Last week, the Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, D.C. When the museum was first conceived, it was intended to “inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible,” according to documents filed in 2010. But then, scholarship and dialogue intervened. The original vision of Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby and an outspoken conservative evangelical, gave ground to the reality that “the” Bible—a single, clear, definitive text—is a myth.
“There is no such thing as the Bible,” David Trobisch, the museum’s director of collections, said matter-of-factly last week as he sat next to Green at a press lunch organized by the Faith Angle Forum. With Trobisch and other scholars guiding the process, the Museum of the Bible became a real museum, exploring the messy history and shifting contents of the Judeo-Christian canon.
Green’s reputation as a conservative crusader has aroused skepticism of the museum. Critics portray the 430,000-square-foot building, just a few blocks from the Capitol, as a propaganda showcase. But what I found was a surprising degree of frankness, even agnosticism. If you want the cartoon Bible, eternal and infallible, you can find it in quotes from Scripture on purple banners along the walls. “Every word of God is pure,” says one. “The law of the Lord is perfect,” says another. “The Word of our God stands forever,” says a third. But start poking around in the exhibits, and things get interesting. Many Bible stories, you soon learn, aren’t original. The flood, for instance, echoes Babylonian tales. “In each version, a growing population upsets a god,” a plaque explains dryly. “A single hero listens to the supreme being, builds a boat before a catastrophic flood, and then sends out birds.”