, but couldn’t believe it. Others understood completely.

And this was the first lesson for the day: that what many condemn as atrocious in other religions, they embrace blindly in their own religion. Sexually abhorrent behavior is condemned when other religions practice it, but is often accepted as normal when it takes place in one’s own religion. We condemn the text of the other religion’s holy Scripture, until of course we realize that the passage is actually from our holy book.


I illustrated a second problem: Fundamentalists of one faith tend to assume that all adherents to other faiths are also literal fundamentalists, and because their Scripture says it, they all practice it to the letter today. This is not the case.

We know this is not the case because very few Christians and Jews are strict literal fundamentalists today. To be sure, there are many Christians and a few Jews who follow a strict, literal fundamentalist view of Scripture (or at least believe themselves to be doing so). But most Christians today do not. Most Christians understand that many biblical commands–many from God’s own mouth like endorsements of slavery and commands of genocide–are simply relics of the past–commands and acts done by a less civilized society thousands of years ago that are simply dismissed by today’s Christians.

Most Jews–specifically Reform Judaism–do not adhere to a strict literalist interpretation of Scripture. They are the first to say, “We know what the Bible says, and we understand that Jews in the past may have practice this, but we have matured as a society and we simply do not do that any more.” And Reform Judaism has a long, beautiful tradition of updating the biblical rules and establishing new moral regulations as society had progressed and become more civilized that do away with much of the abhorrent behavior described (and often commanded by God) in the Bible.

And yet some conservative Christians are strict literalists. They interpret the Bible literally, and believe that every word of both the Old and New Testaments to be the inerrant, infallible, unchanging Word of God. And it is most often these Christians that project their hermeneutic–their way of reading Scripture–onto Muslims, and falsely assume that all Muslims interpret the Qur’an in the same way. They believe that since all Christians should read that Bible fundamentally, all Muslims do read the Qur’an fundamentally.

This is simply not the case.

The fact is most Muslims do not interpret the Qur’an in a strict literalist manner. A majority of Muslims around the world have also updated and adapted their Islamic moral teachings to do away with the most horrific and problematic teachings of the Qur’an–in the very same way that most Jews and Christians have done with their Scriptures.

And yet, there are certain sects of Islam–in our present case, Wahhabi Islamic Militant Jihadists, who comprise the core of ISIS–who want to see the world interpret the Qur’an in the same strict literalist manner that they do. And they want their fundamentalist interpretations of Scripture to be the civil law of the land, governing all peoples, whether they are Muslim or not.

Ironically in America, this is the same desire of strict literalist Christians, who want to legislate their fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible over all Americans, whether they are Christian or not, and turn civil law into the Christian equivalent of Shari’a law.

Christian fundamentalists see all Muslims as Islamic fundamentalists because they don’t know any other way of reading Scripture. And as a nation we cannot allow fundamentalists of any religion to govern our country and turn the United States into ground zero of a religious war.


There was one additional point from the above sex slave exercise that I shared with the class: the reason that sexual misconduct against women is largely dismissed, excused, and tolerated today in this country is that it is interwoven into our predominant religious beliefs. Sexual slavery is part of the Bible. Bigamy. Polygamy. Rape. The taking of prisoners of war (the pleasing virgin ones) as wives. This is part of the Bible. Not only that, this is part of the Bible often commanded and authorized by God.

The rape culture that exists today in the U.S. that terrifies women, and which many men fail to recognize, is the result of a problematic theology that has either accepted, openly or tacitly, or has largely dismissed the problem of the sexual mistreatment of women because of the very unwillingness of many Christians to critique these same practices in the very Scripture that they claim to be their moral authority.

Or put another way, because Christian fundamentalists in America are unwilling to acknowledge that there are horrific, amoral teachings and practices against women in the Bible, they resist addressing, or often even acknowledging, the culture of misogyny that exists in America today. For if they acknowledged the poor treatment of women in America today, they would at some point in the discussion have to question the teachings and practices involving women in the Bible, and fundamentalists are simply never going to do that.

So we get what we get: the belief that if the Bible is OK with the very rape culture it details in verse after verse, and the misogyny, and the suppression of women’s voices, and their authority, and their freedom of expression–and if God inspired his Holy Word–then it can’t be all that bad today. Right?

And this is the problem.

 

Do we need religion to have a moral code?

Do we need religion to have a moral code?

George Herbert Mead collegiate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, Dr. Webb Keane, and Dr. Robert Cargill, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa, discussed the issue with Charity Nebbe, November 1, 2016 on Iowa Public Radio.

Listen now.

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