Dan’s Trip to the Museum of the Bible

Below are notes Dan made following his trip to the Museum of the Bible. We talked about this trip in episode 47.

Photo credit: Dan Clanton

Notes on MotB Visit (17 April 2019)


  • The MotB–which opened in November 2017–is one of several museums or theme parks or exhibition spaces funded by evangelical Christian organizations for the purposes of disseminating specific narratives about Christianity, history, science, and the Bible.
  • Other examples include the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, and the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter in Kentucky.
  • One of the most important things to note about the MotB is that it’s owned and funded by the Green family, the folks who own Hobby Lobby. This is the family behind the 2014 Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., which upheld the rights of privately-owned companies to be exempt from otherwise generally applicable laws due to religious beliefs. This is also the family that in May 2018 had to pay a $3 million fine and return around 3,800 cultural and religious artifacts it unethically acquired to the Iraqi government.
  • Even though the press/publicity for MotB is careful to claim it’s “nonsectarian” in its approach, Candida Moss and Joel Baden have shown that label has a specific meaning, viz., it “is not a synonym for either ‘nonreligious’ or ‘open to all approaches.’ On the contrary, the nuances of the term imply both Christian and Protestant.” That is, these scholars claim that the MotB gives the impression that “the Bible does not need interpretation, commentary, or scholarly explanation,” which is a specifically Protestant view of the Bible.


My Visit (17 April 2019)

Photo credit: Dan Clanton
  • One of the most helpful ways to think about engaging a space like the MotB is to see it as an “interactive, experiential landscape,” as Stephen L. Young puts it.
  • My own experience was pretty intensive. I arrived at 10:00 AM, right when it opened, and took in 5 floors worth of exhibitions/artifacts in about 3 hours or so. There were a number of tour groups and students there, too, a bit surprising for a Wednesday.
  • For the sake of time, let me just talk about one specific exhibit: The World of Jesus of Nazareth, located on the 3rd floor, which is titled The Stories of the Bible.
  • The World of Jesus of Nazareth is a semi-immersive walking tour. As you enter you’re surrounded by real, large stone walls, and there are Bible verses etched into these walls (e.g., Luke 8.1: “Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God”). Overhead, one hears the sounds of bleating animals and soft harp music.
  • The entry opens wide into a village in Nazareth, with a large tree in front of you, bearing a plaque about wine and wine-making. To the right is a facsimile of a small dwelling with an AV presentations on “Teaching and Parables” (e.g., the Lost [aka Prodigal] Son in Luke 15.11-32). An adjoining room to the right of this is a display on “Flocks,” highlighting the image of Jesus as shepherd. To the left of the entry are more of these small rooms and large trees with more informative plaques (e.g., “Water”), and each room has a different topic. In the room labeled “Hospitality,” guests learn about “Daily Life at Home” courtesy of an actor playing a character from “Biblical Times” talking to children seated at a table stacked with food.
Photo credit: Dan Clanton
  • There’s an adjoining courtyard to this room where the kind “Biblical Times” lady explains “preserving water” and “bread.” Next to the courtyard, there’s a mikveh.
Photo credit: Dan Clanton
  • In the building next to the mikveh, one can enter a “synagogue,” and chat with an actor playing a character named Jeremiah, a “historical Jew.”
  • Jeremiah tells the visitors–several of whom take a seat on the stone stairs, like other “historical Jews” might have done–that lots of villages had synagogues like these, and that they served as schools, courts, and meeting places. He also claimed synagogues started to be built in Babylon after the first Temple was destroyed, but admits there’s no proof for the building of synagogues during this period. Jeremiah also explains the importance of the sacrificial system in Jewish worship, that it’s an atonement for sin that Jews made 3 times/year in the Temple.
Photo credit: Dan Clanton
  • As one moves on, there are more scenes from rural life, like an olive press and a wood-working room.
  • The exhibit ends on the left in a serene room filled with quiet ocean sounds, situating one on the banks of the Sea of Galilee (even though Nazareth is something like 30 km from the Sea of Galilee).
Photo credit: Dan Clanton
  • My sense was that the effect of this immersive experience is, obviously, to give a sense of participation, a heightened contextualization and historicity to one’s understanding of the Bible. There’s a clear emphasis on authenticity and realism in the exhibit.
  • My impressions fits nicely with Young’s focus on another section of the MotB, the 2nd floor exhibit titled The Impact of the Bible, which depicts “the Bible’s presence around you, often in unexpected places, hidden in plain sight,” and more specifically, “its significant impact on American culture.”
Photo credit: Dan Clanton
  • Young claims that the MotB “promotes the exceptionalism of the Bible in a way that makes normative influence of evangelical culture in the United States seem natural and desirable,” i.e., by “deploying the rhetoric of the impact of the Bible, the museum promotes the idea of the Bible as a catalyzing force for values, institutions, and societal changes encoded as positive–or progress–in the imaginations of visitors. But this biblical exceptionalism blends into a Christian interpretations of American exceptionalism. . . . a narrative about national origins that gives evangelical visitors a past that orients their posture toward the present.”