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A Jew In The Museum of the Bible

On Monday, January 8, 2018, my fiancé and I (both observant traditional Jews) visited the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. I was concerned about an overtly Evangelical and proselytizing bent, but the museum promises to be non-sectarian and welcomes all. I was also apprehensive of going after hearing rumors of careless sourcing of artifacts and the major donors behind the museum, including the Hobby Lobby. However, I figured if the Koch brothers were responsible for the Smithsonian’s amazing Hall of Human Origins and the nearly-complete major renovations to the Hall of Dinosaurs, perhaps the Evangelical lobby could produce responsible and factual material. Like the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the Museum of the Bible is free, with a suggested (but not strongly enforced) donation.

After booking way too many tickets for various days this week (since you can with free tickets), we were able to easily take the metro to L’Enfant Plaza and arrived a couple minutes later at an impressive brick building, with what I later realized were backward Latin letters (presumably for a Bible), ready to be pressed into more copies.

Upon entering, we were greeted with a Jerusalem stone lobby with super high-tech displays explaining each floor. We decided to start with the “History of the Bible” exhibit since starting at the beginning is a very good place to start. We entered the elevators and were greeted by a three panel, wall to wall display, of idyllic scenes of mountains in Israel.

Entering the “History of the Bible,” I saw a familiar narrative emerge. Comparisons to Ancient Near Eastern flood stories and dream stories, made way for Hammurabi’s Stele which I was thrilled to see. After some confusion, it appeared to be the original, on loan from Paris. The exhibit proceeded with discussion of the first extra-Biblical mention of Israel, the Merneptah Stele, and proceeded to feature recreations of other famous references to the House of Israel. I appreciated the common, but still fascinating graphic of the transformation of writing systems from pictograms to Aramaic Block Script.

I was quickly annoyed by looped audio of people reciting Biblical Hebrew, without explanation, of important Biblical passages, such as Friday night Kiddush and psalms being sung to traditional tunes. As someone familiar with the texts, it was initially just really annoying hearing the same five minute audio loop, but as I progressed through the exhibit, I realized how frustrating it was to have my religion turned into background music and the object of people’s entertainment. Perhaps had they left an explanation of the importance of the recited texts in Judaism it would have been more palatable, but this left a lingering bad taste in my mouth.

As soon as we left the safety of the beginning of the exhibit, the next major section featuring the birth of scripture was overwhelming and nearly impossible to navigate. A section featuring scripture and related texts in Greek was placed besides a section on the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the more noteworthy sections of the museums since it exhibited fragments that many scholars have deemed fake. The exhibit itself prominently displayed this. In the same section, there was an interesting comparison of different Bibles, e.g. Hebrew Bible v.s. Catholic New Testament v.s. Eastern Orthodox New Testament, etc., and a fun display showing the difference between a scroll and codex.

The rest of the History of the Bible exhibit was unsurprisingly dominated by Christian Bible and history. However, there were some bones thrown to the Jews. There was a cool scribal station where you could copy either Hebrew Bible or Latin vulgate in the style of the illuminists. There was a brief explanation, too brief in my opinion, of Mishnah, Talmud, and Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah. There was a display of countless Torah scrolls from all over the world sitting in a sort of scroll bookshelf that was not accessible. There was also a Torah scribe working on a scroll as a permanent part of the exhibit, which was both fascinating, but somewhat performative.

After the invention of the printing press, it felt like the exhibit became dominated by the Protestant and Evangelical narrative of the museum’s founders and major donors, emphasizing the importance of Bible in vernacular and displaying prominently how many languages the Bible (and while it is not specified, it is obvious this is their Bible, the Protestant Bible) has been translated into and how many are left. Perhaps most concerning, there was no mention of Islam or the Quran, which while not technically a Bible, shares many Biblical stories with the Hebrew and Christian bibles and participated in a similar exegetical tradition.

After the History of the Bible, we passed through the rest of the Museum in a blur. They had a really cool video/multimedia walking exhibit of the stories Hebrew Bible. The exhibit, narrated by a mysterious Israeli Sabah who turned out to be Ezra the Scribe, began with Genesis and the story of creation, Cain and Abel, but we were asked to stand and walk through the story of the flood and the rainbow afterwards. It continued on telling the Biblical narrative of the Exodus, revelation at Sinai, arrival in the promised land, the period of the Judges, the story of Ruth, and the Kings of Israel, ending with the Babylonian exile and return to Jerusalem. They supposedly had a similar exhibit for the New Testament, but it was out of order the day we visited. On the same floor, they had a very interesting Colonial Williamsburg/Disney World-esq living Nazareth at the time of Jesus, but it was strange having the Shema, the basic Jewish affirmation of faith, translated out loud and told to me by a non-Jew.

On another floor, there was a very good exhibit curated by the Israeli Antiquities Authority on Jerusalem and Judaea, interestingly the only exhibit we saw in the museum that mentioned Islam. There was also a small exhibit on the first floor with Jewish books from the mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam. There were plenty exhibits, such as the Biblical Heritage of Washington D.C. or an exhibit on the Stations of the Cross for which my fiancé and I simply did not have time. We had heard there were kosher options at the restaurant, cleverly-titled Manna, but it was not evident, so we bought a small snack (the only money we gave to the museum) from their similarly Biblically inspired café, Milk and Honey. We could not resist a quick peek through the gift shop, which felt like a strange combination of a Museum gift shop and a souvenir shop from Jerusalem and one from the Vatican, displaying Jewish and Christian religious tokens side by side.

If you are looking for to explore a new history museum near the Mall, the Museum of the Bible is a good addition to the Smithsonian’s countless museums. However, be forewarned that the Museum of the Bible mixes religion and history in a unique way. While many academics were consulted in the design of the museum, including Dead Scroll scholar Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, the museum has come under close scrutiny from many in the academic Religious Studies community, particularly for its artifacts of questionable provenance and legitimacy. Can you learn more about Judaism and Christianity from the museum? Certainly. Can you learn more about Jewish and Christian History from the museum? Yes, but be prepared to understand the bias of the museum.

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