D.C.’s New Museum of the Bible Tells the Story of America Through the Lens of Scripture

The Museum of the Bible has officially opened its doors, flanked by two giant golden tablets of scripture. The building stands just blocks from the National Mall and offices of the House of Representatives; the top floor offers a spectacular view of the Capitol nearby. Unlike the taxpayer-funded Smithsonian, the museum is privately owned. Even so, it has been positioned by its creators as a national museum, physically placing America’s religious history at its political center.

Other private institutions—the Newseum, Madame Tussauds, the Spy Museum—also dot downtown Washington, but the best comparison points for the Museum of the Bible are actually thousands of miles away. The Israel Museum, along with its next-door neighbor, the Bible Lands Museum, are both strategically positioned in Jerusalem’s central hub of universities, government buildings, libraries, and banks. They both use ancient artifacts to tell a story about national identity and to emphasize religious history. And like the Museum of the Bible, their claims to authority are contested.

While skeptics charged that the Museum of the Bible would be limited to promoting the worldview of its evangelical funders, the project is actually bigger and more ambitious: emphasizing and reinforcing the roots America’s national identity in the Bible. This story is uncommon to Washington, but it’s precious to millions of people around the country—and may establish the Museum of the Bible as a powerful hub in the capital.

Prior to the museum’s opening, scholars and literati raised concerns about its leadership and methods—including in a feature story in The Atlantic. Steve Green, the influential evangelical businessman who runs the Hobby Lobby crafts-supply chain, spearheaded the project. Under his guidance, the museum acquired artifacts at an extraordinary pace, collecting roughly 40,000 objects over the course of just six or seven years. This summer, Hobby Lobby paid a $3 million fine to the U.S. government for purchasing ancient artifacts illegally smuggled out of Iraq. The Greens have also been controversial in recent years for their role in the Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which challenged the birth-control mandate in the Affordable Care Act on religious grounds.

In recent weeks, the museum has been challenged for its biases—not enough attention to Islam, too much faith in the Protestant idea of sola scriptura,which teaches that the Bible speaks for itself. Scholars have also expressed doubt about the authenticity of its Dead Sea Scroll fragments, which allegedly come from the massive cache of biblical manuscripts discovered in the Qumran Caves of the Judean Desert.

But in large part, the culture-war boogeyman some expected has not materialized in the museum’s display cases. “All the mystery is gone,” said Jeremy Burton, the director of communications. “Are we going to be evangelicals? Are we going to be not enough Jesus? Judge for yourself.”

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The Atlantic