WASHINGTON, D.C. (Christian Examiner) – The Green Collection, one of the largest privately owned collections of Bible artifacts, will be taking up permanent residence in a 430,000 square foot museum in the heart of Washington, D.C. in spring 2017.
The 40,000-artifact collection of the Museum of the Bible, originated by the Green family, founders of Hobby Lobby, includes a papyrus bearing the oldest known text of Luke 8, one of the Dead Sea scrolls.
"The Bible has had a huge impact on our world today – from culture and politics, to social and moral justice, to literature, art and music, and more," said Steve Green, chairman of the board of the Museum of the Bible and president of Hobby Lobby, which won a Supreme Court case about providing contraceptives to its employees in June 2014.
"Our family has a passion for the Bible and we are excited to be part of a museum dedicated to sharing its impact, history and narrative with the world," Green said, according to McClatchy DC.
The $400 million project has not come without controversy, however.
In 2011, the Green Collection came to the attention of law enforcement when over 200 clay tablets were seized by U.S. Customs agents. The tablets were improperly described and their paperwork was incomplete, according to The Daily Beast.
The Green family began collecting artifacts in 2009, but they don't consider themselves collectors so much as storytellers who select biblical antiquities to tell the story of the Bible, the museum's website says.
The tablets were described on labels as "hand-crafted clay tiles" and valued at around $300, which does not accurately represent their historical and cultural value.
"There was a shipment and it had improper paperwork—incomplete paperwork that was attached to it," said Cary Summers, the Museum of the Bible president.
Since then, the Greens have been under investigation for "the illicit importation of cultural heritage from Iraq," the Daily Beast reports.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City-based privately owned crafts company said, "Hobby Lobby is cooperating with the investigation related to certain biblical artifacts. The Museum of the Bible is a separate not-for-profit entity made possible, in part, by the generous charitable contributions of the Green family."
"Our collection is of great historical and biblical significance and demonstrates the Bible's impact on every facet of life throughout the ages—including science, the arts, government, literature and languages," Green said.
While the Museum of the Bible maintains its purpose is educational rather than evangelical, some see the museum as an inappropriate form of proselytization.
Duke University religious studies scholar Carol Meyers suggested the goal of the Museum of the Bible might be difficult to achieve. "The Bible is not a perfect source of information," Meyers said, according to McClatchy. "There's a lot of story-telling. It can't be evaluated in a way that supports contemporary history."
The nonprofit Museum of the Bible will be located two blocks from the National Mall and three blocks from the Capitol. In addition to education, it facilitates research with its Green Scholars Initiative, which coordinates about 90 research projects from 60 institutions of learning.
Meyers said it is too early to know for sure, but she feels "there may be a subtle slant" in favor of an evangelical worldview. She is also concerned "whether all the artifacts are ones that are legal."
Among the highlights of the collection are ancient papyrus texts, Dead Sea Scroll fragments—some still being translated, medieval manuscripts, printed Bibles including first editions of the King James Bible, and Americana including a first edition of the Eliot Indian Bible, the first Bible printed in America.
The Museum of the Bible maintains it is secular in intention. "Washington D.C. is a great location for us to be able to share the story [of the Bible] with people all over the world," Green said.
About the illicit antiquities charge, Gary Vikan, the former director of the Walters Art Museum, said, "What's done is done. Now is the time to look toward the future, and to act," in a commentary appearing in RNS.
Vikan, who was concerned upon reading Green's statement that it was "possible" he had acquired Mesopotamian antiquities illegally by accident, said he thinks it likely that some of the antiques are illegal, fake, or worthless considering their amazingly fast acquisition. Yet he acknowledges the collection also possesses treasures that should be studied.
The entire collection should be inventoried and photographed by museum professionals, Vikan said. "Those photographs, along with as much of each object's dealership history as the Greens possess, should be posted online, not only for academics, but as a means for governments or individuals from whom some of them may have been looted or stolen to identify them and make appropriate property claims," Vikan urges.
Such transparency would "go a long way toward repairing the Greens' reputation as responsible stewards," Vikan adds, along with a willingness to repatriate any articles found to be illegally obtained.
Investigation into the provenance of artifacts in the Green Collection is ongoing.
"I really hope that they [museum visitors] will leave there with a spark in their heart and their soul," said Jackie Green. "They'll want to know more and learn more and come back, whether they're young or old, people of faith, all ethnicities—that it will just spark something in their heart."