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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Dr. Robin Jensen, Vanderbilt file Motions to Dismiss Lawsuit Filed by Simcha Jacobovici

Dr. Robin Jensen and her employer, Vanderbilt University, have filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit brought against them by pseudoarchaeologist, professional filmmaker, and recent filer of multiple lawsuits against critics who disagree with his conclusions, Mr. Simcha Jacobovici.

These legal court filings are available to the public via the Washington DC court website, but as a public service to my readers, I’m making them available here for download as well:

A quick perusal will demonstrate that there are multiple grounds on which the cases should be dismissed, including, but not limited to:

  1. The case is not in Washington DC’s jurisdiction.
  2. The allegation does not meet the threshold for the alleged “conspiracy” with an “unnamed, but not unknown” co-conspirator (who happens to be Joe Zias, whom Mr. Jacobovici is also suing).
  3. The statute of limitations had expired.

Any of the above three reasons are enough to dismiss (or at least transfer to a different jurisdiction) the conspiratorially-minded, frivolous lawsuit designed to intimidate scholars into not criticizing Jacobovici’s highly speculative films about archaeology.

(To his credit, his company’s non-archaeological documentaries are quite good, but his archaeology documentaries are roundly dismissed by scholars in the field, both in the US and Israel, with the exception of those scholars appearing in them or profiting somehow by working with Jacobovici on his archaeo-fantasies.)

Go and read the motions to dismiss Mr. Jacobovici’s most recent lawsuit against a scholar who once found herself working with him.

 

Absolutely excellent article by Nina Burleigh about the “James Ossuary” trial

Scientists have cast doubt on this ossuary inscription. (Israel Antiquities Authority / Associated Press / March 23, 2012) via LA Times.

Author Nina Burleigh has penned an excellent, must-read Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Faith, forgery, science — and the James Ossuary.”

Burleigh not only summarizes the case, but describes the growing problem stemming from scholars attempting to be truthful in the sensationalistic popular and legal environments to which they may not be accustomed. She also laments the problem of religions zealots appealing directly to the public to combat inconvenient scientific facts that undermine their faith claims:

The particulars of science matter little to zealots defending a creed…Attacking scientists is increasingly common as religious and ideological zealots flatly reject data that offend their creeds.

It is a very well written piece about an unfortunate problem in archaeology.

She also highlights a point that many supporters conveniently overlook: the judge specifically did not rule on the authenticity of the ossuary.

“This is not to say that the inscription on the ossuary is true and authentic and was written 2,000 years ago….

Rather, the prosecution failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Golan forged the ossuary.

“The prosecution failed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt what was stated in the indictment: that the ossuary is a forgery and that Mr. Golan or someone acting on his behalf forged it,” the judge stated.

There is a big difference between “it’s authentic” and “we can’t prove that he faked it beyond all reasonable doubt.”

Give it a read.

HT: Jim West.

Duke Conference on Archaeology, Politics, and the Media: DAY 2

Friday, April 24, 2009

8:15-8:40 am

Nina Burleigh
“Inside the Collector’s Lair and Other Tales from the Biblical Antiquities Trade in Israel and the USA”

Burleigh read excerpts from her book and spoke about the Oded Golan affair and forgeries in Israel.


8:50-9:15 am

Mark Pinsky
“The Holy Land Experience”

The journalist Pinsky spoke about the phenomenon of the Holy Land Experience to Evangelicals.

The HLE was the creation of a man named Marvin Rosenthal.

Jews and Gentiles were welcome to work there, but no Pentecostals.


9:25-9:50 am

Tony Cartledge
“Walk about Jerusalem: Protestant Pilgrims in the Holy Land”

Cartledge spoke about the difference between religious tourists and Christian pilgrims.

He spoke about the media’s coverage of pilgrim activity in Jerusalem.

Pilgrimage is set within a concept of power. Pilgrimage drives religious, nationalist, ethnic, and financial groups over others.

He displayed several organizations that prey on pilgrims to make money and to push evangelical ideology, particularly premillennialism.

Provenance and history lend more value to antiquities. If scholars write articles or letters talking about the importance of the object, it makes the object worth more.


10:20-10:40 am

Tom Davis, CAARI (Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute)
“What is a Cypriot? Archaeology and Identity”

Archaeology can become props for political interests, aiding governments in recreating history they way they want for political purposes.

Davis discussed the cultural and ethnic diversity of Cyprus over time, and the wealth of archaeological information available throughout the island.


10:40-10:50 am

Response by Donald Haggis, UNC Chapel Hill

Cypress instigates multiple identities of the past.

Archaeology can be used to alienate a people from another, as well as to combat government propaganda intended to divide people by promoting particular histories over another.

