Biblical Museum

The Museum of the Bible has never successfully steered itself away from controversy.  Just a couple weeks back a story on NPR reported that federal authorities have determined that one of the MOB’s tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh is a stolen artifact and it must go back to Iraq.  While I don’t question the decision, I was a bit surprised that the Feds knew or cared anything about cuneiform documents.  My academic specialization was Ugaritic, which is a language that was written in cuneiform.  I quickly learned after my doctorate that no jobs exist for Ugaritologists, so you have to style yourself as a biblical scholar.  The Museum of the Bible seems quite aware of the connection, but don’t go there looking for tablets.  They belong elsewhere.

There is a public fascination with cuneiform, it seems.  That doesn’t translate into jobs for those who know how to read wedge-writing since universities have become places of business.  Their product—what they sell—is called “education” but in reality it is accreditation.  Anyone who’s really driven can get a fairly decent bit of knowledge from the internet, if it’s used wisely.  The most reputable sources are behind pay walls of course.  What kind of civilization would give away knowledge for free?  Anything can be commodified, even the knack for reading dead languages.  One of the perks you pick up by studying this stuff officially is that artifacts really belong where they were found.  Unprovenanced pieces are now routinely ignored by specialists because they’re so easily faked.  That doesn’t stop those who can afford to from buying them.  Right, Mr. Green?  You’ve got to beware of the seller, though.

A few years back many of us watched with horror as extremists destroyed ancient artifacts kept in Syria’s museums.  These were objects we’d spent years of our lives studying, and which cannot be replaced.  They were “at home” where they belonged, but where some, at least, clearly didn’t appreciate them.  Those of us who’ve studied ancient history recognized such behavior, I’m afraid.  We’d read about it in documents as ancient as the artifacts being sledgehammered right there on the internet.  Or you can buy such documents illegally sold and put them in a museum dedicated to a book that says somewhere that “thou shalt not bear false witness.”  Such are the ironies of history.  But then, as its provenance shows, that sentiment is apparently a museum piece as well.

Photo credit: Chaos, via Wikimedia Commons

Finding Fakes

The Museum of the Bible has been a source of controversy since well before it even opened.  Many people don’t understand what biblical scholars actually do, and this leads to misunderstandings and not infrequent accusations.  Turning no basic critical thinking skills toward a museum intended to champion certain social causes (claimed to be “biblical”), those who support it can’t understand why a “biblical” scholar would object.  What do biblical scholars do all day, anyway?  We’ll come back to that in a moment.  The reason I’m writing about the Museum of the Bible in the middle of a pandemic is an article on National Geographic’s website, “‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ at the Museum of the Bible are all forgeries,” by Michael Greshko.  The Dead Sea Scrolls have captured the public imagination for decades now.  Having seen the collection at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, I know it can be an awe-inducing experience.  One thing biblical scholars do is ask questions.

Artifacts are becoming increasingly easy to fake.  Some biblical scholars were fooled by these fake Dead Sea Scroll fragments.  Now, my own specialization was Ugaritic.  Ugaritic is a cuneiform language with clay tablets as the substrate.  One of the things that you learn from looking at a specialized body of material closely and for a long time is how they were written.  Some of the Ugaritic tablets have writing along the edges, like marginal scrawls.  Some are written with large characters in a clumsy hand, while others are clearly done by a professional.  With some practice you can learn to recognize handwriting even in cuneiform.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, mostly written on vellum or leather, are similar: specialists know just how they were written and close examination can reveal if they were made in antiquity or simply made to look antique.

Biblical scholars often get accused of taking the life out of things.  Would it be better to believe in something that is exposed as a fake?  Not exactly debunkers, scholars are those who ask pointed questions of unstated assumptions.  If some antiquities dealer claims to have access to material kept out of official hands, and is willing to charge you a lot for it, it’s best to call in the skeptics.  It works the same in most fields that keep our society going.  We need to trust those who’ve studied a subject in depth for many years.  Devoted their lives to it, in fact.  Many museum items around the world are forgeries and fakes.  It’s not too often, though, that someone specializing in really old stuff gets called in to make an evaluation.  There’s a risk involved—the risk of learning the truth.

Museum Piece

So the Museum of the Bible is now open in Washington, DC. It actually opened while a quorum or more of biblical scholars were busy making their way to Boston for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Many of the guild realize that the museum’s a conservative, evangelical venture, but it brings some attention to the beleaguered field and so it’s strangely welcome. This shows itself in the rather surprising names on museum publications. Renowned scholars don’t seem to think through the implications of supporting such places with the star appeal of their names. Indeed, many in the professorate are starved for attention—I’m not judging; I implicate myself even by making such a suggestion. When such an institution opens, it validates those it implicitly condemns.

A Bible museum?

Scholars can be woefully naive. Visiting places such as the Museum of the Bible, or the Creation Museum, or the Ark Encounter, pumps money into the already very well-funded Christian right. Such believers are extremely political and seek to get candidates like Trump elected. By slaking our puerile curiosity, we’re funding those who’d have us stripped of our very freedom to believe as we do. The paper trail’s there for any who wish to follow it. Supporting such ventures in any way will lead to headaches in the future. Sure, I’d love to see dioramas of dinosaurs on the ark so that I could feel superior for a little while. There’s a price for such vanity, however, and that price is the loss of freedom itself. We see it at work in our government at this very moment.

Museums are places for artifacts that are outdated. This is an ironic statement to make concerning the Bible. Especially by those who believe it is the final word. Why put that word into a museum? The irony’s worth it if enough paying customers arrive. Scholars meanwhile try to find ways to analyze this. Articles and books are appearing, stating what we already essentially know. The Green family, motivated to repressive political action because of their Bible belief, have spent money to build an elaborate museum, money that could’ve been used to help the poor. The book that appears in that museum suggests that the poor should be our concern. And although it actually does say that idols shouldn’t be worshiped, it has the great potential to become one itself. All you have to do is pay the admission price to find out.