Museum of the Bible (Reviewed)

My wife and I had the privilege of enjoying one of Washington D.C.’s newest museums: Museum of the Bible. Our one-day visit lasted for just over 4 hours. Of course, we did not see and do everything (the museum is massive), and we focused on some areas more than others. Yet, my overall takeaway stands: I highly recommend visiting this Museum when you are in the D.C. area.

On the museum website, it says:

Museum of the Bible will provide guests with an immersive and personalized experience as they explore the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.

This description aptly describes what you can expect. Not every facet is covered or every viewpoint expressed, but there is at least something of interest for anyone who thinks the Bible is important.

The Road We Traveled

We visited exhibits in the following order:

  1. First floor* – The Vatican library and museum
  2. Fifth floor* – Ecclesiastes and the Gospels through art; Israel antiquities authority
  3. Fourth floor – The History of the Bible and its texts
  4. Third floor – The Stories of the Bible
  5. Second floor – The Impact of the Bible
  6. Basement* – Stations of the Cross in Bronze art
  7. Gift shop – Some cool stuff, some really expensive stuff!

*Indicates that the exhibit is not permanent. The museum contains long term, short term, and permanent exhibits. When planning a trip, it would be best to check the website first to find out what exhibits are currently running.

A Brief Overview: The Best and the Worst

I enjoyed the fourth floor the most. The History of the Bible and its texts takes you through a plethora of time periods, textual information, artifacts, and people that I find fascinating. If you have done any learning on the text of the New Testament and textual criticism, you will love this floor. (This 90-minute presentation provides some helpful background information.)

The second floor on the Impact of the Bible takes second place. If you are interested in U.S. History and the American colonies, you will like this. They even have Grover Cleveland’s Bible on display! (He’s one of my favorite President’s; see this for why). Also, this floor contains a nice section on the Bible and science and the Bible throughout in the World.

The Gospels through contemporary art came in last place in my book. Admittedly, I am no fan of modern art, and this partially stems from ignorance about it. So, if you are someone intrigued by contemporary art, you may enjoy this. I did not.

The Museum is free, though a $15 donation per person is suggested. I have no review of the food, but if you planned to do a full day there, they have lunch on the top floor.

Also, note that there is no escape except through the gift shop! In fact, as they announced the closing of the exhibits at almost 5:00, we were afraid that we missed the gift shop. To our chagrin, they showed no intention of closing the gift shop early. They do have a lot of cool items for purchase, but we did not buy anything.

Below, I provide details about the exhibits we observed.

The Vatican Museum and Library

At this first exhibit on the first floor, I learned how to distinguish replicas from authentic originals (thanks to my wife Christine!). The description of a replica includes the word facsimile, an English word for exact copy. Throughout the museum you will find facsimiles intermingled with original artifacts. While there were interesting paintings in this exhibit, my attention was drawn to the highly impressive texts.

Codex Vaticanus, an early compilation of the books of the New Testament and many of the Old was on display in impressive fashion. Hearing about this codex before, I pictured something like an oversized book. Little did I know some of these codices are massive, much larger than one would expect, incredibly impressive specimens prior to the printing press.

Some smaller, illuminated Bibles from the medieval period stood out in this display. Illumination refers to how the text would be highlighted with gold coloring to make it shine. These bibles included pictures on the pages to assist with story telling. These creations dazzle the mind when one realizes they were all made prior to the printing press.

While some are quick to label the medieval period the “dark ages,” these illuminated Bibles show forth some light and show how important these texts were to the Catholic Christians of the time.

Out time spent here ~15 minutes

The Gospels through Contemporary & Art Ecclesiastes through Art

The contemporary art did not capture my interest at all. We gave it a chance, my wife more so than I, but I did not find it interesting. They include captions and information about the artists to explain some of the meaning of the art and how it was created. Just not my cup of tea. Others might find this fascinating.

Ecclesiastes through art held my attention. As this is one of my favorite books of the Bible, I enjoyed reliving it through the quotes on the wall and corresponding paintings. The “early modern art” in the exhibit includes material from the 17th and 18th centuries (maybe others too). My only gripe was that they left out the great ending in Ecclesiastes 12; there was no art assigned to the author’s final thoughts.

Next on this floor, the Israel Antiquities authority presented a lot of interesting artifacts from ancient Israel and the second temple period. My wife and I spent a good portion of this exhibit trying to clarify the first temple period vs. the second temple period and who inaugurated each one and when they started. Eventually, we figured it out.

In short, King Solomon built the first temple. The Assyrians destroyed the temple in 586 BC. The Jews rebuilt the temple around 530 BC (the second temple). Roman ruler Herod the Great oversaw a colossal expansion of the second temple around 30 BC. However, this did not constitute a new temple (as one part of the museum misleadingly implied), but rather an enhancement of the second temple.

