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.

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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.

Robert Cargill to lecture at UCLA on The Cities that Built the Bible

Cover of The Cities that Built the Bible by Robert R. Cargill, Ph.D.I’ll be lecturing at UCLA on Thursday evening, April 14, 2016 on my new book, THE CITIES THAT BUILT THE BIBLE (HarperOne).

The lecture is sponsored by the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion, and co-sponsored by the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and UCLA Dept. of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures.

Information on the lecture is here:

TITLE: “Cities that Built the Bible”
LECTURER: Robert R. Cargill, University of Iowa
DATE: Thursday, April 14, 2016
LOCATION: Royce Hall, RM 314, UCLA Campus
TIME: 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
DESCRIPTION: The Cities That Built the Bible is a magnificent tour through fourteen cities: the cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos, Ugarit, Nineveh, Babylon, Megiddo, Athens, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Qumran, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Rome. Along the way, Cargill includes photos of artifacts, dig sites, ruins, and relics, taking readers on a far-reaching journey from the Grotto of the Nativity to the battlegrounds of Megiddo, from the towering Acropolis of Athens to the caves near Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

RSVP: Email: csr@humnet.ucla.edu
UCLA Center for the Study of Religion
376B Humanities Building | Los Angeles, CA 90095-1511
Phone: 310-206-8799

Robert R. Cargill to speak at UCLA on THE CITIES THAT BUILT THE BIBLE, April 14, 2016.

 

Robert Cargill to discuss the origins of the Bible on Iowa Public Radio’s “Talk of Iowa” April 5

Talk of Iowa with Charity Nebbe on Iowa Public Radio.

Talk of Iowa with Charity Nebbe on Iowa Public Radio.

I’ll be interviewed by Charity Nebbe (@CharityNebbe) on Iowa Public Radio’s “Talk of Iowa” tomorrow, April 5, 2016 at 10am. We’ll be talking about my new book, THE CITIES THAT BUILT THE BIBLE, and discussing (among other things) the origins of the Bible we have today.

Visit the Talk of Iowa webpage to tune in and live stream the conversation.

And pick of a copy of THE CITIES THAT BUILT THE BIBLE anywhere books are sold.

 

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