Sidnie White Crawford’s ‘Visit to the Museum of the Bible’

27 Jun

Sidnie visited the MOTB a few days back and she kindly writes the following post for us to enjoy.  Thanks, Sidnie!


Visit to the Museum of the Bible

Sidnie White Crawford

On Saturday, June 16, while on vacation in Washington DC, I paid a visit to the Museum of the Bible.  After reading numerous accounts of the museum prior to its opening, including the book Bible Nation by Joel S. Baden and Candida Moss, and knowing of its difficulties with the acquisition of antiquities from the Middle East via its Board Chair Steve Green, the President of Hobby Lobby Inc., I wanted to see the museum for myself.  I was accompanied by my husband Dan Crawford, a scholar of American evangelicalism in the first half of the 20th century, and our two grandsons, one of whom is a Religious Studies major in college and the other a computer science whiz with almost no religious background.

Upon arrival we went through the type of security check that is now typical at Washington museums, and then were directed to the ticket counter.  Although when it was first publicized the museum promised that entry would be free, there is now a “suggested donation” of $15 for adults, which would be very difficult to avoid.  We ponied up $60 and were admitted.  The entrance hall is a giant atrium with a blank vaulted ceiling, on which is projected various scenes, including the paintings of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  It was quite spectacular.  The museum itself has five floors; since we had arrived at 3:00 p.m. and the museum closed at 5:30, we knew we would not be able to see the whole thing.  We opted to begin on the third floor, with the “World of the Hebrew Bible” exhibit.  There was a wait of about 20 minutes, which the guard told us was pretty typical.  People are let in in groups of about 20, since it is essentially a sound and light show with different rooms.  The show begins with an announcement that what we were about to see told the narrative of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, which was the story of one people’s relationship with God.  The narrator was an animated male figure in robes who spoke in a stereotypical “Jewish” voice, which I felt was unnecessary.  By the end of the show it was revealed that this was meant to be Ezra.

The narrative began with Genesis 1-3, which frankly was the section we were most nervous about.  We started in the dark, with the sound of water, and when the narrative reached “And God said, let there be light,” there was a big flash and we were in daylight.  The narrative then proceeded quickly with dry land, plants, fish and birds, and animals appearing, then finally the naked humans, male and female.  Dan was concerned that there would be an enormous emphasis on a six-day creation with an anti-evolution message, but that was absent.  What it was was a simple narration of Genesis 1; if you were a biblical literalist you would feel comfortable, but if you were not, it was also okay.   The narrative proceeded through the Garden of Eden narrative (the fruit was a pomegranate) on to Noah and the ark.  This was another danger point, but again there was simply a straightforward narration of the biblical story.  There were no dinosaurs on the ark, or unicorns, for that matter.

At that point the narrative picked up speed, and we went quickly through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the 12 tribes, to end with Israel in Egypt, Moses, and the 10 plagues.  We then moved on to the next room, which contained a modern sculpture of a family at a Passover seder.  The narrative explained the reason for the Passover seder, combining biblical narrative from Exodus with contemporary seder liturgies.  After that we moved on to the next room, where we really began to move quickly.  The Judges got short shrift; the next figure to be emphasized was Ruth, whose story was told in a typically romantic fashion (her escapade on the threshing floor was omitted).  The emphasis was on her role as the great-grandmother of David, who was the next feature.  David was presented as the ideal king, but the sin with Bathsheba was emphasized (rather than the Goliath story).  Solomon built the temple, but also sinned with idols, and then we were flying along through the biblical narrative.  The prophets received very little time; the destruction of the temple was portrayed with typical special effects, and then we arrived at Cyrus and the rebuilding of the temple and the new reading of the Torah.  It was then that we were told that our narrator was Ezra.  That was the end of the “World of the Hebrew Bible” exhibit; the next stop was the Galilee village.

Readers will note that a major jump was just made between the time of Ezra and the time of Jesus; the Second Temple period does not appear in these exhibits.  The exhibits are about the worlds presented in the Bible, which is clearly the Protestant Christian Bible.  It is acknowledged clearly that the Hebrew Bible is scripture for both Jews and Christians (the very name of the exhibit acknowledges this), but the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha are not counted as part of the “Bible.”  This is one of the evident biases of the Museum toward the Protestant Christian Bible.

