‘Bible Nation’

Scott McLemee reviews Bible Nation by Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden, which chronicles the founding and development of the new Museum of the Bible in Washington.

December 1, 2017
 
 

Even in a year when shame went AWOL from public life, Alabama state auditor Jim Ziegler merits special recognition for his defense of the great interest senatorial candidate Roy Moore takes in very young women (barely legal and otherwise): “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

As rationalizations for bad behavior go, this shows ambition, with the added fillip of seeming in accord with what Moore’s supporters like to call his “biblical worldview.” The man is known for his piety; he has made a career of it. His understanding of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state amounts to a certainty that the Founding Fathers were godly men and couldn’t have been too serious about it. (A whole new approach to constitutional interpretation beckons: originalist irony.) And for a significant share of the Alabama electorate, it scarcely matters if Moore used his position as district attorney to dazzle junior-high girls. If he did, there must have been biblical grounds for it.

Still … Joseph and Mary? As the veteran of many a vacation Bible school in my fundamentalist youth, I’d hold up pretty well against most of Moore’s supporters in one of those high-speed Scripture-location competitions we used to hold, but to the best of my recollection, none of the gospels reference Joseph hanging around the Galilee Galleria looking for dates. Mary’s virginity is a major element of the narratives attributed to Matthew and Luke (Mark and John skip this part of the backstory entirely) with Matthew underscoring the point’s importance as fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. For that matter, Ziegler would be hard-pressed to locate the verse indicating that Mary was a teenager. There isn’t one. However dubious the notion of a unitary “biblical worldview” may be, it ought to compel from its advocates a certain minimum of biblical literacy.

Evidently not. Whatever the outcome of the Alabama race, believers in the literal, historical, obedience-compelling truth of the Bible now have a landmark presence in Washington, where the Museum of the Bible opened its doors downtown on the weekend before Thanksgiving. I have not visited it yet but expect to do so soon, and in the meantime, I have been reading Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden’s Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton University Press), a book about the museum that is unlikely to be featured in its gift shop.

The authors are, respectively, professors of theology at the University of Birmingham and of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. In early 2016 they published a feature article in The Atlantic bringing word of the planned museum to a wider public than the project had received until then. By the first half of this decade, the Green family of Oklahoma City had quietly assembled an enormous collection of biblical manuscripts and artifacts. The Greens established and own Hobby Lobby, a very successful chain of arts-and-crafts stores -- also known for winning a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act's requirement that employers provide insurance coverage for contraception. The family has been generous in its support for evangelical Christian organizations and causes. In 2008, it bailed out Oral Roberts University, then plagued with scandals and prodigiously in debt, with a donation of $70 million.

Two years later, the Greens began accumulating biblical artifacts on a huge scale. They were building on a previous attempt to establish a Bible museum in Dallas (a project involving some colorful characters) but brought to the table a grander vision and considerably deeper pockets. The economic downturn had created a providential buyer's market by compelling cash-strapped institutions and collectors to sell off holdings. For a while, it sounds like, the Greens were just buying up antiquities by the metric ton and storing them in warehouses -- and meanwhile learning about such issues as provenance and forgery on a need-to-know basis.

Under the circumstances, the probability of stolen or fabricated goods ending up in the collection was roughly 100 percent. This summer, Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million for importing thousands of cuneiform tablets and other artifacts looted from Iraq. In The Atlantic, the authors reported that a Coptic New Testament fragment in the collection was first offered for sale on eBay by an untraceable vendor. In Bible Nation, they examine the documentation concerning its history now available and find it raising too many red flags to be taken as legitimate.

Nothing in the book impugns the Greens' motives; while donating their collection to the nonprofit museum has undeniable tax benefits, that is secondary to the real mission of celebrating the Bible and promoting the belief that it is historically accurate and literally true. The good faith of the effort is not in question. But "lacking among the members of the Green organization," the authors write, "is any sense of due diligence."

More problematic than that is the museum's claim to advance a nonsectarian and interpretation-free view of the book it memorializes. The orientation is evangelical Protestant and literalist from start to finish. Bible Nation's chapter on the Scholars Initiative -- described by the museum's website as its "academic research wing" -- makes clear that all scholarship conducted under the Greens’ auspices will both presuppose and conclude that one canon exists and that it has been transmitted, intact and unchanging, down through the centuries. A genuinely nonsectarian approach would point out that the original sequence of the Jewish scriptures was rearranged by the Christians, and that the Catholic and Orthodox churches accept a number of texts excluded from the Protestant canon.

The existence of an array of Scriptures accepted by Jewish and Christian sects later deemed heretical goes unacknowledged -- with the partial exception of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, treats them as confirming that Hebrew Scriptures have been preserved intact: "Let's spend 90 percent [of our time] on the 90 percent [of the scrolls that are consistent with modern Bibles] and realize that's incredible." The authors point out that the variants "include a very different book of Samuel from the traditional Hebrew text, a book of Jeremiah that is approximately one-eighth shorter than the traditional text and a number of Psalms that are not part of our Bible today."

Like the gnostic Scriptures presenting teachings by Jesus not found in the canonical gospels, these variants are excluded from the Museum of the Bible's purview. But the Dead Sea Scrolls do have a place, of sorts, in the museum's collection: it owns a number of scrolls that are said to have been discovered in recent years, though the circumstances are vague. Their authenticity seems questionable, but no doubt they are religiously correct.

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