It is difficult for archaeologists to dig and to engage the community to help inform them about their own real past because of the time required and the risk of political retribution form governments in the form of withholding permits, etc.


11:00-11:20 am

Bert de Vries, Calvin College
“Umm el-Jimal”

Dr. de Vries gave a very good summary of the use of media in the Umm el-Jimal to promote knowledge about the site not only to the archaeological community, but to the local community. By working with the local government officials, archaeology can be used not noly by foreigners to dig holes in the ground and then leave, but to bolster the local community’s identity. De Vries displayed the site’s visually compelling website, and it use of images, video, and digital reconstruction to teach about the site.


11:20-11:30 am

Response by S. Thomas Parker, North Carolina State

Made two brief comments on general discussion from the day before.

1. ASOR cannot serve as an arbiter of archaeological fact vs. fiction because it does not speak with a unanimous voice.

2. Half of the people won’t care what we decide.


11:40 am – 12:00 pm

Eric Meyers, Duke
“The Quest for the Temple Mount: The Settler Movement and National Parks in Israel”

The reporting and publishing (and funding for) the reconstruction of archaeological discoveries is as important as the digging itself. Unfortunately, many times the reporting of sites by governments and NGOs is often inaccurate, or contrary to the archaeologist’s findings, favoring a propagandistic or nationalistic interpretation of the data for political purposes.

In the case of the City of David, reconstruction and publication is being used as a weapon by Jewish settlers to promote Zionist motives, evict Palestinian residents from their homes in the Silwan valley, and promote Jewish identity in East Jerusalem.

The IAA has ceded authority to do archaeology in the Silwan valley to Elad, an organization dedicated to redefining the area as a Jewish enclave. Elad administers the dig, without oversight. Publication is paid for by the IAA, Elad, and private donations from Jewish Zionist groups and Christian Fundamentalist Premillennialist Evangelicals.

Whose collective memories can be culled form these activities?

Meyers offered the website http://www.alt-arch.org as an alternative to archaeology driven by nationalistic and political ideology.


12:00-12:10 pm

Response by Rebecca Stein, Duke

The ongoing archaeological excavation in Silwan is a form of occupation. Archaeology is being used as a weapon to displace Palestinians in this East Jerusalem enclave.

Post war tourism was a way by which to promote public involvement in the Israeli investment in the occupation of Palestine.


12:30-1:45 pm

Roundtable Lunch Discussion: Where do we go from here?

Paul Flesher: Introduction

-Where do we go from here. Practical solutions to some of these problems.

Question 1: Personnel. Who would be willing to do what?

Paul says that Eric says we should create a body within ASOR as a vehicle to move things forward. Whether we call it a media committee or task force. A good model would be a committee of people who are willing to meet regularly and other people who are wiling to help out on certain kinds of things.

-passing around a sheet of paper, if you are interested and want to be involved in some level, on an occasional level or on a regular committee.

-name, email, things you’re interested in, kind of commitment you are willing make

Question 2: Now: return to practical steps

Robert Cargill: what forms of technology are there for us to use to inform and to partner with different organizations, specifically with different media organizations. But also with ourselves, how can we harness the technology out there to promote archaeology. Mentions analogies with Business School etc. Discusses UCLA Center for Digital Humanities. Robert offers the same service to this group here as his job for UCLA. How can we then take this technology, partner with strategic people within the media, to push a better, healthier view of archaeology.

1. Byron McCane: Two suggestions.
a. Readily practical: More of us start blogging
b. Dream: CNN hires a Sanje Gupta of archaeology

2. Carole Lazio: Three suggestions
a. organize a digital news feed; a way that people could post information about their sites; someone would need to study what the newsfeeds would appreciate having
b. having someone attend meetings and educate people on media relations; AAA has been doing this for years.

3. Bob Cargill says “ Here’s how you do an interview” he had friends in the media who gave him the backside about how interviews are conducted and to what end.
-suggests we provide a course on how to do interviews. partner with a media person. Here’s how you sit, speak, present yourself, can and can’t do, can and can’t expect.

4. Ray Bruce agrees with Bob. If you have some people who are media literate they will use you more often, can do it faster, trust is built up sooner. So easily done.

5. Moira Bucciarelli responds to Ray saying that SBL is already planning a session on media training

6. Rachel Hallote: not just media training, but what we say to the media. As academic s and biblical archaeologists we’ve been battling away with the bible for 50 years. Always telling people they haven’t found what they claim. They don’t want to hear that. We have to meet them half way. We need to reengage the bible which is what is pulling the media along.

