David Trobisch, Th.D., collections director for Museum of the Bible. Photo courtesy of Museum of the Bible

David Trobisch lends Green family's Bible Museum a scholarly edge

David Trobisch, Th.D., collections director for Museum of the Bible. Photo courtesy of Museum of the Bible

David Trobisch, collections director for the Museum of the Bible. Photo courtesy of Museum of the Bible


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) In 2006, New Testament scholar David Trobisch abandoned such lofty outlets as Oxford Press and the Journal of Papyrology and Epigraphy for a more mainstream venue: Free Inquiry.

In that feisty secular humanist journal, Trobisch identified the likely editor of the New Testament as second-century Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna and suggested that Polycarp, not Luke, was responsible for the inclusion of the book of Acts.

Trobisch shared the magazine's cover billing with Christopher Hitchens and the atheist animal rights theorist Peter Singer.

None of this would be unusual -- serious New Testament scholars constantly probe its cloudy origins, wherever that leads -- if Trobisch were not now prominently employed by one of the most famously conservative Christian families in America.

The Green family of Oklahoma City -- the plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case -- financed the 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible set to open in 2017 just off the National Mall in Washington.

It will showcase biblical artifacts from the 40,000-piece Green collection, one of the largest in private hands. As director of the collection, Trobisch does not run the museum (its director is Cary Summers), but in addition to enlarging, curating and cataloging the trove, he participates in the crucial conversation about which items will go into the museum, and how.

A former Heidelberg University professor, Trobisch also acts as roving ambassador to the worlds of high academia and top-rate museums. His presence poses a conundrum to the Greens’ many critics: As believers that the Bible is God-given and inerrant, could the family -- and the museum that is their brainchild -- be more open to dispassionate scholarship than previously assumed?

The Museum of the Bible is located two blocks from the National Mall, at 300 D Street, SW. RNS map by Tiffany McCallen; Wikimedia Commons D.C. landmarks by Jarek Tuszynski, Ad Meskens, Diliff

The Museum of the Bible is two blocks from the National Mall, at 300 D St. SW. RNS map by Tiffany McCallen; Wikimedia Commons D.C. landmarks by Jarek Tuszynski, Ad Meskens, Diliff


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

A tall, gently spoken 56-year-old whose russet hair is now mostly gray, Trobisch splits his time between Germany, where his wife, son and two grandchildren live, and a home in Springfield, Mo. In the U.S. he considers himself part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a mainline denomination that allows gay clergy.

He is a cradle cosmopolitan who grew up speaking four languages in Cameroon, where his parents worked as Lutheran missionaries.

Trobisch eventually gravitated to New Testament criticism, the close study of ancient manuscripts for clues as to how the  27-book New Testament came together.

He met the Greens when he asked permission to look at their 850 ancient New Testament documents. Soon, he was advising the family on acquisitions (“My strategy was to buy fewer items but only the highest quality”). In February, he was hired as director.

Trobisch’s responsibilities extend beyond researching and caring for the collection. He recently revamped the content in the Greens’ 400- item Bible exhibition “Passages.” He also created one-off exhibits in places such as the Vatican, Jerusalem and (very quietly) Cuba. Next up? Philadelphia (in time for Pope Francis’ visit), Berlin, Beijing and Moscow.

One day in early April, Trobisch was alighting in New York after a three-week trip involving at least six countries on four continents, having discussed Green extension museums with professionals from Africa and Asia. He considered a Bible for sale in Istanbul, hired a curator in Germany and helped open the latest Passages in Santa Clarita, Calif.

The museum's burgeoning relationship with blue-chip institutions is partly attributable to Trobisch’s prestige and contact list. When several manuscripts — which had been deposited by the Bible Society at Cambridge University Library — were in danger of being auctioned, the Greens bought them and left them with Cambridge. There was no quid quo pro, but Cambridge owns the Codex Bezae, which Trobisch calls “the fourth most important manuscript of the New Testament.” The strengthened relationship increases the chances the Washington museum might someday show it.

Museum of the Bible Board Chairman Steve Green, with one of the more than 44,000 rare biblical texts and artifacts his family began collecting in 2009. Green has assembled a team of academics, designers, technology professionals and other experts to create a museum dedicated to a scholarly and engaging presentation of the impact, history and narrative of the Bible. The museum is scheduled to open in Washington D.C., in Fall 2017. Photo courtesy of Museum of the Bible *EDS: Embargoed until Tuesday Sept. 30 at 6:00 am.

Museum of the Bible Board Chairman Steve Green, with one of the more than 44,000 rare biblical texts and artifacts his family began collecting in 2009. Green has assembled a team of academics, designers, technology professionals and other experts to create a museum dedicated to a scholarly and engaging presentation of the impact, history and narrative of the Bible. The museum is scheduled to open in Washington, D.C., in 2017. Photo courtesy of Museum of the Bible 


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Trobisch might have expected some philosophical friction with the Greens, who famously turn to the Bible for everything, including business decisions. But he says Hobby Lobby chain president Steve Green is open to new scholarship.

“We agreed that if I say something about the Bible he disagrees with and I can show him the quote, he will concede. If I cannot support it by a quote, I will concede."

Green’s bedrock belief in God allows him some flexibility and even curiosity.

"He’s a Bible freak,” Trobisch said. “Like me.”