The Galilee village is a physical reconstruction of a “typical” town in the Galilee during the lifetime of Jesus and his disciples.  There was a communal well and oven, a wine press, an oil press, private dwellings with exhibits on cloth making, food preparation, etc., and a synagogue.  There were guides (dressed in “period costumes”) available to answer questions.  This was the first time in the exhibit that actual antiquities appeared; there were chalkstone cups, oil lamps, cooking pots and other such items, all uniformly plain and undecorated.  They were clearly marked as on loan from the IAA.  In a side room there were videos; one presented John the Baptist and the other showed Jesus delivering parables.  I was pleased to see that in both videos John and Jesus were portrayed by dark-skinned, dark-haired and brown-eyed men.  My grandsons actually enjoyed the Galilee village and had several questions as we walked through.

The third and final exhibition on the World of the Bible floor is “The New Testament,” which is about the early followers of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament via an animated film.  The narrator was an old man in a robe writing in a cave; I thought he was St. Jerome, but it turned out to be John of Patmos, who was equated with the John of the Fourth Gospel, who in turn is equated with the Beloved Disciple.  Many New Testament scholars would of course call these identifications into question.  A great deal of emphasis was placed on Paul and his conversion and his subsequent missionary journeys.  Once again, the narrative of the New Testament was presented without comment; there was no hint of any disunion in the early church, or any discussion of, for example, the genuine letters of Paul.  One thing that struck me was that the role of women in the earliest Christian movement was emphasized more than I expected.  Mary Magdalene was presented as the first witness to the resurrection and a major apostle and women were given credit as church founders and leaders.

At the end of these three exhibits I walked away with the following observations:  If you were a biblical literalist, there was nothing in these exhibits that would make you uncomfortable; your biases would remain unchallenged.  However, as a biblical scholar and a liberal Christian I found nothing offensive, although I disagreed with certain assumptions and was struck by what the Museum chose to emphasize.  If you had no biblical background, like one of my grandsons, you would learn something about the biblical narrative, although many blanks would need to be filled in.

After this our group split up, since we were running out of time.  Dan and I opted for the fourth floor, which presents the Bible as a written document, while my grandsons went to the second floor, which emphasizes the Bible’s influence on history, in particular U.S. history.  Our floor began with a brief exhibit on “pre-biblical times” writing, aka Akkadian.  There were very few actual artifacts on display, and they were carefully labelled as on loan from other collections.  There were several displays comparing ancient Mesopotamian narratives with the biblical narrative; for example, l the Atrahasis narrative was presented side-by-side with the Genesis flood story for readers to compare, but without any truth claim about Genesis.  Next was a video on archaeology, which purported to show how archaeological finds can support the biblical narrative.  This video was revealing for what it did not say more than for what it did say.  For example, the narrator went to Jericho and explained that Jericho was an ancient city that had been in existence since Neolithic times, and he walked around on (one set of) walls.  However, the Joshua narrative was not mentioned, and therefore the narrator did not have to admit that Jericho was in ruins at the supposed time of Joshua.  A great deal was made of the destruction of Lachish and how it supports the narrative of 2 Kings and Isaiah, and Eilat Mazar’s excavations in Jerusalem, with her conclusions about the remains from the time of David and Solomon, were featured.  The bias here was quite evident; nothing whatsoever was said about ways in which archaeology does not support the biblical narrative or scholars who dispute the existence of ancient Israel.

Finally, we were in the actual manuscript display.  The Green Collection Dead Sea Scroll fragments were displayed, with a careful label that stated that some scholars disputed their authenticity.  As we moved into the papyrus section, the collection grew; the Museum has acquired, through the efforts of Steve Green and his employees, Oxyrhyncus papyri, Bodmer papyri, and other individual papyrus manuscripts.  They have also obtained early Christian codices, although the earliest was labelled as from the fifth century CE.  There were also a fair number of facsimiles scattered in the displays.  All of the displays were carefully labelled and nicely displayed.  A panel explained what the Oxyrhyncus papyri are and where they were found.  After that the collection opened up and the acquisitions were clearly much more extensive.  There was a large display of antique Torah scrolls; a sampling of Christian codices, and a large number of medieval illuminated manuscripts.  There were explanatory panels that described how different Christian communities counted different books among their Bibles.  The next major section was on translation, with much emphasis on Latin and a special display on the King James version.  However, there were Bibles in many different languages, so while English was made the central focus the activity of translation in general was illustrated.