7. Bob says people tell him. “you always debunk” and then people’s view of scholarship is that you are skepticism. Try to do your skepticism in a positive form (here’s what we do know) rather than negative (we can’t know that).
-Bob follows up suggesting we suggest our friends. When we deal with media reps we also give referrals. We should put together a networking model for areas of expertise. The more we can refer people that we know and trust and who are really publishing, the more we can promote those names, they don’t need to call someone they’ve found on google. Media list. Maybe that is the same clearinghouse we use to publish our credible ideas on a website. He does think you should involve a website.

8. Eric Powell: AIA is developing a training program and a list of experts, like a media go-to list.
-Bob notes that law schools do regularly contain a media contact list.

Quit looking down on the media, embrace them, and maybe they will come to us more often.

9. Mark Pinsky: says this kind of course not that complicated; you should ask them “how long is the bite” “never refer to previous answer” if you don’t like your answer you can say “lets try it again” Find out where they are going with this. If you know where they are going, you can provide the narrative spine. The more you can go where they want you to go, they more they will use your face.

10. Ethan Bronner: before you get to documentary you will start with newspaper. Notes that peer review can take a long time if you refuse to discuss your findings with the media until they are peer reviewed. You as professionals need to know how the cascading set of exposures work. List of experts is good idea. List of subspecialities is a good idea (jesus era guy but also known to believe X about what we know about that moment). Says media people are not necessarily “moneymad”. They are also interested. Still a kind of arbiter of the public (newspapers) of something no one is trying to sell you. My job is to be filter between the jerk who is trying to sell something and what is true.

11. Mark Pinsky: NYT has become the cerebrum of the industry. The producers are doing their thinking based on what is on the front of the NYT. If you can begin with Ethan or with NPR you won’t have to go those (bad) producers (because they are based on NYT any way).

12. Andy Vaughn: one of my concerns or fears in developing a list of people who can speak to a topic and to the media is that we need to find a way to build in junior scholars, women, people of color. Make sure that we are bringing all sorts of people in.

13. Paul Flesher responds: Eric is talking about the ‘good housekeeping seal’ but if you don’t get it, it creates a lot of hard feelings. Easier for ASOR to create a list of members with their specialities, publication area, where you are working.

14. Andy: if we have a list that is long and not weeded out you don’t necessary accomplish the goal. We need a list that a grammar school librarian can turn to to tell a teacher in 8th grade. We don’t want to list everyone. However, from an admin. standpoint, as soon as we start ticking people off the list, that becomes hard.

15. Moira B.: do the journalists use religion source?

16. Mark P.: outside of the big three or four, everything is very local

17. Jodi Magness: in the ASOR and SBL session on media a couple of points that came up, in terms of TV docs we have to be diligent about the kinds of people that we collaborate with. Ultimately it is the studio or the executive who has the ultimate say.
-Can see the sensitivity of putting up a list of names. Doesn’t think she would want her name on an internet list where everyone can get her information. Thinks a media committee could formulate a list, but not necessarily post or advertise it. The organization could have a link that suggests please contact us at this number.

18. Bob: Ideal thing would be to put the list in the hands of the producers. Otherwise, its’ going to be those of us who live in LA or NY .

19. Rachel H.: Most of her local tv and journalist appearances were because they used profnet. Could ASOR contact the different institutions where the members are teaching. Brings in the University PR departments.

20.Eric Meyers: what if our society might think about things that would be appropriate for production and we approach journalists?

21. Ray Bruce: says brilliant. He gets a lot of his ideas from people that he knows who ring him up. So it would be a two way thing and proactive.

22. Eric M. says: that would give us the opportunity to go to NEA to underwrite a film with a grant.
-Bob says that this is exactly what fringe scholars do.

23. Bob: Begin to use the ASOR blog ahead of time when we know something is coming. Be the first to post.

24. Mark Goodacre: Content. Using Bob’s exposure of the Golb scandal, he didn’t get polemical. He just calmly wrote the facts. Avoid the polemic.

What makes someone unusable for TV: won’t repeat anything and so unpleasant.

We should try to be calm and pleasant. To make ourselves useful and not to be perceived as hostile, grumpy, skeptical people be calm collected and just get the content out there.

25. Bob: the blogs that are the most successful are the blogs that are there everyday. very fresh.

26. Ethan B.: It is often the case that people throw a press conference. It is better to use a reporter and walk that reporter through over a series of hours because a press conference is awful. It launches it with less control over it as opposed to a reporter about whom you can be confident.
-second advantage is that paper will give it prominence because it is an exclusive.

27. Mark Pinsky: might want to choose someone who is a bit more gullible but someone who might be less skeptical. May get a better hit or better play if you pick a regional media person.