In one of the most significant events in antiquity, the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD, and it would never be rebuilt. This exhibit displays an authentic stone artifact from the destruction of the second temple, and you are permitted to touch it!

The exhibit also includes many ancient artifacts and information about the customs of Canaanites and ancient Jews. Christian opponents might lament over the museum’s omission of Israel’s command from God to wipe out the Canaanites. While this topic often arises in Christian apologetics, and different Christians take different approaches to the issue, the texts of the Old Testament were not the focus of this exhibit. Rather, artifacts presented from each culture to tell a story of when they were, where they were, and who they were.

Out total time spend here ~1 hour

The History of the Bible and its Texts

My favorite floor as I am quite interested in the subject of textual criticism and the history of the text of the Bible. You might appreciate this floor even more if you had some background information on the texts (if you watched this 90 minute presentation for example).

The exhibit is simply massive. You may want to schedule a break before or after it if you plan to read most of the material presented. They include facsimiles or originals for tons of important early New Testament manuscripts. They present a helpful walkthrough of the timeline of Judaism from the creation story up until the time of Christ.

I felt the Gospel of Mary received undue attention in the New Testament manuscripts section. I do not object to it being included. Rather, the way it was included alongside other manuscripts of similar dates gives the faulty impression of its authenticity. However, the Gospel of Mary fragment is a late, gnostic document written in the second century, which has no connection to the real Mary’s of the Gospels. For a quick overview of that evidence, see this article.

It’s truly amazing how scribes neatly copied and beautifully preserved the texts of Scripture prior to the printing press. On this floor, one also finds useful information about the printing press and the Protestant reformers. Luther gets the bulk of the airtime. As a Catholic, I found this section well done and factual, though I think Calvin should have been given more of a showing.

The last portion of the exhibit explains more technicalities of textual criticism, showing the textual roots of the King James Bible (the “textus receptus”) and its historical roots. I took a picture (see below) of the Nestle Aland 28, a critical edition of the New Testament used to inform modern translations. This is not an old artifact; seminary students can buy their own at Amazon. Overall, I loved this floor.

Our total time spent here ~1 hour and 15 minutes

The Stories of the Bible

The third floor contains the World of Jesus of Nazareth exhibit as well as two theaters on this floor. The New Testament theater was closed, and we opted to skip the Old Testament theater. Check out the Museum website for information about these.

The World of Jesus of Nazareth is a cool place. Literally, the temperature fell a little as we entered. It contained information about the homes, the workplaces, the baths, and other customs of the Jews of Jesus’ time. It’s an awesome place to take kids if you bring your family to the museum.

They have live actors portraying Jewish elders and Jesus himself. We sat down for a short presentation by an actor portraying an elder in a synagogue. He briefly outlined their worship service, and invited us to recite the shema along with him. Some might find this awkward, especially if you’re not religious. I found it cool.

Our total time spend here ~30 minutes

The Impact of the Bible

Tons of great information spans this exhibit. The Bible impacted different American colonies in different ways. From the Puritans, to the Quakers, to Catholics and more, you find some great artifacts and explanation in this portion of the exhibit.

Catholics who settled in Maryland get recognized in this section, and it is also noted that some colonies forbid Catholic worship. You get a nice look at the different American colonies, which Bibles they used, and the key players of the first Great Awakening. Jefferson’s Bible and Benjamin Franklin’s skepticism also receive attention.

I appreciated the section on the Bible and Science, which expresses concord not conflict. If you think you can’t believe in God and also believe in the scientific method, see this post. Alvin Plantinga has a book length treatment on the subject of science and Christianity; he, too, argues for concord over conflict.  The picture below features a famous quote from Kepler in this vein.

Our total time spend here ~45 minutes

Stations of the Cross (Bronze Art)

This brought a reflective close to our day in the museum. While we have the stations of the cross at our home parish, these brass sculptures had a unique and interesting feel. The museum writers note how Benedict XVI and JPII carried around a brass cross sculpture made by the same artist who designed these stations. Reflecting on the passion and death of our Lord and Savior ended a great day in the museum.

Our total time spend here ~25 minutes

Conclusion (and One Omission)

 If you’re looking for an overly critical approach to the Bible, which serves to criticize and undermine it at every turn, this is not the museum for you. But if you are Catholic or Presbyterian or Baptist or Anglican or some other version of Christianity, you will enjoy the Museum.

The one group that gets the short end of the stick is the Eastern Orthodox. I did not see them specifically mentioned, though it’s possible I missed it. They are not mentioned. However, Eastern Orthodox believers will have much to interest them in the artifacts and texts presented from the early Church. A few more of their saints could have been included.

 Regardless, I highly recommend this as a day well spend if you’re in the D.C. area in the future. After your visit, come back and leave a comment. What did you think of Museum of the Bible?

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