Monday, September 17, 2018

Alex Joffe on Why (Some) Academics Don’t Like the Museum of the Bible

Over at Mosaic, Alex Joffe writes this about some of the criticism of the Museum of the Bible:
For academics, [at] issue [is their] loss of public authority over the Bible. The intellectual monopolization of the Bible by academics in the post-World War II era coincided with the gradual collapse of biblical literacy in America, along with many mainline [Protestant] denominations. With this went an important part of the language of American identity, conversation, and consensus. The Bible in the public square was taken over by professors.

Inevitable or not, this was not healthy in social or political terms. Invocations of the Bible, religion, or God in politics today—[whether] earnest, banal, or grotesque—are condemned instantly. And yet this [habitual condemnation] cuts Americans off from not only a vernacular but from history; [for instance], the national, personal, and spiritual agony that Abraham Lincoln expressed in his second inaugural address is explicable only by reference to the Bible. . . .

Academics have hardly been faithful stewards of the Bible any more than of other forms of canonical knowledge; efforts to reclaim the Bible on the part of faith were also inevitable. If these also lead to more earnest engagement with the Bible as literature, tradition, and [a source of] morality on the part of academics and intellectuals, all the better. Unfortunately, I see the opposite occurring; [such] reclamation will be met with further academic criticism, which will only increase the distance between academia and society, heightening mutual suspicion and alienation, and setting up at least one side for a nasty surprise. . . .

The families and church groups visiting the Museum of the Bible are unlikely to be troubled by [issues of provenance] or converted to one denomination or another, but they might have elements of their faith, in the Bible and in America, reaffirmed. They are also likely to come away interested in Biblical history and archaeology. Many will go on to the Air and Space Museum for other sorts of reaffirmations, in technology and the human imagination, or to the National Gallery, filled with silent tributes to religious faith and to beauty itself. None of these is an unalloyed good, but that is the nature of museums. The good that one comes away with depends in part on what one goes in with.
On Twitter, Candida Moss says the reality is otherwise:
I’m not entirely sure there is an either-or here. Couldn’t the motive be both?

The element Joffe doesn’t mention here is personal animus toward the Greens, their Christian faith, or their win at the U.S. Supreme Court. Donna Yates, for example, wrote back in July 2017 that “I had fantasies during the Hobby Lobby birth control case of taking them [the Greens] down with antiquities and told everyone I knew ‘you know they are terrible antiquities collectors too…’ but that wasn’t the story at the time.” Or, here is Joel Baden saying he thinks historic Christian faith is morally bankrupt.
Baden has also said that he tells his students that “all good academic writing comes from a place of anger.”

It’s hard to believe that the MOTB gets a fair hearing from critics who feel this way. That doesn’t mean that all the criticisms themselves are unwarranted, of course. Bad motives can lead to good questions and the museum has had clear problems with provenance. But it’s not silly to wonder if some of the critics are motivated by more than issues of proper provenance.


  1. The Museum of the Bible / its founders have literally been found guilty of smuggling antiquities. Their "fair hearing" wasn't done by public academics but by a US federal court. (Some) academics often don't like groups that have been found guilty of antiquities smuggling. Any attempt to make it anything else is a result of a persecution complex.

    1. That would fall under “clear problems with provenance.” The issue is whether that’s the only problem some of the critics have. In Yates’s case, clearly not. In Baden’s case, maybe not. Absolutely none of that exonerates the museum for its faults. But the other question shouldn’t be dismissed as I see it, not least because the larger question is whether we want to see the museum improve and succeed or get worse and fail.

  2. ATF,
    Your response to this article is exactly the reason this article was written. (Some) academics like to pretend that nothing has changed at the MOTB since the federal court ruling as a pretense for their dislike of the Greens. Even when writing about the return of artifacts that were discovered to have been obtained illegally by others prior to their purchase by the MOTB, (some) academics had to spend more space lamenting the past then acknowledging the present.
    Diana Muir Appelbaum wrote a similar article, though much more detailed, back in January of 2018 in Mosiac.


    1. But let's also look at changes in addition to the return of some artifacts (most of which were only returned due to legal action and not voluntarily).

      Since opening, what changes, if any, has MOTB instituted due to to scholarly critiques? I'm having trouble thinking of any? Isn't this problematic? Does MOTB want to change? Does it want to get better?

      In all sincerity here, can anyone provide examples of changes they have made in response to scholarly critiques?

  3. Is there a bias from some critics of MOTB? That's a possibility but not necessarily the case. There are underlying motivations that go beyond evangelicalism and are in addition to provenance. As Moss notes, MOTB also misinforms about the bible, and I agree. Their misrepresentation of the bible and its related artifacts is very problematic.

    Evangelicals, of all people (and I come from and Evangelical-friendly movement), should be concerned with the approach taken by MOTB. The Museum fails to put all of the cards on the table. They often shelter their guests from commonly held views within the scholarly community in order to push their agenda. This is a disingenuous approach. MOTB is willfully deceptive in its presentation of the artifacts. They take a win at all cost approach, which we are also seeing in American politics from the religious right.

    So, regardless of one's theological leanings, all scholars should be concerned when education about the bible and religion is conducted in this manner. I think that simply pointing to an underlying bias against Evangelicals misses the core of the critiques. In my opinion the core is that MOTB uses shifty methods and that some Evangelicals are complicit.

    1. DB,
      Moss and Baden have ‘skin’ in the game and thus are no longer neutral observers. Again, your criticism is about their beliefs, which apparently you disagree with. Read the article from Muir Appelbaum, she addresses these type of arguments.

    2. Timothy,

      Thanks for your response. Everyone in the fields of biblical studies and religious studies has skin in the game. To be fair, none of these scholars are neutral observers. This alone, however, doesn't negate the criticisms made by Baden, Moss, The question is whether their criticisms are justified. I maintain that many of them are justified based upon what I state above, for example that MOTB knowingly suppresses contemporary scholarship.

      Critiques of MOTB do not necessarily need to come from a bias against Evangelicalism. I agree with its critics on many points, yet I come from the Pentecostal movement, which few would claim has a bias against Evangelicalism. In terms of "beliefs," I don't know to what specific beliefs you are referring. But I do disagree with the way that MOTB presents information about the bible and its artifacts. I disagree with how it suppresses scholarship.

      I think that this is one of the major problems with MOTB - that is, this method of keeping its guests in the dark about consensus views and skewing the facts. This is one reason that I no longer work with MOTB. I have the suspicion that others who are still on the inside of MOTB may have similar critiques but cannot speak out because they have signed NDA's.

      I have read Appelbaum's article in Mosaic. Appbelbaum is misinformed/under-informed on several points, but especially when she writes, "critics, try as they might, have been unable to find actual examples of any such agenda in the museum’s core exhibits." This is an argument from silence. Simply because Appelbaum hasn't found any or doesn't know of any doesn't mean that no bias exists. In fact, I can and have pointed out many problems, including at a public lecture that I gave last week. Additionally, numerous other scholars have pointed out such issues.

  4. They did add a provenance website - a very minor step, but one that MIGHT reflect some interest in doing better. One big test case will be the database documenting provenance of all their material, which they have promised before - but they don’t seen to be backing down from the claim that this will be made available. We wait and see.

    1. Alex,

      Although most of the information on their provenance website was already public knowledge. Almost nothing new there. MOTB has claimed that they will make a full provenance list available, and we have been waiting. . . for years.