Trobisch disagrees with some in  “the media and my scholarly peers” that his employment by the museum represents a faceoff of “fundamentalism against sound scholarship.” Instead, he said, it constitutes “two parties standing at opposite ends of the Christian spectrum talking to each other and working together. This almost never happens in the U.S.”

Time will tell how that conversation will play out in the museum. Steve Green envisions the museum as “nonsectarian,” saying, “The Bible can speak for itself.”

Yet that phrase is tricky, since it assumes the existence of a master text and God’s power to achieve a potent reading. Trobisch calls it a “theological belief: It might be true, it might not be true. But that’s not what my team is concerned with.”

Were the museum to be revealed to be “some kind of missionary activity,” he said, “It would be an enormous disappointment. I could not identify or work for a museum that wanted to do that.”

But he foresees harmony. Recently he and other scholars met the museum designers in Washington and discussed such questions as the Bible’s use by the Founding Fathers, “who in public perception are treated as good Christians, but when you look closer, it doesn’t hold up.”

Ideally, he said, the museum would present a “story that is challenging, but that is not threatening, based on evidence we can show; and if we can’t show it, we keep quiet about it.”

For now he is clearly enjoying himself. “I spent 25 years in the university, where you manage poverty,” he said. “You have really good ideas, and no money to support them. When I reintroduce myself to my scholarly friends, I say, 'If someone asked you to do this job, would you want to do it?'”

YS/MG END VAN BIEMA

Comments

  1. This article is built around an offensive assumption – that conservative Christians like the Greens live in some walled off compound and never deal with people who disagree with their understanding of faith. Why not talk to Steve Green about this instead of relying on Trobisch’s take on Steve Green’s approach?

  2. “Steve Green envisions the museum as “nonsectarian,” saying, “The Bible can speak for itself.”

    THE BIBLE MUSEUM WILL BE A GREAT GIFT TO ATHEISM

    Why? Because it forces people to face the contents of the Bible.
    Nothing turns people against religion
    faster than the reading of the Bible.

    Religion has survived for so long because the Bible has not been read – even by many priests. It is a spectacularly ridiculous book.

    For some the discovery that Polycarp wrote and redacted huge chunks of the Bible from his own imagination will be a bell they will not be able to un-ring!
    It is like discovering that Gandalf is an invention of JRR Tolkein!

    Like all books, The Bible was written by men – in this case, particularly ancient and ignorant men who did not know where the sun went at night or why women had periods (which terrified them like nothing else) or why people died for completely random reasons.

  3. DUMB BIBLE:

    Rape is blamed on the victim – not the rapist
    The Earth is a flat disc-like shape with pillars holding up the sky
    The Earth is 6000 years old
    Donkeys talk

    Bats are a kind of bird

    Snakes talk

    Shaving deserves death
    Rainbows did not happen until Noah
    Eating Lobster is worthy of death
    Wearing some fabrics is worthy of death

    The mustard seed is the smallest (it isn’t)
    People can live inside of fish without air
    Men must cut off wive’s hands

    Non-jews are dogs


    People must execute God’s enemies

    People must hate themselves first
    
People must hate their parents

    Parents must kill unruly children
 (even Jesus says this)
    The laws of Moses must be followed and
    
The laws of Moses MUST NOT be followed

    Pray in public – show faith! (says Jesus!)
    
NEVER pray in public – NEVER show faith! (says Jesus!)

    It is all nonsense.
    And everyone knows it the minute they read it.

  4. Its an assumption borne largely from the actions and rhetoric of fundamentalist Christians themselves. They are notorious for claiming sects who disagree with their views as not being Christian. They tend to encourage harsh measures against dissent from within. They are notorious for showing disrespect and animosity to other faiths. The constant scurrilous libel/slander leveled against atheists being one of the more obvious. It may be an offensive assumption to you, but it is one brought upon by a long history of showing no regard for ideas besides their own.

    I see this as a way of neutering inevitable and warranted criticism against Green that he is presenting the Bible purely according to his sectarian views.

  5. Atheist Max, if this is what you get when you read the Bible, you don’t know how to read it. It’s not a book to be read outside of the genres it represents. I actually have the opposite view from you. If one reads the New Testament carefully there is no way an encounter with the living Christ isn’t inevitable.

  6. Janet,

    “…if this is what you get when you read the Bible, you don’t know how to read it.”

    Then how do you read it ‘without’ coming in contact with Max’s quotes?

    And what should anyone think when they read that stuff?

    Though I think some of Max’s quotes have explanations, many others are stand-alone and present exactly what they say.

    I’m glad that Paul wrote —

    The Kingdom of God is not in ‘word’ (scripture verses), but ‘power’ (Spirit of God in us)……it’s not food and drink but ‘righteousness’ (good works and deeds) and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit….1 Cor 4:20 plus Rom 14:17

    That simply reveals that there are far more important things in our faith life than holy texts with weird comments.

  7. The sectarianism appears to be yours, Mr Bigot!

  8. Steve Green is absolutely brilliant. The Bible does speak for itself and truth needs little defense (especially against nonsense and pettiness). I have read Trobisch and like what he wrote on how the cannon of the New Testament was formed. Didn’t offend my near-fundamentalism much at all and thought he was probably close to a correct reconstruction of the history. I can’t wait to go to the Bible Museum! I love the Word of God and get excited over the history of its translation into English and I marvel at how it has driven back much false religion and sparked faith that is not afraid to be challenged.

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