For evangelical Christians, the world’s culture, especially that of our Christian history and any ancient world stuff they can connect to the Bible, is there for the taking. They don’t care if it’s all theft. Jesus love them, this they know. What’s a little crime compared to that, especially for The Museum of the Bible?
The District of Columbia museum, founded in 2010 by Steve Green, the president of the crafting superstore empire Hobby Lobby, is in the news again after September’s handover of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to Iraq. This 3,500-year-old cuneiform tablet, inscribed with part of The Epic of Gilgamesh, was one of many similar antiquities smuggled out of Iraq in the chaos of conflicts in the 1990s. The tablet ended up at the auction house Christie’s, complete with a letter that proved it had been out of Iraq by 1981. This letter, of course, was a forgery—a rather bad one, as became obvious once Iraq and the Department of Justice started asking the questions that neither Christie’s nor Hobby Lobby had when the company paid the auction house $1,674,000 for the tablet in 2014.
The museum returned yet another stolen manuscript to the University of Athens in 2018, after a Greek researcher spotted it; in that case, the museum handled the negotiations well enough that the manuscript is now on display as a loan. In another prominent case, the Greens bought about 150 papyrus fragments in 2010–13 from Dirk Obbink, a professor who most probably stole them from the collection of papyri he oversaw at Oxford University. Although museum staffers were questioning how Obbbink got the papyri as early as 2016, and Hobby Lobby asked him to refund the money for one of their purchases in 2017, it was not until 2019 that they got in touch with the Oxford collection’s leaders to share their suspicions, well after scholars began to raise alarms. (Last month, Hobby Lobby sued Obbink.) Rather than the careful, research-heavy approach to acquisitions the antiquities market demands, the museum seems to have taken more of a catch-and-release approach to collecting, grabbing what it could and letting go only when the authorities seemed likely to pay attention.
But the museum hasn’t always acquired looted or stolen antiquities. Sometimes it dabbles in fakes, too! When the museum opened its doors in 2017, it exhibited cracked fragments of leather inked with biblical texts as examples of the famed Dead Sea Scrolls. But a little placard noted that “scientific analysis of the ink and handwriting on these pieces continues.” Scholars had been publicly questioning the authenticity of these fragments since at least 2016, but it was not until 2018 that the museum took five of them off display and 2020 when it finally admitted that all 16 of the fragments were fakes.
By hook or by crook, it’s all about separating the fool from their money by getting them to either pay up to see this stuff or allow them to see it for free and then hook them later for various grifts. This is the essence of evangelical Christianity behind the scenes.