Museum of the Bible: Part Museum, Part Holy Land Experience

Bible museum opens in Washington, DC

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The Museum of the Bible. Photo: Alan Karchmer.

Two blocks from the National Mall in Washington, DC sits the much-anticipated Museum of the Bible. The mission of the museum, which opens November 17, 2017, is to invite “all people to engage with the Bible through museum exhibits and scholarly pursuits.” The museum’s approach is nonsectarian; that is, according to Museum of the Bible vice president Steven Bickley, the museum is not affiliated with any religious denominations. Spanning 430,000 square feet over eight floors (two of which are below ground), the museum offers not only galleries that walk you through the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible, but also a Biblical garden, performing arts hall, restaurant, and more.

I began my tour of the museum’s exhibits on the fourth floor, the History of the Bible gallery. Here, the museum presents over 600 artifacts, from Dead Sea Scroll fragments to a Samaritan Torah scroll from the 12th century C.E. to a first edition of the King James Bible New Testament from 1611—one of only two known to still be in existence.

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The History of the Bible floor. Photo: Robin Ngo.

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Torah scrolls display. Photo: Robin Ngo.

The museum’s collection of Dead Sea Scroll fragments has attracted the attention of scholars concerned with the manuscripts’ authenticity. In 2016, scholars Emanuel Tov, Kipp Davis, and Robert Duke edited a volume presenting the 13 Dead Sea Scroll fragments in the museum collection as part of the Museum of the Bible Scholars Initiative. Kipp Davis actually believes that several of these fragments are fake. So what has the museum done about these problematic fragments? Some have gone on display, but, as promised by Dead Sea Scroll expert Lawrence Schiffman in a press conference last month, “Objects will be displayed with an explanation of the problem.” Indeed, the exhibit cases include an informational placard titled “Are these fragments real? Research continues.”

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A fragment in the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. Click on the image to read the placards. Photo: Robin Ngo.

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The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. Photo: Robin Ngo.

Leaving the fourth floor filled with display cases protecting artifacts, I entered the third floor, the Narrative of the Bible gallery, and stepped into spaces meant to transport me into the ancient Holy Land. The floor is comprised of three different areas dedicated to the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the World of Jesus of Nazareth.

Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.

The Hebrew Bible section is a fascinating 40-minute immersive walk-through experience that takes you from the story of creation in Genesis through Noah’s Flood, the Patriarchs, the Israelite enslavement in Egypt, the Exodus, the Judges of Israel, the story of Ruth, and finally the kingdoms of David and Solomon. Sophisticated special effects and creative art installations enchanted the senses and truly brought the Hebrew Bible stories to life.

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Inside Noah’s Ark in the Stories of the Bible: Hebrew Bible immersive experience. Photo: Robin Ngo.

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Exodus from Egypt and crossing the Red Sea. Photo: Robin Ngo.

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Interpretation of the events on Mount Sinai. Photo: Robin Ngo.

The World of Jesus of Nazareth is a 6,980-square-foot exhibit space recreating aspects of a first-century C.E. Jewish village and includes a village center, a house under constructions, a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath), a synagogue, and an olive mill. Ancient objects that would have been used in these contexts are displayed throughout these private and public spaces recreating daily life in the Holy Land.

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Dining in the World of Jesus of Nazareth. Photo: Robin Ngo.

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Jugs and oil lamps. Photo: Robin Ngo.

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Recreation of an ancient synagogue, including a copy of the Magdala Stone. Photo: Robin Ngo.

My final stop at the Museum of the Bible was the second floor, the Impact of the Bible gallery. This sprawling floor presents the influence that the Bible has had throughout the world as well as throughout the history of the United States, from the arrival of the first settlers through the Civil War era and to the present day.

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Impact of the Bible floor. Photo: Robin Ngo.

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Equality Before God: Liberty’s Struggle section. Photo: Robin Ngo.

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A display on slaves, wealth, and the Bible. Photo: Robin Ngo.

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Religious Freedom: A New Awakening section. Photo: Robin Ngo.

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Bible in the World section on the art and architecture of religious spaces. Photo: Robin Ngo.

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Mannequins on a runway wearing Biblically inspired designs. Photo: Robin Ngo.

The enormity of the Museum of the Bible—it would take you nine eight-hour days to see every artifact, read every placard, experience every activity—means that one visit is not enough to take in even a fraction of the museum. In the shadow of the Museum of the Bible, however, lingers controversy behind the museum’s acquisition practices as well as promises by museum leaders to be more transparent about its collection (a website with comprehensive information on its artifacts, including their origins and history of custody, is said to be forthcoming).

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The Museum of the Bible’s main entrance, featuring the Gutenberg Gates. Photo: Robin Ngo.

In a way, the Museum of the Bible will open as a work in progress: while all of its exhibition spaces and interactive rooms will be ready for visitors, museum leaders give the impression that the museum’s approach to displaying artifacts—especially problematic ones—is subject to change. This does not detract from the spectacular experience the visitor is bound to have—especially the nearly overwhelming experience of the grand entrance and the appreciation of the efforts of faithful scholars who over the centuries tirelessly produced the Biblical manuscripts in the History of the Bible exhibition. But the Museum of the Bible has also inadvertently yanked the debate over the ownership of history and the dark underbelly of the antiquities black market into the public realm, which will hopefully inspire visitors to pause and reflect on how “Biblical” artifacts are properly acquired, researched, and displayed.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Museum of the Bible in the Spotlight

Biblical History at What Cost? by Roberta Mazza
Hobby Lobby, the Museum of the Bible and the antiquities market

Dead Sea Scrolls History: Looking Back on the Last 75 Years
Martin Abegg, Peter Flint and Andrew Perrin reflect on the Dead Sea Scrolls’ history

Lawrence H. Schiffman on the Dead Sea Scrolls’ History

Sold to the Highest Bidder: Antiquities as Cash Cows
The case of the AIA-St. Louis Society and the Treasure of Harageh
 


 

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  • Kelly says

    Really Great!!! I want to visit!!! Thanks for this amazing collection and testament to The Bible, God’s Holy Word!!!

  • hijung says

    The creation of the Museum of the Bible is one of example that this nation is well stood and alive for freedom, and blessed for all and for the free world.
    Many thanks

  • Jared says

    Was ny consideration given the differences in translation (e.g., Masoretic vs. King James)? Particularly, passages in Isaiah.
    I would suspect most visitors cannot read the Hebrew or Greek and will rely upon English translations.

  • Joe says

    Having been through the Passages Exhibit, when it was here in Atlanta, I brought several friends who gained a better understanding of the complex process of how The Bible was passed down to us. If the MOB gives greater insight into the culture of the Bible and it’s impact on the world through time; then I think it will serve it’s purpose.

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