At this point I had about 20 minutes left, so I opted for a “fly-through” look at the second floor exhibit on the Bible’s influence on the United States.  It began with Jamestown and the founding of the first Anglican Church, moved on to a more detailed discussion of the Puritans, went on to the influence of George Whitefield, and then reached the American Revolution.  This was another danger point, which I though the Museum handled fairly well.  It did not claim that the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) were “bible-believing Christians”; it did note that there were different levels of religious belief among them.  George Washington was portrayed as a church attender, while it was admitted that Franklin was not. Thomas Jefferson was described as a deist with an interest in the Bible (and his “Jefferson Bible” was described and shown in facsimile), and he was contrasted with John Adams, a Congregationalist who was biblically literate.  The bible’s use by both sides in the debate over slavery was portrayed, with appropriate quotations.  At this point I was really running out of time, so I briefly noted a copy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Women’s Bible and a display on Martin Luther King’s use of biblical quotations in his speeches. My grandsons, who spent more time on this floor than I did, were most impressed with the display on the invention of the printing press and its importance in the spread of bibles world-wide.  They of course had a Gutenburg Bible on display.

The book store was the final stop.  It contained the usual souvenir “stuff”- shirts, cups, pencils, pens, etc.  I was most interested in seeing what books it would stock.  There were many King James bibles for sale; the second most popular version was the NIV.  No surprises there.  However, they did have copies of the New American Bible, the New Revised Standard Version (surprise!), and a smattering of other translations.  The “scholarly” books were mostly study guides from Baker, Zondervan, etc., but there were a few genuinely academic books.

So what were my final impressions?  Basically, I did not walk away infuriated, which I was afraid would happen.  However, the Museum has several obvious biases.  First, basically “the Bible” they are presenting is the Protestant Christian Bible, although they do make nods to other versions.  Second, they are very careful not to call into question, except in the most mild ways, biblical literalism.  A conservative biblical literalist would walk away from the Museum quite happy.  On the other hand, they did not mention in any way the most controversial topics, such as homosexuality or the theory of evolution.  There was more emphasis on the role and importance of women than I expected. Thus, the museum is not pressing  a conservative social agenda; it sticks to its mission as a museum about the bible as a written text.  Third, the curators have been very careful to deal with their “antiquities problem”; there are no antiquities of uncertain provenance or any whiff of illegality displayed.  The exception is the Dead Sea Scroll fragments, and they are carefully labelled.  Fourth, most of the people attending the museum, at least on the day I was there, were the “already convinced.”  There were many church groups, several of whom were African-American.  These groups were there to learn more about their own bible, and in that quest the museum would be quite successful.  I don’t think it will attract many non-believers; it is, in essence, “preaching to the choir.”

Would I recommend it to friends and relatives?  Yes, but I would warn them of the Museum’s bias toward the Protestant Christian Bible, and instruct them to read the labels of the displays very carefully.  The Museum is not going away, and biblical scholars will need to engage with it in the future.  I feel that attempting a positive engagement, without compromising scholarly integrity, is the more positive path to take.


Posted by on 27 Jun 2018 in Modern Culture


4 responses to “Sidnie White Crawford’s ‘Visit to the Museum of the Bible’

  1. mhacleth

    27 Jun 2018 at 6:28 pm

    Thanks Jim!
    I’m giving this as an assigned reading for my Biblical Interpretation class.
    I miss you brother. See you next year in Tennessee. 🙂


  2. John Poirier

    28 Jun 2018 at 7:24 am

    It’s interesting that Crawford expected the MOTB to be as silly as the Creation Museum! Perhaps the reaction to the MOTB has been too one-sided.


  3. Gustavo Assis

    28 Jun 2018 at 1:06 pm

    Thank you for this well-balanced opinion about the MOTB. This is way better than Baden’s infuriating, sarcastic, and annoying comments on his Twitter account.


    • Jim

      28 Jun 2018 at 1:30 pm

      it’s the difference between objectivity and subjectivity.