Philanthropist Steve Green compiles vast collections of biblical gems for public display


WASHINGTON — The crown jewels can't compete: a cuneiform tablet from thousands of years ago, a Dead Sea scroll featuring Genesis 32, a New Testament papyrus from the second century, an Ethiopian translation of the Bible from the Middle Ages, William Tyndale's 1526 translation of the New Testament, and more.

The Green Collection, one of the largest private collections of biblical manuscripts and artifacts in the world, premiered March 31 in a preview exhibit for a dazzled crowd of scholars, politicians and businesspeople at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C.

This is one of the rare instances of a family, the Greens of the Hobby Lobby retail empire, meticulously collecting a vast number of biblical manuscripts—about 30,000 items—and then making them available to the public.

The collection's first exhibit, called "Passages," will open at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art on May 16 and run through Oct. 16. The exhibit may appear at the Vatican itself later this year, and then in New York City for Christmas. Sometime in the next three to five years, the Greens plan to build a museum in one of three cities—Dallas, Washington, or New York—to permanently display the artifacts. The museum will be nonsectarian, to reach more than the Christian community.

"It's intended to be a very academically sound presentation," Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, said. "These are just the facts. You make your decision on what you choose to believe."

The Greens set up a board of scholars to analyze the works and will bring in other scholars as needed. So far, 30 universities are involved.

Green, 47, traveled to Israel, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and beyond to search out and buy the disparate manuscripts with the help of Scott Carroll, an expert in ancient and medieval documents. They pulled the massive collection together at a blinding speed: 17 months.

Green, raised Pentecostal, is Baptist now, and has poured millions of dollars into Oral Roberts University. He also recently bought land for a new college the C.S. Lewis Foundation expects to open in Massachusetts.

The Green family has funded numerous nonprofits and produced two films, "End of the Spear" and "Beyond the Gates of Splendor," about five missionaries killed in Ecuador. Around Christmas and Easter the company also runs ads about the gospel in newspapers nationwide. But this project is his passion—"love of the book," he said.

But Green said he doesn't want to collect biblical manuscripts like art enthusiasts would Picassos.

"The whole reason to collect them is to tell the story," Green said. "We have amassed a collection not to be put in a closet but to share the Word. We want a very broad reach."

The collection's debut at the Vatican Embassy made this an ecumenical celebration of Scripture, but also a provocative one given the Bible's central role in the schism between Catholic and Protestant. On display in the embassy was a Catholic indulgence from 1525, and alongside it the papal bulls from the 1520s condemning Martin Luther (Luther had condemned in kind, calling the pope the "anti-Christ"). Luther's translations of the Old and New Testaments lay beside the papal bulls. And across the room sat the Tyndale Bible, one of the first vernacular translations of Scripture—which helped spread Protestantism across Europe.

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