A larger than life entrance greets visitors at the new Museum of the Bible in Washington — dramatic 12-meter-tall doors containing text from Genesis 1, the biblical creation of the world.
The gateway allows entry to all things about the Bible, spanning several floors in the large building, which is located near the National Mall, Smithsonian museums and the U.S. Capitol. Not surprisingly there is a section filled with Bibles, many of them replicas of Bibles the museum was unable to obtain, and various versions from over the centuries that have been adopted by varying religious groups.
WATCH: New, Controversial Bible Museum Opens in Washington
Executive Director Tony Zeiss said the Bible is significant because “it helps people navigate through life,” and he would like people “to commit to being more engaged in this amazing book.”
The Bible is the world’s best-selling book, and the $500 million, privately funded museum has displays ranging from pro- and anti-slavery themes found in the holy book, to Hebrew texts, and even biblically themed contemporary women’s fashions.
What’s missing, some people say, is that there is not enough of the star of the New Testament, Jesus.
Zeiss said the museum is nonsectarian, and more than 100 scholars, who represent a variety of views, designed the exhibits, which also include $42 million in state-of-the-art interactive displays for education and entertainment — even in the elevators.
You can also stroll through a serene recreation of Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up, amid hand-painted trees and the sound of chirping birds.
“It’s meant to create a setting where when you walk in, you feel like you’re in a different place that you would find 2,000 years ago,” said Seth Pollinger, the museum’s director of content.
Family behind museum
The museum was founded by Steve Green, a member of the conservative evangelical family that owns Hobby Lobby, the world’s largest privately owned arts and crafts retailer. In 2014, Hobby Lobby won a Supreme Court case, concerning religious objections, to deny workers at family-owned corporations contraception coverage.
“It would be hard for us as a family to try to hide what we believe,” Green said. “We believe this book is what it claims to be, but our role here is to present the facts of the Bible more in a journalistic look.”
“As much as they want to stay neutral and objective on the Bible, it’s going to be very, very hard to present the Bible in that way,” said John Fea, a liberal evangelical who chairs the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. The Bible is “connected to a particular religious tradition and their way of interpreting it,” he added.
Jacques Berlinerbrau, who is Jewish and director of the Jewish Civilization program at Georgetown University, agrees.
“It is really problematic to ever say that one has a nonsectarian view of the Holy Scriptures,” he said.
Berlinerbrau also thinks the museum has an agenda.
“The idea that the museum doesn’t have any intent to convert people to a particular reading of God, of Jesus Christ, of the Scripture is absurd,” he said.
And even though museum officials say the location had nothing to do with being near the seat of the U.S. government, Fea is not buying it.
“It’s hard to see this as anything than other an attempt to try to bring Christian values in the Bible’s teachings as understood by evangelical protestants, like the Greens, into the center of American political life and American cultural life,” Fea said.
Texts and artifacts
The museum contains impressive rare biblical texts and ancient artifacts, some on loan from outside the U.S.; others from the Greens’ massive collection of antiquities. Some antiquities were smuggled out of Iraq, and purchased, inadvertently, by the family, they said. The Greens forfeited the items and paid a $3 million fine.
Green told VOA the museum is willing to return artifacts to their home countries “if there’s any artifact that we have that they would have a claim.”
When Green was asked if he would like to see people who come to the museum become more Christian, he smiled and said, “We want them to know the Bible better.”