28. Byron M.: at another conference a journalist made a point that “I am not the media.” “We are all the media.”


2:00-2:50 pm

Featured Speaker: Ethan Bronner, NYT Bureau Chief, Jerusalem
“Archaeology, Politics, and the Media: A View from Jerusalem”

Began with Israel Knoll and the Hazon Gabriel

Bronner wrote a story about the Vision of Gabriel and told the audience about the feedback he got from various groups.

Talked about interviewing some archaeologists that are funded by Zionist organizations that tell the story of Israel from 1000BC to 70 CE, and then skip to 1947 CE.

Although the Jewish/Zionist approach to history and archaeology is problematic, the Palestinian is worse. Arafat denied any Jewish history, especially that there was ever a Temple on the Haram. The later leader of the Palestinian antiquities, (Araquat), told a story about how Arafat denied any Jewish presence, and that the Palestinians will continue to deny the presence of a Temple. Palestinians refusal to acknowledge any Jewish archaeological heritage drives the Jewish desire to find Jewish heritage.

The Palestinians are just as culpable as Israel in the use of archaeology for nationalism, and for the denial of cultural heritage.


3:45-3:55 pm

Ray Bruce, Head of Programmes, CTVC

Bruce was asked to hang around and observe and offered feedback from the world of tele.

The job of the tv docu producer is managing expectations. Expectations of crew, expectations of producers, and expectations of talent in front of the camera.

Expectations of the broadcaster: what will keep an audience glued to a tv for ½ hour. Noise around their shows. Noisy, risky, thought provoking shows with awards and press conferences and tie ins.

Scholars must decide whether or not we want to play the tele game or not.

Different channels are looking for different things. The BBC wants something different than ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5.

Thank God for Dan Brown. Because, up to four years ago, most people wouldn’t be discussing the council of Nicea, or whether was Judas was actually good guy.

Dan Brown raises the question and provides the opportunities for scholars to respond and educate the public.

Archaeologists are not familiar with the grammar and politics of tv production.

Bruce says he is a little bit nervous about ‘controlling the subject,’ ‘black lists,’ etc. The same is true about the rogue archaeologists. Who decides who is a rogue? The guild needs auditing, but needs to be done carefully.

The media do not know the players, but neither do most archaeologists know the players in the media.

Why not make use of media departments in us universities?


3:55-4:05 pm

Moira Bucciarelli, Public Initiatives Coordinator, SBL

Scholars feel that their views are being passed by or ignored or exploited.

One good way to improve this is to utilize/establish a media relations dept.

How do we keep a list of experts? Do we have a central list or do we keep individual lists?

Don’t leave the audience empty-handed. Don’t be absolutist, don be academic. Take them on the journey.

How do we stop the public from getting all their news from popular (and poor) websites?

Should we introduce a blog on the SBL website? Rotating authorship?

Speaker is creating a monthly newsletter for high school teachers about archaeology.

Do we need a ‘fact or fiction’ website? YES!

How can scholars avoid being in the position of only reacting to sensational archaeology.

“Nuancing the stone” will be a memorable phrase.


4:05-4:15 pm

Eric Powell, Deputy Editor of Archaeology Magazine

Discussed the American Institute of Archaeology

Powell encouraged the scholar audience to write for Archaeology Magazine?

Reasons to pause (or why scholars pause) to write for Archaeology Magazine.

The distortion of a scholar’s work often causes scholars never to work with media again.

Powell encouraged scholars to take better photographs.

Joint statements form the AIA, ASOR, SBL will go far to combat bad science.


4:15-4:25 pm

Andy Vaughn – ASOR
“Summary of the Conference”

Two competing cultures in archaeology and media.

1. The collegial culture that says that professors view that peer-reviewed articles are most important.

2. The administrator culture that says that enrollments and bottom line is essential.

The same is true for media and archaeology.

Do media not care about truth and accuracy? And do professors not care about the Bottom line and entertainment?

Archaeology is by nature an interdisciplinary endeavor. And when budgets are cut, the departments focus on departmental matters.

The tension that exists between history and re-enactment.

Archaeology cannot prove the bible, but it can support and disprove what we believe about the bible.

Scientific method is by nature negative. Science only disproves, never proves.

Re-enactment, on the other hand, provide a positive image for what we do know.

Archaeology and historical research can bring the ‘historical imagination’ alive. Without passing judgment on the historical truth of the a claim, the re-enactment and the historical imagination can be informed.

The dream of a ASOR website. ASORpedia.

A Wikipedia of archaeological and historical sites throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

FAQ section
Fact or Fiction section
Experts section
Moderated blog section

The site must be something the teachers can trust.

Continuing funding can come in the form of ads.

Elementary schools are looking for authoritative sites that students can cite.

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