WASHINGTON (RNS) — With Scripture readings, a tribute to God and a sigh of relief, an international array of officials opened the Museum of the Bible in the nation’s capital.
“We want to just take a moment and stop and celebrate and rejoice that this dream is coming true,” said museum co-founder Steve Green, who exhaled audibly before speaking Friday (Nov. 17) to more than 400 people in the new museum’s World Stage Theater.
“This is a dream of millions all over the world that love this book, that use it as a guide for their life, and we just want to take some time and celebrate and dedicate this space to our God.”
Green, the president of the Hobby Lobby craft store business, and his family are the primary funders of the 430,000-square-foot building with views of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument.
Green capped a dedication ceremony that featured greetings read by Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl from Pope Francis and by Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The dignitaries concluded the festivities with a ribbon-cutting between the 40-foot brass Gutenberg Gates at the museum’s entrance.
The eight-story museum is set to open to the public on Saturday. Admission is free but donations are suggested.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., were among the supporters in the private gathering, where they were greeted by Navy Chief of Chaplains Margaret Kibben and Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of the Jewish Federations of North America and serenaded by Grammy-winning artist CeCe Winans singing “Amazing Grace.”
Located just two blocks from the National Mall, the museum joins august edifices celebrating the nation’s civic history as it displays floors on the impact, history and narrative of the Bible. Speakers from near and far applauded such a placement for such a museum.
“It is appropriate that in the nation’s capital, where we have soaring museums and monuments and where people visit us from around the world, that the Museum of the Bible would be built here,” said Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer noted that presidents who are memorialized in nearby monuments — Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln — all affirmed the Bible.
“I do not know if anyone here will be dancing or blowing a shofar but someone should,” Dermer said. “Because just as the Bible has been the most prized possession of the Jewish people, the Bible has always been cherished by the American people.”
Senate Chaplain Barry Black described the museum as a reward from God, and his own presence at its opening as a gift that follows other momentous occasions in his life, including greeting the pope at the Capitol and praying as the body of civil rights activist Rosa Parks lay in state there.
“It is a museum that celebrates the thing that I am most passionate about in my life because the Word of God has enabled me to live on the cutting edge,” he said.
The museum took three years and $500 million to build. Green, chairman of the museum’s board, recalled at media events earlier this week that Hobby Lobby purchased the first artifact for the museum, “The Rosebery Rolle” — a more-than-500-year-old manuscript containing a Middle English translation of the Psalms — in 2009.
Now, after establishing the nonprofit in 2010, Green leads a whole museum, with 1,600 items in its permanent collection, about three-quarters of which are Bibles and biblical manuscripts.
The “narrative” floor includes a 40-minute multimedia retelling of the Hebrew Bible and a 12-minute recounting of the New Testament. In one area of the “impact” floor, the original draft of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” lies under glass just steps away from a personal Bible of evangelist Billy Graham.
The “history” floor features small, puzzlelike fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls that contain a curator’s note that reads in part: “MOTB published the initial research on its scroll fragments in 2016, but scholarly opinions of their authenticity remain divided. Scientific analysis of the ink and handwriting on these pieces continues.”
Issues of authenticity — but also of acquisition — have swirled around the Greens.
Museum of the Bible officials have distanced themselves from a recent Hobby Lobby settlement in which it paid the Justice Department $3 million and returned 5,500 artifacts illegally imported from Iraq, saying the museum “was not a party to either the investigation or the settlement.”
Hobby Lobby craft stores, whose parent company won a Supreme Court victory that permitted it to refuse contraception coverage to its employees, have a marker made of Jerusalem stone in the center of a wall that recognizes the most generous gifts to the museum.
Their 2014 landmark case divided the country, and the court.
But the museum has also tried to avoid offending when possible.
Jesus is generally not portrayed physically, its content director Seth Pollinger said, “because it’s just not an issue that we want to solve or take a position on.” Likewise, it also has not addressed homosexuality: “The Bible often does not have clear answers for moral questions,” David Trobisch, director of collections, told reporters at a private luncheon earlier in the week.
Beyond the museum’s permanent collection are separate galleries, such as one featuring reproductions of frescoes of the Vatican Library and another presenting treasures from the Israel Antiquities Authority that include a touchable stone from the grounds of the Temple Mount. It is the authority’s only permanent exhibit outside Israel.
Green acknowledged to a small group of journalists at a Wednesday luncheon that, as an evangelical, he personally believes in the Bible but the “nonsectarian” approach of the museum leaves that decision up to each visitor.
“I would hope people would embrace the Bible — that would be my hope — but I leave it for them to decide,” he said at the private event sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Faith Angle Forum.
But as Green concluded his dedication ceremony remarks, he did not shy away from sharing his own embrace of the holy book, asking audience members if they had read their own Bibles already that day and encouraging them to download a free version if they had smartphones.
“Let it have an impact in your life as it has my life or our family’s life and so many people all over the world,” he said. “Because that’s ultimately what we want to do … hopefully motivate people to engage with this book to let it have an impact on their life.”